Analysis: The Royal Commission into the March 15 attack recommends a revolutionary approach to counter-extremism, based on tightening the social bonds of inclusivity and diversity, Marc Daalder reports

Some of the most significant recommendations from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the March 15 terror attack have nothing to do with souping up spy agencies or revamping gun regulations. Instead, they deal with a lack of “social cohesion” in New Zealand and offer ways to build that up.

The report notes that no individual action could have stopped the March 15 terrorist from engaging in his attack, although structural changes like the tightening of firearms laws might have. Even with the strictest regulations and the most powerful spooks, however, the report says terrorism cannot be 100 percent averted.

“New Zealand will never be immune from violent extremism and terrorism. Even with the best systems in the world, a determined would-be terrorist could carry out an attack in New Zealand in the future,” the authors wrote in the conclusion of the report’s executive summary.

But what if we could stop people from ever becoming would-be terrorists in the first-place?

As above, this isn’t foolproof, but the report recommends a serious effort by the Government to engage in deradicalisation and tightening the social bonds of inclusivity and diversity.

Social cohesion

The report uses a definition created by demographer Paul Spoonley, Robin Peace, Andrew Butcher and Damian O’Neill. A socially cohesive society, they write, is one in which all people and groups “have a sense of belonging,” “inclusion,” “participation,” “recognition” and “legitimacy”.

“Social cohesion exists where people feel part of society, family and personal relationships are strong, differences among people are respected and people feel safe and supported by others. Social cohesion is an ideal rather than a goal to be achieved and must continually be nurtured and grown,” the report states.

It acknowledges that social cohesion is more than a counter-extremism exercise – it is fundamental to “long-term prosperity” and political stability. But it does also have aspects that naturally ward off extremism.

“Social cohesion can contribute to preventing or countering extremism. This is because cohesive and resilient communities are better placed to resist and counter the risk of radicalisation and mobilisation to violent extremism and terrorism,” the report argues.

“Tolerant, and ideally inclusive, societies are more able to address and prevent the polarisation and disenfranchisement that can contribute to a rise in extremism.”

In other words, social cohesion plays a twofold role in countering extremism. On the one hand, people are less likely to develop extremist tendencies if they feel included, recognised and tolerated. On the other, those extremists who do arise are more likely to face resistance from their communities and ultimately be reported to security agencies (more on that later).

This framing poses important questions about our understanding of how New Zealand as a country and a society should respond to terrorism. It positions counter-terrorism, surveillance, law enforcement and gun restrictions as backup plans. These are failsafes in the event a terrorist develops, but a counter-extremism plan rooted in social cohesion allows us to interrogate why we should assume terrorists will develop in the first place.

It should not be a foregone conclusion that members of our society will turn to hatred and violence, the framing offers.

The Royal Commission also wards off some critics of the approach who, like ACT Party leader David Seymour, might label social cohesion “social engineering”.

“It is not possible or desirable to expect everyone in society to think and behave in the same way. That sort of uniformity is not what we mean when we talk about social cohesion,” the report states.

“Nor do we mean that marginalised communities should conform to majority cultural values and practices – in other words, to assimilate. Instead we see social cohesion as enabling everyone to belong, participate and have confidence in public institutions.”

Understanding radicalisation

The social cohesion approach is also rooted in the evidence we have about radicalisation. Newsroom has previously reported on the path of Caleb Cain, a former extremist who was radicalised (and deradicalised) via the internet.

“There’s a reason that young men and young people are falling into this. It’s not because they watch propaganda on YouTube. That’s a supply thing, but there’s a demand for that content. It’s not even necessarily that they’re racist, that they’re demanding that content, it’s that they’re searching for something,” Cain told Newsroom in March, when he visited Christchurch on the anniversary of the attacks to meet with the Muslim community.

“Everybody’s isolated and when they’re isolated, they don’t have purpose, they don’t have meaning, they feel disenfranchised economically – and that’s happening as well – they get online and some far-right figure like [white nationalist YouTuber Stefan] Molyneux comes in and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got all these problems’. And they nail the problems, one after another. They say, ‘and here’s why. Here’s the solution. And here’s who causing it’.”

For Cain, solving that isolation and lack of purpose is crucial to preventing radicalisation. For the Royal Commission, social cohesion could fill those gaps.

That’s why the Government, in implementing the recommendations of the Commission, will be creating a new Ministry of Ethnic Communities. The effectiveness of the existing Office of Ethnic Communities was “significantly hampered by its limited resources and consequently its performance has been unsatisfactory,” the report found.

The Commission also wants to see a broader public discussion around social cohesion.

“The limited nature of a national dialogue about social cohesion was raised with us by communities, domestic and international experts and our Muslim Community Reference Group. A consistent view was that there is a need for a broad public discussion on what it means, the benefits, how it relates to acknowledging and upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi and how it might be used to underpin policy development and service delivery,” the report states.

The Government will also be creating a National Centre of Excellence for the research of deradicalisation and social cohesion in a New Zealand-specific context by academics, civil society and government.

Findings from this research can be used to improve social cohesion and address what happens when social cohesion fails and someone has already started down the path to radicalisation.

Can we deradicalise the far-right?

However, Vidhya Ramalingam, the founder of international anti-extremism project Moonshot CVE, told Newsroom that we shouldn’t wait for the research to come through before engaging in deradicalisation work.

“I have seen internationally sometimes, the reliance on academic research before being willing to invest in programmes. And what that can mean is it sometimes takes many years before a country is willing to move forward on programming when actually this is a live issue and we need to be as responsive and as innovative as possible, while also bearing in mind the importance of evidence,” she said.

“A recommendation and a learning from my own experience delivering these sorts of programmes abroad is for New Zealand to start delivering programmes, start testing the delivery of social work in this space, start testing the delivery of social work through digital means and just start rapidly gathering data, iterating as they go. It will be important to respond immediately.”

That could be difficult, however, because New Zealand’s support agencies and NGOs don’t have enough of an online presence.

“There is a need to start to bridge some of the offline infrastructures in New Zealand which are really well-equipped to deal with social work and start to bridge those infrastructures with the online space where that risk of violent extremism and, in particular, white supremacist extremism is increasingly presenting.”

Anjum Rahman, founder of the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective and a board member for the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, said more resources need to be available for people concerned about their friends or family being radicalised.

She noted that the report found the terrorist’s mother was concerned about his behaviour. If there was a service or organisation he could be referred to that wouldn’t have criminalised him, the mother might have been more willing to take action, Rahman said.

Ramalingam agreed.

“It’s important when you’re working with individuals who are at risk, especially if they are individuals who are in that pre-criminal space, so individuals who haven’t done something illegal but are possibly at risk of getting involved in violent activity, we have to leave open the possibility that we can actually change those individuals’ paths and get them on a more safe and productive course for society. In order to do that, it’s oftentimes important for the programmes not to be securitised,” she said.

‘See something, say something?’

The Royal Commission also concluded that a broader awareness programme around radicalisation and a “see something, say something” campaign could have tipped security agencies off to the terrorist’s preparations.

“A public-facing, threat-agnostic ‘see something, say something’ policy would have enhanced the likelihood of the individual’s conduct being reported, particularly if such a policy had identified behaviours consistent with terrorist training,” the report found.

“Such reporting would have provided the best chance of disrupting the terrorist attack.”

Al Gillespie, a professor of law at the University of Waikato, wrote for The Conversation that, “this is a remarkable sentence, both brilliant and unnerving. It suggests the best defence against extremism was (and is) to be found within ourselves, and in the robust and multicultural communities we must create.

However, the report also notes that these policies can have unintended consequences.

“At this point we note that care would be required in identifying behaviours of the kind that warrant reporting. Even if expressed in threat agnostic terms, a New Zealand ‘see something, say something’ policy would, at least before 15 March 2019, probably have had the practical effect of increasing public suspicion of Muslim individuals and communities.”

Ramalingam said such approaches, if applied to transgressions below outright terrorism or violence, also risk overstating the scale of the problem and making it seem like a unique issue that isn’t tied to broader social ills – like a lack of social cohesion.

“We’re dealing with small groups of destructive individuals. They’re niche and marginalised groups. I would caution us against believing that we should constantly be on the lookout in our daily lives for people who might be at risk. It’s a small number of people who are at risk,” she said.

“What I would say is the signs and symptoms of someone getting involved in these movements are not hugely different from the signs and symptoms of someone getting involved in any set of destructive activities. We tend to find that sometimes individuals that are getting involved in these movements actually have a range of different vulnerabilities.

“If it wasn’t violent extremism that they would have gotten involved in, it might be some form of substance abuse, it might be self-harm, it might be domestic violence, it might be another form of violence.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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