Return of the Jihadi. What Does Borgen Do?

Europe – we have a problem. 2,000 of our young men and women, radicalised by atrocities further south, are travelling to join the shockingness in pursuit of victory of some sort. Oh wait, that’s old news. Eighty year old news, to be exact, and the conflict was the Spanish Civil War. Back then, we bestowed our young idealists with a heady endowment of such romance that forty years on, ABBA would feel compelled to write a song about them.

What a difference a century makes. Ok, nearly a century. Fast forward to 2014 and various informed sources suggest that 2000 Britons have again travelled south, this time to join the conflict in Syria and Iraq. But that’s where the similarities end. No romance attached to this lot and no one should hold their breath for a new Swedish song on the subject.

Nevertheless, the Scandis are hitting the Jihadi headlines, albeit for an entirely different reason. While a shrill, increasingly hysterical British debate centres on banning the travellers from ever again setting foot on British soil, whipping away passports from those who do turn up at home or, failing that, locking them up and throwing away the key, Borgen sends in a bunch of mentors for a chat and moral support.

For the Brits are far from alone. Denmark has produced more jihadists per capita than any other western country bar Belgium, who has 22 jihadist fighters per million residents; France and Australia have 11; Norway, 10. Then comes Britain with six jihadists per million residents, while Sweden has three. A total of 3,000 EU ­citizens are thought to be engaged in Syria.

Some, but by no means all, of the current crop of galvanised young men and women are in a different league to their Spanish Civil War forerunners. The modus operandi which they join are entirely alien to them while we, at home, are treated to an endless and gruesome stream of distressing propaganda clips on social media. Shocking yes, the shock value is undeniable, but how to react to this onslaught is subject to feverish debate. Who was fighting whom? Who was mopping blood in hospitals? Who was ferrying food parcels? Who knows?

So, what does Borgen do?

Borgen has become an object of intense interest in the British debate about how to solve a problem like Jihad. While Blighty’s preference is to outlaw the, erm, blighters, the Danes adopt an entirely different strategy. Well, they do with practically every other challenge, so why not this one?

Borgen’s method is poignantly reminiscent of Norway’s approach to their own 2011 Utøya massacre, perpetrated by far-right extremist Anders Breivik. “We are still shocked by what has happened, but we will never give up our values,” Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said immediately following the tragedy. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.” Norway, he suggested, would not seek vengeance as America had done after the 9/11 attacks. “We will answer hatred with love.”

And, so far at least, Norway has not been deluged by an unstoppable avalanche of copy-cat atrocities, for refusing to apply an eye-for-an-eye approach to Norwegian far-right elements.

Embracing a comparable sentiment, Borgen welcomes back its Jihadi citizens, offering mentoring, cooperation and guidance rather than threats, hostility and confrontation.

Mayor of Denmark’s second city Aarhus, Jacob Bundsgaard explains his city’s reasoning, “These are young people who have turned to religion at a very difficult time in their lives, and they are dealing with existential questions about going to fight for what they believe in.”

“We cannot pass legislation that changes the way they think and feel. What we can do is show them we are sincere about integration, about dialogue.”


Since January, police and city officials have engaged in a number of unprecedented sessions hosted by the local mosque. In the presence of mosque leaders, officials meet with returned fighters to assess their risk levels. They also meet with the mosque’s youth group to dissuade other young Muslims from travelling to the Middle East. In monthly meetings, city officials, police and members of the mosque hierarchy are now debating religious ideology, Danish law and freedom of speech.

Police officials say the statistics prove their approach is working. “In 2013, we had 30 young people go to Syria,” said Jorgen Ilum, Aarhus’s police commissioner. “This year, to my knowledge, we have had only one.”

Compare that with British estimates where sources suggest that the number of British citizens going off to join the war in Iraq and Syria has risen fourfold from 500 last year to 2000 this year.

The Danish programme does not enjoy universal approval, by any means. Even Borgen has its noisy far right elements, but in Aarhus, even the Conservatives voted for the conciliatory approach and the programme has since been adopted by Copenhagen and a number of other cities throughout the country.

The young men and women, who travel to join the war in Syria and Iraq, are motivated by the same sentiments whether they are British, Danish, Belgian or Dutch. Only their countries’ attitude to them differs.

Hatred has provoked a torrent of problems throughout history but has never provided a solution to anything. Does anyone really believe that this time will be any different?

Accepting that we have a problem and that we have to solve it, might be infinitely more constructive than pretending that we can bludgeon our way out of it.



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