Radicalization Prevention – Changing Society or Changing the Individual?

One cannot talk about the radicals without simultaneously talking about the society in which they emerged” I was told by a municipality employee engaged in radicalisation prevention during my field research for my PhD dissertation (Interview 18, Germany, 25/09/2019). Indeed, the interviewee addressed a paradox that I encountered often during my research: radicalization prevention is addressing individuals, not the societies in which this radicalization emerges.

Radicalization prevention is usually not addressing communities dealing with an extremist scene in their midst, who fear that this scene is taking more and more influence. Radicalization prevention is usually also not engaging with communities who suffered through an attack, hate speech and discrimination. Radicalization prevention is seldomly addressing specific problems minorities have in societies and it is not addressing the challenges especially teachers and other pedagogical professions face in migration societies. Radicalization prevention often means to educate youth and to build their resilience, in order for them to be steeled against radicalizing influences. If communities, or societal engagement is addressed in prevention literature it is done by a referral to “resilient communities”. Resilient communities in turn often means that relationships between a community and state organizations are strengthened, for example community and police relations. However, an actual strengthening of prevention efforts on a local and communal base entails state-independent actors and a strengthening of civil society. But what are strategies to engage communities, municipalities and civil society actors in prevention efforts? How can communities, municipalities and civil society actors engage in prevention efforts?

I will present two “best practices” of German organizations engaged in strengthening civil society against extremism which I encountered during my field research for my PhD. My PhD is engaging with resilience in radicalization prevention in Germany and the Netherlands. I chose these two organizations because they turned the table: rather than only engaging with potentially radicalizing individuals, they also develop strategies engaging with municipalities, communities as well as civil society actors and offer alternatives.

Strengthening Civil Society

One best practice example are the “Mobile Advisory Teams” against rightist extremism in Germany. The organization was founded during the 1990s in the context of the German reunification and started off with focusing on “perpetrators”, who are nowadays called “radicalizing” individuals. But the Mobile Advisory Teams changed the focus, because they experienced their work as more sustainable when starting to strengthen civil society’s engagement in anti-discrimination work and to promote democratic structures and cultures. They are “mobile” because they come to the local setting, they listen to the specific local problems and challenges, and aim at developing strategies with the concerned community/municipality. Depending on the problem, these strategies vary, but the problem analysis is translated to an action concept, giving a clear direction and options on how to tackle the problem. Sometimes these strategies can also fail because there is too much resistance from powerful stakeholders in the local setting.

Educating the Educators

A further best practice example is “Ufuq” meaning “horizon”, a German organization engaged in political education regarding Islam, Islamophobia and Islamism. The organization was founded in 2007, to actively create alternatives to how Muslim immigration is addressed politically but also in the everyday. Ufuq engages in discussions about “parallel societies”, “radicalization” and “Islamisation”, to show alternatives. Ufuq is creating pedagogical material to work with teachers and students, to sensibilize them towards discrimination and the effects of discrimination and to advice in questions of religious expressions. The organization is thereby addressing topics that are difficult for teachers in their day-to-day life. But Ufuq is also addressing teachers directly by sensibilizing them, for example through explaining that constantly asking particular students where they come from is a form of discrimination, despite the good intention. Additionally, they give specifically Muslim youth a platform to address issues they face in a white majority, while simultaneously addressing how the white majority can create alternatives.


The turn towards radicalization prevention to engage with extremism in society lead to a disproportionate focus on radicalizing and radicalized individuals. To some extent, this problem was caused the discourse on radicalization as well as the disproportionate focus on individuals of radicalization research itself. Although more recently research is focusing on the interaction of radicalization and the broader socio-economic environment and is engaging with city districts, rather than individuals or groups alone. This research shows that engaging communities and districts is a promising and more sustainable way of radicalization prevention.

Policy Recommendations

  • Resilient individuals benefit from resilient communities

Creating resilience against radicalization is more sustainable if programs not only target individuals, but whole communities in an effort to strengthen democratic awareness, and support anti-discrimination initiatives.

  • Creation of mobile advisory structures

If there are already problems and issues to be addressed in a community, it is important to have specialized independent organizations offering support, advice and guidance.

Mobile advisory structures are thereby recommendable because they can address concerns from a broader public flexibly and event-related.

Mobile advisory structures are also important because they can cover remote areas which are usually neglected by prevention efforts.


About the Author

Barbara Gruber is a PhD Candidate at the International Relations & Security Studies Department at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) researching the role of resilience in radicalization prevention practices in the Netherlands and Germany. From 2015-2017 she worked as a researcher and policy advisor at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs. Before that she researched the Colombian conflict focusing specifically on one guerilla group (Ejército de Liberacion Naciónal) and interviewing their spokespersons during in-depth field research in 2012. Barbara studied International Development at the University of Vienna and the University of Valladolid, Spain.