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Confronting radical extremism

21 August 2017

Radicalisation and terrorism are key issues of our time. In the first episode of the Open for Discussion podcast's second season, Hussain Nadim discusses the latest research on confronting radical extremism.

How does radicalisation happen? Why do young people living in a developed countries adopt an extremist ideology and pursue their beliefs through violence?

For the start of the Open for Discussion podcast season host of the program Dr Chris Neff sat down with Hussain Nadimto discuss popular misconceptions about radical extremism, how radicalisation happens and what is effective in preventing it.

Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: Hussain Nadim
Producers: Annika Dean, Verity Leatherdale
Editor: Caitlin Gibson

Hussain Nadim
Hussain Nadim is a University of Sydney doctoral researcher in the Department of Government and International Relations and director of the South Asia Study Group.

Nadim was named by Forbes as a global leader in law and policy. He's advised numerous governments on deradicalisation and counterterrorism and been a special assistant to the Federal Minister in Pakistan's government. He's given briefings to the US State Department, The Pentagon and the US Senate. 

Hussain shared four key take-aways on the first episode of Open for Discussion's second season including:

1. Deradicalisation programs are a work in progress

There is as yet no effective way to gauge the results of deradicalisation programs anywhere in the world but some approaches appear more promising than others.

In Australia it's a social and political problem that has to be tackled with the right communication from the very top of the political establishment. Reaching out to Muslim communities, especially the most vulnerable Muslim youth, is likely to be the best way to counter terrorist propaganda.

For example, there are Muslim youth organisations that want to work with the government, but the government doesn't involve them in relevant policy discussions.

To fight extremism, Australia needs to think beyond infrastructure and instead develop a human level approach.

2. Education plays a vital role

Surprisingly many people view extremism as a result of a lack of education and believe more education will reduce extremism. The reality is that, in most cases, extremism is due to the wrong kind of education. In schools in Pakistan for instance from the very early grades the curriculum encourages children to develop prejudices against minorities.

In 2015 the NSW government spent $47 million on a deradicalisation initiative run at schools to identify young kids (basically Muslim youth) who are showing signs of radicalisation. The approach risks stigmatising students and cutting them off from the positive socialising effects of school. 

3. Economics drive extremism

If we were to mark out the most volatile regions in the world, those are the breeding grounds of extremism. On a world map it would quickly become apparent these are also the poorest countries in the world.  

In nations where the majority of the population survives on less $2 per day and lacks basic necessities including drinking water and food, the path to extremism is easy. In such countries the lack of opportunity is dire. For people from these countries who migrate to Western developed nations, the messages and images that come out of their home countries often leave them feeling deeply disturbed and grieving. These images can also encourage extremist political opinions.

4. The Muslim community needs a counter narrative

The discourse on Islam as we know it today has been hijacked by Islamist militants. Their actions and narrative have had the power to frame Muslims the way the militants want them to be in the media.

The remaining 99 per cent of Muslims have been a silent majority and have done very little to resist or change that perception. Part of the reason might be that much of the debate in the Islamic world today is prehistoric. From Pakistan and India to the edges of the Islamic world, Islamic councils are more concerned with questions related to women's dress and piety than with talking about science, technology and innovation. The counter narrative is non-existent.  

Full transcript

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Chris Neff: How does radicalisation happen? Why would a young person living in Australia adopt an extremist ideology and even pursue their beliefs through violence? With me today on Open for Discussion is Hussain Nadim, a doctoral candidate in The University of Sydney's Department of Government and International Relations.

Last year, Hussain was named by Forbes as a global leader in law and policy. He's advised the military and security agencies of Pakistan on deradicalisation and counterterrorism and been a special assistant to the Federal Minister in Pakistan's government.

He's frequently invited to give briefings to the US State Department, The Pentagon and the US Senate looking at issues in Afghanistan and the Pakistan region.

Thank you so much for joining us Hussain.

Hussain Nadim: Pleasure to be here.

Chris Neff: I feel like after that introduction I need a security clearance to talk to you.

Hussain Nadim: (laughs)

Chris Neff: This is incredibly impressive. Can I ask what brought you to this work?

Hussain Nadim: Well I think it wasn't a choice. You see I was born and raised in Pakistan and it was a time when the Cold War was ending, Afghanistan had collapsed and Pakistan was just beginning to see its problems of terrorism, militancy. And growing up in that era I've seen how my country Pakistan, drifted from a very stable, economically prosperous country and a country that was very progressive in a lot of ways and over the period of over 10 years or 15 years I was growing up, I saw that country taking a very wrong turn.

The institutions collapsed, the militancy spread, people became radicalised and there was gun violence and a gun market that was flourishing in that country. So you see, living in that part of the world where you see terrorism and militancy firsthand a lot of my family has been a victim of terrorism through different instances and it's not just my family, every Pakistani that I've met so far has some family member who has been affected by terrorism.

For us in that part of the world in South Asia, terrorism is real. It's not something that we watch on the tv, it's something that we feel. For months the schools would close down in Pakistan, the economy collapsed and there was a genuine fear. When you're living in that condition, you start thinking beyond yourself. You start thinking beyond a nine to five job, beyond just living on some salary and you become a lot more radical in a way where you want to contribute towards bringing stability into that society and I think that was one of the reasons why I chose to pursue international affairs and international security.

 And that was something that I worked on for five years in Pakistan on different aspects of security and now I'm doing the same thing for my PhD as well because partly I think that it is not a matter of choice. This is something that I think we need to fix back home.

Chris Neff: Do you do the PhD and then return to Pakistan?

Hussain Nadim: Yes. .

Chris Neff: that your goal?

Hussain Nadim: That's the goal.

Chris Neff: And then would that be working as an activist with an NGO or working with the government..with the federal ministers that you've worked with in the past?

Hussain Nadim: I believe in working with the governments. I think a very small change on the government level can bring a drastic change on the ground. Over millions of people that we're talking very small, minor changes that you can do can have a huge impact. So for me I think in places like Pakistan I think the government needs major reforms. That's where the real contribution I would like to make is.

Chris Neff: If the goal is to pursue deradicalisation, what constitutes radicalisation? should we think about it or how should we think about it differently than maybe we do?

Hussain Nadim: You see radicalisation has become a very controversial subject now. The term itself has become kind of politicised in a way. I personally feel that radicalisation is simply a process on how a certain individual acts in a particular way. It could possibly be a good radicalisation or it could be a bad radicalisation.

I've seen tonnes and tonnes of..after 9/11..there were tonnes and tonnes of initiatives in Pakistan and across the Middle East where young kids would come out in support of bringing reforms in religion, bringing reforms in the government. So that was also a positive side of radicalisation.

Unfortunately the media sees only the negative side of radicalisation. So I believe that radicalisation itself is not bad. The way you use that energy, specifically when we talk about the youth, is what basically distinguishes between the good side of radicalisation and the bad side of radicalisation.

Chris Neff: It seems like radicalisation is also brought into a specific kind of racial context and a certain kind of religious context as well..that where they're talking about it in this negative way and they're talking about very specific people in very specific circumstances.

Hussain Nadim: I mean of course. Radicalisation is not exclusive to any specific community or gender. It's basically a part of the growing up process I think. I mean I think it starts from the basic question of being inquisitive about how the world is working, why certain tensions are there. I mean.. there is no denial that there is a lot more radicalisation, the youth is radical in the Middle East, Pakistan…It's partly because I've lived in those areas and we see problems first hand. We see non-responsive governments, we see failing institutions, we see failing health services and everything.

So that kind of makes you wonder why we are this way and why other parts of the world are flourishing? And specifically when you have exposure of living in the US, I did my undergraduate [degree] in the US, was in the UK for three years for the grad school and now in Australia, you wonder at times walking in the streets that why are our countries in our regions in a total mess and how these countries flourishing?

So..I mean..either you can be very disgruntled, you can become very mad, you start becoming politicised and you start hating on the West. Or the other way is you become radical enough to learn the good practices that these countries have adopted, go back to your country and start to change those countries from within. And I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go back into the government and do my part so I see the West and the western countries as possibly good case studies of how we can build nations.

Chris Neff: So then we should differentiate between radicalisation and extremism. When we're talking about radicalisation, we're really often talking about extremism. Is that fair?

Hussain Nadim: I don't think it's fair because I think radicalisation is a sort of mindset. Extremism on the other hand, specifically when we talk about violent extremism, that's for a specific purpose to harm or to put somebody to danger. So these two things are very separate.

Unfortunately I think the way media uses some terms in very broad strokes, that is where a lot of people start equating radicalisation with terrorism and extremism. Whereas I think if we adopt radicalisation, maybe accept radicalisation as a positive thing, we might be able to counter the negative aspects of radicalisation. Because right now a lot of Muslim kids who are growing up, for them being political is being considered as somehow being negative because radicalisation has become so connotated with negativity that any kid who's asking questions is almost shut down that you're becoming a radical, which automatically means you're a terrorist now so I think that has to be distinguished.

Chris Neff: That's an important point. Where do you see the role of economics and..or the socio-economic backgrounds toward extremism let's say..rather than saying radicalisation?

Hussain Nadim: I think socio-economic factors matter a lot but there are competing debates on it and I don't think any debate has any empirical evidence specifically to suggest that poverty, socio-economic aspects are the core reasons or not but here are certain things that I've personally noticed while working specifically in Pakistan and in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] regions, lawless regions where there are towns and villages in Pakistan, 2000 people villages, 1500 people villages, which do not have tv, which do not have schools. The only thing that they have over there is basically a radio set and that radio is being polluted by this massive religious, hate propaganda against the West.

So I mean the kids growing up in those regions where there is no access to information, where those kids do not even know that they live in a country which is Pakistan, it's very easy for those kids to fall prey to this terrorist propaganda. My essential point is that socio-economic factors do not essentially mean that these are the core reasons why somebody turned to terrorism, just because of poverty. But they provide an ample ground for terrorist outfits to go and recruit people based on the idea..simply the idea of fear.

I mean I conducted interviews in 2012 in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] region in Pakistan and a lot of people who turn to radicalisation or eventually became suicide bombers and weren't able to blow themselves up, designated fear as the major reason why they turned towards radicalisation. They had no idea about 9/11, they had no idea about the United States, they even didn't have any idea about the war going on in Iraq or anywhere else.

So to say that somehow these kids who were turning into militants have a very hard core ideology or somehow they're pressed by socio-economic conditions is wrong. Sometimes they're just there to protect their..I mean half of the kids said that they feared that their mothers and their sisters would be raped by the American forces which is why they're doing what they are doing. So the fear is what I think really matters more than anything else.

Chris Neff: Wow. I was thinking the whole time when you were talking..I was like ok, what were they afraid of? And your point is that there is sort of this myth or this story or this fable of you know..US imperialism coming in and taking over sovereignty, whatever it is, you have these powerful narratives that come in and the socio-economic conditions feed into it, even if they're not the single variable themselves.

Hussain Nadim: I mean the socio-economic conditions are much dependent on the government. I mean if you have villages where there are not any schools, there's no health services, kids are travelling almost 200km every day to go to a school. I mean that's what the situation in some of those regions are.

I've kind of..I don't blame the kids who are then turning to militancy because the government essentially is absent. You're not allowing those kids any other opportunity or any other way to be exposed to the world. I would say that radicalisation is less to do with what the militants and the terrorist outfits are doing, it's more to do with what the governments have not been able to deliver.

And this is one of the fears that I have and I talked to the Australian government about de-radicalisation programs in Australia, that sometimes radicalisation can be caused by having bad policies. And this is what my fear for the Australian government and Australian society in general is that, do not make the same mistakes that the European countries, especially Britain have made through their de-radicalisation programmes which have caused more radicalisation and more hate for the West in the Muslim communities.

Chris Neff: Hussain what are some of the specifics of the programmes or policies that you would say..that have caused more significant problems..or even increases in radicalisation?

Hussain Nadim: I think there are a couple of issues to that. One and foremost is the way it is talked about. When you talk about radicalisation, you're specifically talking about a community, you're calling it Islamic radicalisation, Islamic terrorism. I mean..there are one billion Muslims over there. If radicalisation was part of Islam, they all would be cutting throats right now. So stop blaming a particular community, stop attaching connotations to that because that kind of triggers a lot of Muslim kids to feel that they are not part of the Australian society.

So the entire narrative of the militant organisations specifically using social media from Iraq and Afghanistan and recruiting kids in England and in Australia, is to ensure that those kids grow up feeling they are no part of the western society. The us versus them divide has to be there and that divide is being created a lot more by the conversation of I think of the Australian government, the politicians, the media, the way it uses some terms.

And then, the second part is the..some of the programs that are being run in the schools. I've been one of the biggest critics of the Australian government spending 57 billion dollars on running de-radicalisation programs at the school level.

For one, there is absolutely no way to gauge the impact of de-radicalisation programmes. So essentially the programs that you're developing, you don't know if they are going to work because you don't have the tools to gauge whether they're working or not. I mean you're targeting those schools which are in the mostly Muslim populated areas which essentially means that you are going to be picking out kids in the class with Muslim sounding names, with Muslim sounding backgrounds and you're going to be putting them in the specific corrective centres where we're going to be running de-radicalisation programs on them.

I want to see how those kids come out of those programs and feel that they are part of the Australian society. I think that they are going to be very pissed at the Australian government and they would feel that they don't belong over there.

I personally feel that radicalisation, the negative side, starts very much from the domestic level of where Muslim kids grew up. For instance, Muslim parents fear that somehow their kids will end up going to clubs, to bars, they might start drinking which is against Islamic ideals and somehow they will end up getting married or their daughters or their sons will end up getting married outside the Muslim community. And these are the worst fears because it means that the future generations are not going to be Muslims.

Now when they are in Australia or in the United States and the kids are growing up, the parents unconsciously try to feed a very wrong side of the Australian society or the American society that somehow all these things are wrong. Now that essentially becomes a problem because the kids then need answers. When they ask their parents a question, why are we like this, why can't we do the things that other Australians are doing, the parents do not have answers. And that's where the real problem is.

Almost every kid that I've talked to in Australia, in England and in the US have same things to say. That their parents have taught them that these things are wrong and they're living in an Australian society or a western society where those things are normal. So essentially there is a disparity at what they are being taught at the parental level and what they see out in the public.

So my second suggestion, which I've given to the Australian government is, talk to the parents. Have a programme with the parents because parents can right from the very early age, develop either a very strong connection of their kids with the western society that they are living in or they can actually seclude them.

Chris Neff: So is there an example of a good deradicalisation program or are there good elements of it that could come from other bodies whether that's the non-profit sector, whether that's mosques or whether that is government.

Hussain Nadim: Ahh..Chris I've worked and reviewed de-radicalisation programmes for almost three governments now, the US government, the Pakistan government and the Australian government. Almost all of them would be unanimous in saying that we don't know whether they are having success or not.

If we look at the past ten years, the terrorism attacks have actually increased in the western societies. Look at Paris, look at Britain, look at the US. So I personally think that the government should shelve all the de-radicalisation programmes. They are designed to be a disaster, they are designed to be a failure.

What you need to be doing is, right from the top, your messaging and communications has to be correct. Essentially, the Prime Minister office and the government leaders,the political process has to reach our directly.

You know, it's very simple, attending one event a month is not really a big deal but the message that it sends out to the Muslim youth is very different. The message that they will receive is practically they are part of the Australian society, they're given the importance and they can be involved in Australian policy making and the Australian society.

Chris Neff: And so if you were going to send the Prime Minister today somewhere in Australia, is there a group or a community centre or a city or an event that you would recommend that they go to?

Hussain Nadim: Sure..I mean there are tonnes of Muslim society. Start from going by the Muslim Student Associations at different universities. SUMSA [Sydney University Muslim Students’ Association] at the University of Sydney has over 400, 500 membership. Why doesn't the Prime Minister or any of the Ministers, a senior political leader, come and attend one of the sessions?

The message that it will give out is going to be very different. It's going to be that the Australian government is actually deeply involved in listening to the problems faced by the Muslim community. And that is all what is needed. The message has to change within the Muslim community. The narrative has to be challenged. The terrorists are developing a narrative that your government, the Australian government does not care about you. You're not part of the society. And the only way to actually counter that is by doing exactly the opposite.

I mean look at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We don't need any other de-radicalisation innovation method. Look at the messaging that comes out of his Facebook pages, the Twitter pages. You have trucks in Pakistan who have a picture of Justin Trudeau on their back. That's how popular he is in a country like Pakistan. So he is doing essentially what needs to be done, reaching out. Going down to the communities, connecting with them and showing them that they are part of the Canadian society as anybody else.

Chris Neff: Can I ask about the role of the media because it seems like the discourse that we are using here, whether it's the way that we talk about radicalisation, the way we talk about extremism, that the media is playing a role in educating us predominantly and they're not necessarily getting it right.

Hussain Nadim: The problem with the media is not specifically exclusive to Australia. When you have media houses which are more interested in the ratings and they've become commercial organisations, then really what we are selling is a sensational news. And it's kind of like a cyclical process where the media is reinforcing certain images about Muslims, certain biases about Muslims. That is where the real problem is.

One of the things that I've noticed is this idea that somehow when a white man goes and shoots some people in a club or at a church, that's called homicide. That's called mentally unstable white man doing an attack. But if a similar thing is done by a brown man or a Muslim, that's considered terrorism, Islamic terrorism. And I think that narrative is kind of playing into the hands of the terrorist propaganda because the media houses want to frame Muslims in a particular way and then Muslims can never be part of the West. The terrorists are basically sitting back and saying that look...we told you this was the way it is and a lot more people are now buying their argument that unconsciously that the West is a problem.

Second I think that it's important to find different, new sources as well, because that can give you a very different perspective. We've kind of become very comfortable in reading the news that actually we like. So we are following the people that support our ideas, reinforces your belief system.

Chris Neff: Well I do..I follow Tony Abbott.

Hussain Nadim: (laugh)

Chris Neff:..and he goes completely the opposite of my belief system. In terms of you know the digital revolution and social media revolution, what role do you think Twitter has in a policy a policy instrument to affect change.

Hussain Nadim: So I started using Twitter when I was in the government of Pakistan and it was out of a necessity I thought. Pakistan has 200 billion people living there and total users are roundabout over 75 million total users in that country alone.

Twitter was one of probably the best ways and along with Facebook, to reach out to that public and kind of feel the perception. Back in the days we would have to go down to the constituencies, go to the town hall meetings, talk to a lot of people. It has become a lot more easy to have more inclusive policies, to get a policy feedback, to reach out and tell the communities, to tell the public that this is what we are doing. It has brought transparency. It has brought accountability. It has brought us feedback methodology where we know in real time whether our policies are working or not and I think essentially it has changed the way the government works.

The other side is the side that I use Twitter as a PhD student and as a policy activist. I think from this side Twitter is even better. Twitter now allows me to bridge that divide between the policy and the student. You are able to reach out to any sitting Prime Minister, to any sitting politician and ask them real questions and expect an answer as well and I think this is one of the best parts about Twitter, that people do actually respond.

I've had conversations with senior political party leaders from around the world, to state department, to etc and the way they can provide answers in real time, it kind of makes you feel that the public sector has evolved in a lot of ways. And it has become accessible. I mean a lot of people feel very comfortable just by using Twitter as a source of information and a source of even asking basic questions about the government so it's kind of in a way, strengthening the government, strengthening democracy if I look at Pakistan and it's healthy for the civil society I think.

Chris Neff: Well thank you so much for joining us today on Open for Discussion Hussain Nadim.

Hussain Nadim: Pleasure to be here.

Chris Neff: Thank you for joining us on Open for Discussion. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and you can find me on Twitter @christopherneff. If you'd like to know more about our research be sure to visit our website,

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