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Policies and research on radicalization in Scandinavia


Although the three Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden have much in common socially, culturally and linguistically, they have diverged politically in recent years over issues connected with immigration and integration, and this divergence is reflected both in policies and in research on radicalization. Denmark, where the centre-right coalition that governed from 2001 until 2011 was dependent on the votes of the neo-nationalist  Dansk Folkeparti or Danish People’s Party, created Scandinavia’s first “Integration Ministry” and generally took a firm line on anything to do with Muslims, including radicalization. Denmark’s Integration Ministry was abolished in late 2011 after the centre-right coalition lost an election to a centre-left coalition, and the Danish National Party thus lost its political significance, at least for some years. During the period from 2001 to 2011 Denmark saw a number of trials under anti-terrorist legislation which had been passed in 2002, but no actual terrorist attacks, though there were some minor incidents. Norway and Sweden, in contrast, continued earlier, softer approaches to both Muslims and radicalization, though also with some trials under new anti-terrorist legislation, and suffered one terrorist attack each—a suicide bombing in Stockholm in December 2010 that killed only the bomber, and the attacks carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo in July 2011, which this essay will not discuss. Both Denmark and Norway also suffered attacks of various kinds on premises abroad as a consequence of the Cartoon Crisis of 2005-06, and these were understood by some (but not all) to be part of the same general phenomenon as Islamist terrorism in Europe and the activities of Islamist forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia.

These political differences match differences in approaches to counter-radicalization in the three Scandinavian countries. The Norwegian policy (2011) stresses the importance of being “directed, limited, and responsible.” It defines radicalization as movement towards extremism, and defines extremism as acceptance of the use of violence to reach political goals. A clear distinction is made between violent and non-violent Islamism, and non-violent Islamism is specifically excluded from the Norwegian policy. The Danish policy (2009) defines radicalization in the same way, but adds to its definition of extremism “undemocratic” methods as well as violent ones, and adds “undermining the democratic social order” to Norway’s more narrowly defined political goals. Arguing against voting in elections, for example, is understood as potentially undermining the democratic order.

Danish and Norwegian counter-radicalization policies emphasize preventative interventions such as interviews with young people identified as being at risk, and thus also emphasize the identification of young people who might be at risk. The Danish policy further emphasizes information campaigns focusing on democratic values and “active citizenship,” defined as consisting of duties as well as rights, and reinforced integration measures, aimed for example at preventing the growth of “parallel societies” in “ghetto areas.” The Swedish approach, in contrast, emphasized a national dialog on basic values as well as individual dialogs.

All three policies and the agencies charged with implementing them faced the familiar problem that while the precise nature of radicalisation was still poorly understood, programs to combat it still had to be implemented. One consequence of this difficulty was that official understandings of the radical expanded (as in Britain) to encompass other issues that were felt to be in need of attention anyhow, including (in Denmark) school-ground bullying and the “social pressure” thought to be applied within Muslim communities to encourage fasting during Ramadan. There was also a general pattern whereby officials charged with implementing counter-radicalisation initiatives tended to favour the agendas and types of measures that they had already been working with in other contexts. Formalized cooperation arrangements between schools, social services and the police were already established, for example, and when given the additional task of combatting radicalization, tended to integrate this with their existing work. One consequence was that attention has tended to focus on the young, while of course experience shows that the threat of terrorism does not come only from this section of the population.

All three countries also established or expanded research institutes focusing on radicalization and terrorism. Denmark’s Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation (CIR) was based at Aarhus University and headed by Mehdi Mozaffari, a political scientist of Iranian origin. Norway’s Terrorism Research Group (TERRA) was based in the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and headed by Brynjar Lia, by training a Middle East historian. Sweden’s Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies (CATS) was based in the Swedish National Defence College and headed by Magnus Ranstorp, formerly director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, and an expert on Hizballah. Ranstorp recently published the edited collection Understanding Violent Radicalisation (2010). Other research institutes also carried out research on terrorism and radicalization.

Among the main Scandinavian institutes, that which has so far produced the most notable research is perhaps the Norwegian TERRA, which has published many books and articles of high academic quality, generally focusing on the Arab world, but also taking into account transnational and European perspectives. TERRA’s products include, for example, Lia’s own Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus‘ab Al-Suri (2007) and Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix, “Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-Utaybi Revisited” (International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2007).

Political differences match differences in approaches to counter-radicalization research in the three Scandinavian countries. The Danish CIR aimed to create a “Denmark School” by integrating research on radicalization with research on all forms of Islamism, a perspective that matched the tendency to expand the concept of extremism at the political level, but scholars in Denmark were more often critical of broad understandings of extremism. The CIR also funded independent research, for example a study of young Muslims in the provincial city of Aarhus by Lene Kühle and Lasse Lindekilde, Radicalization among Young Muslims in Aarhus (2010). In this study, Kühle, a sociologist, identified an Arab-Somali-Convert religious revivalist milieu in which every single interviewee expressed some degree of support for at least one organization on the list of foreign terrorist organizations complied by PET, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service. However, only one person in Kühle’s study expressed anything other than clear rejection of the idea that terrorist actions in Denmark itself might be justified. This led Kühle and Lindekilde to question the usefulness of regarding sympathy with such overseas groups as an indication of radicalization. Lindekilde, a political scientist, reported a widespread view among those in contact with the grass-roots of the Muslim community in Aarhus that Danish counter-radicalization measures were actually counter-productive, “feeding into the pool of experienced frustration, discrimination, marginalization, suppression and humiliation.“

Interesting research has also come out of other institutions, for example the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), where Manni Crone and Ann-Sophie Hemmingsen argued on the basis of empirical studies that Denmark’s Islamic extremist milieu had much in common with other extremist milieus, and that “radicalization” could be driven as much by a desire to express opposition or to make a difference as by any particular religion or ideology (Manni Crone, Dynamiker i ekstremistiske miljøer, 2010).

One reaction, then, to the expansion of official understandings of the radical in Denmark has been examination of fundamental concepts, an example of which is my own “The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion” (Terrorism and Political Violence, 2010).

Outside Denmark, one of the most interesting approaches was taken by Tore Bjørgo of the Norwegian Police University College, who built both on his own earlier work with right-wing youth and on general principles of crime management. He argued against seeing counter-terrorism as fundamentally different from other kinds of crime management, and (in effect) also argued against an excessive focus on radicalization. Radicalization is just one aspect of a problem that needs to be addressed in all its dimensions, just as other forms of criminal behaviour need to be addressed in all their dimensions. In general, no single measure is sufficient to manage crime: multiple measures are required at multiple levels. All measures have more than one effect, and sometimes the desired effect of a measure is less strong than an undesired side-effect. Politicians and other actors, Bjørgo points out, have a natural tendency to promote particular and partial measures, often based on ideological positions, and “the visibility of the measures often becomes more important than the results they produce.” Bjørgo then develops an integrated model of terrorism management that includes establishing and maintaining normative barriers against it, deterrence, disruption, incapacitation, target protection, reducing both the harmful consequences and the rewards (to terrorists) of terrorism, reducing recruitment, and rehabilitation. Only a few of these points are commonly included within counter-radicalisation.

Bjørgo’s approach, which could be described as distinctively Scandinavian in its distaste for those who seek visibility and its preference for low-key but effective team-work, was published in Norwegian in 2011 as “Strategier for forebygging av terrorisme”, with a small-circulation English version already available, and a revised English-language version in book form planned.

Scandinavian policies and research on radicalization, then, have something in common with British policies and research, and are perhaps distinguished primarily by the impact of the Danish National Party on Danish politics between 2001 and 2011. Commenting to the press on the abolition of his ministry after the 2011 election, the last Danish minister of integration, Søren Pind, spoke of the importance of fighting “Middle Eastern medieval traditions… on all levels, in all areas, at all times.” The new Danish government may be expected to take a somewhat different approach. It is to be hoped, though, that Scandinavian scholars will continue to produce the innovative research typified by Bjørgo, Lia, and Kühle and Lindekilde.


Further Reading

  • Bjørgo, T. (2011). “Strategier for forebygging av terrorisme,” in Forebygging av terrorisme og annen kriminalitet, T. Bjørgo, ed. Oslo: Politihøgskolen.
  • Crone, M. (2010). Dynamiker i ekstremistiske miljøer. Copenhagen: DIIS.
  • Kühle, L. and L. Lindekilde (2010) Radicalisation among Young Muslims in Aarhus. Aarhus: Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation.
  • Lia, B. (2007). Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus'ab Al-Suri. London: Hurst; New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Ranstorp, M (ed). (2010) Understanding Violent Radicalisation. London: Routledge.
  • Sedgwick, M. (2010). ‘The concept of radicalization as a source of confusion’, Terrorism and Political Violence.


Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Mark Sedgwick, and not of  Sedgwick is Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark. As well as working on radicalization and the history of terrorism, he also works on Sufism in the Islamic world and in Europe, and on Islamic modernism. His most recent book is a biography of the leading Egyptian modernist, Muhammad Abduh (2010).

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