Monash University
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Pro-integration: disengagement and life after extremism

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posted on 2017-02-23, 00:02 authored by Barrelle, Kate
This thesis investigated individual disengagement from violent extremism in liberal democracies. Despite enormous investment of the last two decades into responses to terrorism, the exit and reintegration processes of extremists back into the community are not well understood. Whilst most extremists struggle with the transition back into society, most are eventually able to move on with their lives, becoming citizens again. Most do so unassisted. Therefore, studying the phenomenon of natural disengagement is a critical avenue to understanding why people choose to leave, how they leave, how they reconnect and what areas of their lives undergo change in doing so. Given the paucity of empirical data on this topic, the primary purpose of this research project was to generate such data. The second goal was to analyse the empirical data from the perspective of participants themselves, addressing the question: 'What is the experience of disengagement from the perspective of extremists themselves?' The final aim of this study was to integrate any new findings with current literature to advance the state of knowledge about disengagement from violent extremism. Using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) in-depth interviews were conducted with 22 former extremists of different ideologies, including former militant Tamil separatists, former neo-jihadists, former right-wing extremists, a former left-wing militant, and former nonviolent but direct-action radical environmentalists. The participants discussed how and why they stopped their involvement, how their sense of self and identity changed, as well as how they coped afterwards and renegotiated their relationship with mainstream society. Each participant described multiple reasons for leaving. Several cited the ineffectiveness and/or the horror of violence, whilst some burnt-out. Overall disillusionment was the most common trigger for eventual disengagement. Once disillusioned ‘pull factors’ such as having a family or a career became attractive. Most reported a delay between early doubts and actual exit, and most experienced a difficult transition out. Some had longer-term difficulties. Fifteen themes emerged directly from the transcripts of the 22 participant interviews. These themes clustered into five domains which collectively represent the phenomenological essence of disengagement from extremism, including subsequent re-engagement with society. The domains are Social Relations, Coping, Identity, Ideology, and Action Orientation, each with three component themes. A key finding was that sustained disengagement is actually about the proactive, holistic and harmonious engagement the person has with wider society afterwards. This has been termed 'pro-integration'. Finally, this research project went further than anticipated and, building on existing empirical research, proposed a tentative five domain, three level model of disengagement called the Pro-Integration Model (PIM). It is suggested that incorporating pro-integration into the research, policy and intervention agenda is a strengths-based way of assisting people to genuinely connect with civic society after their involvement into extremism. It is concluded that for former extremists to identify with, and have a sense of belonging in mainstream society is not only good for them as individuals, but advantageous for a resilient society, and as a side-effect, cultivates strong protection against re-involvement in violent extremism.


Principal supervisor

James Walter

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School of Social Sciences (Monash Australia)


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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