By Louise Rasmussen, photos by Guki Giunashvili, Paxels.com and Flick.com
Erhan Kilic starts telling his story in the small attic of Free Forum’s meeting room. The audience is listening carefully as he recounts how he arrived in Denmark from Turkey as a two-year old. Kilic has been working as a mentor for young radicalised people in Aarhus since 2010 as a part of the Aarhus model – the program for the prevention of extremism and radicalization. He knows what it is like to grow up with a “different” background in a Danish society, which makes him trustworthy and suitable as a mentor for young people who are involved in radical milieus. The rapport that mentors like Kilic can establish with young people, a connection that the police cannot achieve, is a crucial part of what has become known as the Aarhus model’s mentoring scheme.
However, the event is not about Kilic as much as it is about his mentee Mohamed, and the Aarhus model.
Mohammed, a 29-year old resident of Somali descent, also shared his story. “They call me an extremist, so I will give them an extremist” he recalls thinking after the police started investigating his ‘case’. Mohammed’s story is one of many, and reveals why the Aarhus model has become as important as it has, both within and beyond Denmark. After an animated debate about Islam with one of Mohamed’s peers in high school, the young boy’s teacher voiced concern with the local police, who then started an investigation against Mohamed. The combination of the investigation and the death of his mother made him unable to take his exams. As a consequence, he had to retake his final year in high school. Ironically, it was the feeling of being unfairly treated and being considered as a radical by the police that made Mohammed turn to a group of young radicals.
After several months of investigation, the police eventually called him to offer him counselling. The young man doubted the authorities’ intentions: “You cannot get me into a society that has already pushed me away”, he recalls saying. The police offered their apologies about their handling of the case and after thinking about their offer, Mohammed accepted.
According to both Kilic and his former mentee, young people become involved in radical milieus more for the sense of belonging to a community than for the sake of religion or politics. They explain that those who become radicalised are mostly affected by personal experiences of exclusion and detachment from society, such as it was the case for Mohammed.
It was particularly difficult for Kilic to gain his mentee’s trust at first. He explains that Mohammed’s mind-set had been “reset” every time they met up for the first six months because Mohammed spent time with his radicalised friends in between the mentoring sessions. It was Kilic’s attention to Mohammed’s personal need that eventually gained him the young man’s trust. When the young man stated that he wanted to move to Pakistan, Kilic emphasised that this would not help Mohammed find himself and become more satisfied with his situation. He tried to show and explain his mentee that he could also find a way of being religious in Denmark. Most importantly, he stressed that religion is very individual and that everyone has their own way of being religious.
The mentoring scheme is only a small part of the Aarhus model. The idea of the Danish approach to anti-radicalisation is to promote active citizenship, which means that young people should be more included in society and learn that they can contribute to public debates and influence the development of their society. The involvement of local schools and the municipality (kommune) is important because education helps to strengthen students’ participation in the cultural and societal life. As professor of psychology at the University of Aarhus, Preben Bertelsen points out, it is important for individuals to feel that they have a ‘good-enough grip’ on their own and on common life in general. It is this sense of participating and contributing actively to something meaningful in day-to-day life that helps preventing people from turning to radicalised milieus.
The success of the Aarhus model is based on this strong cooperation between schools, social authorities and the police. If a parent or teacher voices concern over a potential case of radicalisation or extremism, the police investigates whether there is indeed a case to be followed or not.
However, the national action plan for preventing and countering extremism and radicalisation (2016) leaves room for cases to be approached individually. According to a report by the Danish Centre for Prevention of Extremism, professionals across Denmark’s 98 communes understand extremism and radicalisation in different ways and consequently also take different measures. Each case is understood and treated in its own context and local authorities tend to intervene at different levels of a case, some earlier than others. This difference has made it difficult to identify the nature and number of cases that the communes deal with on a yearly basis. The report identifies a need to develop a more nuanced understanding of extremism or radicalisation and to give local authorities a better idea of when they should intervene in a particular case.
The Danish intelligence service’s centre for the analysis of terror still rates the terror threat to Denmark as significant. The government’s latest national action plan ‘preventing and countering extremism and radicalisation’, which was published in October 2016 is a testimony to the continued focus on this threat. At the same time, however, both the national action plan and the “Aarhus model” have contributed to reducing the number of young radicals that travel abroad as foreign fighters. According to Kilic, and the Commissioner of the East Jutland Police, Allan Aarslev, the number of foreign fighters that traveled from Denmark to Syria was highest in 2012 and 2013, when roughly 30 individuals made the journey. However, since 2016 not a single person has left as a foreign fighter. Aarslev and the Aarhus municipality (Aarhus kommune) still encounter cases of radicalisation, but at a stage where the preventive part of the Aarhus model can still have an impact.
Based on these numbers, the East Jutland Police consider the Aarhus model as a success story. According to Kilic also, many young people like Mohammed have strongly benefitted from the project. In the immediate years after Mohammed stopped needing the mentoring sessions, he traveled to different countries with Kilic to promote the Aarhus model and to talk about his experience. As he and Kilic finish their talk at the Free Forum meeting, they show photos of the various events that they participated in together, and Mohammed talks about the job that he has since found and that he has already had for several years.