By Felix Lippe
“I want to write a book to prevent other young people from going to Syria and joining the so-called Islamic State!“ It is with that statement from a former who initiated the project Jamal al-Khatib – My Path!, that we (the members of the Vienna-based CSO turn), usually start our presentations, workshops and some of the (scientific) publications that we have had the chance to publish in the course of the project. By the time he made that statement, this young man was still in prison, while being mentored by a social worker from what later would become the Jamal al-Khatib project team. Once part of the jihadi scene in Austria, he now wanted to prevent other young people from repeating the mistakes he had made.
It is always a more gripping entry to start with a quote than with the set phrase “today I would like to present…“. However, we also did so to do justice to the youngster who, with his initiative, gave rise to a project which a few years later was nominated as best practice by the European Comission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network, received funding from the (German) Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb), and has been discussed in international scientific publications.
After the initial project team consisting of youth workers and islamic scholars had convinced him that producing online content might be more efficient in reaching the target group he had mentioned, other formers, as well as young people who had shown resilience to jihadist narratives during the “high phase” of the so-called Islamic State joined the team. Their experiences form the basis for the contents of the project. The initial project team of social workers and Islamic scholars was joined by experts from fields such as political science, sociology, psychology, psychotherapy, educational science, filmmaking, digital content management and more.
Jamal al-Khatib – My Path! was created, a participatory online P/CVE project which addresses ideologies of political inequality based on authentic alternative narratives. Between 2019 and 2022, the second, third and fourth seasons of Jamal al-Khatib – My Path! were launched on behalf of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb).
In the course of the project, different online formats were produced, such as longer autobiographical videos as well as animations and interview formats. The contents question the propaganda of jihadist-Islamist movements and counter them with alternative narratives. Importantly, while many projects in the field are struggling to bring online contents featuring alternative narratives to the attention of radicalized youth or youngsters who are at risk of being radicalised online, the evaluation of our project revealed that the Jamal al-Khatib – My path! videos actually reached the target group.
This was possible, because, in addition to uploading online content, we created a low-threshold youth social work program offline, not least to do justice to the methodological approach of empowering youths and young adults to have their own say and to take part in a discourse that is relevant to them. That is, the contents were created on the basis of narrative biographical interviews with the formers of the project team. In an elaborate process, we discussed and reflected on the experiences the youngsters had, during and after the involvement in the jihadi scene. Most importantly we did not deny the anger they felt when thinking about social or geopolitical issues; we used this anger for a progressive purpose.
We consider the youngsters we worked with as our first target group. In the course of the project we aimed at creating a space where they experience themselves as self-efficient. Accordingly they were not only involved in the narrative biographical interviews, but also in the production of the online contents, as well as the following online campaigns. By doing so we were able to sustainably accompany their disengagement processes.
The contents we created with the young participants were uploaded on the social media platforms that were relevant for the second target group, i.e. adolescents and young adults who are vulnerable to jihadist online propaganda for various reasons; particularly those that may come across extremist content(s), online channels and networks via search queries on topics related to their everyday lives. In addition, the aim was to reach young people who already sympathise with jihadist groups and narratives and dwell in social media filter bubbles specific to the islamist-jihadist scene.
The online campaigns we were running did not end with uploading content, however. After the upload, a method we called digital youthwork came into play. Triggered by our framing, sympathizers of jihadi propaganda in many cases would start ranting in the comment sections of our videos, which was the best thing that could happen to us. A team of digital youth workers from different professions such as islamic studies and political science then publicly discussed the contents of our video, giving thousands of viewers an impression of how you can argue against the standpoints of extremists.
The third target group of the project are practitioners. Our aim is to support them in addressing the issues raised in different pedagogical settings. This includes digital youth and social workers who can use the content in the course of online P/CVE. That is why were are extremely happy that in 2020, the project received the BRaVE Award by a consortium of experts from universities and civil society organisations from across Europe, whose aim was to explore how and why violent extremism develops and what can be done to best respond to it. The award money enabled us to translate and re-record four of the project’s most important videos into English.
The videos are Takfir, Shirk & Democracy, Resistance & BESA, and Terror: all autobiographical short films with documentary elements that are weighted differently depending on the video. Additionally, educational material was produced, so that practitioners can use the videos in different educational settings.
This material is going to be our last publication for a while. Our small grassroots CSO that formed around the idea of a former in prison will take a break from running these kinds of extensive projects. Looking back, we are extremely happy for the opportunity to give the youngsters we worked with a voice, and especialy that we could now enhance the reach of our contents by translating them into English.
To watch Jamal al-Khatib videos, click HERE
Find Jamal al-Khatib educational material HERE
Image Credit: Pexels
Felix Lippe is board member of the Viennese CSO turn, which launched the participatory P/CVE project Jamal al-Khatib – My Path! on behalf oft he German federal agency for civic education (bpb). In the project he was responsible for evaluation, online monitoring, as well as the production of video formats togehter with the formers of the project team.
Felix studied Legal Psychology at Maastricht University and Peace- and Security Studies at the University of Hamburg. He worked for different research institutes in Vienna, scientifically focusing on the jihadi scene in Austria, foreign fighters, online propaganda and P/CVE. He currently works for the Austrian Bundesstelle für Sektenfragen (federal office for cult issues), where he leads the systematic online-monitoring of actors in the field of conspiracy theories.