Re­hab for Rad­i­cals

A Mon­treal group seeks to defuse the rage that fu­els ex­trem­ism

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Seila Rizvic

A Mon­treal group seeks to defuse the rage that fu­els ex­trem­ism

Maxime fiset first shaved his head not long af­ter grad­u­at­ing high school in Que­bec City. He col­lected a copy of Mein Kampf, a Nazi flag, and sev­eral books on how to build bombs, and he be­gan re­fer­ring to him­self as a neo-nazi. He once at­tempted to en­gi­neer a det­o­na­tor to be used in an at­tack but stopped short of go­ing through with his plan. By the time he was in his mid-twen­ties, Fiset slowly be­gan to aban­don neo-nazi ide­ol­ogy, a change pre­cip­i­tated mainly dur­ing a stint as a bouncer at a gay bar. When the bar found out Fiset was a neo-nazi, they chose not to fire him, while his ac­quain­tances at Storm­front, then the in­ter­net’s most prom­i­nent white-su­prem­a­cist com­mu­nity, urged him to quit. “That was a les­son in tol­er­ance that I re­ally re­mem­ber to­day very fondly,” he says. Just a few years later, last March, Fiset took to a stage in an events room at the Mon­treal Holo­caust Mu­seum to give a pre­sen­ta­tion on the rise of right-wing rad­i­cal­iza­tion. He was dressed ca­su­ally and wore his brown hair in a crew­cut. He was at­tend­ing on be­half of the Cen­tre for the Pre­ven­tion of Rad­i­cal­iza­tion Lead­ing to Vi­o­lence (CPRLV), a Mon­treal-based non-profit that works to bring peo­ple back from the brink of rad­i­cal­iza­tion through com­mu­nity sup­port rather than ag­gres­sive se­cu­rity in­ter­ven­tion. His pres­ence, as a re­cov­ered right-wing rad­i­cal, was em­blem­atic of the CPRLV’S ap­proach to what is known as PVE, or the pre­ven­tion of vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism, that is po­si­tion­ing Canada as a po­ten­tial global leader in iden­ti­fy­ing and com­bat­ing rad­i­cal­iza­tion. Trust­ing those who have at one point har­boured vi­o­lent ide­olo­gies is po­ten­tially risky, and mis­judg­ing the trust­wor­thi­ness of a client could have dan­ger­ous con­se­quences. But Fiset’s per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion demon­strates that change is pos­si­ble. He feels that his job at the CPRLV is to use his knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence to of­fer first-hand in­sight into what drives rad­i­cal­iza­tion and to act as a bridge for a con­ver­sa­tion about the roots and ex­pres­sions of ex­trem­ism. “To un­der­stand a rad­i­cal­ized per­son,” he says, “what’s bet­ter than a pre­vi­ously rad­i­cal­ized per­son?”

Rad­i­cal­iza­tion, as de­fined by the CPRLV, is “a process whereby peo­ple adopt ex­trem­ist be­lief sys­tems — in­clud­ing the will­ing­ness to use, en­cour­age or fa­cil­i­tate vi­o­lence — with the aim of pro­mot­ing an ide­ol­ogy, po­lit­i­cal project or cause as a means of so­cial trans­for­ma­tion.” But rad­i­cal­iza­tion, says Ben­jamin Du­col, head of re­search at the CPRLV, of­ten has lit­tle to do with the sub­stance of the par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy fol­lowed by a rad­i­cal­ized in­di­vid­ual. “When the cen­tre was es­tab­lished, we de­cided that when we were go­ing to talk about vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism and vi­o­lent rad­i­cal­iza­tion, we were go­ing to

talk about all forms,” he says. “Whether you are go­ing to join a ji­hadist group or a neo-nazi group, there are el­e­ments that are com­mon.” Any­one, given the right con­di­tions, says Du­col, could fall into the trap of rad­i­cal­iza­tion. In the CPRLV’S view, the most ef­fec­tive method is not to stig­ma­tize and dis­miss all rad­i­cal­ized in­di­vid­u­als as “evil” but to sup­port them, to build up their sense of agency, and to fos­ter a re­la­tion­ship of trust be­tween the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the rad­i­cal­ized in­di­vid­ual. The cen­tre caters to far right in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing anti-abor­tion cru­saders, as well as those from ex­treme left-wing groups, such as ex­trem­ist en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. Re­cently, in the wake of the April 23 Toronto van at­tack, the cen­tre has of­fered its ex­per­tise on the “in­cel” com­mu­nity and other on­line misog­yny-driven groups. Many tips come through the CPRLV’S twenty-fourhour helpline, from a par­ent stay­ing up late af­ter their child has gone to bed or from a teacher be­tween classes. Con­sul­tants con­duct an ini­tial as­sess­ment of the case to de­cide if there is an im­mi­nent threat to pub­lic safety. If so, the case is sent to the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties, and if not, the CPRLV’S small staff of twenty, in­clud­ing case­work­ers, com­mu­nity-en­gage­ment work­ers, and rad­i­cal­iza­tion re­search spe­cial­ists, steps in. The team an­a­lyzes each case dur­ing a meet­ing to de­ter­mine the sever­ity of the rad­i­cal­iza­tion, and then puts to­gether an in­di­vid­u­al­ized in­ter­ven­tion plan. In 2016, the cen­tre re­ceived al­most 800 re­quests for as­sis­tance and trained more than 1,200 in­di­vid­u­als to ad­dress rad­i­cal­iza­tion. Some of these re­quests, says Mar­ian Mis­drahi, head of case man­age­ment and so­cial rein­te­gra­tion at the CPRLV, are from par­ents who mis­tak­enly view their child’s con­ver­sion to Is­lam as a trou­bling turn to­ward ex­trem­ism. “They start to change a part of their lifestyle,” she says. “They stop eat­ing pork, or chang­ing what they wear. And there are a lot of peo­ple who think that that may be a sign of rad­i­cal­iza­tion.” The CPRLV de­vel­oped a tool, known as the Be­hav­iour Barom­e­ter, to help the pub­lic spot warn­ing signs within their fam­i­lies or com­mu­nity. The barom­e­ter ranges from “in­signif­i­cant be­hav­iour” (“ar­gues fer­vently to de­fend his/her con­vic­tions,” “con­verts or adopts new reli­gious, ide­o­log­i­cal or po­lit­i­cal be­liefs”) to “alarm­ing be­hav­iour” (in­clud­ing “plans a trip to a con­flict zone or to a re­gion in which vi­o­lent ex­trem­ist groups are known to be ac­tive”). The space be­tween these points is where things get more com­pli­cated and where the CPRLV’S ex­per­tise is most use­ful. Du­col is cau­tious about la­belling the cen­tre’s work as “de­rad­i­cal­iza­tion”; it isn’t pos­si­ble to sit some­one down and rea­son them out of their ide­ol­ogy, he says. In­stead, CPRLV is fo­cused more on pre­ven­tion and in­ter­ven­tion rather than com­plete ide­o­log­i­cal re­ver­sal. It op­er­ates in stark con­trast to the hard­line, “se­cu­ri­ty­cen­tred” ap­proaches of the past, where law en­force­ment has cracked down on rad­i­cal­ized in­di­vid­u­als or sus­pected rad­i­cals, which risks fur­ther alien­at­ing them and deep­en­ing their com­mit­ment to the cause. Civil lib­er­ties or­ga­ni­za­tions in the United States, the United King­dom, and Canada have long de­cried an­titer­ror­ism mea­sures that have re­sulted in the pro­fil­ing and sur­veil­lance of Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, strate­gies that many crit­ics say are not ef­fec­tive at ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing pub­lic safety. “Rad­i­cal­iza­tion, be­fore be­com­ing a se­cu­rity prob­lem, it’s a so­cial prob­lem,” Mis­drahi says. “We don’t think that the mis­sion of the po­lice is to deal with so­cial prob­lems, in that sense, but with se­cu­rity prob­lems.”

A2009 RCMP man­ual of­fers two def­i­ni­tions of “rad­i­cal­iza­tion.” The first is tech­ni­cal, de­scrib­ing rad­i­cal­iza­tion as “the process by which in­di­vid­u­als — usu­ally young peo­ple — are in­tro­duced to an overtly ide­o­log­i­cal mes­sage and be­lief sys­tem that en­cour­ages move­ment from mod­er­ate, main­stream be­liefs to­wards ex­treme views.” The other def­i­ni­tion is et­y­mo­log­i­cal: rad­i­cal, from the Latin radis, like the word radish, is associated with be­ing “buried in the ground, rooted, fun­da­men­tal.” The CPRLV chooses to look past their clients’ ex­treme be­liefs and alarm­ing rhetoric and in­stead fo­cuses on so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors af­fect­ing rad­i­cal­ized in­di­vid­u­als. The cen­tre’s goal, in ad­di­tion to pro­tect­ing the pub­lic, is to pro­tect the rad­i­cals them­selves, the ma­jor­ity of whom have never ac­tu­ally com­mit­ted any vi­o­lent acts or done any­thing il­le­gal. “I’m not fo­cused on their ide­ol­ogy,” Mis­drahi says. “I fo­cus on who they are be­yond ide­ol­ogy.” De­vel­op­ing the CPRLV’S method­ol­ogy has been a process, at least par­tially, of trial and er­ror. “In the be­gin­ning, we thought that the best thing was to of­fer help, psy­chother­apy for ex­am­ple, clin­i­cal help,” Mis­drahi says. But this method was met with resistance from those who felt that they were be­ing judged and pa­tron­ized. In­stead, the CPRLV now of­ten uses a more client-led ap­proach, such as a re­cent comic-book project in­volv­ing a group of rad­i­cal­ized young peo­ple. The group worked with alo­cal artist to put to­gether a comic book, in which they used Star Wars fan­dom as a metaphor for rad­i­cal­iza­tion and ex­press­ing one’s be­liefs. In one sec­tion, a young fan, a “Jedi­iste” named Hakim Sky­worker, dis­cusses be­ing caught try­ing to run away and fight for the “Resistance,” in an al­le­gory for rad­i­cals be­ing drawn to join ISIS . Mis­drahi says she saw real change in the group af­ter they com­pleted the project. “That, for them, is a way of ex­plain­ing to peo­ple what their jour­ney was,” she says. “And also to say, ‘I am not a mon­ster. I am a reg­u­lar teen who may have made a mis­take.’” The CPRLV’S work in­volves a high de­gree of faith in po­ten­tially rad­i­cal­ized in­di­vid­u­als, and Du­col ac­knowl­edges that there’s only so much the or­ga­ni­za­tion can do to­ward a goal of full ref­or­ma­tion. Suc­cess is dif­fi­cult to mea­sure. The CPRLV made head­lines last year when it hired Sabrine Djer­mane and El Mahdi Ja­mali, a young cou­ple that had stood trial on se­ri­ous ter­ror­ism charges. The day the cou­ple was ar­rested in 2015, po­lice searched Djer­mane’s apart­ment

“Some peo­ple don’t be­lieve in sec­ond chances, and I will re­main tainted for what I might have done.”

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