Arab Youth Between the Hope of the Renaissance and Failure: Critical Thoughts on Confronting Extremism
For the last few years, we have witnessed how the MENA region has been going through extreme times of polarization and the radicalization of young men – but increasingly young women. Although the so called Islamic State (ISIS) is defeated in Iraq and Syria, the environment that led to the spread of their ideology is still surviving. The grievances that set the ground for radicalization processes are still prevalent. The root causes and enabling conditions are rampant.
Now that ISIS lost territorial control, their strategies are shifting as they return home. Therefore, international and regional efforts to prevent youth radicalization in the MENA must continue to actively engage and promote a multidimensional understanding of radicalization processes that can help us create impactful initiatives, without demonizing youth or perpetuating stereotypes. As one of the youth activist said, “No one is born violent. It’s the society and corrupt systems that creates violent youth.”
A post-ISIS phase is critical for the international community to further strengthen their Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) agenda anchored in the complex reality, as well as the human rights values of respect, solidarity, and justice. With this in mind, the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development - ARDD’s regional youth initiative aims to explore and invest in long-term measures to build young people’s resilience and abilities to resist extremism and violence, while highlighting the role of culture and arts in challenging and disrupting radicalization processes.
The youth we met use arts, critical thinking, and creativity in various ways: to condemn extremism and discrimination; to highlight connections between identity crisis and injustice; between local, regional, and global struggles; between state violence and humiliation, and more. ARDD considers young people as vital allies and equal partners in promoting social and political change. They take on the difficult fights, reaching out to those stuck in the margins. Youth help us challenge the predominance of singular narratives and one-dimensional interpretations of radicalization.
Our conversations with youth groups and organizations in the MENA region and France have informed us about the interrelated and pressing issues they confront - from humiliation, excessive police violence, how they are seen as the “other,” crises of identity and belonging, to the limited access to cultural and artistic spaces that deflates their hopes.
Art, Culture, Identity in the Fight against Extremism:
Ideas of the real-life experience of the youth:
Our conversations with youth groups and organizations in the MENA region and France have informed us about the interrelated and pressing issues they confront. Below is a brief selection of their powerful responses on why young people are radicalized and why arts and culture matter. Below is a brief selection of responses showing how they use the art, culture, and identity fight extremism.
Tunisia - using cultural heritage and identity to fight extremism
“ISIS provides a false sense of power to youth who had negative experience with the state and the police. ISIS is a place where youth feel they can regain their dignity, and can fight back state power and police which both have played a role in abusing and/or ignoring their rights. This has created a deep feeling of resentment amongst the youth in Tunisia and across the region.”
“The country is back to its pre-revolution state. We want to give youth hope and opportunity to fight for their rights by demanding for accountability and justice. We want to revive the revolutionary spirit. To let youth know they can still demand change. When young people watch their parliament pass an amnesty law for officials accused of corruption, they became more vulnerable towards extremism. That’s the green light ISIS needs to recruit more youth.”
“Our cultural heritage and diverse history promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence. We must revive both to challenge violent radicalization and hate. Our culture is aligned with life, while ISIS ideology propagates death and intolerance.”
Libya - art and culture as a safe space for the youth
“The first step in confronting youth radicalization is to give young people the space to express their ideas and needs, and to treat them as partners not beneficiaries. Access to arts and culture are fundamental rights that could be used to unleash youth energy, creativity, and ideas. Art and culture should be in-line with their vision, aspirations, dreams, and concerns. It should not be a one-time project. We need consistent spaces for young people to make their voices heard. That’s why youth join ISIS, they just want to be heard. Today more than any time before we need artistic movements and programs where youth can freely express themselves.”
France - the role of local authorities in strengthening a sense of belonging
“The youth of the banlieues (suburbs) in France, most of whom are working class of North African and sub-Saharan African origin are constantly subjected to humiliation, they are either invisible and marginalized by the state, or criminalized. They’re radicalized as a response to their social exclusion and discrimination.“
“Culture and creative spaces help youth embrace their multiple identifies and struggles. Through culture and their own history, we build their confidence in addressing their multiple identities. Our approach is to promote values that promotes diversity, coexistence, equity, and social justice to all. Culture help youth transform negative frustrations. For example, youth who were subjected to police violence or humiliated by the police, can be trained on their legal rights. They can be transformed to positive activists fighting all forms of violence in a non-violent and constructive way.”
Jordan - elaborating cultural work to reach vulnerable youths
“Youth are struggling with constant aggressions against their rights and civil liberties. In these moments, we turn to art, civic engagement, and culture, they are political tools that can help youth know their rights, and feel less vulnerable. Arts and music shake youth “mentality” and helps them resists all forms of violence. Through arts and cultures youth learn to tackle violent experiences, isolation, and humiliation, in a non-violent way.”
“No one wants to join an extremist group or cross the Mediterranean Sea unless they ran out of options. Like ISIS, Europe represents a dream for youth. A way out from their misery. Arts and culture can help youth resist these bleak routes. Art celebrates life, helps them value themselves, and think of positive ways to transform their disappointments and feelings of hopelessness.”
“ISIS targets heritage sites and monuments as a way to further isolate youth from their identity and history. We must fight back by reviving and highlighting our powerful heritage, literature, and how our diverse culture promotes dialogue, understanding, and universal values.”