We live through a major crisis and the future is uncertain for all of us. Young people will be particularly hard hit with the consequences.
The radicalisation of youth, and an accompanying rise in violence, have become issues of growing concern in many parts of the world. They are characterised by increases in hate speech, hate crimes, propaganda and violent xenophobia, as well as religious and political extremism, even occasionally culminating in terrorist attacks. Young people are, indeed, more vulnerable to the siren call of extremist groups than any other age group.
For a long time, the main root causes of violent extremism were believed to be poverty, unemployment and a lack of education. However, it is gradually becoming evident that today’s radicalisation is also largely influenced by ideologies and societal tendencies, especially when young people feel they are subjected to social exclusion and marginalisation. The need to be ‘accepted’, to feel that they count, and ‘belong’ to a group, makes teenagers easy prey for extremist groups. Such groups offer young people a conduit through which to release the rage they can experience at this vulnerable period in their development, as well as a means of expressing typical feelings of injustice and frustration. These tendencies are exacerbated by a distinct scarcity of inspirational role models in today’s world. Instead, our youth are confronted with a daily diet of corrupt politicians, fallen idols, the banalisation of violence and a basic lack of respect at every level. Such trends are further fuelled by growing elitism, social disparities, and the glorification of wealth and quick profit over all else. As we move into a global recession, the social divide will grow.
More than ever before, young people are:
searching for answers to questions about identity, faith and belonging.
driven by a craving for 'adventure' and excitement as well as a constant desire to enhance their self-esteem and 'street credibility'.
drawn to groups or individuals who seem to offer identity, social networks and support.
Adversely influenced by world events, resulting in a sense of grievance and a consequent striving to ‘make a difference’.
Young people searching for their places in society, often latch onto ideologies without fully comprehending their underlying philosophies or ramifications. The emergence of mass media and social media has made it possible to spread ideas, valid or otherwise, on a very large scale. Violent extremist movements exploit the power of modern communications to spread their beliefs, notably by cleverly infiltrating computer and smartphone apps aimed at young people. Whether they are ideologically on the far right, far left, or root themselves in religious or other ideologies, they tend to convey a one-dimensional, overly simplistic message uncluttered by any elements of doubt and which employs compelling slogans and narratives to attract and indoctrinate followers to the given cause. Certain of these groups have tremendous resources at their disposal and are masters of manipulation. Their roots are wide and varied, catering for all kinds of beliefs and needs.
Whilst, it must be conceded that a number of key social evolutions may not have been achieved without a degree of single-minded activism - even on occasions extremism - resort to violence has not tended to be a prominent feature of such movements in the past, or as omnipresent as it appears to be today. When people, especially youth, are induced into black and white thinking, tolerance, acceptance and respect for diversity – as well as, too often, the young people themselves - are sacrificed on the altar of violent extremism.
What can we do about it? How can we act?
We at the Arete Academy Geneva (www.areteacademy.ch) suggest and address three key strategies:
1. Community Prevention Programmes
Violent extremism constitutes a clear and present threat to all communities precisely because activist groups aim to damage community relations and provoke division. Community programmes that focus on those segments of the population that are most likely to be attracted to violence (e.g. people who convert to another religion) should, therefore, be accorded maximum priority.
To be successful, programmes offered to young people must focus on positive development of identity and appropriate integration into social tissue – parents, families, peers and community – as well as the overall promotion of social cohesion and stability; safe and socially inclusive environments, and the provision of viable learning and development opportunities.
2. Empowerment of Youth at policy level
As mobilising and engaging youth is key to curbing violent extremism, there is a clear need to involve young people more directly and dynamically in developing and implementing appropriate prevention programmes and policies. This dimension has also been highlighted by a recent report of the United Nations Development Programme. And yet, youth programmes and initiatives – perhaps ironically because they are instigated by young people - are still too often deprived of the support, coordination and resources needed to scale their activities up to make a lasting and meaningful impact. This dilemma needs to be addressed urgently at the highest level and calls for a more visionary attitude on the part of those responsible for the allocation of funding.
3. Life skills training, i.e. soft skills education
Training programmes - such as those offered by the Arete Academy Geneva (www.areteacademy.ch) to complement the standard school curricula - will play a crucial role in instilling core skills such as mediation, self-development, ethics and leadership. These programmes are especially important for those students undergoing a period of vulnerability or are in danger of dropping out of school, helping them to acquire competences to better communicate and deal with conflict, and thereby overcome marginalisation. In short, these vital core skills will accompany and serve them throughout their lives, helping them build successful professional and personal futures as they grow into adults.
The Arete Academy is committed to ethical and socially responsible leadership, respectful communication and peaceful conflict resolution. Through our programmes and courses offering customised, needs-based, soft-skills training, we listen to you, we understand your challenges and help you find appropriate solutions.