Criminal Justice in a Polarised Society is the topic of this year’s edition of the Criminal Justice Summer Course that CEP organises together with EuroPris and EFRJ. Håkan Järvå is one of the speakers. He is a psychologist and an expert in working with people that were or are still involved in extremist movements. He was in his early twenties when he got involved in a religious cult himself, the Scientology movement. Nowadays he successfully combines his personal experiences with his professional life.  

Personal experience

Håkan Järvå was twenty years old when he was recruited for the Scientology movement. “I just moved to the city and had no friends. I was a stranger to the community there. I met a recruiter on the streets. They seemed like nice people.” At that time, he had no knowledge of the Scientology movement, he had never heard of them before. “They boosted my ego by saying nice words to me. They quickly became my social group. It was after some time I understood the group was surrounded by a lot of criticism. At that time I was already deep into it, the critique did not matter to me anymore. I experienced only friendliness”.

Håkan Järvå explains this is a typical way of becoming involved in these kind of groups. “You do not wake-up one day wanting to become a member of the Scientology movement. You are often recruited by people that are nice to you and give you the thing that is missing in your life at that moment. You never seek for it”.

After some years, the bad experiences started for Håkan Järvå. He did not decide to leave the group. “Movements like Scientology have tricks to keep people inside the group. They scare you for everything in the outside world. They make you believe that the group is the only thing that gives you shelter and protects you from the dangers in the outside world.” When Håkan Järvå is 34 years old, he, his wife and kids that are also members of Scientology, get expelled from the group. If someone is expelled, the others are not allowed to contact them. “I chose to leave the group as well and start a new life with my family in another city.”

It took him four years to build-up a new life after he left the movement. Although Håkan Järvå made new friends and started to work, he still believed in what Scientology stood for. This was during the time the internet came up and this is how Håkan Järvå got in contact with others that left Scientology. “At first I was sceptic, but I started to realise that what they told me was the truth. I realised Scientology was a bad organisation, a scam. In a way, I felt relieved, but I was also confused. So many things I had believed in for fourteen years were not true.” Håkan Järvå felt like waking up from a bad dream. “You live in a fantasy universe for all these years and get detached from society. As long as you believe in the fake universe, things are ok and there is logic to it. After that, you start to realise that you do not know anything.”

Håkan Järvå had to build-up an entire new life and became a psychologist. Nowadays he helps others with going trough this process. “It is one thing to help yourself, but it is much harder to help others. Everyone has different needs and a different history.”

How these groups arise

“Everywhere in society groups exist and where groups can exist, extremism can arise”, says Håkan Järvå. According to him this comes from our past, where the group was a safe haven from the outside dangers. “But the dangers they want to protect the members of the group from are not real. If that was the case, these groups would serve a purpose, but they don’t. The extremist movements react on peoples need for a group and safe place.” Håkan Järvå compares the groups with predators.“ They are like the wolf in The Little Red Riding Hood, they give you the impression that they are nice, but when you finally discover it is the bad wolf, it is already too late” He says especially young people are vulnerable for being recruited. “You are young and want to break free and start to live your own live, but you don’t have any experience. You are not prepared to deal with the predators out there. Of course there are more other risk-factors as well, but you see that most people are around that age when they join these movements”

Prevention and Disengagement

For the organisation Hedayah, an organisation with the purpose of developing capacity building programs for countering violent extremism, Håkan Järvå wrote a needs assessment manual. He says that if you want people to prevent from joining these extremist movements, you need to provide them with what they are missing in their lives, before the recruiters do it. In the manual he provides readers with information about how recruitment works and about what the community can do to prevent people from joining an extremist movement. “It is important that you identify vulnerable people and, in an early stage, try to stir them into a pro-social life. Feeling understood and important as a person and having a goal in life is very important. I see this is something western societies lack, they are too materialistic. Life has to have a direction, family and friends. Most people join extremist movements, because they are social outcasts, lonely or do not have a direction in life. You need to provide that as a society.”

According to Håkan Järvå these are also factors a probation officer can work on in the disengagement process of a client that has been or still is a part of an extremist movement. But this takes time. “You have to follow your client and not push too much. Don’t be too anxious for them to leave the movement they are in, but be with them and try to provide the person with positive experiences from the outside world.” Making them feel like you understand them is very important too according to Håkan Järvå. “You don’t have to experience being a member of an extremist movement to make a person feel that way. It is important to ask them questions instead of giving them advice. You don’t have to have the experience yourself, as long as you keep on asking questions. If you do this and connect with the client it will be easier to find out the needs that they have and provide them with it in the outside world”.

Håkan Järvå is one of the speakers during the CJPE Summer Course 2019. He will learn the participants more on how to work with clients that are in or just left extremist cults or movements.