EPPN Series on Deradicalization: Paths to Deradicalization

This is the third and final post in the EPPN Series on Deradicalization intended to highlight different models for supporting individuals as they depart from extremist groups or ideologies.

Paths to Radicalization 

For this series, we relied on experts and scholars who study radicalization. The consensus among experts is that those who become radicalized rarely do so because they are inherently hateful. Tony McAleer, a co-founder and board chair of Life After Hate explains that “Within the white supremacist movement, I found power at a time when I felt powerless, attention when I felt invisible and acceptance when I felt unlovable. I could have gotten my identity, purpose and belonging as the captain of the football team, but I was not a jock – so I sought it elsewhere.”

Radicalized individuals often feel lost, sometimes stemming from unresolved trauma or a lack of a sense of belonging, and thus seek community from a place of vulnerability. Identifying variables that make one more vulnerable to radicalization is a difficult task, but pre-radicalization, people often first see what we may call extremist communities as welcoming places. The communities are often made up of people who have felt loss, powerlessness, or regret. Many are victims of bullying, neglect, or other forms of emotional fatigue and violence who find in these extremist communities a sense of belonging. Extremist communities be they White Power groups, Christian nationalist forums, or social media pages for “patriots” offer what Christian Picciolini, a former extremist who founded of the Free Radicals Project, calls identity, community, and purpose. In a time where many people, especially children, and young adults, are capable of finding their identity, community, and purpose online, radicalization can be hard to track and hard to catch. 

Advances in online communication, including platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and enhanced artificial intelligence algorithms may contribute to the increase in recruiting among radicalized groups, even connecting and inspiring people who never meet in person. While they are always changing, some algorithms for viewing content online are designed to optimize viewing time, and steer people towards increasingly extreme content in any area. This has been identified as an important area of reform.

Guillaume Chaslot, the founder of AlgoTransparency a project to demand greater transparency from online platforms, used to work at Google on YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. In his remarks at a tech conference in 2019, Chaslot noted that divisive and sensational content is often recommended widely: conspiracy theories, fake news, and flat-Earther videos for example. Basically, the closer it stays to the edge of what’s allowed under YouTube’s policy the more engagement it gets. The basic structure of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm might have worked fine for its core types of content — like cat videos, gaming, and music, but as YouTube becomes more central in people’s information and news consumption Chaslot worries recommendations will push people further to extremes just because it’s in YouTube’s interest to keep us watching for as long as possible. 

Picciolini suggests that many who stumble upon this type of content often are initially uncomfortable with racist content. . Prejudiced remarks, be they memes, videos, or more direct posts, are rarely challenged by the more seasoned members of the online communities. Without seeing anyone challenge these ideas, it can be easy to fall in the trap of accepting them at face value. Those who do challenge the ideologies are often ostracized and lose their sense of identity, community, and purpose. Within online groups, a sense of community is formed by creating a space where people find racist and misogynist explanations for their hardships, often blaming Jewish people or people of color. For many radicalized individuals, ideologies rarely come first. Picciolini explains that people are drawn into these extremist groups or communities for the sense of comradery, a feeling of identity, and the promise of a new purpose, but typically not due to preconceived biases or opinions that align with these radical communities. 

Addressing radicalization has been increasingly important due to the rise of online extremist interaction and frequency of violent White Power incidents. While there can be no systematic way to deradicalize an individual, the U.S. government and many NGOs have engaged in this work with varied effort and results. Much of this work on radicalization is not specific to White Power and Christian nationalist ideologies, but some can still be applied.

NGO Response 

Friends and family members intimately encounter the challenges of radicalization themselves, but there are a few existing NGOs focused on the work of assisting their deradicalization interventions. The two organizations known for doing this work on the largest scale are Life After Hate and the now retired Free Radicals Project. Much of the work done is through individuals who have disengaged from radical groups or ideologies and use their experience to work directly with radicalized individuals. Christian Picciolini has been a crucial player in both organizations. While each group has their own approach, each lean on Picciolini’s background and theory for deradicalization by approaching disengagement work at the individual level, dealing with each person as a unique case requiring its own approach. 

The Free Radicals Project focused on specific work with individuals and their families. The group relied on families or the individuals asking for help by directly contacting Picciolini through the online contact box. Picciolini explains that it is important for the radicalized individual or their community to ask for help. This step indicates some degree of buy-in. It is often hard to force someone to disengage from radical ideologies, but if they see the benefit of their disengagement or they are surrounded by a community that is committed to supporting them through their disengagement, the Free Radicals Project would provide them with the support and the resources needed to grow personally and seek reconciliation for their thoughts, words, and actions. 

Life After Hate relies primarily on donations, but also received a temporary grant from the Department of Homeland Security that expired after 2021. Through their program ExitUSA, Life After Hate provides support to individuals who are looking to leave racism and violence behind. The organization uses a variety of strategies, including public awareness campaigns, individualized plans, and building community partnerships to help individuals get their life back on track. This approach also emphasizes the importance of leveraging the community to build a support system for those working to disengage from extremist ideologies. Life After Hate also keeps a blog to update the public on their work, gain support from the federal government, and give resources to help others identify factors in deradicalization. 

Other organizations provide supportive resources for radicalized individuals and their families, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has created an extensive guide for parents and families that focuses on how radicalization can impact children due to prolonged internet activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. This guide has been a staple resource for many communities seeking to address radicalization within. It includes clear warning signs for radicalization in children and young adults and broken-down steps for disengagement. While the guide recognizes the limitations of communal interactions during the pandemic, it echoes the emphasis on leveraging communities and available resources such as therapy, and openly discussing ideologies with a variety of people, rather than individuals confronting a radicalized child with the goal of punishment. SPLC explains that the process of disengaging a child can take time and significant emotional investment from the parent and community. 

Christian Community Responses

Recently, Christian organizations have been more vocal about the importance of addressing radical ideologies. While these have mostly included statements and events rather than active deradicalization work, the language has been positive and sets good framework for future efforts within Christian communities. A large number of efforts focus on “public witness”, namely highlighting that Christianity is not synonymous with Christian nationalism, conservative evangelical movements, or far-right Roman Catholic interpretations.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a national nonprofit based in Washington D.C., and a frequent collaborator with The Episcopal Church and working with Congress on issues relating to religious freedom and church-state separation. BJC has been an outspoken opponent of Christian nationalism and a supporter of religious minorities. In July 2019, BJC launched a grassroots movement called Christians Against Christian Nationalism, of which The Episcopal Church was a founding member, to repudiate this political ideology as a threat to both faith and democracy. The statement has since gained over 21,000 signatures, including many Episcopal leaders, including The Most Rev. Michael Curry. The launch of the website and statement was accompanied by a 10-part podcast series titled “The Dangers of Christian Nationalism” hosted by BJC Executive Director, Amanda Tyler, in which she interviewed seventeen experts and thought leaders to highlight the academic, theological, political, and social histories and implications of Christian nationalism. In 2021, BJC organized and hosted two webinars (January 27 and February 26) featuring Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Elizabeth Eaton, with Christian leaders exploring how to identify and respond to the dangers of Christian nationalism in the wake of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and how to confront Christian nationalism in congregational settings. They are also promoting social media campaigns and working on distributing additional resources to churches, including discussion guides and printable materials. 

We were unable to find many ecumenical partners working directly on deradicalization, despite the existence of extremism within many of our churches and the societal-wide concerns about increasing radicalization, conspiracy theories, and misinformation. In private conversations, many denominational leaders and colleagues spoke to the need to do more, even as they were not quite sure of the path ahead.  

Episcopal Engagement Church-wide 

The Episcopal Church has a complex history on issues of racial justice; however, in recent decades, the Church has taken a strong stance against white supremacy and Christian Nationalism across the globe. Through the Becoming Beloved Community framework, the Church has remained committed to truth-telling, racial reconciliation, and open conversations about difference within its communities, but we have fallen short in addressing the systematic radicalization in the U.S. Too many people fall victim to extremist movements due to an internal identity, community, and purpose crisis. They search for a solution and radical communities offer a simple answer and black and white opportunities to feel accepted while being indoctrinated with extremist ideologies.  

This is a moment when extremists feel empowered to storm the halls of American democracy with images and messages from the Christian Faith, a religion we know to be about love, welcoming, and forgiveness. It is also a time when radical extremists do not only occupy known fringe groups alone but can become activated in solitude from homes, offices, military bases, law enforcement facilities, and perhaps even the pews of Episcopal churches. Our church has a great  take on deradicalization work as an element of the church’s mission to work towards building a beloved community. The Episcopal Church is called to take steps to combat the radicalization of God’s children and to live up to its commitment to be a place of welcome for all people, and to commit to truth, and engage in efforts to deradicalize those who have already fallen victim to extremist ideologies.  

The Episcopal Church has taken many steps to condemn acts of extremism, specifically an Executive Council Resolution (EXC111998.22) in 1998 which calls on the church to “commit itself at every level to work for the eradication of hate crimes in America,” noting that mercy and forgiveness are integral to defeating hate. General Convention has taken significant action to combat political scapegoating, a commonality within extremist communities, through Convention resolutions reported by Racial Justice and Reconciliation, notably Affirm Abhorrence of Racial Profiling and Violence” (2003-D077) and “Condemn Unjust Scapegoating” (2018-A230).  

The Church also joined Christians Against Christian Nationalism in the summer of 2019 and their statement was endorsed by Presiding Bishop Curry who remarked: 

“As followers of Jesus, his command to love our neighbors means neighbors of every type, of every faith, not just our own. Through our baptism and in our democracy, we are called to a way of love that creates a community in which the dignity of every human being is recognized and respected, and where all can have an equal say in the governing of our civic life. The violence, intimidation and distortion of scripture associated with ‘Christian nationalism’ does not reflect the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, and so I stand with fellow leaders in the Christian community and call for a better way” 

These condemnations serve as significant signs of solidarity with victims of extremist violence as well as a reminder that we, as Christians, follow a God of love who would never condone violence towards any of his children. While statements and solidarity are crucial to being beacons of love in the world, the church has largely failed to address organized racialization up to this point. White Power and Christian nationalist ideologies are pervasive in the U.S. because people, who generally seek only community, identity, and purpose, fall into the trap of extremism. 

Examples of Local Episcopal Engagement 

The Diocese of Iowa has taken proactive steps using the SPLC guide for addressing the radicalization of young people. Through their Becoming a Beloved Community initiative, the diocese has encouraged parishes to engage in dialogue around race relations in their community, holistic histories of their churches, and the growing danger of the White Power movement. Their work serves as a fine example of ways the church can combat extremist ideologies, but The Rev. Meg Wagner, Missioner for Congregational Development, Communications, and Reconciliation for the Diocese of Iowa, has identified the need for more resources on how to deprogram adults who have engaged in conspiracies around federal level American politics as well as a strategy to reach their rural communities. Their work in Iowa has proven important amid substantial pushback within the state on engaging Black Lives Matter resources and ideas that combat “patriotic” education in public schools. The SPLC guide offers great resources and could be an important tool in the development of a faith-based guide to deprogramming radicalized individuals. 

To read the previous installment click here.