There are three aspects to any narrative: a storyline to communicate and legitimise a political or religious conviction, a call to action to defend that conviction and an appeal to the individual’s identity and sense of purpose.
Unfortunately, vulnerable individuals lacking the ability to think critically are increasingly likely to be drawn to these narratives.
The internet enables people to spread messages anonymously, and to specific target groups. The propaganda machines of organisations like Islamic State (IS) are disseminating videos with high production values, and are adept at using social media platforms to their full advantage.
The internet activities of extremist groups are also a way to attract online funding and a means to organise attacks.
It is estimated that over 20,000 people from 90 countries have made the journey to IS territory. Their countries of origin have only just begun to adequately address the risks from extremist messages transmitted via the internet and social media.
In my view, non-violent extremism needs to be tackled as robustly as violent extremism. An effective counter-narrative campaign should feature a variety of mechanisms, such as short videos, social media interaction, and outreach events.
It should debunk extremist myths, repeatedly explain how extremist ideology destroys individuals and families (with a disproportionate amount of Muslims as its victims) and appeal to the emotions and reasoning of the target audience.
Manwar Ali, an associate who runs the UK Muslim charity JIMAS, is an example of someone who has successfully spearheaded a counter-narrative, appearing in a recent documentary by the Norwegian filmmaker Deeyah Khan on former jihadis. In this, Manwar Ali expresses his regret for radicalising young Muslims in his earlier days.
He now concentrates on spreading a version of Islam that focuses on interfaith dialogue, as well as respect for secular democratic institutions and cultures. My first recommendation to the EU, and MEPs in particular, is to organise a series of university outreach events with Manwar Ali and similar speakers.
My second recommendation to EU policymakers is to build the capacity of groups like 'Inspire', the Muslim women’s organisation that recently launched a 'Making a Stand' roadshow. This initiative hopes to build up resilience against extremist rhetoric while dismantling hateful and bigoted interpretations of religion. Several of the speakers at their events have been directly affected by extremism and terrorism.
My third recommendation is for the European Counter-Narrative Centre in Brussels to map counter-narrative activities across Europe. This should improve collaborations between different organisations.
The European Foundation for Democracy has been actively promoting this since 2012 through its 'network for a new generation' which brings together progressive Muslim activists from the UK, France, Sweden and Germany.
We have also organised university events on subjects ranging from the secular democracy to interfaith relations, and have brought these messages of hope and harmony to a wide audience.