The Threat of Religious Radicalization in Austria

The following article is written by Madame Anat Hochberg-Marom*, Ph.D., a well-known expert on global terrorism & radicalization, Israel. In relation to the forum on 17. March, with unique insight and sharp analysis, she is offering the reader an important window into the subject of radicalisation and deradicalization.  

 

The deadly attack in Vienna on November 2, 2020 has focused the attention of the Austrian government on the threat posed by terrorism. However, it is worth remembering that terrorism is the end result of a process of radicalization, which by itself is a highly prominent threat to the stability and security of societies and governments around the globe.

In this article, I refer to radicalization as a complex, dynamic, and transformative process via which individuals and groups adopt extremist worldviews and radical ideas that justify and encourage the use of violence and terrorism to achieve substantial socio-political change. Conversely, deradicalization refers to the process of countering and undermining the worldviews that underpin violent extremism and suggesting alternative ideologies, thus shifting individuals away from extreme beliefs toward moderate-mainstream belief systems. Radicalization inherently involves influencing public consciousness; consequently, effectively confronting radicalization and extremist ideologies requires that we engage in an ideological struggle—a war of ideas fought to gain influence over public opinion[1].

An enormous variety of social, political, economic, religious, psychological, and other motivating factors and contextual circumstances have been identified as influencing the radicalization of any given individual, leading to their adoption of extremist doctrines. In particular, there is a rich literature on the precursors of radicalization, which identifies and explores the socio-political and other environmental factors that can lead to violent behavior. Political and socioeconomic marginalization; poverty and unemployment; physical and emotional neglect; exposure to violence and other traumatizing experiences; a history of criminality; and feelings of alienation, rejection, and despair have all been highlighted as factors that play a part in the radicalization process. Similarly, periods and situations of unrest and uncertainty present fertile conditions for radicalization—as witnessed during the recent coronavirus epidemic, when extremist groups of all stripes have sought to exploit people’s fears and concerns to further their own radical agendas.

Radicalization in Austria

Radicalization is a major concern for the Austrian government. Though largely viewed as a product of the post-9/11 era, Salafist jihadist Islam had in fact already emerged in Austria in the 1990s, due to large-scale immigration resulting from the Bosnian War (1992–1995) and the armed conflicts in Chechnya (1994–1996, 1999–2009)[2]. It grew more pronounced following the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa since 2015. During this more recent period, jihadist terrorist organizations and various other extremist groups have increasingly exploited the internet and social media platforms to promote radicalization—that is, to persuade, inspire, and motivate audiences to adopt their worldview, with the aim of recruiting supporters, instigating terror attacks, and inciting extreme violent acts.

A landlocked country of some 8.9 million people, Austria is not only one of the most developed countries in the European Union, but also has one of the largest immigrant populations, including many refugees and migrants from the Balkans, as well as many immigrants from Turkey. One-third of its population has immigrant roots and approximately 15% were not born in the country, while its Muslim population[3] (thelargest minority group) has doubled to 700,000 since 2001 and now constitutes 8% of the total population. The majority of Austria’s Muslims are Austrian citizens with roots in Turkey (74%) and in southeastern Europe (24%); 85% are Sunnis, and only 12% are Shi’ites.[4]

Due at least in part to its geographic location at the very heart of Central Europe, Austria has become an international hub for the global Salafist jihadist community since the 1990s. This development has also been facilitated by the close ethnic, cultural, and linguistic ties between members of Austria’s Muslim population and Muslim communities throughout the Balkans and southeastern Europe (especially in Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia), alongside the significant growth in the number of radical individuals, groups, and networks with ideological ties and operational links to ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliate organizations operating in those regions. These radical Islamic groups have successfully created a sizable radical milieu in Austria that provides a pool of sympathizers and potential recruits, posing a serious security challenge[5]. Radicalization in Austria has thus been further driven by a proliferation of militant jihadist cells throughout the country, particularly among the local Bosnian, Albanian, and Chechen migrant communities, thereby increasing the risk of violence and terrorism. It is worth noting that Austria hosts the biggest community of exile Chechens in Europe, comprising some 30,000 individuals, and that Chechnyan exiles have played a key role in ISIS’s successes on the battlefield and in its radicalization efforts in other regions.[6]

In the case of Austria, of the many factors identified as potential precursors of radicalization, socio-political alienation and a lack of assimilation and integration into broader society stand out as being particularly pertinent. When a particular ethnic or religious group is subject to marginalization and discrimination, the humiliation and shame experienced by its members can foster feelings of victimhood that lead to radicalization. This has been the case for many Bosnian immigrants to Austria who were concentrated in segregated communities, which subsequently became hotbeds of radicalism.

For second- or third-generation Muslim immigrants, the problem can be exacerbated. Not only do they feel rejected and marginalized by Austrian society, but they also feel detached from the traditional religious Muslim culture of their parents, and thus find themselves struggling to reconcile opposing identities (national, ethnic and religious) without really owning either. This offers fertile ground for radicalization by extremist groups, which offer a clear-cut sense of identity and belonging, rejecting both Western society and the traditional Muslim mainstream in favor of a radical and uncompromising ideology.[7] The fact that many second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants are essentially novices in Islam, lacking a real understanding of the varied and nuanced interpretations of Islamic values and ideas, makes them even more vulnerable. This was the background of the Vienna attacker, 20-year-old Kujtim Feljzulai, a dual national of Austrian and North Macedonia, and similarly, the young Austrian Muslims who have joined ISIS were predominantly second-generation immigrants from Chechnya, Turkey, and the Balkans.[8]

Recommended Strategies for Deradicalization

Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz’s response[9] to the terrorist attack reflected a firm approach and great determination to combat terrorism and religious radicalization. Stressing that the conflict is not between Christian and Muslims or between Austrians and migrants, Mr. Kurtz correctly focused on a small, militant minority of Islamic extremists and terrorists whose aim is to challenge the political order and to undermine democracy, social integration, and social cohesion in Austria.

While conventional counterterrorism is focused on identifying and fighting a small number of violent militants, efforts to combat jihadist terrorism must address the much larger and more sophisticated threat posed by radicalization, which extends to the majority non-violent population. Pursuing deradicalization—shifting people away from extreme values and beliefs, and toward more moderate-mainstream perceptions—means engaging in discourse that serves to delegitimize extremist ideologies and narratives and counters their appeal.

The logic underlying this alternative approach is that ideology and messaging play a primary role in drawing individuals toward violent extremism and terrorism, and that the attraction of militant messages, values, and ideas can therefore be undermined by fostering different ways of thinking which are open to the value of diversity (as opposed to extremist orientations, which tolerate no diversity and accept no compromise). Thus, deradicalization is based on the propagation of more open-minded and complex  thinking, instead of the simplistic black-and-white thinking encouraged by radicalization.

At the heart of this approach is the persuasive presentation of a strong alternative framework of values such as community, solidarity, peace and tolerance, which are shown to be well-founded in longstanding, traditional, moderate-mainstream interpretations of religious and ideological tenets. This forms the basis for promoting a rich discourse that can counter the hatred and polarization inherent in extremist narratives, and strengthen the ability of audiences to resist the attraction of extremist messages.

When dealing with the threat of radicalization and extremism, it is vital to bear in mind that the most fundamental aims are to protect the democratic regime and to strengthen and promote democratic values and actions, which include affording respect and recognition to all minorities, including Muslims. In this context, there is a twofold benefit to be gained from applying the deradicalization approach described above:

First, it enables us to strengthen common interests among different sectors of the population (including disaffected and marginalized groups), and to bolster fundamental values of coexistence—which are key to upholding democratic values, political freedoms, and basic human rights. Engaging in this kind of discourse with all segments of the Muslim community, including recent immigrants or refugees as well as those who have been rooted in Austria for several generations, bolsters their sense of belonging to Austrian society, reinforces the idea of sharing a common identity, and thus increases the community’s social cohesion and its resilience with regards to extremism. Crucially, it provides a solid platform for moderate groups and individuals to make their voice heard, thus strengthening the mainstream and weakening extremists.

In this context, fostering mutual understanding, recognition, and respect is of great social importance, as is ensuring equal access to socioeconomic resources, including education and employment, so as to promote social integration and social justice. Investing in intercultural and interreligious dialogue, and in educational efforts to promote identification with Austria and Austrian society, are key. (It is worth noting, for example, that only 37% of Muslims in Austria learned German as their first language; 39% of Muslim students leave school before age 17; and 68% of Muslims report having experienced discrimination, though 88% say they feel closely connected with the country.[10])

Second, applying this approach enables us to counter extremist tendencies that are characterized by intolerance, xenophobia, or antidemocratic ideas—including both jihadism and far-right extremism. This can be done using various measures that emphasize the values of coexistence and integration as enshrined in the Austrian constitution and that focus on each target group separately, with the aim of denouncing particular movements and ideologies (whether religious or secular) as illegitimate[11]. Examples of this would include presenting fanatic jihadist ideology as inauthentic and as a direct threat to Islam and to Muslims everywhere; and framing right-wing violent extremism and far-right radical rhetoric as posing a real risk to national cohesion and democracy.[12] In this context, it is vital to note the dangers inherent in allowing particular groups in society, such as the Muslim community, to be defamed and devaluated, as this only increases polarization and furthers alienation from mainstream society, which in turn promotes even greater radicalization. Therefore, it is essential to reinforce democratic values and integrative narratives which focus on equal participation and representation, active involvement, and social cohesion, in order to minimize feelings of rejection, social and political exclusion, and marginalization—the precursors of radicalization.

Conclusion

When it comes to jihadist extremism and terrorism, the primary challenge facing Austria today is radicalization, which poses a threat both to moderate forms of Islam and to peaceful relations between Muslims and other religious and ethnic communities. In this context, it is highly concerning that in 2017, 61% of Austrians reported that they viewed coexistence between non-Muslim and Muslims in a negative light.[13] Thus, it is vital that Austria takes steps to bolster and support the more tolerant and inclusive Islamic mainstream in order to halt the rise of views that veer toward the extremist and uncompromising Islamic doctrines of ISIS and its supporters. At the same time, to protect Austria as a socially cohesive democratic regime, steps must also be taken to counter anti-Muslim bigotry and right-wing violent extremism, which ultimately lead to even greater polarization and radicalization on both sides.

 

The Author is an Expert on Terrorism, Extremism and Radicalism; Her forthcoming book “The Art of Marketing Terror 2019” deals with the global terrorism phenomenon and particularly ISIS’s worldwide influence and radicalization.

References

[1] See for example, Peter Newman, “The Trouble with Radicalization.” International Affairs, 89 (4) (2013): 873–893; Alex P. Schmid, “Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review”. The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (2013); Anthony Richards, “From Terrorism to ‘Radicalization’ to ‘Extremism’: Counterterrorism Imperative or Loss of Focus.” International Affairs, 91 (2) (2015): 371–380.

 

[2] Sabine Mandl and Nora Katona, National Report Austria, (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Basic and Human Rights: Vienna, Austria, 2018), https://bim.lbg.ac.at/sites/files/bim/attachments/strengthening_juvenile_justice_system_counter_terrorism_national_report_austria_0.pdf

 

[3] Dirk Runpow, “The History and Memory of Migration in Post-War Austria: Current trends and Future Challenges”, in Gunter Bischof and Dirk Rupnow (Eds.), Migration in Austria, 26 (2017): 37-68, https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/7b33be1a-b39f-46f7-aff6-6a65a44a51a4/9873903122802.pdf, p. 39-40.

 

[4] Zeynep Sezgin, “Islam and Muslim Minorities in Austria: Historical Context and Current Challenges of Integration”, Journal of International Migration and Integration, 20, (2019): 869-886, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12134-018-0636-3

 

[5] Johannes Saal and Felix Lippe, “The Network of the November 2020 Vienna Attacker and the Jihadi Threat to Austria”, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 14 (2) (2021), https://ctc.usma.edu/the-network-of-the-november-2020-vienna-attacker-and-the-jihadi-threat-to-austria/

 

[6] Sabine Mandl and Nora Katona, National Report Austria.

[7] Johannes Saal and Felix Lippe, “The Network of the November 2020 Vienna Attacker and the Jihadi Threat to Austria”.

 

[8] Austria: Extremism & Counter-Extremism, The Counter Extremism Project (CEP), https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/austria

 

[9] Federal Chanellery Republic of Austria, https://www.bundeskanzleramt.gv.at/en/federal-chancellery/federal-chancellor-sebastian-kurz/speeches-of-the-federal-chancellor/austrian-federal-chancellor-sebastian-kurz-speech-on-the-terror-attack-on-2-november-2020.html

 

[10] Yasemin El-Menouar, Muslims in Europe: Integrated but not accepted? (Gütersloh, Germany: Bertelsmann Foundation, 2017), https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/BSt/Publikationen/GrauePublikationen/Study_LW_Religion-Monitor-2017_Muslims-in-Europe_Results-and-Country-Profiles.pdf, p. 12.

 

[11] Farid Hafez, Reinhard Heinisch and Eric Mikin, “The new right: Austria’s Freedom Party and changing perceptions of Islam”, Brookings, July 24, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-new-right-austrias-freedom-party-and-changing-perceptions-of-islam/

 

[12] Jeffrey Lewis, Philip Pond, Robin Cameron, and Belinda Lewis, “Social cohesion, Twitter and far-right politics in Australia: Diversity in the democratic mediasphere”, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 22 (2019):  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1367549419833035

 

[13] Austria: Extremism & Counter-Extremism, The Counter Extremism Project (CEP).

 

 

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