In Denmark, not one returned fighter has been locked up. Instead, taking the view that discrimination at home is as criminal as Islamic State recruiting, officials here are providing free psychological counseling while finding returnees jobs and spots in schools and universities. Officials credit a new effort to reach out to a radical mosque with stanching the flow of recruits.
Some progressives say Aarhus should become a model for other communities in the United States and Europe that are trying to cope with the question of what to do when the jihad generation comes back to town.
For better or worse, this city’s answer has left the likes of Talha wandering freely on the streets. The son of moderate Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, he became radicalized and fought with an Islamist brigade in Syria for nine months before returning home last October. Back on Danish soil, he still dreams of one day living in a Middle Eastern caliphate. He rejects the Islamic State’s beheading of foreign hostages but defends their summary executions of Iraqi and Syrian soldiers.
“I know how some people think. They are afraid of us, the ones coming back,” says Talha, a name he adopted to protect his identity because he never told his father he went to fight. “Look, we are really not dangerous.”
Yet critics call this city’s soft-handed approach just that — dangerous. And the effort here is fast becoming a pawn in the much larger debate raging across Europe over Islam and the nature of extremism. More and louder voices here are clamoring for new laws that could not only charge returnees with treason but also set curbs on immigration from Muslim countries and on Islamic traditions such as religious circumcision.
In a country that vividly remembers the violent backlash in the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper published cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad in 2006, many here want Aarhus to crack down on — not cajole — extremists.
“They are being much too soft [in Aarhus], and they fail to see the problem,” said Marie Krarup, an influential member of Parliament from the Danish People’s Party, the country’s third-largest political force. “The problem is Islam. Islam itself is radical. You cannot integrate a great number of Muslims into a Christian country.”
Aarhus is treating its returning religious fighters like wayward youths rather than terrorism suspects because that’s the way most of them started out.
The majority were young men like Talha, between 16 and 28, including several former criminals and gang members who had recently found what they began to call “true Islam.” Most of them came from moderate Muslim homes and, quite often, were the children of divorced parents. And most lived in the Gellerupparken ghetto.
A densely packed warren of mid-rise public housing blocks, Gellerupparken is home to immigrants and their families who arrived in the waves of Muslim migration that began in the 1960s. Unemployment — especially among youths — is far higher than the city average. At one point, crime was so bad that even ambulances needed police escorts. It made a perfect breeding ground for angry young men at risk of becoming militants.
On a quest to change that, the city is in the midst of a major overhaul of the ghetto. Better housing could improve conditions and lure more ethnic Danes, contributing to integration. New thoroughfares and roads, meanwhile, would link it more closely to the rest of the city.
Context in Canada is different with many radicalized coming from middle class backgrounds and appearing relatively well-integrated in their early adulthood but programs for re-integration of returning fighters, when there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute, should be part of the “toolkit.”