Are “parallel societies” breeding grounds for violent radicalisation?

The list of “causes” of violent radicalisation and terrorism never seems to end.  First it was “they spring from poverty”, then “they are all mentally ill”, then “they feel alienated and marginalised from society”, then…  As if any one driver explained every case of an individual taking up a terrorist banner.  You would have thought that the thousands of counter examples brought forward at least since 9/11 would have put paid to this fruitless search, but that does not seem to have happened.

Now the Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration wants to train her government’s sights on “parallel societies” to “to help tackle social control, radicalisation, religious coercion and other negative tendencies.”  So, is this a good  idea or not and will it have any real effect on radicalisation to violence?

I suppose a good start would to be to define just what parallel societies are and why they need attention.  A parallel society is, I guess, just as the phrase suggests a smaller part of an established society that runs alongside the majority view and, it stands to reason, has little involvement with its larger co-resident.  Furthermore and very importantly, it does not share the same values and precepts as the mainstream (however these are defined – it is not an easy thing to do).

All societies have some kind of parallel sub parts I imagine.  In Canada one could cite the Mennonites who exist in a somewhat isolated sphere from most Canadians (although there is interaction), as well as ethnic enclaves in many parts of the country (the Chinese population of Richmond Hill north of Toronto could be one such example).  Concentrations of large diasporas would naturally lead to some form of parallel sub-society one would think, at least in the early years of immigration to a new land.  In time most immigrants adopt the ways of their new homes.

Why would we be concerned about parallel societies?  Are they necessarily a bad thing?  Do they necessarily lead to radicalisation and terrorism?  The answers depend on what you are trying to achieve.

There is no question that some cultural practices imported from abroad to a land like Canada are both unwanted and illegal.  Female genital mutilation and honour killing are two examples (no, I am not saying that either practice is rampant or that everyone in a given immigrant community supports such practices: nevertheless they do exist and need to be addressed).  In the UK, the alarm has been raised on illegal Sharia courts that flout UK law.  In some instances self-imposed barriers to integration will undermine resilience and the creation of a better society for all.  In this light, action should be taken to identify those obstacles and enhance greater social cohesion.

But it is a far stretch to say that such parallel societies are breeding grounds for terrorism.  Here in Canada there are few (no?) cases of individuals who have radicalised to violence because they belonged to such a society.  The multifarious backgrounds of Canadian Islamist extremists defies categorisation.  That should be enough to put an end to the theory that parallel societies foster terrorism.

What about other countries?  Western European nations such as France and Belgium (and possibly Denmark) have had serious problems in integrating immigrants, particularly Muslims, and have had a disproportionate share of violent extremists, both those who went to fight abroad and well as those who planned terrorism at home.  The question remains: did they live in isolated communities and was it this isolation that led to their radicalisation?  I have no idea how one would answer this question and what data one could put forward as proof.

Governments do have a real interest in helping all citizens develop a sense of belonging and receive the basics so they can succeed in society.  States should identify and challenge those who undermine what they see as fundamental values (this includes extremists from across ideological lines) and arrest and prosecute those who engage in criminal activity.  The most vulnerable must be rescued from the clutches of these extremists and helped to join the larger community.

If these are the goals of the Danish government then some good may come of their efforts.  If the elimination of radicalisation is the real aim, I fear it is misguided and will not bring an end to the phenomenon.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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