What would you do if someone you know started spouting extremist beliefs? What if you heard them expressing more and more radical political or religious positions? They might not necessarily be advocating violence, or downloading bomb-making instructions onto their smartphone, but what if you thought they might be taking steps down that path (or encouraging others to do so)?
Do you talk to them? Should you tell a teacher or somebody in authority? Should you argue with them, or should you cut them off and ignore them? If they are inciting violence, then the answer might seem obvious – but what if they are just pushing the boundaries? And how do you decide which beliefs are ‘extremist’?
Roughly 5,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria are European citizens. Most of them are in their twenties, and 3 out of 4 were encouraged to join violent extremist groups by their friends and peers. Sociologists argue that young people indoctrinated into extremist beliefs are often motivated by more than just ideology; other factors, such as belonging to a friendship group, are sometimes more important.
Want to learn more about some of the measures being taken to prevent the radicalisation of young Europeans? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger version):
Is there anything young people themselves can do to stop radicalisation among their peers? To get a response, we spoke to Professor Lynn Davies from the Centre for International Education and Research (CIER) at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Professor Davies has written numerous books and articles about education and extremism, and works with young people to counter violent radicalisation in the classroom.
Professor Davies argues that young people should be encouraged to talk about extremist attitudes, and should develop the skills to debate and argue with these positions:
I think young people can play a part in countering extremism. It’s always going to be small-scale, but the training that we’re doing with young people is training in debating, argument, discussion, and developing a voice in the community and their school. And, very swiftly I think you can enable young people to have a voice, to state it, and to work for non-violent change.
So, it’s having the skills to campaign in a non-violent way to think about the changes that you want to make in your community. That way you’re enabling young people to meet those challenges. You can do that directly, or indirectly. There is some interesting work with young people making films about propaganda, for example. Or, as another example, we’ve been interviewing former extremists and making films about their experiences…
We had a comment sent in from Fernanda, arguing that young people can often feel trapped between two worlds. He experience is as a Portuguese child growing up in France, and she said there was a deep conflict between the values she learned from her family and the values she learned from school. The values she learned from school weren’t accepted at home, and her family values weren’t accepted at school, so she struggled to reconcile the two.
Is there an answer for how to help children caught between these competing systems of values, for example the values of their peers and the values they are taught by the society in which they live?
Fernanda, I would say this is such an important area, and schools can do things. This is very common, not just in your experience, but across areas of migration, immigration, young people coming into a country and being, as you said, caught between two or more sets of values. The sort of work that I’m interested in is what’s called ‘value complexity’, and that’s working with young people to understand alternative values. You start with a controversial topic, and you discuss all the different value positions you could take around that, so that young people, and teachers and schools, are aware that there’s always more than one way of looking at something.
You need to put that with some sort of basis. It’s not about saying that all values are equally good and you just have to accept everything. That’s not helpful. But if you use something like a human rights base, then you can decide when it’s important to stick to a particular value and when it’s not, when you can simply agree to differ, accept diversity, accept different views. But she must accept there are a range of values, and decide what needs upholding, and what is okay to be changed.
Finally, we had a comment sent in from LG, arguing that the best way to prevent religious extremism in particular is to stop sending children to religious schools at a very early age. Should religious schools be banned?
It’s a very difficult one. My view is that, in a plural society we probably have to permit religious schools but they should not be funded by the state… I do agree that segregated religious schools are one of the barriers to inclusion and integration. I think that religious schools, if they are permitted to exist, should be very, very closely monitored, scrutinised, and inspected, to ensure that the curriculum that’s in those schools is open, enabling a multiplicity of world-views and an appreciation of other religions and of secularism.
My great worry about some religious schools is that they don’t understand the need for a secular government, and they think equate secularism with atheism, and believe it is something to be ruled out. But I don’t think you can ban religious schools… They’re going to be there, but I think it’s about monitoring them and working with teachers to make them as open and flexible as you can make them.
What should young people do if their friends express extremist beliefs? Is there anything young people themselves can do to stop radicalisation among their peer groups? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!