We must improve our methods to help extremists leave their radical environment and reintegrate into mainstream society, say researchers. (Photo: Shutterstock)
We must improve our methods to help extremists leave their radical environment and reintegrate into mainstream society, say researchers. (Photo: Shutterstock)

How extremists become ex-extremists

Ideology is not the barrier that stops an extremist from abandoning their radical views and reintegrating into the community, shows new research.

Frightening images of Nazi violence do not encourage a neo-Nazi to turn their back on such extreme right-wing ideology. It is much more likely to be the longing for a normal life, burnout, or the influence of a boyfriend or girlfriend outside that environment that motivates them to leave it all behind and reintegrate into society.

"It’s never the case that people sit at home and become convinced of an ideology. For many, it begins with some great parties, cheap beer, and good friends. The vast majority participate first in the group and their ideology develops within the community that they’re happy to be a part of," says researcher Tina Wilchen Christensen, from Roskilde University, Denmark.

The new results are presented in Christensen’s PhD thesis on how former right-wing extremists can be rehabilitated back into mainstream society.

All types of extremists can use the EXIT program

Christensen studied the methods used in the Swedish organisation EXIT, which helps people of all ages to leave their right-wing extremist circles. She has found out which of the methods were the most successful, and her findings extend to people trying to exit all types of extremist groups.

"EXIT is a self-help program that helps develop new interests and helps to provide a new self-image. It also helps develop tools for new ways of being and acting," says Christensen.

Sense of community means more than ideology

The EXIT program focusses on addressing the participant’s sense of community to help them leave the extremist group, as this seems to be more effective than tearing down the group’s ideology. This usually breaks down on its own once the participant has left the group.

These insights are based on the experience of the EXIT program mentors, who were once radicalised themselves.

"Mentors can help identify unhealthy behaviour. They also help to support [participants] when uncertainty arises. Having a past as an extremist is stigmatised and shameful. Just try to tell someone at a party that you are former Nazi, you’ll see how fast the atmosphere changes," says Christensen.

Learning new norms

Most former members’ behaviour is marked by violence, threats, sanctions, and harassment. These are the norms of the neo-Nazi world, along with a belief that they are biologically superior and stronger than non-whites.

But this neo-Nazi code of conduct will obviously hinder members in life outside the group.

"It's hard to learn that it doesn’t help to threaten people. But what should they then do? What other kinds of behaviour do they need to learn?" says Christensen.

Based on the experience of the Swedish EXIT program, she points at four things that are particularly important to a successful exit from these radical groups.

The program should welcome these ex-members without any prejudice. The participants should have opportunities to partake in another community, and be presented with alternative ways of being. They should receive assistance from someone who can spot the signs of extremist behaviour and develop a trusting relationship with their mentor from EXIT.

Exit programs should be prioritised

Outside of Sweden, research into helping extremists break away from their groups is sometimes limited and lacks concrete advice on the best methods for intervention, says Line Lerche Mørck, associate professor of educational psychology at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University.

But these kinds of studies are important to understand what works in practice, says Mørck, who is experienced in helping members of gangs and biker gangs to leave their groups in Denmark.

"We actually don’t know if what we’re doing in Denmark, is good or not. There is a lack of evaluation and practical descriptions of how to go about it. Therefore, the detailed image that Christensen's project provides is unique and very important," she says.

Read the Danish version of this story on Videnskab.dk

Translated by: Catherine Jex

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