Countering Violent Extremism Requires a Whole-of-Community Approach

Countering violent extremism in Australia is a difficult task, fraught with political, cultural and religious sensitivities, exacerbated by social tensions and lack of understanding across various communities. One unintended consequence of the desire to secure our nation has been to heighten these tensions and divisions in many communities across Australia.

The objective of the Countering Community Division (CCD) policy framework is to facilitate broad analysis and deep understanding of the current situation and to coordinate efforts across stakeholders so that we can begin to reunite and strengthen our communities.

While no universally accepted definition of radicalisation has been developed, it is useful to view it as the progression of an individual towards more extreme views that may lead to violent fundamentalism, extremism or terrorism. A complex mixture of external influences, social circumstance and individual agency contributes to how quickly and how far along the path of radicalisation a person travels.

Because of the complex interplay of these contingencies, this policy framework regards radicalisation of Australian citizens as “a community issue, not just a law enforcement one.”

A whole-of-community response to radicalisation can provide a number of distinct benefits. By responding as a community, it becomes possible to access a greater range of resources – including perspectives and programs, insights and intelligence, networks and knowledge – needed to address a very complex issue. Furthermore, responsibility for outcomes is decentralised, meaning broader stakeholder buy-in to the success of the initiative. Also, such a response is an inclusive act in itself, drawing upon what the various groups in a community have to offer. Finally, consciously working in this way strengthens relationships and builds communication channels that are essential to maintain community solidarity/unity/integrity in times of challenge.

Policy framework

So what would a framework that draws upon the breadth of diversity in a community look like? It would be structured around the three contingencies that influence radicalisation mentioned above: external influence, social circumstance and individual agency.

pie chart illustrating apsects of radicalisation

Countering Community Divisions policy framework (R).

External influences

The first area that may contribute to an individual’s radicalisation is that of external influences. These are influences that “shape and constrain people’s environment,” but are only minimally determined by the individual. External influences can be categorised into political, economic and cultural/religious influences.


  • Overseas involvement of Australian troops and trade relationships
  • Political disenfranchisement
  • Mass media and social media messages
  • Relationship and representation within government, judicial and police institutions


  • Economic environment and employment opportunities
  • Housing
  • Community services
  • Educational opportunities

Cultural / Religious

  • Mass media
  • Community integration
  • Internal conflict (namely, between extreme and moderate ideologies)

Since any particular individual has little impact on external influences, it can seem the most daunting of contingencies to address. However, the policy objective in addressing political, economic and cultural/religious influences is not to resolve them, but to identify the key challenges they pose for particular groups and to devise ways for these groups to productively respond to them, including facilitating understanding, finding ways to work within them, communicating the affects of these influences, or even generating the means to advocate their change.

Social influences

The second area of influence on a person’s radicalisation path is their social circumstances – namely, the groups with which they identity, the dynamism of their networks, and the relative deprivation of any of their primary social groups.

Humans are social animals and, therefore, social surroundings intimately influence self-identity and individual choices. For example, we feel the successes or failures of a group with which we identify, even if the perceived demonisation or justified award did not involve us personally. Also, an individual’s group exposes them to ways of thinking and acting, reinforcing positive or negative perceptions and actions, influencing or inhibiting decision-making.

Characteristics of an individual’s networks also play an influential role in radicalisation. Is their network of affiliations growing and fluctuating, or static or narrowing? Is their network dominated by a few charismatic leaders and ideas? Or is it democratically driven and inquisitive? These questions are not meant to identify networks at risk of radicalisation; rather, they help define the networks and permit ways of engaging with them.

Finally, despite a person’s actual socio-economic status, the relative deprivation of one’s community or a group with which one identifies can play a role in furthering an individual down the radicalisation path.

The policy objectives of a community approach to address social circumstances may not be to radically change the entire social environment (for instance, deportation or imprisonment, or wall off all Internet access), but to nurture opportunities to broaden their group identities, expand their networks and narrow economic inequality.

Individual agency

The final area of influence affecting a person’s path of radicalisation is individual agency. Contrary to some economic models, humans are not simple rational actors, but we do make choices that determine our individual progress towards extremism. These choices are informed by both cognitive (what they know and believe) and emotional (what they feel) experiences. For example, an individual may believe that their community is marginalised and maligned, which makes them feel shame and anger. These cognitive and emotional experiences could push the individual towards increased radicalisation.

Policies that are so finely tuned that they encompass each individual condition may seem like a policy maker’s dream, but in reality the investment of time, resources and the impact on essential freedoms make this an impossible dream. Thus, the policy objective at this level is not to measure each individual’s cognitive and emotional well being, but to provide meaningful experiences and opportunities to engage with other community groups that have both an intellectual and emotional dimension. Furthermore, having addressed issues in the external and social spheres will already contribute significantly to bolstering an individual’s positive community experiences and, thus, to influence travel away from radicalisation.

Benefits of a framework approach

Applying a robust policy framework to an issue as complex as the radicalisation of Australians is useful in many ways.

First, while it may not be the only way – or even necessarily the best way – of grasping the complexity, it helps analysis of a complex issue by providing a coherent perspective on the parameters of the problem.

Second, a framework facilitates identification of resources, community allies and gaps in current programs and policies.

Third, a robust policy framework helps avoid redundancy and silo-thinking, which are too common in large institutions. A corollary to this is that a framework facilitates communication, learning and planning, because it provides a cohesive focus and common vocabulary.

Finally, a robust policy framework supports continued focus over the long term, while permitting flexibility and adaptability.


The power of a framework, however well designed, is in the strength of its implementation. Successful implementation of the CCD framework is dependent on at least three factors: coordination, asking the right questions, and identifying and overcoming challenges.


The first factor in successfully implementing this policy framework is coordination. CCD implementation is overseen best by a correlation taskforce responsible for coordinating policy, communication, resources, monitoring and evaluation, research, analysis and planning. This taskforce may include representatives of key government ministries and departments, along with community organisations and business interests.

It is not necessarily advisable that this taskforce be inclusive and representative of the broader community, for that is the role of an advisory group, if needed. What is important is that this taskforce have access to and is informed by the broader community.

Asking the right questions

A second factor influencing successful implementation is the ability to ask the right questions. As part of the scoping stage of the initiative, I propose a set of core questions to be asked, including:

  • What is the problem/issue?
  • How do we know there is a problem/issue?
  • Who is also working on this?
  • What is being done to address it?
  • What are the resources we have at our disposal to address it (for example, policies, programs, finance, research, volunteers, networks)?
  • What are the gaps in current resources and why?

Identifying and overcoming challenges

A third essential factor in the successful implementation of the CCD framework is the ability to identify and overcome challenges.

The first challenge is leadership. A whole-of-community approach requires leadership that embraces the community. Is there an identifiable leader, whether an individual or a coalition, who is broadly accepted as such and capable of bringing together a range of stakeholders? Do they have a clear vision of the change to which they are leading the community?

The second challenge to overcome is inertia. A whole-of-community approach may require changes in how we work together, how we communicate, how we allocate finite resources – and change is rarely easy. Bureaucratic processes, political turf wars, over stretched personnel, and the time worn “that’s not how we’ve done things in the past” can all contribute to a fairly difficult barrier of inertia. Asking the right questions and having a strong leader can ease some of these strains, but at the core of the implementation, things will have to change in order to address the challenges facing our communities.

The third challenge to successful implementation is turning competitors into partners. Government ministries compete for influence and slices of a finite budget pie. Community organisations compete for funding and recognition in the community and by opinion leaders. Service providers may compete for clients and contracts. Once potential allies are identified, having a clear strategy in place on how to build partnerships is key to a sustainable, effective whole-of-community policy initiative? – ?facilitated by good leadership and a rich understanding of the community brought out through asking the right questions.


Countering violent extremism in Australia is challenging. In order to succeed, we have to overcome existing community tensions and divisions. The Countering Community Division policy framework is presented as a way to gather community insights and resources, facilitate in-depth analysis and understanding of the current situation, and coordinate efforts across stakeholders so that we can begin to reunite the divided and strengthen our communities to counteract further radicalisation.

Brian J. Adams is the Director of the Centre for Interfaith & Cultural Dialogue (ICD) at Griffith University.

Source: ABC Religion and Ethics

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