LONDON As European authorities grope for ways of combating the appeal of militant Islamism, one German security agency has hit on a novel idea: cartoon comics.
Officials in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) had run a well received comic strip campaign against right-wing extremism in 2004 starring Andi, a schoolboy hero who stands up against xenophobia and racism.
Drawing on that experience, they launched Andi last October into a second adventure featuring his Muslim girlfriend Ayshe and her brother Murat, who comes under the influence of a radical friend and an Islamist "hate preacher".
The comic -- printed in 100,000 copies and distributed to every secondary school in Germany's most populous state -- aims to show young people the difference between peaceful mainstream Islam and the violent, intolerant version peddled by militants.
"We were always careful not to hurt feelings and anger people by painting a caricature of Islam," said Hartwig Moeller, head of the NRW interior ministry's department for protection of the constitution, responsible for intelligence gathering.
"We had to make clear we weren't aiming against Muslims, but only those people who want to misuse Islam for political aims," added Moeller, who despite his intelligence role says 50 to 60 percent of his work is educating the public about threats.
The cartoon, featuring boldly drawn Manga-style figures, is designed to be used in citizenship and religion lessons for schoolchildren aged 12 to 16.
"We have learned from our opponents. This is exactly the age at which the Islamists are trying, through Koranic schools and other means, to fill young people with other values," Moeller told Reuters.
"AL QAEDA NARRATIVE"
The unusual initiative is one example of how countries around the world are searching for new ways to prevent young people being drawn into Islamist violence.
Many security analysts speak of the need to counter the "narrative" of al Qaeda -- the message that the West is waging war on Islam in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and that young Muslims must fight back, including if necessary by sacrificing themselves as 'martyrs'.
To some youngsters, experts say, al Qaeda offers a sense of identity, belonging and justice -- not to mention adventure and an aura of 'coolness'. The question is how to compete with that allure.
Police and governments in most West European countries have developed outreach programmes to build dialogue with Muslim communities, but some believe a bolder approach is called for.
At a conference this month in Stockholm, Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp cited the example of Ahmad Dhani, an Indonesian rock star who challenged militant ideology in a massively popular album called "Warriors of Love".
"I'm not suggesting that we need a musical jihad against extremism in Europe, or that we employ MTV in our efforts," Ranstorp said. But he raised the question: "How do we harness humour, soap opera and our tremendous public relations industries in these efforts to disarm the extremists' messages and influence over young people?"
Richard Barrett, a United Nations official who heads a task force studying counter-radicalisation and rehabilitation initiatives around the world, said role models such as singers, actors or sport stars could play an important part.
"I think that is something we should be looking at -- trying to identify these alternative influences and have them speak out against terrorism ... Being cool is a very important part of it all," he said.
That is also the approach of the German cartoon strip -- by using a medium that grabs children's imagination, it seeks to get its message across more effectively.
"If you're serious about getting through to young people, you have to choose a style that they'll take in their hands and accept, that's how the comic came about," said Thomas Grumke, the NRW official who thought up the original Andi idea.
"A comic can go much further than a normal text. There's a great deal more room to play with, more room for interpretation."
Muslim reaction to Andi has been mostly positive, albeit with some reservations.
"We found the basic approach was right and good, we only regretted (the authorities) didn't tell us about this initiative in advance, then it could have been made much better," said Aiman Mazyek, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.
He said the portrayal of the Islamist hate preacher was "a bit overdone", but added: "There are people like that, I can't say there aren't." He said copies of the comic have been distributed in mosques.
Another regional government, Hamburg, is also using the Andi story, and there has been interest from Austria, Denmark, Japan and the United States.
Moeller said he believed the comic -- which cost just 30,000 euros ($47,440) for the artist and the print run -- could help some Muslim youngsters to recognise and resist Islamist recruitment attempts.
"If I get through to someone this way, and it makes him more critical of people who want to make him a jihadist, then I've stopped him at some point committing terrorist attacks or going to a terrorist camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan," he said. "Maybe he won't slide off into this milieu -- that's the idea."
(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)