Community engagement to counter radicalisation is a team effort
8 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user JamesDPhotography

While community engagement is a commonly recognised by Australian law enforcement, security agencies and community groups as a mechanism for social cohesion and countering radicalisation, successfully engaging with target audiences is challenging. Given the downward trend of the ages of Australians engaging in violent extremism, it’s vital that community engagement programs appeal to young people’s interests. Community elders or religious leaders who are often involved in such programs may not always fit that category.

The Australian Intervention & Support Hub (AISH), a joint initiative between the Australian National University and Deakin University, recently launched its archive of studies on radicalisation and terrorism. At the launch, Hub co-director Greg Barton identified ‘secondary intervention’—the practice of identifying potential extremists and providing them with mechanisms for community engagement and family support—as an area Australian law enforcement and security agencies need to improve on.

The underlying theory informing the Hub’s ongoing research on understanding why people join Islamic State is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy includes belonging, self-actualisation and esteem as drivers influencing people’s behaviour. The importance of those factors in the context of Islamic State recruitment has been highlighted by Barton, who referred to ‘the need for friendship, belonging, for being esteemed, for being part of a larger team and having purpose’ as potential characteristics of young people vulnerable to radicalisation.

One Victorian government reference describes ‘public participation’ as one avenue of community engagement, with an emphasis on  the importance of affiliation or identity, such as with sport clubs. Given Australia’s rich sporting culture which provides avenues for achievement and has been greatly strengthened by diversity, it’s worth exploring how it can be leveraged to increase social cohesion among young people, some of whom might be considerably vulnerable to extremism.

Earlier this year, the Australian Rugby League Commission was one organisation which received some of the Multicultural NSW’s Community in Partnership (COMPACT) program funding ($8 million) to counter violent extremism across the state. The focus of the COMPACT grant is to facilitate early intervention by finding alternative pathways for young people who could be attracted to violent extremism and develop community resilience to reduce the impact of radicalisation. In making the announcement, Minister for Multicultural Affairs John Ajaka stressed the need to use sporting venues rather than places of worship to reach relevant individuals. While it’s difficult to measure results at this point, similar programs indicate potential for success.

One such program is the Australian Football League’s Bachar Houli Cup and Leadership Program, which has been granted $625,000 in federal government funding to facilitate a youth mentoring program, traineeships and transitional pathways to employment, as well as Iftar and Eid events to engage with communities and foster cultural awareness. Given the AFL has been tarnished with recent instances of intolerance, this is one way for sporting bodies to celebrate diversity and acknowledge its key role in Australian society.

The program appears to build on the ‘More Than a Game’ program, developed by the AFL in association with the Australian Federal Police, Western Bulldogs Football Club and the Hobson’s Bay Council. That program uses to sport to engage with young men whose experiences may make then vulnerable to radicalisation, to address issues of social cohesion, encourage community participation and provide skills to address intolerant messages. The partnership with law enforcement is significant given the AFP’s recognition of the need to engage third parties in the community to counter violent extremism.

A Victoria University evaluation found that such programs succeeded in developing resilience and cross-cultural awareness in the community, with particular success in engaging at-risk youth in civic engagement and responsibility. It also highlighted the capacity to develop pro-social behaviours, trust and a greater sense of social inclusion. However, it gave consideration to the difficulties in measuring the impact of sports participation on crime and violence prevention. So instead of supporting such programs specifically to counter violent extremism, perhaps it’s more sensible to measure their success when we use them to enhance community engagement, with CVE a by-product of this. That’s significant as it’s important those programs aren’t used to generalise particular groups as vulnerable to radicalisation.

In order for such sporting programs to succeed, they need to address factors which might obstruct individuals from engaging with the broader community. Western Sydney women’s AFL pioneer Amna Karra-Hassan plays with Muslim women who play their sport in body tights and hijabs as part of the uniform. Programs which facilitate engagement opportunities for women are particularly significant given the rising number of young Australian women who have joined extremist activities overseas.

Those initiatives won’t work for every individual, and it would be counter-productive to try to force everyone who could be deemed ‘at-risk’ of radicalisation into football teams of some variety if they have no genuine interest in the game. Furthermore, selection criteria for those programmes is unclear, as is how they’re publicised within communities. That potentially highlights a vital gap in communication strategy, which is one aspect of community engagement which cannot neglected. However, such programs are a positive step in the right direction.Australia would be wise to continue to tap into the interests of young people to identify areas which could foster social inclusion and make them resilient to extremist ideologies before they even encounter them.