Radicalization processes leading to violent extremism have clearly been in progress throughout Europe for several years and have particularly affected young people between the ages of 13 and 30. Even if radicalism has always existed, today it asserts itself in our youth in the form of political, nationalist or religious radicalization. This latter form in particular marks the spirits, especially the one related to Islam as it has been embodied in recent events by the spurge of jihadism:

  • The wave of attacks on European countries (France, Spain, Belgium, England) since 1995 and to the present day has represented a trauma, establishing a permanent state of alert in these countries since 2015.
  • The commitment of young radicalized Europeans who turn their violence and acts of destruction against their own country.
  • The departure of young Europeans to fight for jihad, mostly to Syria, with 2013 being the peak year.

European citizens have witnessed with stupor the phenomena of religious radicalization at a moment when Europe was rather tending to secularity. The return to religion, or the recourse to the religious in its violent expression has shattered people. As a phenomenon that mostly targets the youth, youth stakeholders, social workers, social-cultural animators, volunteers in associations and trainers are the first concerned by this tendency.

Before 2013,  the phenomena has involved mainly young people of second or third generation of immigrants, socialized in ghettoized urban neighborhoods, faced with high unemployment rates and with small and medium delinquent misdemeanour. From 2013 on, middle-class boys and girls converted to Islam start getting involved in this modern-time jihad.

How to understand these forms of religious radicalization in youth ? How to conceive prevention so as to hamper commitments that lead to violent actions contrary to the values ​​of living together and democracy? How to support youth workers in their prevention missions towards young people and their families?

Youth: a transition period which means abandoning the known security of childhood and prepare for an adult state that needs to be invented.

The challenge of the youth is to being oneself, to defining oneself as unique and singular while, by the same token, satisfying a sense of belonging, a need of affiliation. The identity questions are multiple and affect every aspect of psychology: relationship with one’s body and sexuality, relationship to one’s own finiteness and the anxiety of death. This passage into adolescence gives rise to several needs:

  • Need for ideals that give a meaning to life
  • Need for recognition
  • Need for affiliation and belonging
  • Need for self-affirmation
  • Need to put forward one’s body, by achieving some high risk behaviours, such as, in the case of violent extremism, the ‘final act’

History has repeatedly shown us, including in modern-time terrorism (post-Second World War), that youth is an age where the search for the ideal  can drive to stronger commitment and give the impulse to violent expressions.

Even if the young person has to build him-/her-self by detaching him-/her-self from early attachments, he/she is nonetheless vulnerable to the propaganda discourses developed to answer the teenager’s existential fears and needs described above!

In France, religious conversion and in particular commitment to Islam appears in the biography of some young people either with an immigration background or not, in the case of young converts. That characteristic is defined by the belief in an eternal life, respect for religious rites which gives rhythm to the everyday’s life, a belief in the rules which define the good and the evil, the licit and the illicit, the determination of gender roles, rules on how to dress and behave. This religious framework can bring appeasement to young people while offering them an ideal, giving a sense to their life.

These young converts engage in rigorous Islam and are anxious to respect faithfully the precepts of the Koran. Only a few will turn to violent radical postures. 
The religious commitment may constitute a lever for the identity construction of the young person but it can also be transformed into violent drift. How to prevent these risks?

Young people and society

Historically, the youth has been perceived by adults as different, disturbing, heralding a decline of traditional values ​​upon which the current system rely. As to young people, they cry out for emancipation, desire to change the world, for their quest for an ideal. Having grown up in another context than their elders, these young people can’t have the same behaviors, the same projects, the same desires as them. They are looking for new ideas, new ways of acting.

The world acceleration and the rise of new information and communication technologies propel young people into spheres where borders are disappearing, and where time frames get reduced. Everything is instantly available! Conventional communication networks, like television or newspapers are supplanted by other sources of information. It depends on the young person to sort out the information he/she receives. The proposals are many and of all kinds. The youngster will often privilege the Buzz, which most probably works as a link between himself/herself and his/her peers, but also strengthens his/her search for identity.

To oppose the political system and State institutions is a direction taken by many young people. For some of them, mistrust becomes a keyword. It is nurtured by propaganda messages conveyed in the close circle of the youngster as well as in social networks.

The message is as clear as confusing : the power is corrupted and does no longer fit the values of equity preached by democracy. Others, driven by feelings of discrimination, of exclusion from the system, direct their hate towards the State and all that is embodied by it.

The rejection and mistrust of the power in place leads young people to alternative ideals. Which ones? There is the one advocated by political extremes, in particular in Europe the extreme right attracts many people. Moreover, the collapse of Marxism and movements of far left has left a free space to seize. Therefore religion and more particularly Islam today, can answer this double need for ideal and commitment, by professing the break up with the capitalist system.

What do our society and our adult world offer?

The adult world offers young people very few positive perspectives on their future. It depicts them a world of decline and despair and leaves no room for imagination. Another discourse is needed, more open and brighter than the current one.

Young people need to be recognised, their voice needs to be heard and more free spaces of expression and decision making should be open to them.

In consequence, there is a double recognition to be achieved: the recognition of the young people by the civil society and the recognition of the civil society by the youth.

Within the framework of YARIM, the European partners of the project believe in the virtues of an education that combines realism, optimism and critical thinking. As Marie-Rose MORO (French child psychiatrist) explains it : “It is by acting on their own that teenagers internalize the idea that they have and that they will have a place in the world whereas by building up collective projects, they find, in them, the capacities to find solutions”.

Youth, is the age of ideals, needs of commitment, and acting. Adults, and in particular youth workers, have a mission of prevention to avoid the risks of breaking up with the democratic values ​​of European countries. They must help young people believe in themselves and promote their skills and abilities. More than ever, they must not hesitate to approach young people with the issues that animate them, even those related to the private sphere, in particular, religion.

The necessity to engage the dialogue on religious commitment in dual as well as in collective relation if fundamental to not leave the young person in the grip of propaganda, but encourage exchange reflection and critical thinking.

The understand of the elements that may push young people to make extreme choices is also essential in order to provide them better alternatives.

To carry out that mission, the speaker needs the knowledge, tools, the sharing of experience and a thorough analysis of practices.

  • Give young people a voice instead of locking them into an erroneous adult speech and distant from their realities, so that they give us their view of the world and their life
  • Create the dialogue or reconnect it between young people and civil society
  • Promote the exchange, the reflection, the critical mind on questions about religion, concerning the citizenship…
  • Promote young people’s power of action

Within the framework of YARIM, the European partners of the project believe in the virtues of an education that combines realism, optimism and critical thinking.