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Can Hotlines Stop Muslims from Becoming Radicalized?

The Netherlands is the latest European country to launch a hotline aimed at talking Muslims in immigrant communities out of becoming jihadists, but it's not clear how effective these programs are.

Dutch teenagers in Amsterdam. Photo via Flickr user Michael Coghlan

On January 5, volunteers in the Netherlands launched the Dutch Radicalization Hotline. Serving as a resource for the parents and relatives of those whose allegiance might be drifting toward militant groups like the Islamic State, the hotline connects callers with social and religious services in an effort help stymie the radicalization of young Muslims, which is widely seen as a major problem in Western Europe. One might say the need is especially urgent after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which occurred two days after the hotline launched and was perpetrated by two young men who were " born, raised, and radicalized in Paris."

It is believed that since 2011, at least 2,000 (mostly young) Europeans have gone to war in Syria alone. While the largest absolute numbers of Western fighters (about 700) come from France, the roughly 500 militants that have emerged from Belgium and the Netherlands are perhaps more noteworthy given the size of their Muslim populations.

The youths' radicalization and flight are commonly credited to problems they have identifying with either mainstream European or immigrant culture, leading to confusion and a search for new ideologies. Experts note that the Islamic State has been especially active on social media , with unusually effective propaganda, and that flights to the Middle East have become cheap, simple, and plentiful. But can these hotlines actually help rein in kids flirting with disaster before it's too late?

The Dutch hotline is not the first of its kind. Since 2010, the German government has operated similar lines, referring callers to local community services or the authorities as needed. Toward the end of 2014, the Austrian government followed suit, as did the French last spring. Smaller, community-operated hotlines also exist in the United Kingdom and are in the works in Canada, among other places.

But the Dutch line is relatively unique because it's run from within the community it aims to serve—the Moroccan Dutch community, the largest Muslim contingent in the Netherlands. The hotline receives no government funding, and focuses on resources for parents rather than self-reporting and rehabilitation by jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria, which many of its foreign counterparts stress. This may help the Dutch hotline overcome shortcomings that have stymied such plans elsewhere.

According to Lorenzo Vidino—a specialist on European Islamic and political violence who has been affiliated with the Center for Security Studies, the RAND Corporation, the US Institute of Peace, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government—these counter-radicalization hotlines were launched after European governments found them to be effective at de-radicalizing neo-Nazis.

"They had a lot of people calling them," Vidino tells VICE, "and a substantial number of those who called got out [of neo-Nazi communities]."

These precursor hotlines provided effective ideological and material support to skinheads.

"In terms of ideological [support]," Vidino explains, "it was [about] talking to former neo-Nazis themselves, who explain why the ideology's flawed. It does help to talk to people who went through what you were going through yourself. In many cases, for the neo-Nazis, they help to provide relocation. It's common to a lot of radicalization—a lot of it has to do with the environment you're in. Maybe you want to get out, but if you live in a small [community], these are your friends, this is your social environment. It's difficult to get out. You move to a new city. You make new friends."

Despite the success with skinheads, Vidino notes that, although we don't have great data on the results of various counter-radicalization initiatives, hotlines don't seem to work as well with Islamic communities.

"My understanding is that the person who's supposed to pick up the phone there is... quite bored," Vidino says. "The phone is not ringing off the hook."

This stems in part from a mistrust of unknown actors, especially government institutions. Such wariness is informed by immigrants' previous experiences with authoritarian regimes and by European governments' institution of harsh measures parallel to the hotlines such as searches, deportations, and detentions. These crackdowns make Muslim groups feel antagonized and perpetuate fear that the security apparatus might scoop up troubled but innocent individuals.

Some defend such programs as necessary and reasonable. But measures like a recent proposal in the UK that would require preschool teachers to report on children exhibiting jihadist tendencies seem excessive, and likely to torpedo the chance that a family member would pick up the phone and spill their fears to a relative stranger they have no rapport with or knowledge of.

Softer programs have sprung up in Europe over the past decade to foster trust and initiate conversations with community interlocutors. Pioneered by the British and perhaps most successful in Denmark, these comprehensive and centrally organized programs fund and interface with local community and religious leaders, youth engagement programs, and projects aimed at addressing the social and economic roots of radicalization.

Still, tales of radicalized teenagers and growing unease with Muslim communities have led many Europeans to assert that such programs have failed, paving the way for dramatic cuts in funding.

"It's understandable [as a gut reaction]," Vidino says,"but we don't have all the facts to make a judgment call on what works and what doesn't."

Despite all the ink spilled over radicalization and Islam and rampant assertions that we know who's going off the deep end and why, a European Parliament report on counter-radicalization programs that came out last year found that we're still pretty clueless about this stuff. Effectively targeting de-radicalization efforts, or measuring the often-invisible successes or failures of hotlines and the wider outreach programs they contribute to, remains tricky at best.

Vidino suspects that the new Dutch hotline's origins among local workers with an intimate knowledge of the community and no ties to the government might help them overcome these barriers.

"Having government support doesn't necessarily taint you and make you illegitimate in the eyes of the community," he stresses. "But not having the ties, you run fewer risks of being seen as the long arm of the secret services and so on."

He believes we should continue to fund other hotlines and outreach programs as well, whether or not we can get a good read on their effectiveness.

"Unless they have [clearly] abysmal success rates, they provide a good complement to hard counter-terror measures," Vidino says. "If the alternative is just not doing anything, I think [they're] useful."

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