THE BLOG
10/10/2016 04:34 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2017

Deradicalizing Extremists

France recently announced that it is creating publicly-financed "deradicalization centers" to combat the rising tide of Islamic extremism. With over 230 people dead from terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, the government is building a dozen centers across the country that offer counseling, medical treatment, and classes on history, religion, and philosophy for jihadists identified by the judicial system. Intelligence officials estimate that 9,300 French people have been radicalized in recent years and they hope to moderate many of them through this program.

People should applaud France's actions to tackle extremism head on and seek to temper its radical elements. That society is correct to realize that it has serious integration problems. Its new effort recognizes that in a number of different nations, extremism and zealotry abound in schools, religious institutions, and advocacy organizations. Some of this has arisen domestically, while the rest has arisen as extremists have moved to the West in order to escape poverty and suppression at home.

Other countries should follow the French as they lead this experiment, and determine what is successful and what is not. Its efforts follow those of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Singapore, Malaysia, Denmark, and the Netherlands that have undertaken similar activities in hopes of taming violent efforts within their own societies.

It is no accident that we have reached this point in history. For many countries that have sought to absorb large numbers of immigrants and refugees, assimilation has failed as a strategy of societal integration. As I argue in my book, Megachange, most Western countries are not integrating new arrivals very effectively and as a result there has been a rise in the number and scale of terrorist incidents. The United States has witnessed shootings in San Bernardino, California and Orlando, Florida. Belgium has suffered violence in its capital city and Spain, the United Kingdom, and Norway are among the places that have experienced violent attacks.

At its root, this violence reflects a fundamental backlash against modernity, secularization, and cosmopolitanism. A number of people around the globe hate the secular character of modern life and want to roll back the world to a social and religious order that existed centuries ago. They don't like the free role of women in modern societies and believe Western nations have become decadent due to their tolerance of alternative lifestyles. They resort to terrorism because they believe the world is facing an Armageddon battle pitting "moderns" against those holding traditional moral values.

For the West, the question is how to deradicalize the extremists within its national borders. France's effort along with those elsewhere is designed to present new viewpoints to these individuals in hopes that "reason" will moderate them. By providing alternative perspectives, the French want to de-escalate the rhetoric, and encourage a dialogue with those who are angry and disillusioned about Western culture.

A RAND analysis found that keys to successful deradicalization were "credible interlocutors" who could build relationships with militants and engagement not just with the individual extremist but with important family members as well. Programs that did these things offered more hope of attitude change than those which did not.

This is not just an issue for Europe and the Middle East, although it is particularly pronounced there. At an early age, young people in these places are exposed to radical viewpoints and encouraged to take violent actions. They go to schools that indoctrinate them in hatred for people from different backgrounds or religions. They learn creeds that glorify intolerance. Religious and/or educational leaders create an echo chamber where violence is legitimated and destructive beliefs are reinforced and intensified.

The challenge is how to break this cycle of extremism, intolerance, and violence. Once civil society allows those types of perspectives to flourish, it is hard to shift back toward moderation and mutual understanding. Violence begets violence and extremism leads to extremist reactions from other individuals.

Because of their crucial role in perpetuating extremism, all of us need to pay attention to educational and religious organizations within our communities. We have to evaluate curricula and spiritual programs for the viewpoints they espouse. Voices of violence and hatred should be marginalized and opposed. Tax-exempt status should be denied groups that do not support bedrock values of openness and tolerance. Unless civil society fights radicalism, politics will continue to deteriorate. Our leaders will move away from compromise and negotiation towards extremism and polarization.

Note: Darrell M. West is vice president of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of Megachange: Economic Disruption, Political Upheaval, and Social Strife in the 21st Century (Brookings Institution Press, 2016).