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What is so attractive about extremism?

What attracts some young people to extremist groups such as those supporting radical Islam or ring-wing nationalism?

Nic Mitchell Published: Updated:
Young blond man w green shirt looking in camera. Colourbox

That’s the question facing researchers from 13 countries who responded to a call from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme to find out how and why young people become radicalised and what society can do to effectively counter radicalisation.

At Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, or HiOA, Viggo Vestel, Anne Birgitta Nilsen and Bettina Uhrig take part in the four-year ‘Dialogue About Radicalisation and Equality’ (DARE) research project, which began in 2017.

A natural choice for the project

A social anthropologist and researcher with Norwegian Social Research (NOVA) based at HiOA Viggo Vestel is a natural choice for the project. He has been studying political extremism and young people associated to groups like the Norwegian Defence League and the way young Muslims are attracted to radical Islam for a number of years.

His book on young people and political extremism in the ‘grey zone’ in contemporary Norway I Gråsonen. Ungdom og politisk ekstremisme I det nye Norge ’ was recently published (in Norwegian) by Universitetsforlaget.

Unlike traditional terrorist research, Vestel said the DARE project is not focused on what happened in a concrete terror incident.

Instead, it has a much wider focus and a key part of the research will be talking to young people in the ‘grey zones’ - those who have been close to extremist groups and who are able to reflect about extremist positions.

“When we in NOVA responded to the call from the Horizon 2020 programme, we insisted that we looked at both the right-wing anti Islamists (the Islam critical groups) as well as those supporting radical Islam.

Emphasis on dialogue

“Our emphasis in DARE will be on dialogue. We want to hear young peoples’ own reflections, thoughts and emotions about these issues.

“Our research is about radicalisation, of course; but it is not just about attitudes that lead to violent behaviour or attitudes that support violence. It might be how they have become important societal critics.”

Vestel’s earlier research with NOVA included a survey of 8,500 Norwegian 16 to 19 years-olds in Oslo.

“We were surprised to find that 60% of the young people surveyed agreed with the statement that Islam and the West were at war and that a majority of both Muslim and non-Muslim youth agreed with the statement,” said Vestel.

His research also revealed that many of those attracted towards the more extremist positions had bad experiences growing up.

“Some of them had been bullied, some were involved in crime while others had great conflicts with school and had a quite pessimistic view of the future. If they had immigrant backgrounds, they had been harassed because of their religion, ethnicity or their colour.

“One interviewee close to right-wing groups critical of Islam grew up in a small village in Norway and said an asylum centre was placed in its midst. He said the asylum seekers were fighting and using drugs and made bad comments to the local girls. It led to the asylum centre being set on fire.”

Viggo Vestel

Some of the young Muslims interviewed by Vestel said they felt ‘pushed-out, locked-up and their parents harassed’ because of their beliefs.

“One young Muslim told me: ‘Some of my Muslim friends say they feel that they are the garbage bins of society’.

“The young Muslims complained the security police were more concerned about Islamic extremists than right-wing fanatics despite the biggest terrorist incident in Norway being committed by a white right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 69 young people attending the summer camp of the Worker’ Youth League on the island of Utøya and killed eight people in a bomb explosion outside a government building in Oslo.”

Climate has changed say young Muslims

Vestel said his research also revealed that young Muslims felt the climate had changed and that Norwegian politicians used to be much more hospitable and friendly towards young immigrants.

“But in recent years things have changed and politicians are perceived as not willing to take up the problematic things, especially about foreign policy. Norwegian government support for US-led action in various conflict areas in the world is very important to both moderate and radical young Muslims.

“Whether moderate and radical, young Muslims said that world politics, the big politics, was very important to them.

“What happened in Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently in Syria and the treatment of Muslims in Burma (Myanmar) and prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay had a big influence on them.”

Equality as well as radicalisation

Vestel said the DARE project included not just ‘radicalisation’ in its acronym, but also ‘equality’ as it is understood in the larger sense. “We’re not just looking at discrimination, but also grand politics and changes to society.”

Young right-wingers interviewed earlier by Vestel said they found Islam ‘very threatening’ and not just because of terrorist acts by supporters of so-called Islamic State, or IS.

“They were worried about extreme fundamentalism and the rise of conservatism among young Muslims: women wearing the full veil and the very conservative views towards gender roles. They said they were alarmed by the grotesque ways of punishing people in radical Islam - cutting off hands and that kind of thing.

“These things are very provoking for the right-wing Islam critics and also for much of the general public.

“So, each side has some very good arguments for being afraid, for being frustrated, and for being angry.

“All this, we are trying to address in a very concentrated way in our DARE project about radicalisation and equality,” said Vestel.

“We are trying to find out what motivates these people towards extremist positions and to understand how inequalities and perceived injustices have a major impact on radicalisation.”

Young muslim woman in park with white scarf making a heart with hands. Colourbox

Vestel said the project is likely to generate many interesting and varied perspectives and doesn’t just include European Union member and associated countries like Norway. “We will also be looking at experiences in Turkey, Russia and Tunisia.”

The project will start by getting the ethics sorted, explained Vestel.

“We are dealing with a hot issue and it will be very important to protect the anonymity of the people we interview.

Looking at counter-radicalisation policies

“We will also look at counter-radicalisation policies and interventions and the role of inequality in the radicalisation processes and the role of the media, and particularly social media which is so important to young people.”

Where it is difficult to talk directly to young people involved in extremist groups, the researchers hope to talk to youth workers, mosque leaders, with teachers perhaps, or with their families, and to friends of those drawn to radicalisation, explained Vestel.

“As well as finding out what is attracting young people to extremism, we will be looking at what is preventing people growing up in similar circumstances from being radicalised.

“This is important for a sensible approach to a prevention strategy and we will be talking to young people having the same horizons and attitudes about why they don’t want to get involved with these extremist groups.”

People like the young woman from Chechnya, Vestel has been told of, who moved to Norway after her family was killed by the Russians. “I’ve been told she refuses to speak about retaliation and believes that somehow these revenge killings must stop. I would like to know more about her,” said Vestel.

Before the project even got underway, the researchers agreed that an impact strategy should be developed to ensure the findings and results are shared as widely as possible with EU policy-makers, politicians, social and youth workers and other practitioners involved with young people and radicalisation.

“We want our study to have as wide an impact as possible on how society faces up these challenges,” said Vestel.

Read more about our youth research

For more information about DARE please contact Viggo Vestel: viggo.vestel@nova.hioa.no

About DARE

Experts on young people and political extremism from Norway, France, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Tunisia, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Greece, Malta, Belgium and Croatia are taking part in the ‘Dialogue About Radicalisation and Equality’ (DARE) research project for the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.

The €5 million DARE project is being coordinated by Professor Hilary Pilkington, from the University of Manchester in the UK. She is an expert on the English Defence League, something of a sister organisation to the Norwegian Defence League, and takes a similar approach to Vestel in putting the emphasis on dialogue when studying extremism.

The DARE project has brought together a very multi-disciplinary research group and includes social anthropologists, historians, linguists, media experts, sociologists, psychologists as well as people dealing with law. It will focus on people aged between 12 and 30, the key target for recruiters as existing research shows they are more receptive to radicalism.