Comics Against Radicalisation

Mariam Mohamed, coordinator of the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi in Ceuta, showing the comic students made after a role-play in one of the educational programmes to prevent radicalisation. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

Comics made by young students are a new tool in the little Spanish enclave Ceuta in the north of Africa in the fight against radicalisation.

A big basket of clothes is standing on the ground, ready for the class 2°A of the school “Clara Campoamor” in Ceuta. The children can choose from different traditional Muslim clothes. Two boys decide to wear a long white robe, the “thobe”, while some girls grab a headscarf to cover their hair. What follows is a role-play – about Muslim marriage, about equality, emancipation and personal rights.

While Mariam Mohamed, coordinator at the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi is talking about the three-days-long pilot project against radicalisation, her brown eyes emphasize her energetic voice. “Throughout the role-play we take pictures of the students,” she says. “It’s fundamental to create a shared memory.” The class that prepares the comics that are made out of the role-plays in the little enclave Ceuta, is as mixed as its population – with Muslims and Christians in almost equal numbers. The city bordering Morocco has often been described as a hotspot for radicalisation.

“It is true that prevention work needs to be done, because if we take the whole Spanish state into account, the city from which most young people have left to zones of conflict is Ceuta,” says Mariam. Next to Arabic and religion classes the Cultural Centre focuses on prevention work against radicalisation. Partly funded by the local government of Ceuta and the members, different workshops and classes introduce the young students to the threat of extremist influence.

Lack of Identity and Religious Knowledge

“Throughout the years we have noticed that there are a lot of factors influencing the process of radicalisation,” Mariam explains. “But the common point of all those youngsters was that they had serious problems with their identity and a lack of religious knowledge.”

“Identity is a very important feature that partly explains the roots of radicalisation between second and third generations of immigrants,” says the sociologist Dr. Carlos Rontomé from the University of Ceuta, but “there is no single or fundamental cause that explains the impetus of Islamist radicalisation.”

Still certain factors can have an impact – the social and economic exclusion, psychological variables, religion, family, as well as identity. Radicalisation gives the young people “a place in the world,” as Rontomé describes it. The threat of extremist influence is present in Ceuta – since the identification through religion is still very strong, secularisation a slower process than in most other parts of Spain. Obviously religion does not equal radicalisation, but contact to extremist ideas can favour it, if a stable identity is missing.

Prevention through work from the bottom-up

In the workshops of the Cultural Centre, the children are introduced to the complexity of identity issues as well as the immaterial heritage of their own religion. For the workers it often very soon gets clear, if a student feels anxious or insecure about his own identity. “And that is the moment in which you can talk to them about the problems of radicalisation,” Mariam explains.

“The only way to prevent that is working from the bottom-up about identity,” she says. The comics are a tool to introduce all religious groups to important features of the Muslim religion. Creating a shared memory plays a fundamental role. “At the same time they also get into the concept of knowing each other,” Mariam says. “If a person doesn’t know the other, there’s fear.” Fear leads to separation and this in turn to the lack of belonging – which goes hand in hand with the uncertainty of their own identity. The young people are allowed to feel Muslim – but at the same time they also should feel Spanish, to not identify themselves solely through religion.

You cannot pour more liquid into a full glass, Mariam says while she points at her coffee. But an empty glass still offers space and therefore possibilities: “We try that all our youngsters are full of education, of culture and identity – identity features which are very difficult to manipulate,” she says taking the first sip of her drink.

According to the philosophy of the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi, education and knowledge is an elementary part of identity – in their library the neighbourhood can lend books and access the web. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

While the workshops around identity comprise a fundamental part of the Cultural Centre’s prevention work, their daily business is classes of Arabic and religion for students. “There are no magic solutions, but educational programmes are the best at preventing the possibility of radicalisation,” sociologist Rontomé says. “Religious education is a factor that gives resilience in the face of recruitment.” According to Mariam, classes of religion are not only a tool to show the students their immaterial heritage but also making sure that they are introduced to a moderate form of Islam – their chosen branch to be the Maliki.

The promotion of identity also happens through art. “We try to give everything related to music a boost, because one of the things the strict groups are against is music, even more when the singers are girls,” Mariam says. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

Rontomé acknowledges the importance of the work in the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi: “I think it is one of the best ways since it is exercised from within the Islamic community itself,” he says. But next to work inside the community, Mariam would wish the state and local government would do more in terms of prevention work. “More policies and public investments could be used,” she says.

According to the Ceutí teacher and education advisor of the Ministry, David Muñoz Arbona, the critical part is knowing each other – therefore, the city provides programmes and teachers are trained in working towards encouraging relationships. “When you know the other person and his religion, and you live with him, you don’t radicalise against him,” he explains. “If a person goes to zones of conflicts, it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Mariam concludes. “We try to prevent that.” Identity is the key – and comics are a new tool.