Open Democracy

It will be important to empower young people, to train them to exercise critical thought, and to make them conscious of the importance of their participation in society. A call to civil society.  Omezzine Khelifa

Salafist youth clash with police in Sousse, March, 2013.Demotix/Reporter #31359. All rights reserved.Over the last few months, international news has resounded with horror stories, each more terrible than the last: the killing of tourists at the Bardo National Museum, the assassination of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the tragic hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket in Paris, the massacres of Nigerians by the bloodthirsty groups of Boko Haram, the atrocities committed by Daech in Syria and in Iraq…  

The enormous number of murders, decapitations, rapes and other horrors that are committed in the name of Jihad* furnish proof that violent extremism and the radicalization of young people is a plague threatening the stability of the nations in our modern world.

Tunisia took its first democratic steps in a shaky national and international security context.  Since the start of the conflict in Syria, it is estimated that more than 3000 young Tunisians have joined the ranks of the terrorist organization ‘Daech’.  Many others (the exact number is not known) have joined the radical movement of Ansar Chariaa, a group that was declared a terrorist organization by the head of the Tunisian government in August 2013.  Since the attack on the Bardo National Museum, links have been established between this organization and Katibat Okba Ibn Nafaa, (the phalanx of AQMI in Algeria and Tunisia). But very little information has been released about the actual number of young Tunisians who have joined these.

The state responds to terrorist threats by breaking up the active cells on its national soil.  The international community organizes itself to combat armed salafist* groups where they are found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  All these safety and military measures are taken in order to combat the violent extremism that can in turn lead to terrorism.

However, one question remains, if we want to understand terrorism and to eradicate it in the long-term: why does a young person become a violent extremist? 

What are the reasons that push someone to leave their family – and often their country – in order to go and join the ranks of an armed group listed as a terrorist organization, all at their peril?  The same question could be asked in a different manner: what is it that makes a young person vulnerable to the discourse of hatred and death, and blind even to the point of enrolling themselves into the atrocities committed by a terrorist organization?

To respond to such questions, one must return to the conditions of terrorist action, upstream of the radicalization of young people who bulk out the ranks of terrorist organizations 

In effect, if we can say that every radical* person is not a terrorist to-be, we must also say that every terrorist was obviously radicalized before undertaking the violent act. 

Therefore, in parallel to security and military action, it is vital to combat terrorism at its roots by preventing the radicalization of young people.  In order to do so, we must have an excellent knowledge of the conditions favorable to radicalization, and we must understand the way these conditions are composed in order to effectively reflect on the actions to be taken to eradicate it. 

Over the course of our research and talks, it has become apparent to us that there are many different profiles of young people likely to be receptive to the discourse of violent extremism, and also that their radicalization is not always directly linked to their economic situation. 

These young people can come from fortunate backgrounds, from the middle class, but can equally come from poorer backgrounds.  At the beginning they share the feelings of injustice, frustration, and anger. They are overwhelmed by the desire to change something in their daily lives, but do not know how to begin, let alone how to achieve this desire. Overriding this, they feel a vital need to find answers to existential questions, to find the sense and meaning of their lives. 

The young people we are talking about are generally educated: some are only literate, whilst others have had access to higher education, but importantly all can read (though this does not necessarily mean that they are capable of digesting what they are reading). They are connected to the world via the Internet, and it is this multimedia support alongside social networking that contributes to their indoctrination. If we want to categorize complex profiles in a simple manner, we can divide them into two groups: idealists and pragmatists. 

The idealists

The idealistic young people are those who are sensitive to the injustices that they see around them and across the world.  Like many young people of their age in the pursuit of an ideal, they can forget their own situation and identify instead with the cause of the Palestinians or of the Syrians, for example, because they consider themselves to be a part of the same Islamic community or oppressed Ummah*. 

Politically, in North Africa and in the Middle East for example, they have not been brought up in a democracy, and taught either about citizenship or about acceptance of the other.  They have grown up in an environment in which critical minds and originality are not encouraged and are in fact suppressed whenever demonstrated. 

In western countries young people grow up in a democracy, but feel excluded because they are not integrated effectively.  In real terms they are not seen as worthy of being treated as fully-fledged citizens. The pluralist environment and the freedom of expression does not concern them directly because they often do not believe in the usefulness of being active in a political party, or of organizing themselves in an association or a trade union in an effort to change things.  In this way, they feel that the current system does not concern them and therefore they have no confidence in any institution. 

Terrorist organizations know how to exacerbate and crystalize these young idealists’ needs for engagement as well as their need for solidarity, their need to belong to a unified group. The leaders of these organizations know how to manipulate them by making them believe that they are fighting for a just cause, one that requires courage and abnegation. In the same way, they know how to transform frustration and anger into hatred.  From there, the path to a violent act is only a matter of time.

The pragmatists

For their part, the pragmatic young people divide into two profiles: those who have a material need and those who have a need for recognition and power.  In effect, an organization like ‘Daech’ facilitates all this: it nourishes, dresses, lodges, heals, and pays its recruits.  By filling in for the welfare state, it becomes a concrete escape route for the poorest to rise out of poverty.  Simultaneously, it knows how to use and distribute effectively the abilities present within its ranks, thereby ensuring the smooth running of its structures.  Equally, it knows how to reward and promote its most loyal and disciplined soldiers.

Finally, terrorist organizations are able to manipulate these young people by raising a global response to each and every problem they face in their daily lives.  Economics clearly play a role but there is a whole political, social and cultural environment that must also be taken into account.  It is social exclusion and the disconnection from life’s simple pleasures that forces vulnerable and receptive young people to become attracted to radical discourse and violent extremism.

In light of this, how can we ensure that young people do not become radicalized?  What solutions can each among us come up with in order to ensure that these young people become more included in society, become happier, and are able to blossom in the same way as any other young person?

These are the questions that we musk ask in a comprehensive manner, but each solution must be brought forward locally and in a manner that is specific to the context of the society which we are focusing on.

Tangible hope in the short term

Unlike its neighbours, Tunisia is a nascent democracy with a realistic hope of seeing the universal values which are inscribed in the Tunisian constitution put into practice, a hope of having real opportunities to face up to the real problems across the country.  These economic, social, and cultural challenges require everyone and everything to make an effort to raise the country – and above all its young population – from the slump in which it finds itself. 

The role of the new government is crucial: reforms in all sectors and on all levels are essential in order to repair the failures of our system – most importantly in the spheres of education, healthcare, finance, security, justice – and to reestablish the citizens’ confidence in state institutions. 

But even if these reforms are initiated quickly, they will take some time to become concrete and they will certainly take some time to touch the priority sectors for youth development: culture, arts, and sport. 

In the short term, it is civil society that should occupy the areas forsaken by the policies of the state regarding culture and sports.  It is civil society that will be required to socially and economically include children and young people who live in these areas.  Civil society must swim upstream in order that young people might not be excluded from society, and downstream in order that young people can rejoin it, by creating cultural, artistic, and sports activities that might interest them. 

It is important that associations are able to give to young people a taste for life, to give them hope for their futures with an attractive alternative – a just cause to defend – far from the incitement to hatred or the rhetoric of death that is celebrated by terrorist organizations. 

We must give adolescents and young people advantages in life in order that they may become creative and innovative, in order that they may foster great capacities for distinction and analysis so that they can in turn construct positive personal objectives.  At the same time, education has a crucial role to play since it represents a rampart against obscurantism.  It will be necessary to teach Tunisia’s history in a different manner as well as that of Islam, to ensure that there are no spiritual voids or historical gaps which recruitment professionals could exploit.  The objective should be to train young people to exercise critical thought, to become resistant to brainwashing and any attempt at manipulation by allowing them to discover other aspects of life outside of their family circle and social group.  It will be important to empower them and to make them conscious of the importance of their participation in society. 

Next, it is necessary that organizations offering apprenticeships and professional training – as well as employer organizations – become involved and offer opportunities to young people nearing the age of professional integration, opportunities that exceed the assets and aspirations of these young people. 

In effect, having contributed to their insertion into the community, it will be a question of pushing them to find their path and to direct themselves in their choices of training and occupation.  Thanks to mentoring programs, work-placements, paid apprenticeships and paid professional training programs that will in the end lead to employment, the private sector will profit from helping young people to acquire the necessary attributes to fulfil its needs.  In the end, these young people should be capable of integrating themselves into the world of work, or of creating their own work should they be unable to find an occupation that suits them.

To conclude, it is up to civil society, to educators, to the private sector and to everyone among us to supervise and guide children, adolescents, and young adults. That is until the state takes up its role as protector, educator, and first point of responsibility for the blooming of its youth.

Exclusion from society and the disconnection from life’s simple pleasures go a long way in explaining why young people become radicalized, but every society must look into its own context in order to explain and understand this exclusion and this isolation. 

It is vital that each society should understand the causes of the vulnerability of its young population, and vital that each society should begin without hesitation to undertake positive actions to help these young people to blossom into worthy citizens.

Definition of terms used in this article:

*Jihad: Personal responsibility to attain moral or religious perfection.

*Radical: someone who presents an absolute, total, or definitive character

*Ummah: The Muslim community, the ensemble of Muslims across the world. (This notion marks the surpassing of tribal, ethnic, or national belonging by the idea of religious belonging)

Thanks for translation from the French to Asher Korner.