BORDEAUX, France (RNS) In an inconspicuous building near City Hall, Imam Fouad Saanadi meets with bewildered parents and fragile youngsters, some of whom have never stepped foot inside a mosque.
Many come from troubled families and neighborhoods. Some are mentally unstable. He and a small group of experts are fighting a powerful adversary: militant Islam.
“Each case is different,” Saanadi says of Bordeaux’s year-old CAPRI program aimed at preventing radicalization. “Our role is to offer critical thinking, a serene approach to religion that’s not conflictual or linked to identity issues.”
Across Europe, governments and local communities are searching for ways to counter extremism after a wave of largely homegrown terrorist attacks.
The question is all the more important for France, the target of three terror strikes in two years, and Western Europe’s biggest exporter of extremist fighters.
Yet while countries such as Britain, Denmark and Germany have long been involved in deradicalization efforts, France is a relative newcomer to such programs. Some believe the country’s fiercely secular mindset and conflicted relationship with Islam pose additional obstacles.
“My guess is that if you want to have an efficient way in dealing with radicalization in terms of jihadism, you have to introduce — plainly, obviously, publicly — religion,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Paris-based sociologist and radicalization expert.
“It is in the name of religion that they have become radicalized,” he added. “They identify with this radical version of Islam, so you cannot avoid it.”
Today, there is new urgency to finding answers. Hundreds of foreign fighters are beginning to return to Europe, authorities say, posing risks as potential terrorists and recruiters. Some end up in French prisons, already considered breeding grounds for recruits to the Islamic State group.
A partnership between Bordeaux’s City Hall and the regional Muslim federation, the CAPRI program may be one sign of changing times. While the initiative is local, it offers a religious dimension to fighting radicalization — one that is drawing interest from other municipalities.
“For the youngsters and the families, the fact we’re doing this program with the Muslim community is positive,” says Bordeaux Deputy Mayor Marik Fetouh, who is also CAPRI’s spokesman. “It shows we’re not confounding Islam and radicalization, and often the theologians will create links between the families and CAPRI.”
Saanadi gathers with half a dozen therapists, psychiatrists and legal experts to evaluate each new case. Of the 35 young people now enrolled, roughly 40 percent are women. A number are converts, or recently converted Muslims from largely secular backgrounds. The average age is 22.
“It’s a puzzle,” Saanadi says of the work. “When we put together the different pieces, we can see whether to intervene or not.”
Often, his role is indirect — helping other staff, for example, to sort through the different schools of Islamic thought. He intervenes in less than one-third of the cases, where religion is believed to have influenced extremist behavior. Hard-core radicals are referred for treatment elsewhere.
As secretary-general of Bordeaux’s Muslim federation, Saanadi himself ascribes to a moderate, government-sanctioned brand of Islam that respects French secularity but is not always considered legitimate among more fundamentalist believers. Perhaps not surprisingly, he does not personally know anyone who has joined a jihadi movement.
“Terrorism is a question for national education,” he says. “We see children at the mosque two hours a week. The rest of their time is at school.”
Roughly 700 French citizens are still fighting in Iraq and Syria, according to recent government figures; an additional 1,350 suspected radicals are in French prisons, including nearly 300 with direct ties to terrorist networks.
Nationwide, authorities classify some 15,000 as extremists and potential security threats, including an estimated 200 or more in the southwestern Gironde department that includes Bordeaux. The state’s traditional law-and-order response has not proved effective, critics say.
“The state took too much time and now it’s searching for miracle solutions,” said Ouisa Kies, an expert on radicalization in prisons.
But last year, the center-left government adopted a softer approach with so-far uncertain results. It earmarked more than $300 million for deradicalization programs over three years and rolled out the first of a dozen voluntary centers planned across the country.
The new funding windfall has also helped fuel some 80 local initiatives, some with dubious credentials.
“It’s becoming a market,” says Bordeaux’s main imam, Tareq Oubrou, who provides theological advice to CAPRI. “Everyone is becoming a deradicalization specialist in two seconds.”
Other Muslim communities are also getting on board, including in Nice and the tiny Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-de-Rouvray, both targets of terrorist attacks last year. But few have the strong municipal support and high profile of CAPRI.
“As soon as there’s an initiative by a Muslim leader or members of the community there’s always suspicion,” said Kies, a sociologist who believes Muslim leaders nonetheless have a narrow but necessary role to play in countering radicalization.
“It’s not the imams or the Islamic experts that can find answers for these individuals,” she added. “But they’re partners who should be and increasingly are being integrated.”
In Bordeaux, Saanadi is the first to acknowledge the limits of his intervention.
“There are no miracle solutions,” he said. “It’s very easy to destroy, but very difficult to reconstruct.”
(Elizabeth Bryant is a correspondent based in Paris)