Why do some vulnerable children become radicalized, while most others do not?

Posted on May 19, 2015 in Child & Family Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
May 19, 2015.   Michael Ungar and Amarnath Amarasingam

The criminal radicalization of Canadian youth affects us all. It is not a challenge confined to Muslim communities; though too often, it is Muslim communities that endure the most pressure and blame. Many in the community have been at a loss about how to adequately address the issue, and put it in proper context, doing their best to limit generalizations about their communities, which may further marginalize their youth. Leading up to the recent passage of Bill C-51, these conversations were once again at the forefront.

We know that youth, from all kinds of communities and backgrounds, radicalize because they feel their behaviour is effective. But, what we don’t study nearly enough are the factors that discourage youth from violence, especially when they live beside radicalized peers. Even fewer people talk to youth, families and communities about what they think is working to prevent youth criminal radicalization. And, our research suggests that this is what will lead us to solutions that work.

Dalhousie University’s Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts (CYCC) Network recently hosted an event in Calgary that brought together community and religious leaders, youth workers, law enforcement officials and government representatives from across Canada. Together, we looked at simple community-based solutions for a problem that big government agencies have yet to solve. Rather than scrutinizing the handful of youth who have become radicalized, we looked at the resilience of youth who choose a peaceful path.

Resilience research suggests that when youth have other ways of accessing the benefits that they get through political violence, they will choose the more adaptive strategies. As researchers, our challenge is to better understand the protective processes that help youth avoid violence. To do this, we need to collaborate with youth. We need to study how they find non-violent ways to have a political voice and fight for what they believe in.

What we’re learning is that the things that facilitate resilience are quite common. And, that this is not a time for randomized control trials but a time for gathering the stories of organizations and individuals who have found ways to mitigate the factors that prevent violent radicalization in youth.

Amongst dozens of promising practices that we discussed in Calgary, three themes for success emerged: the power of youth engagement, the need for mentorship, and the effective use of the online world.

For example, the Reclaim Honour Project, based in London, Ont., has engaged young people to prevent violence against Muslim women and girls. Many others spoke to the power that engagement has on reducing the feelings of isolation that new immigrant youth feel when they are stuck between their parents’ culture and the culture of their peers. When we prevent violence towards young people, we break the cycle of violence that leads to radicalization and their need to fight back.

Youth who are vulnerable to radicalization also benefit from mentorship and strong role models in an era of shifting family structures. Calgary Police Service’s Youth at Risk Development Program (YARD), a community-based initiative that addresses gang involvement through early intervention with youth aged 10-17, showed what can be done when we provide mentors for new immigrant youth. Rather than exclusion, we can build bridges to inclusion for young people and give them the opportunity to connect with someone with the power to open doors into their communities.

UQAM also provided tangible examples of how social media can encourage ethical reporting on young people’s experiences of violence

Likewise, although the online world is often seen as a place where youth connect to radical thinking, organizations like the Ottawa-based MuslimLink are demonstrating how it can help spiritual leaders and caring adults connect with youth who might otherwise be pushed to the margins of their communities. Participants from the Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM) showed how social media campaigns can unite youth and help them responsibly develop their own voice, discouraging them from turning to violence. UQAM also provided tangible examples of how social media can encourage ethical reporting on young people’s experiences of violence.

More than anything, what we learned in Calgary was that the way we talk about youth radicalization must change. As scholars have known for a long time, the “sample size” for studies in radicalization will always be small. Because of this, we need to look elsewhere to understand how communities can protect young people from the pull towards violence.

If we are going to prevent criminal radicalization, we cannot rely solely on better policing, increased surveillance, and more restrictive laws. We will do better when we turn to community activists, youth workers, leaders in our communities, and, most importantly, youth themselves for direction on where to focus our prevention efforts.

Michael Ungar is the founder and co-director of the Resilience Research Centre, and Scientific Director of the Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts (CYCC) Network. Amarnath Amarasingam is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University.

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