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We need to prevent young people being radicalised by extremists

This opinion piece is over 7 years old

Sarah Robinson Galloway of YouthLink Scotland on the roots of extremism in young people and sharing good practice.

What are your immediate thoughts upon hearing the words extremism and radicalisation? Are you thinking of Islamic extremism and terrorism? What about far-right extremist parties and organisations? Neo-Nazis, fascism, ISIS? They all seem such big complicated topics to consider in isolation, let alone as a whole. For many of us they are far from our everyday lives.

I recently attended an Erasmus+course in Sofia, Bulgaria on understanding and tackling extremism and radicalisation. I was one of 22 participants from countries across Europe including the UK, Austria, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Lithuania, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland and Bulgaria. The main aims of the course were to support participants to identify and understand the causes of extremism; improve their knowledge of the processes of radicalisation; equip participants with the ability to identify those most at risk and the tools to respond; and to provide opportunities to share good practice initiatives to challenge youth extremism.

Sarah Robinson Galloway

It doesn’t matter what form of extremism a young person is moving towards, youth workers are in a position to help them find a different path to address the issues they see before them

Sarah Robinson Galloway

It achieved all of these aims and, for me, much more. My eyes have been opened to the different forms extremism can unfortunately take in our world today. From the extremist acts that seem to fill our news feeds, to the extreme views and acts that are expressed following the reports of the former. They seem to be a never-ending cycle and are difficult to get away from. But what can we do about it? How do we support young people at risk to take a positive path?

The UK government defines radicalisation within the context of its Prevent Strategy as “the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and extremist ideologies associated with terrorist groups.”

But how do young people get involved in this process? Recent research suggests that people search for identity, meaning and community, especially in a culture which they may find alienating. Facing apparent or real discrimination and socio-economic disadvantage can lead an individual to find a ‘value system’, community or just cause in terrorism (Dalgaard-Nielson, 2010). Draws include the feeling of security provided by a particular group; a feeling of protecting their family or community; having a sense of purpose; revenge if something specific has happened; or simply looking for a ‘buzz’, thrill-seeking.

When we discussed this at the training, the theme that came out most was that extremists spoke to the fears and anger of people they try to radicalise. Personalising the issues and sending out a message of understanding and support to them, making it sound like only they understand what that individual is going through. The conversations contain reassurance, offer support and put them in touch with other ‘like-minded’ people.

As a group of practitioners working in youth work, the participants all had experiences and good practice to share and the course supported our discussion around them. We were also equipped with a number of tools to identify and understand the processes of radicalisation, and how to recognise and respond to this in young people.

The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalisation Leading to Violence (CPRLV) states that there is no one profile that fits all radicalised people but they have identified a number of behaviours that can be associated with the process of radicalisation. These have been put into a barometer which includes insignificant, troubling, worrisome and alarming behaviours briefly described below:

Insignificant behaviour: characterised by peaceful actions and democratic expression
Troubling behaviour: self-identification with a cause or ideology leading to a significant change in behaviour
Worrisome behaviour: acute mistrust of the outside world and views legitimising the use of violence
Alarming behaviour: exclusive allegiance to an ideology or cause leading to the perception of violence as the only legitimate means of action. (CPRFV, 2016)

So if these are behaviours to look out for, how do we then go on to address them? There was agreement that keeping communication channels open is significantly important. Making sure that young people know who they can talk to and trust is key. Do not judge, do not tell them everything they are doing wrong – listen. Hear their thoughts, opinions and their arguments, and respond with understanding and openness. It is a difficult topic to discuss and so easy to further alienate young people but it is so important that we are brave enough to have these conversations.

In the training the conversations kept coming back to Islamic extremism and radicalisation but we need to remember that one of the biggest issues we face in the UK is also right-wing extremism. It doesn’t matter what form of extremism a young person is moving towards, youth workers are in a position to help them find a different path to address the issues they see before them. Whether it is volunteering with a charity, raising awareness, making a positive difference at home, it is the job of the youth worker, or other trusted individual, to showcase these options.

There is no one size fits all for this, but by keeping conversations open and not judging someone for their opinions we can help young people to address the issues they are passionate about in positive ways.

The training gave me all of this knowledge and it also gave me a passion to learn more about how we can support young people and build a more tolerant, peaceful society. The week was intense and the discussions were inspiring, and as a group of people who had previously never met we left Sofia as friends and colleagues with the determination to make more of a difference. We have built relationships and potential partnerships and I would just like to end by saying thank you to our trainers and to my fellow participants. I now know that there are people across Europe who want to build a world where we understand each other, acknowledging and respecting our differences and where violence is just not an option. I hope that together we can achieve this.

Sarah Robinson Galloway is digital development and participation officer at YouthLink Scotland.