As European authorities grope for ways of combating the appeal of militant Islamism, one German security agency has hit on a novel idea: cartoon comics.
Officials in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) had run a well received comic strip campaign against right-wing extremism in 2004 starring Andi, a schoolboy hero who stands up against xenophobia and racism.
Drawing on that experience, they launched Andi last October into a second adventure featuring his Muslim girlfriend Ayshe and her brother Murat, who comes under the influence of a radical friend and an Islamist “hate preacher”.
The comic — printed in 100,000 copies and distributed to every secondary school in Germany’s most populous state — aims to show young people the difference between peaceful mainstream Islam and the violent, intolerant version peddled by militants.
“We were always careful not to hurt feelings and anger people by painting a caricature of Islam,” said Hartwig Moeller, head of the NRW interior ministry’s department for protection of the constitution, responsible for intelligence gathering.
“We had to make clear we weren’t aiming against Muslims, but only those people who want to misuse Islam for political aims,” added Moeller, who despite his intelligence role says 50 to 60 per cent of his work is educating the public about threats.
The cartoon, featuring boldly drawn Manga-style figures, is designed to be used in citizenship and religion lessons for schoolchildren aged 12 to 16.
“We have learned from our opponents. This is exactly the age at which the Islamists are trying, through Koranic schools and other means, to fill young people with other values,” Moeller said.
The unusual initiative is one example of how countries around the world are searching for new ways to prevent young people being drawn into Islamist violence. Many security analysts speak of the need to counter the “narrative” of Al Qaeda — the message that the West is waging war on Islam in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and that young Muslims must fight back, including if necessary by sacrificing themselves as “martyrs”.
To some youngsters, experts say, Al Qaeda offers a sense of identity, belonging and justice — not to mention adventure and an aura of “coolness”. The question is how to compete with that allure.
Police and governments in most West European nations have developed outreach programmes to build dialogue with Muslim communities, but some believe a milder approach is called for.