Approximately 400 participants from federal and state parliamentary factions, federal and state ministries, cities and municipalities, churches and religious communities, charities, educational institutions, integration centers, youth migration services, job centers and universities met at Stadthalle Bonn-Bad Godesberg on December 5, 2019, for OBS’s 24th Forum Migration. Experts from the fields of science and politics discussed issues relating to the event’s theme, “Extremism Today – Dangers for Our Society.”
Dr. Lothar Theodor Lemper, the Managing Chairman of OBS, welcomed the participants. He remarked that the increasingly coarse and aggressive tone of public discourse was grist for the mill of extremist and in some cases violence-prone people; the murder of Kassel’s District President Walter Lübcke by a right-wing extremist, and the assassination of Jewish citizens in the synagogue in Halle, represented a tragic peak in these concerning developments. Society, he said, needed to find solutions to this. He hoped the participants would gain interesting insights, even if “it is impossible for the truth to be revealed without a divergence of opinions” – as Alexander von Humboldt said.
During the morning session, three renowned scholars explained the concepts of extremism and radicalization from different perspectives. Prof. Dr. Andreas Zick, Head of the Institut für interdisziplinäre Konflikt und Gewaltforschung (Institute for Interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence Research, IKG) at the University of Bielefeld, spoke on the topic of “Radikalisierte Mitte? Toleranz und gruppenbezogene Menschenfeindlichkeit in Deutschland” (“A Radicalized Center? Tolerance and Group-Based Misanthropy in Germany”). His core thesis: societies that follow the model of a strong center must constantly identify the challenges to creating equality, and understand shifting norms, in order to regulate conflicts. The social climate is relevant for cohesion, particularly the extent to which destructive radical and extremist opinions and ideologies infiltrate the center, and to which the center moves toward the fringes and/or becomes radicalized. Radicalization, said Prof. Zick, is a social process that leads to extreme polarization of convictions (ideologies) and behaviors that are inconsistent with the societal norm. Prejudices and/or group-related misanthropy (ideology of inequality) are schemata that individuals carry through the world with them. After times of crisis, misanthropy increases – due to feelings of discrimination and the fear of social or economic disadvantages. Shocking survey results show that prejudices against asylum seekers occur in 54% of the population. The election wins by AfD (Alternative for Germany, a right-wing political party) are greatest in places where unemployment is high and there is a low number of foreigners. And in regions with AfD election successes, significantly more hate crimes against refugees occurred in the election year. Therefore it is important – as Prof. Zick explained – to identify integration potential and civil society strengths, to reinforce them, and to create civil spaces for them.
Prof. Dr. Christopher Daase, Goethe University of Frankfurt a.M., Leibniz Institute Peace and Conflict Research Foundation in Hessen, Frankfurt a.M., spoke on the topic of “Was heißt Radikalisierung? Anmerkungen zu einem umstrittenen Begriff” (“What is Radicalization? Observations on a Controversial Concept”). Prof. Daase defines radicalization as a process that ends with violence as a means of political action. According to Prof. Daase, a global political crisis is taking place – on the right, on the left, and along the religious spectrum. Radicalization means the increased questioning of a political order, a shift in what can be said and thought. By contrast, extremism describes a static condition, the entrenching of a political position. Radicalization can be caused by feelings of alienation, opposition to a liberal lifestyle or globalization, or criticism of capitalism. The path from legal to illegal describes the path of radicalization. As Prof. Daase explains, the current trend toward agitation and the stealthy processes of recruitment are noticeable. One positive note is that the course of radicalization is flexible, and thus also reversible.
Michaela Glaser, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Center of Excellence for Social Intervention Research, Frankfurt a.M., discussed “Politisch-weltanschaulicher Extremismus im Jugendalter” (“Political and Worldview-Based Extremism in Adolescents”). Michaela Glaser investigated why young people join politically extreme movements; the causes can be biographical, based on group dynamics and/or divisive experiences. Young people who join right-wing extremist movements are generally between 13 and 14 years of age; those who join Islamist movements tend to be between 16 and 19. Both movements take advantage of stylistic elements of youth culture (music, clothing, internet).
The teens’ motivations include:
• searching for meaning/orientation
• searching for community/belonging
• provocative differentiation
• the desire to make a difference
Adolescents are receptive to offerings from extremist groups because they are in the middle of a separation and reorientation process, which gives them an increased willingness to try new things and make changes. Michaela Glaser emphasized that the motivations for turning toward extremism can also provide important information for prevention. Finally, she encouraged a calm response, since adolescents can also turn away from extremist worldviews again.
The subsequent audience discussion addressed the increasing visibility of inequality, injustice, a lack of orientation, and segregation. Loyalty to societal institutions was seen as lacking. However, only a strong civil society with equal opportunities for participation can counteract tendencies toward radicalization. Political education plays a key role here. Michaela Glaser noted that “active participation experiences” at school, for instance, can be very important. The question to ask is what holds our society together. Prof. Daase encouraged participants to look at more than just young people’s media literacy.
The second part of the event was opened by Burkhard Freier, Assistant State Secretary in the NRW Ministry of the Interior and Head of the NRW Office for the Protection of the Constitution, with his presentation, “Aktuelle Extremismus-Tendenzen in NRW und Möglichkeiten der Prävention” (“Current Extremist Tendencies in NRW and Ways to Prevent Them”). The head of constitutional protection began by describing the four different areas of extremism: right-wing and left-wing extremism, extremism toward foreigners, and Salafism. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution is particularly active when it comes to efforts that threaten our basic rights. Burkhard Freier confirmed the impression that discourse is becoming less civil, and that violence against others is increasing. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution has also observed increasing networking (including internationally) within the individual extremist groups. These groups want to escape their stigma and take up a central position in society. Finally, Burkhard Freier provided an overview of the preventative measures taken by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, such as the Wegweiser, Spurwechsel, API, VIR and left projects, which offer assistance for people wishing to withdraw from the scene. The main clientele for these measures is between the ages of 12 and 21.
In the subsequent discussion on “Developments in Extremism – Dangers for Our Society,” the politicians primarily looked at the opportunities offered by preventative measures as well as the societal possibilities for fighting extremism.
The following people took part in the discussion:
/ Bundestag Vice President Petra Pau, Member of Federal Parliament, Die Linke
/ Gerhart Baum, German Interior Minister (ret.), FDP
/ Wolfgang Bosbach, Member of Federal Parliament (ret.), CDU, former Chair of the
Committee on Internal Affairs
/ Helge Lindh, Member of Federal Parliament, SPD, Committee on Home Affairs and Homeland
/ Monika Düker, Member of State Parliament, Party Whip for Bündnis 90/ Die
Grünen in the NRW State Parliament
/ Burkhard Freier, Head of the NRW Office for the Protection of the Constitution
All of the participants agreed that the internet caused hateful comments, agitation, etc., to be disseminated more quickly and broadly.
Petra Pau reported that the number of right-wing extremist acts of violence had doubled in 2019: since the last NSU murder, there had been 19 deaths. She suggested reviewing the existing strategies and tools for fighting extremism (key concept: online street worker). The goal, she said, was prevention, de-radicalization, and education. She was concerned that the AfD was becoming increasingly anchored in our society’s institutions.
Gerhart Baum, German Interior Minister (ret.), described changes in society that could become dangerous for democratic cohesion: anxiety, uncertainty, isolation, feelings of powerlessness, scorned minorities and much more. The question was how we deal with these. It is important, he said, to listen and to understand that people need guidance.
Monika Düker, Member of State Parliament, noted in her statement that there is a group in the center of society that rejects democracy; the AfD has contacts with the identitary movement. It is important for politicians to defend institutions and to eliminate the existing enforcement problems.
Helge Lindh, Member of Federal Parliament, stated that the tools of democracy are being used to call democracy into question. He encouraged ongoing support for democracy (agreement from Monika Dücker, Member of State Parliament: unfortunately, this would need to be structurally anchored in a law to support democracy).
Wolfgang Bosbach, Member of Federal Parliament (ret.), confirmed the scholars’ observation that extremist groups are adopting bourgeois characteristics in order to operate from the center of society. He suggested that attacks on democracy will fail if it has enough defenders. The audience discussion centered around ways to confront the AfD, and how to give children defenses starting as early as preschool: “Strong children don’t need a leader,” said Monika Dücker, Member of State Parliament. Above all, she argued that strengthening political education for young people was a duty of the state and the educational institutions (“experiencing democracy up close and personal”).
Peter Biesenbach, the Minister of Justice in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, concluded by speaking on the topic of “Offene Gesellschaft und Rechtsstaat versus Extremismus – Wie sollen Staat und Gesellschaft handeln?” (“Open Society and the Constitutional State Versus Extremism – What Actions Should the State and Society Take?”). In his presentation, the NRW Minister of Justice described the challenges that arise from attacks on democracy. The constitutional state must be able to handle criticism, but “hate is not an opinion,” and should be legally prosecuted. Minister Biesenbach listed a series of measures that his office will use to improve legal awareness. For instance, law working groups are to be established at every school in NRW; numerous offerings are used to communicate values; NRW has a central contact point for reporting hate speech – and the office is reviewing ways to prevent hate speech by implementing artificial intelligence. Finally, the minister called on participants to care for the people in their own environments, since socially isolated, unsuccessful people are vulnerable to radicalization.
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