To tackle jihadis, French activist says, ditch reason
Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar used to try religious arguments to turn young people away from militant Islam – and failed. So the 51-year-old grandmother developed her own techniques along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her main rule: Don’t try to reason with people.
“Characteristically, a young person who has been recruited … thinks that he is chosen and that he knows the truth,” said the bleach-blond, discreetly watched by three police bodyguards as she sat in a Parisian café. “As soon as you use reason – knowledge – to tackle this type of young person, you are failing.”
Bouzar, a Muslim herself, instead uses memories, music and even smells to try to win young militants back. Recruiters have adopted techniques developed by cults, she says, so it takes different skills to break their hold.
Bouzar now works for the Ministry of the Interior to train local authorities in her methods. Pierre N’Gahane, the official in charge of a 6 million euro ($6.62 million) program to prevent radicalization in France, says Bouzar and her team are “giving results with which we are quite satisfied.” Neither Bouzar nor French officials suggest hers is the only answer to militant recruiting. But Bouzar says her tactics are the start of a process that can work.
France has lost more people to militant Islam than any other country in Europe, according to most estimates. Two bloody attacks at home this year have emphasized the risks. The French government estimates 1,800 citizens have joined jihadist networks in Syria or Iraq, or are on the verge of going. Another 7,000 are “at risk” of following that path. Bouzar works under police protection and changes location constantly.
About one in five French radicals in Iraq or Syria are women. And only a minority of the radicals Bouzar helps come from Muslim families, she says. About 80 percent were originally atheist or Catholic; some are even Jewish.
Her Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Trends Linked to Islam (CPDSI) has handled around 600 families in the last year and receives about 15 calls a week. It employs six people. She says she has failed in two or three cases but has “saved” about 50 young people.
Her methods are sometimes controversial. Her cases cannot be independently verified because she disguises them for the sake of privacy. Her critics say she is no expert on Islam, cannot speak Arabic, and is playing with amateur psychology.
But Bouzar, who was a social worker dealing with delinquent or at-risk young people for 15 years, has a team whose members have all experienced the loss or recruitment, and has plenty of experience with radicalized youth. In 2004, she started a project with 10 people who were radicalizing, and published a book about it.
Two years later, while working with an imam to convince young boys they were on the wrong path, she realized she was failing. When the imam spoke about religion, she says, the youths would reply: “‘Shut your face. That’s not what God says. I’m chosen. I know what God says.’”
Things got more complicated early last year, when Islamic State “brothers” began hunting online for wives. Many of their French recruits were well educated and came from stable backgrounds.
“These adolescents are undergoing a process of suggestion which is almost at the level of hypnosis,” said Serge Hefez, a family psychiatrist at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris who treats some of the recruits seen by Bouzar.