My maternal grandparents and other relatives immigrated to these American shores from Denmark. So I have to admit some sense of pride when the Danes show the rest of the world how to be a good society. Denmark is often atop the list of happiest countries. Their cultural concept of “hygge” — which means something like coziness and fellow feeling — is gaining traction in American awareness. And now the city of Aarhus, already known as a pioneer in sustainability, has presented us with a possible way to blunt extreme radicalization in a dangerous world: through the power of home.
A recent NPR report details how Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city at 319,000 people, has had success with a unique approach to reclaiming young people who have fled to Syria to support or join ISIS. While most of Europe takes a hard-line approach — shutting down mosques, threatening to take away passports (a tactic usually reserved for convicted traitors), declaring ISIS converts enemies of the state — the Aarhus police are saying, “Come home, and we’ll help you go back to school, find a place to live, meet with a psychiatrist or mentor,” and are giving them, as NPR’s Hanna Rosin says in her July 15 article, “whatever [is] needed to fully integrate back into society.”
So far, the results are promising. In 2012, 34 young people left Aarhus for Syria; 16 of those came back home thanks to the program, and over 300 potentially radicalized residents came to the police for help rather than going to Syria. In 2015, only one person left the city for Syria at all, even as the numbers were increasing in other European countries. The jury is still out on the program’s long-term success, but so far, so good.
In Rosin’s article, she quotes Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland social psychologist who studies violent extremism, as saying, “There are strong correlations between humiliation and the search for an extremist ideology.” Those leaving Aarhus for Syria had been discriminated against, marginalized, harassed and/or bullied, among other forms of humiliation. I’m no expert on radicalization and terrorism, but from what I understand — and from what my sensibility tells me — alienation from community, culture and society is at the core of seeking an alternative kind of meaning and belonging. I can easily imagine how being spurned from one’s home community shortens the path to a hardened ideology and even violence.
The idea and practice of “home,” for me, are not entirely, or even mostly, defined by a physical dwelling (if we are so fortunate as to have one). Belonging is at the core of “home” — being among those who love and care about you, having a strong sense of personal affiliation, having confidence that you are safe and accepted for enacting and expressing who you are and feeling supported and embraced even if you go astray (that is, knowing that you will be taken back into the fold even though you’ve transgressed). Mostly we think of “home” and these ideals in terms of family — the hope for unconditional love. We also need to extend these values at least to our communities and ideally to our culture at large. That’s what Aarhus is trying to do. A “home community” should hold and practice those same principles that we aspire to among our closest loved ones.
None of our families or communities are perfect. As communities, we obviously are failing when some people — especially those who are most different from the majority — are denied a sense of belonging. The Aarhus model, as it’s come to be called, is not only about welcoming those who have left back into the community but also about being a community in the first place. We need to own and then prevent the failure that leads to alienation just as much as we need to forgive the transgressions wrought by it.
I understand there are lines to be drawn. Perhaps there are transgressions that are too great to countenance, such as when radicalization leads to heinous action. It’s hard to imagine welcoming back someone who has committed a mass shooting. In a family context, we do hear of families who still profess love for their members who have committed even unspeakable crimes, but such families still know they must release their loved ones to the justice system.
What’s the lesson from Aarhus for us here at home in Iowa City? I’m not talking specifically about members of our community who are seeking to become members of ISIS. I don’t really know if there even are any. But Aarhus’ lesson about what it means to be a “home” community is certainly one we can take generally. We’ve recently seen how easily we can turn against each other with inexcusable vitriol even for something like a special school board election.
That vitriol was expressed along the fault lines of the failure of our community to fully embrace and support people of lower socioeconomic status and those of particular races and ethnicities. We’ve made some progress, but we still have a long, long way to go to welcome and support everyone in our community as equal members. We have yet to ensure that everyone is accepted, cared for and safe and secure. If we take the “home” in “home community” to heart, as Aarhus, Denmark, has done, perhaps we’ll have a chance of making sure everyone belongs here, and resolving our conflicts before they become ugly, or worse, violent.
Thomas Dean is not joining ISIS. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 203.