Berlin, Germany

Hayat means Life


February 12, 2015

A localized, alternative approach to de-radicalization that focuses on family bonds over police intervention.

HayatSitting alone in a bedroom on a laptop, reading the finely tuned arguments and watching testimonials, a person’s mindset can change. The case for violence as a righteous or good tool can begin to resonate. What happens next is the question that keeps awake security officials, politicians, communities, and families.

Will he travel to fight in a foreign warzone? Will she plan an attack here, at home?

The problem of radicalization, also called home-grown terrorism, is not a problem for law enforcement to handle alone. Not least because of resources. Take France: if it was to launch a surveillance operation for every individual of concern, there would be a team following each of the 5,000 French citizens now under some form of observation, amounting to a small army on the streets.

Beyond a question of resources, there are simply other stakeholders that can be more influential than the security apparatus of government. They are families, and the agencies that support them.

Family connections count

One such agency is the Berlin-based Hayat (Arabic and Turkish for “life”), operating since 2011. Its goal is to counsel and support family members worried about the influence of extremist Islamic ideology over a relative. It’s a small outfit with a staff of three. Their primary point of contact with clients is by a 24/7 hotline, and those clients are family members – sometimes a mother, father, brother, sister, or uncle. Hayat staff are trained counselors, and can take calls in German, Arabic, Turkish, English, and a few others if needed.

A phone call typically comes from parents concerned about a child’s escalating interest in extreme causes or plans to travel abroad to fight, like in Syria. In other cases, the child has already left and the family doesn’t know what to do next. The Hayat approach is to coach family members to keep lines of communication open. These calls are hard on families. It can be a time of intense personal reflection and for parents, sometimes admitting mistakes. Hayat counselor Claudia Dantschke spoke about the strategy to help families through these calls: lots of talking because talking helps, no politically correct formulas, no slogans, and no quick judgements.

In some cases, law enforcement would not even be involved, but sometimes they are and Hayat is the bridge between families and government.

Looking for first causes, families first

Hayat founder Bernd Wagner saw a mistake in how law enforcement was dealing with extremism, focusing on arrests and jail but failing to look at first causes. Why do extremist ideologies hold such appeal? What supports can bring a person back? The program is a successor of sorts. The idea came from EXIT, another renowned program in Germany but focused on helping people exit neo-Nazi groups and thinking. Wagner believes there is a parallel between radical Islam and the far right, but Hayat focuses much more on families.

The case for relying on families as a counterweight to extremist ideology rests on a few main ideas. One is that extremists are tough to persuade when their beliefs are rooted in theology, so direct intervention by a stranger, even when a highly trained Hayat counselor is not likely to succeed.  Instead, families are usually the best emotional connection to the individual. Positive relationships are the asset. Hayat counselors teach families to establish and maintain emotional connections. Families are encouraged to be caring and curious, and not engage in debate, provoke, or challenge beliefs. Positive contact can bring a person back.

“We counted on the fact that there would be feelings of doubt or homesickness. It’s at that point the family can provide an alternative view to that of the jihadist group,” counselor Daniel Koehler told the BBC.

The first phase of contact between families and Hayat is typically emergency advice, when parents are desperate to stop children from leaving to fight or, if he or she is already gone, to persuade them to keep communicating. A second phase moves into the territory of background research and analysis, and sometimes local mediators like a religious leader are brought in to introduce alternative ideas and build trust.


In the last three years, Hayat has had 83 cases and a majority of those are still active. In about 30 cases, according to Koehler, de-radicalization has occurred.

Hayat is popular with families outside of Germany too. The urganization has taken international calls from families feeling like there’s nowhere else to go, who might be reluctant to engage authorities from lack of trust, fear or uncertainty. An initiative of ZDK Gesellschaft Demokratische Kultur, Hayat is funded by the German Federal Office for Immigration and Refugee Affairs (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge BAMF), but operates at arm’s length from government.

The idea has already traveled outside Germany. Pilot projects are operating or soon-to-be operating in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and other countries too are examining this model including Australia and Canada.

Making it Work for You:

  • Collaborate with but operate independently from government, especially security and police agencies
  • Develop an approach focused on communication with loved ones, avoid provocation and challenging beliefs
  • Measure what was achieved beyond what was avoided – it’s hard to count incidents (foreign fighting, domestic terrorism) that didn’t happen
  • Work closely with local Imams and other Muslim leaders who can participate in medium- and long-term stages of de-radicalization
  • Use a 24/7 hotline