Segregation graver threat than ISIS returnees in the long run

A few weeks after the terrorist attack on Drottninggatan in Stockholm, researchers caution against describing reality as a black-and-white struggle between good and evil. If you want to protect society against extremism, it is important that you understand how and why it occurs.

Although radicalised youth who return from the terror group ISIS is a threat to security, the threat must not be exaggerated – we are talking about very few individuals, argues sociologist Chares Demetriou, expert in political radicalisation.

“The big question is what will happen in 30 years. If Sweden cannot manage integration, if inequality continues to rise and people are trapped in ghettos – then there is a breeding ground for more substantial radicalisation in a violent direction.”

The public debate often focuses on the radicalisation of individual people. The media talk about the peaceful guy or girl who begins to take an interest in radical Islamism and later joins an ideology that glorifies violence and becomes a political activist.

“I agree with the description. But what’s missing from these stories is that radicalisation is more

Chares Demetriou. Photo: Britta Collberg

about groups than individuals. It is very rare that someone joins ISIS without influence from friends, relatives or people they meet at the mosque, for example”, says Chares Demetriou.

Radicalisation is a complicated group process that takes place in the context of a larger social movement, and is rarely the story of a tragic individual, he argues. The radicalisation process is characterised by claims of change, that there is an organisation and a perceived context which can include both the police, government, various counter-movements and – most importantly –an audience.

Chares Demetriou grew up in Cyprus but spent 20 years as a student and a researcher in the United States. Since then he has worked at various universities in Italy, Israel, Russia, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic. It was not until last autumn that he arrived in Lund. His research focuses primarily on two extremist groups: the EOKA from his home country Cyprus, and the IRA in Northern Ireland.

“The radicalisation pattern was the same among them as in today’s Islamist extremism”, he says.

The EOKA and the IRA developed from social movements that initially were peaceful. These movements placed demands on the British government, and asserted their views through peaceful protests.

In Cyprus, the initiative for EOKA came from the top, from the priests of the Orthodox Christian Church. When the demands of the peaceful movement were not heeded, a secret group of high-ranking priests decided it was time to take up arms.

“The churches in Cyprus served as radicalisation centres: here, members were recruited and violence was legitimised”, says Chares Demetriou.

The IRA in Northern Ireland developed from a Catholic grassroots movement that was reminiscent of the contemporary civil rights movement in the United States. A series of events – countermoves from Protestants, street violence and lack of response with regard to the demands for justice – led to the establishment of the violent IRA.

“In Northern Ireland, the Catholic Church was against the violence, but in the confession booths, local priests could offer absolution. And once a group becomes violent, it is very difficult for it to return to peaceful methods. The spiral of violence is set in motion.”

Islamic Center in Malmö.
Photo: Drago Prvulovic / SCANPIX

Chares Demetriou argues that the Islamist radicalisation taking place today in Sweden is serious. At the same time, it is important not to lose the sense of proportion; the situation is not the same as in countries with a dark colonial past:

“In Sweden, there is not the same resentment against the government as among, for example, second generation Tunisians and Algerians in the ghettos in the suburbs of Paris.”

According to Chares Demetriou, Islamic activism will remain a marginal phenomenon in Sweden even after the Islamic State is defeated and Swedish “ISIS warriors” return home. But the radicalisation must be dealt with and Chares Demetriou’s advice can be summarised in four points:

  • Make sure that all Islamic organisations are in close cooperation with the Swedish authorities.
  • Track down and get rid of any recruiters.
  • Use surveillance, within the limits of the law
  • Do not create ghettos.

The major challenge consists of how Sweden manages to integrate the many refugees who arrived in the last few years, he says. As well as how it deals with xenophobia.

“Today, there is a simplified view of Islam, and extremist groups only represent a very small minority. There are over one billion Muslims in the world who are completely uninterested in both ISIS and violence. Claiming that Islam encourages violence is pure nonsense, or involves political motives”, says Chares Demetriou.

However, it is natural that a large migration wave – like the one Sweden experienced – raises concerns, he says:

“Swedes may feel that their identity and way of life is threatened. This must be vented, and looked at from every angle in the debate. Right now there is a lot of confusion. It is important to defend democratic values and freedom in everyday life, but it is equally important to accept that ‘Swedishness’ does not have to be the same as being Christian and white.”

Sweden has good conditions for facing this challenge, says Chares Demetriou. However, a pre-requisite is that you have realistic expectations about the assimilation process – it takes a generation. And that you prevent the increase of inequality so that citizens are given the opportunity to succeed and become a part of society.

“From what I hear from my Swedish research colleagues, the Swedish integration process is not nearly as bad as it is sometimes made out to be. It is long term, but the method of measuring integration does not support this type of perspective.”