Faith and Art: Innovation in CVE
By Jake Shapiro
August 15, 2018

As new territories continue to be liberated from extremist control, the international community is faced with the challenge of how to handle returning fighters. Traditional law enforcement approaches include prosecution and imprisonment, but prison can actually cause further radicalization, and is unlikely to address both the psychological conditions that cause violent extremism (VE), and the extremist religious beliefs often developed in the radicalization process. Together, psychological counseling and religious mentoring are needed to rehabilitate radicalized individuals. However, traditional counseling methods have proven insufficient to break into these psychological spaces and often fail to reach hardened extremists. As such, the international community is exploring alternative counseling methods – such as art therapy.

Violent extremism is empirically described as a social psychological phenomenon, caused in large part by real or perceived “grievances tied to social marginalization, political exclusion, lack of access to justice or resources, and repression or abuse by state and security services.” Religion itself is not as strong of a driver of VE as is commonly believed, but “is most often introduced as a way to express grievances, and later provides an added layer of justification for violent conduct.”

Counseling and religious mentoring can help address both VE’s psychological drivers, and the extremist religious ideologies developed throughout radicalization. Local actors agree: in a recent ICRD study of illiberal but nonviolent religious actors, 44% of Moroccan respondents said an extremist rehabilitation program should focus on counseling religious beliefs, and 18% said it should focus on mental health care (n = 103). Unfortunately, traditional counseling can fail in rehabilitating hardened extremists who are unable to talk openly about their radicalization, or choose not to. One alternative solution that is being explored is art therapy, led by both counselors and religious leaders.

Art therapy workshops “use a variety of art forms,” including “visual art, music, drama, movement, and dance,” to “act as a gentle entry into discussions” about the circumstances that led people to extremism. These circumstances are often difficult to talk about, and art provides an easier medium to bring them to the surface. Art therapy also allows extremists to “step out of the frame of the prevailing circumstance,” helping them to recognize and reframe their life experiences, and allowing CVE practitioners the opportunity to positively impact that reframing.

Art therapy is increasingly being used around the world to rehabilitate former extremists, including at the Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center (MNCC) in Saudi Arabia. At MNCC, art therapy is coupled with “psychological counseling, religious re-education, vocational training, [and] financial incentives.” The program works closely with sheikhs and Islamic professors, who grant credibility to counselors’ religious arguments. Working with local religious leaders also helps ensure that art therapy “resonates with local audiences” by drawing on “context-specific histories, stories, arts, or traditions, all while ensuring the message is locally relevant.” According to an academic study, the art program at MNCC has an 86 percent success rate, and only a 14 percent recidivism rate.

Another example of art therapy in extremist rehabilitation comes in Lebanon, where two sisters, Nancy and Maya Yamout, use art therapy to connect with extremist inmates. The sisters say that art allows them to build trust, “look beyond the religious and political context of their subjects,” and connect at a deeper level.

Art therapy for deradicalization has critics, who doubt its efficacy and question whether extremists should be given such time and resources. But CVE practitioners and world governments must consider how to rehabilitate violent extremists, and reintegrate them into society. Prison alone is unlikely to address VE’s psychological drivers and religious ideologies, and may further radicalize extremists. Rehabilitation programs with psychological counseling and religious mentoring are thus needed, but traditional counseling may fail in its goals. Art therapy, led by both counselors and religious leaders, provides an effective alternative.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).