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Can Denmark's Aarhus approach help Australia combat violent extremism?

‘Hug a terrorist’ is what some in the media have called it. Others have lauded the Danish ‘Aarhus model’ as a revolutionary approach to countering violent extremism. Keen to find solutions in this complex area, Kavita Bedford talks with Silma Ihram. Ihram, an Australian businesswoman and Muslim community advocate recently visited Denmark to study the Aarhus model and see what Australia might learn from the approach.

What is the Aarhus model? 

In 2012, the international community imposed wide-ranging sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and many countries came down hard on citizens who had travelled to Syria to fight with ISIS and other terrorist organisations. France shut down mosques it suspected of harbouring radicals. The U.K. declared citizens who had gone to help ISIS enemies of the state. Several countries threatened to take away their passports — a measure formerly intended for convicted traitors.

But in Denmark, police officers adopted a different approach. They made it clear to Danish citizens who had travelled to Syria that they were welcome to come home. Furthermore, when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.

Their program came to be known as the Aarhus model.

“What I liked about Aarhus (model) is it was preventative. They went out into community and identified when people were at risk well before anything happened. It took it away from the ‘you’re a failure’ to ‘you’re in a situation where you don’t have the skill set and you need help.’ And help is here.”

– Silma Ihram

“What I liked about Aarhus (model) is it was preventative. They went out into community and identified when people were at risk well before anything happened. It took it away from the ‘you’re a failure’ to ‘you’re in a situation where you don’t have the skill set and you need help.’ And help is here.”

Has Aarhus worked in Denmark? 

Silma Ihram attended a conference on the Aarhus model in Denmark in 2015, and has since been following the workshops and progress of the program. Denmark had previously produced more fighters per head of population than any other western European country, except Belgium, and has been at the forefront of exploring new models for preventing extremism. In Scandinavia, Denmark is top of the class for multi-agency interventions to stop extremism.

“They (Denmark) took a pragmatic approach, rather than a security approach. They worked on basis of a psychologist who put together a simple program called ‘life psychology’ which basically showed in order to have a good enough life, individuals need certain things which include security, but also hope and a sense of agency, which we don’t hear enough about, that sense of being control in life,” said Ihram.

“If somebody was coming back from Syria, they were going to be traumatised. They needed to find out if they were dangerous. If they felt they were not, they helped these people cover bases they didn’t have – and they found them housing. And they found them jobs and put them through mentoring. Those immediate ‘Maslow’ type things that would have kept them out of the flow, they catered for.”

“When you have a crisis and you don’t have enough of these skill sets to deal with this crisis you are out of your flow, and if you are not coping you can turn to non-positive forces to find the solution, whether that is drugs or extremism…they found very few people were going back to Syria. They realised Syria wasn’t the solution to their problems, and they were finding these solutions in more normalised avenues.” 

A top down model 

Following the Copenhagen attacks in 2015, then police commissioner Jørgen Ilum, who helped set up the countering violent extremism programme in Aarhus, said the Copenhagen attacks made it more important than ever to make and maintain contact with Danish fighters returning from Syria, Iraq and Somalia.

It is a top down model with a whole of government approach. They go out to schools, community centres and shopping centres and run workshops about what you need to have a fulfilling life. They run through triggers to identify when people were not “in the flow”. 

Ihram said a model like this could be very effective in Australia.

“It was a useful system that did not require huge amount of expertise. You could study this program for six months and train people up. You could do a lot of good here, even just using this psychology model. There was also an understanding to treat things like mental health with an alternative approach. The only criticism was that they did not have good connections in the Muslim community, which I think was a drawback for the program.”

Can Australia benefit? 

Ihram said while she would love to see the approach adopted in Australia, there were certain unique factors that allowed the model to be successful in Denmark that would be difficult to replicate in Australia. One is due to the different size of the countries, and state versus federal laws.

“In Denmark, all the departments were working together. So, if a person was notified, once you picked up a problem – a kid returning from Syria or whatever – it went to an ‘infohause’ which was a central coordinating body and they decided whether it should go to a counsellor or prison or housing. And all the government departments worked together and therefore it was comprehensive.”

“The other critical thing is they had the police on board. And this wasn’t in a security capacity. I’m not about the evidence, but they claimed they were trusted in the community. Something we don’t have so much here.”

Ihram said one thing Australia can learn from Aarhus is the preventative approach.

“In this society, we just don’t prevent enough. Whether it’s psychological or dealing with what we eat, we need to prevent more. And this model I thought was a solid program that covered many bases

 

The Point

Australian businesswoman and Muslim community advocate, visited Denmark to study the Aarhus model and see what Australia might learn from the approach.

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