Never too late to improve bad policy: Counter-radicalization in Denmark

After the 2005 bombing of the London underground, the Danish government increasingly extended its narratives on how to counter terrorism so as to include not just terrorist intrusion from abroad but also so-called home-grown terrorists. As part of efforts to limit this undesired growth, a comprehensive Danish counter-radicalisation Action Plan was formulated in 2008–2009, and ‘dialogue’ was promoted in a series of instances as part of a broad spectrum of measures. However, the Action Plan employs a series of different concepts of dialogue.

Firstly, most of the self-designated ‘dialogues’, which the government invites Muslims into in order to counter radicalisation, are actually monologues. In other instances, two-way dialogue is indeed envisaged somewhere beyond the horizon – but the immediate policy remains as a monologue: before the ‘Other’ can enter into a two-way dialogue, they must first qualify by acquiring a number of characteristics and competencies which the ‘Inviter’ values and embodies. Finally, however, a residual category of dialogues is presented as ‘disagreeing dialogues’, signalling that, in these cases, the ‘dialogue’ will actually run two ways. There are, after all, some instances in which the government accepts the expression of dissent, but that does not necessarily mean that what is voiced should be heard or that the narratives project the outcome of even ‘disagreeing dialogues’ to be anything but the possibility of moving on to the next item on the agenda.

A first reaction to the inclusion of narratives of ‘dialogues proper’ is already visible in the texts of the Action Plan. Already during the drafting and negotiation of the text, the inclusion of narratives of two-way dialogues triggered a need to monitor the limits of dialogue, because the basic government narrative of integration was that Danish identity should be defended from the ‘Other’. As the then Minister for Integration, Migrants and Refugees explained: ‘Should I – in the street – encounter an extremist, who would like to engage me in dialogue, I would define dialogue in such a way that I would be wearing the trousers’. These limits to dialogue make it clear – not least to the less-than-radicalised Muslims invited to dialogue – that invitations are only issued because the invitees are seen as potentially radicalised or at least because of their special connections to the radical ‘Other’: the terrorist.

At the height of the political debates on the Action Plan, two Danish sociologists, Lene Kühle and Lasse Lindekilde, conducted field work among young Muslims in an ‘Islamic activist milieu … considered to be “radical”. They found that a number of the very Muslims who were identified as potentially radicalised by the counter-radicalisation narratives of the 2008–2009 Action Plan indeed understood its invitations to dialogue as staging not two-way dialogues but rather one-way monologues – or as invitations to inclusion on assimilatory terms which they are not willing to, and perhaps not even expected to be able to, live up to. Met by such counter-identity-based continuations to the official counterterrorism narratives, the most obvious path for Danish discourse on national identity and on the integration of Muslims is to continue its narrative which in turn would be a further securitisation. Danish identity discourse has, however, not proceeded by insisting on accelerating the spiralling conflict. A number of related elements in this de-escalation can be identified:

First, in late 2011 Denmark had a new centre-left government. In terms of substance, it has continued most of the immigration and integration policies inherited from the centre-right government. But aided by the rise on the agenda of the global economic crisis, the new government has ‘gone stealth’ on both immigration and radicalisation.

Second, when a substantial number of the elements in the Action Plan went from the desk to real-life implementation, they landed in the laps of the local crime prevention teams. Here, the radicalisation prevention task was quickly translated to their standard operating procedures, in which dialogue and mentoring play a crucial role. Such a diffuse engagement of Muslims into an insecurity discourse by techniques of government is still not a nice position to be in, but it is not as immediately alarming a position as an existential threat which originally identified all Muslims as potentially home grown terrorists.

Third, Denmark took the lead in the EU’s efforts to base de-radicalisation policies on ‘knowledge and research’. Parts of the research made possible by the funding provided by the European Commission were outsourced to independent researchers, who took the opportunity to integrate a crash course in conflict theory in a Handbook Series aimed at practitioners, which they were commissioned to write. In their advice, the concept of dialogue plays a central role – as both a means and an end on a series of levels: dialogue (as opposed to detachment) offers the means to establish a competence for inner dialogue (as opposed to polarisation), which is a prerequisite for establishing dialogue in society (as opposed to fighting for what you take as your own true version of reality).

For ethically-concerned academics, the fate of the Danish counter-radicalisation Action Plan carries an optimistic message: you can never be sure that it is too late to improve bad policy. The original civil servants’ draft of the Action Plan drew on one strand of academic studies for its concept of radicalisation. This concept was firstly directly criticised in empirically based scholarship, both for its empirical inadequacy and for its potentially adverse policy implications. This scholarship was, thus, able to break free of the political intentions behind the research grant funding it. The critique concerning the lack of nuance in the definition of radicalisation seems to have been accepted in recent communications regarding the official narratives on counter-radicalisation. Second, as mentioned above, the outsourcing of research and formulation of parts of the Handbook Series to external researchers has meant increased attention to potential conflict dynamics in the narratives presented to the street-level bureaucrats.

Read the whole story here.

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