Few people had ever heard of Herman Deparice-Okomba when Denis Coderre chose him to lead Montreal’s centre for the prevention of violent extremism. A rare civilian working with the Montreal police, he had toiled in the shadows for 10 years on issues of racial, social and political profiling, helping to reform police practices and attitudes from the inside.
Now, as 19 Quebec youths are alleged to have left or attempted to leave for conflict zones in the Middle East, Deparice-Okomba is set to become the very visible man in charge of stemming the flow of youths into the ranks of terrorist groups abroad, while dissuading the next would-be lone wolf — whatever his beliefs — from turning anger and ideology into bloodshed.
There’s a lot riding on his shoulders.
The centre, expected to open in September with a staff of 12 to 14 people, is Montreal’s unique answer to a problem plaguing cities worldwide. With headquarters downtown at 800 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E., its mandate is to prevent extremism and to assist the families and friends of individuals who have become radicalized and ultimately help those individuals readjust.
But to do any of that, Deparice-Okomba and his team first have to convince people that despite his own links to the police, the centre will be independent, with a view to helping the families — not CSIS — including parents whose children are currently before the courts or under house arrest, or who are mourning the death of a child in Syria.
Deparice-Okomba spoke with the Montreal Gazette Tuesday. The interview was condensed for length and clarity.
Q: Until now, the hotline has been answered by police staff. How do you convince people that calling the hotline is not just alerting the police?
A: We now have four civilians answering the hotline, 24/7. And the hiring is almost done, with 12 to 14 employees including psychologists, community relations people, criminologists, social workers — people from every field because radicalization requires a multi-disciplinary approach. This was an initiative of the police, so there had to be a transition. There are no more links with the police. I cut my own links to the police!
Q: But you will still be working with the police …
A: The police are one of our partners. It’s normal that we would collaborate with them. But there will be no interference by security or intelligence services or the police. Every time someone calls the hotline, the first thing we tell them is that their call will be confidential, but second, that if we determine that there is a risk to the person or to the community, we have no choice but to alert the police. Of 150 calls we’ve received, we’ve had four cases where those risks were present, and in these four cases, it was a family member that asked us to tell the police. If we weren’t here, calling the police would be the only choice. We are the alternative.
Q: How does your experience with profiling — racial, social and political — inform your work with violent radicalization?
A: There is no profile for someone who will be radicalized. Some say what leads to radicalization is the lack of a sense of belonging or the failure of the social contract: they want a job and respect and it’s not working. Many factors can come into play — self-esteem and their social circumstances, what’s happening in the world, economic, social and political instability. I’ve met the parents and the youths who tried to leave Quebec in May (allegedly to join terrorist groups). They are the most brilliant kids. One was accepted into medical school. They are also well-integrated and have large social networks. And then they radicalized. So we have to find out why. The (Académie de Poitiers, a French school board) checklist says they have long beards. These youths didn’t. That they were not well-integrated in society. These youths were. Checklists don’t work. It’s not police or intelligence services who can detect that someone is becoming radicalized. It’s the families, the teachers, the social workers.
Q: The head of the Sûreté du Québec’s Division of Investigations on Extremist Threats recently told a Senate committee that the majority of its active files involve right-wing extremists, while Islamist threats make up less than 25 per cent. Does that surprise you, and how will the centre reflect that?
A: It’s why we’ve created a centre to confront violent radicalization as a whole — political, religious, etc. Yes, here we’re dealing with Islamist radicalization, but in Quebec I’m also worried about extreme right-wing groups. Right now we’re reactive. But we need to be proactive. Dealing with all forms of violent extremism also gives us a long-term perspective for the centre. We’re the only centre in North America that is working in prevention.
Q: The success of the centre depends on people coming forward with their concerns about family or friends. But how do you get people to ask for help when there’s so much fear and shame involved?
A: When I talk to the families (of radicalized individuals), there’s a taboo. People are afraid to be treated as terrorists. Some parents have even lost their jobs because their kids wanted to go to Iraq. They need confidentiality and anonymity. But we also have to talk about this. We also have to make sure we don’t equate being Muslim with being radicalized, and that we make the difference between religious practice and indoctrination. One parent called the centre to say her son, who recently converted to Islam, now prays a lot and won’t eat pork anymore, therefore he’s a radical. We have to explain that there’s freedom of religion. He’s allowed not to eat pork. Then there’s indoctrination — when they are manipulated by someone with bad intentions who can dehumanize death to the point where a youth is ready to give his life in Syria.
Q: There was news last week that one of the youths who left Quebec in January was killed in Iraq or Syria, possibly on a suicide mission. What do you tell the youth’s parents?
A: You wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy. They are in mourning. They feel they have failed, but this is a collective failure. Our role is also to help the family get past this, and in the long term to convince the parents that they don’t want others to have to go through the same experience. Hayat (an organization working with families of radicalized youths in Germany) has created a network of families. We want to do the same.
Q: When Coderre announced the creation of the centre in March, some prominent Muslims complained they hadn’t been consulted. How do you decide who to work with? How do you reach “the community”?
A: In Quebec, there are no “leaders of the Muslim community” or of the black community. But we have networks in our community with informal leaders. We’re working with all of them, with local media and community organizations. We want many interlocutors, as we did with community policing. Some people don’t want to have their names known, others, yes, want to be recognized. Some didn’t want it known that they were working with the police … For us, it’s important to speak to everyone, including the average citizen. I will consult who I want and with people who share the same values and are open to dialogue.
Q: What kind of work will you be doing in schools, like College de Maisonneuve, for example, attended by several of the youths who left for the Middle East in January?
A: Radicalization starts early, so we will be giving training in primary and secondary schools as well as CEGEPs. We’ll have specialized programs for schools, security services and community organizations. People will be able to signal their concerns through our website as well, and we will be present on social media … Our report on College de Maisonneuve will be ready in September.
Q: What will be the measure of your success?
A: If I succeed in stopping one person from radicalizing, it’s a success. One case of radicalization is a failure. Imagine the consequences of just one radical youth who turns to violence. The consequences can be extreme — economically, socially and politically. We don’t want this to happen again chez nous.
Photo : Pierre Obendrauf
Source : http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/head-of-new-radicalization-prevention-centre-vows-independence-from-police
- Posted by webmestre
- On 22 September 2015
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