Meet A Social Worker Combating Radicalization In Germany

"It should be our job as a society to ensure better social balance, to have everyone participate in cultural life."
A Bosnian woman, who has dyed part of her hair in the colors of the German flag for the World Cup, and other locals, includin
A Bosnian woman, who has dyed part of her hair in the colors of the German flag for the World Cup, and other locals, including Muslim women, watch as a Burundi drumming and dance group affiliated with a local Christian African church perform prior to the arrival of German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere in the immigrant-heavy Soldiner Kietz district on June 17, 2014, in Berlin.

Last month's terrorist attacks in Paris have deepened anxieties in Germany, where fear about the potential radicalization of a growing number of young people is on the rise.

There is cause for concern. Germany's intelligence director, Hans-Georg Maassen, acknowledged in February that an estimated 200 Islamist extremists who had left the country to fight in Syria and Iraq had returned to Germany. Roughly another 400 Germans are believed to still be fighting in the Middle East. 

In an effort to confront the growing concern over radicalization, the country's security officials have closely monitored people they consider potential extremists. Specifically, Muslims who practice Salafism -- a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that has often attracted violent jihadists -- have received additional scrutiny. 

According to Germany's domestic security agency, abbreviated in German as BfV, the number of Salafists in the country has grown from an estimated 5,500 two years ago to 7,900 today. Maassen has suggested that this milieu can create a “breeding ground” for jihadists and terrorists. 

Holger Münch -- the president of Germany's federal criminal office, abbreviated as BKA -- has said his organization believes the number of Salafists in Germany who are prone to violence is growing.

How can the radicalization of German adolescents be prevented? HuffPost Germany explored this topic in an interview with David Aufsess, a social worker with VAJA e.V, a Bremen-based association promoting tolerance and acceptance. He works specifically with youth at risk.

Mr. Aufsess, the authorities in Germany caution against attacks by radicalized Salafists. How close is Germany to such an attack?

There is no way to completely prevent such attacks.

That's a sobering conclusion.

It's not meant to be. In Bremen, we are seeing every day that most young people are speaking up against violence and radical views. But we also realize that there are some adolescents repeatedly experiencing frustration. In some cases, that's related to school; in others, to work or family. That could be a potential breeding ground for a process of radicalization, which can lead to an endorsement of violence. But that's not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon.

How are you working with Muslim youths at risk of becoming radicalized?

Over the years, we have established contact with youth cliques. Among them are young Muslims who aren't necessarily members of sports clubs or [don't necessarily] take piano lessons. These are young people who spend a lot of their free time on the street. We do all sorts of activities with them -- playing soccer with them, for example. And along the way, we talk, perhaps about the role of women, the conflict in the Middle East or their life as Muslims in Germany.

I imagine that not all teenagers are interested in discussions about politics and society.

Sometimes they aren't. But we can see that many of them feel the need to talk -- especially after big events in the media, like the Paris attacks or the debate on refugees. But we also talk about everyday things. For example, the question of whether or not it’s okay to use perfume, since it contains alcohol.

Who is particularly at risk of slipping into radicalization?

The susceptibility isn't -- as many people argue -- a specifically Muslim phenomenon. Young [non-Muslim] Germans are just as vulnerable. We know quite a few German teenagers with no migration background who have become radicalized. 

How can you tell if someone is about to become radicalized?

That always depends on the personality. It's always alarming when someone suddenly closes off and refuses to talk. But you also need some discernment in that case, because deliberate isolation doesn't automatically mean that someone is becoming radical, let alone wants to exercise violence.

What role does the Internet play in the radicalization of young people?

A significant one. You only have to take a look at the first thing that comes up when you do a Google search on Islam. You will find many websites and blogs with radical content.

How do you handle this?

Very directly. We are trying to stay up to date on these issues online in order to know what adolescents are talking about. Additionally, it’s really important for them to take a stance on that. We often encourage them to take a position in relation to radical opinions, to use their heads -- instead of mindlessly parroting what they see and read on their smartphones.

In France and Belgium, there has been much discussion about the failure of society to integrate young Muslims. Many migrants there simply live in parallel societies. Are the Germans failing as well?

It is clear that the image of Islam in Germany has not been positive since 9/11 -- although I wouldn't go so far as to say that German society is partly responsible for the radicalization of young people.


Preventative work in the field of radical Islam has simply been deficient. If the training to become an imam in Germany was longer, for example, some of the problems we face today wouldn't exist. 

Does that mean that Germany should have recognized Islam as part of society a lot sooner?

Absolutely. If you look at the preventative work here so far, it has been implemented like patchwork. There has been next to no networking; the volunteers in youth associations in mosques have hardly ever been supported by public funds. These circumstances are accommodating the radicals that could fill a gap, offering activities specifically for young people.

Recently, Paris and Brussels have been coined the new epicenters of terrorism in Europe. Is that what's in store for Germany?

I dislike such statements -- especially because I can't say much about them. This is the security authorities' area. However, we should keep one thing in mind: According to the BfV, when we talk about the radical Salafists who are threatening public safety, we are only talking about a couple of hundred people in Germany. We should instead be talking about the remaining 4.5 million Muslims in Germany, who live peacefully and are integrated in the German society.

What is your solution for people who do become radicalized?

It should be our job as a society to ensure better social balance, to have everyone participate in cultural life. This is already working quite well in some bigger German cities. Ironically, these are the cities that are usually described as social hot spots [for extremism].

This story originally appeared on HuffPost Germany. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.