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Polarisation and radicalisation threaten our democratic society

Radicalisation in itself is a marginal phenomenon, but the societal effects are broader. 

The spread of conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies may decrease the trust towards public institutions, decision making and democracy. This in turn may lower the interest in political participation, enhance frustration towards the political system and provide ground for further radicalisation. 

Provocative rhetoric and acts by extreme movements, as the Koran burnings in Sweden and Denmark are one of many examples of, also pose challenges to the democratic system, as questions regarding foundational freedoms and rights become reevaluated. Such as the balance between freedom of speech, rights to demonstrate and religious rights.   

This has been the common thread in the societal security project Social Exclusion, Polarisation and Security in the Nordic Welfare State, led by Helena Blomberg-Kroll, Professor at the University of Helsinki.

Far-right groups are on the rise  

Islamophobic and white-nationalist groups are present in all Nordic countries and are introducing new types of security threats.  

Far-right groups are characterised by a lack of trust in society, science and questioning commonly accepted institutions such as the police, judiciary and other authorities.  

"There is an orientation towards an interpretation of society that is very different from the generally accepted view. There are also echo chambers, especially on internet forums, where opinions and alternative perceptions of reality are spread and reinforced," says Niko Pyrhönen from the University of Helsinki.  

Part of the enemy image of far-right groups in the Nordic region is linked to the Muslim community and the prevailing attitude that immigration is a threat to Nordic societies.

Stigma in Muslim communities

Muslim communities, on the other hand, feel that the surrounding community has a negative view of them and that they are targeted by the police because of the stigma of terrorism and because there is a widespread perception that terrorism is linked to being active in Muslim communities.   

The feeling of stigmatisation is shared by many in Muslim communities, whether they are devout, secular, have a criminal conviction, are relatives of ex-offenders or have nothing to do with the criminal community at all.   

As part of the fight against terrorism, the police have had an increased focus on Muslim communities, and this has fuelled feelings of exclusion.   

"A key aspect should be transparency when authorities take preventive measures to combat extremism and terrorism. There should be knowledge and understanding of Muslim communities to counteract and not promote radicalisation. Our studies show that being falsely labelled as extreme or radical because of your religious affiliation weakens trust in the rest of society, which can lead to more radical views. It turns out that experiences of hostility towards Muslims are used to increase support for radical religious groups," says Karin Creutz from the University of Helsinki.  

With the rise of the far-right on the one hand and the radical religious community on the other, researchers have investigated how these groups influence each other. 

The groups incite each other and contribute to polarisation

‘We've been interested in the relationship between far-right movements and jihadist movements, where there is this theory of mutual radicalisation. The far-right messages and government actions towards Muslims can promote radical thinking and reinforce feelings of social exclusion. On the other hand, of course, the actions and rhetoric of jihadist movements also fuel these so-called anti-jihadist movements, which are Islamophobic and fuelled by fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims," she says.  

A key aspect of the dynamics of polarisation, extremism and radicalisation is the type of action that gets media coverage and the reactions it provokes. For example, the burning of Qurans and massive media coverage affects Muslim communities and reinforces feelings of not belonging, social exclusion and hostility.   

‘We also see that such actions reinforce the radical views of the opposing political groups, those who oppose the radical right, which are often not Muslim communities, but rather left-wing activists for example," she says. 

"It also misidentifies the major security threats by placing them in these marginalised minorities as opposed to the influential political groups that have an established platform and are often in one way or another politically connected to the existing system. They are sometimes the ones who actually pull the strings, but their activities are overlooked, while the very small grassroots segments are good fuel and get a lot of attention," says Niko Pyrhönen. 

The solution is dialogue and trust

What can the Nordic countries do to avoid further radicalisation and polarisation?  

"One of the main conclusions from our research is that trust in local authorities and the local community is very important for reducing tensions and working against extremism and radicalisation," says Helena Blomberg-Kroll.    

Furthermore, civil society actors can support dialogue and reconciliation processes between different groups in society, such as the dialogue initiative Timeout-Foundation in Finland and Bydelsmødrene in Denmark. These kinds of initiatives reduce tensions, build trust between groups and strengthen social cohesion by promoting understanding and communication.  

"Studies show how important trust at the local level still is, and it's something that doesn't happen by itself, but is built over time. Therefore, sudden policy changes and various forms of control initiatives are not always the obvious solutions when trying to reduce tensions and polarisation."  


Thomas Jacobsson

Thomas Jacobsson

Senior Adviser
Marianne Knudsen. Photo: NordForsk

Marianne Knudsen

Senior Communications Adviser