Network for Youth in Transition


In April 2015, Scott Atran addressed the UN Security Council with some of his own insights from social science research. Atran outlined a few conditions that may help move youth from taking the path of violent extremism, but first he explains the motivations for joining violent extremism. The above video is Atran's address to the UN Security Council. 

Atran is an anthropologist that specializes in researching how to reduce violence among peoples by trying to understand thoughts and behaviors. 

Atran has spent much time observing and interviewing ISIS fighters and sympathizers as well as others who desire violent action for a cause. These include a wide spectrum of peoples; Europeans from Barcelona to France, various people from the Muslim diaspora, and also ISIS fighters.

Speaking about the Iraqi interviewee's, Atran explains why youth take violent action. One must understand the context these youth grew up in and live in. Youth living in a time and place of hellish turmoil; Sadam Hussein’s fall, war, violence, instability etc. have made conditions ripe for ISIS propaganda to resonate.

In Europe, youth who join ISIS or al-Qaeda have different circumstances then the turmoil of those in Iraq. In Europe "“3 out of 4 people who join Al Qaeda or ISIS do so through friends, most of the rest through family or fellow travelers in search of a meaningful path in life”

It is a misconception to assume the youth that join extremists groups are psychologically marginal. “supporters fall within the mid-ranges of what social scientists call “the normal distribution” in terms of psychological attributes like empathy, compassion, idealism, and wanting mostly to help rather than hurt other people”. 

The youth are often in a stage of transition in their lives: “students, immigrants, between jobs or mates, having left or about to leave their native family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travelers with whom they can find significance”.

European sympathizers are more common than you might think. “1 in 4 French youth have a favorable attitude towards ISIS” And some research from Barcelona shows that of the ISIS supporters that were captured, 5 out of 11 converted from either Christianity or atheism.

Implying that the scope of ISIS propaganda is far larger than one might initially expect, and that we can’t just narrowly blame Islam, or say that people are “evil” or “crazy” to join ISIS. Youth are joining ISIS with grievances that may not be related solely to religion, but rather to more universally shared grievances among youth (i.e. yearning for belonging, transition stage of life etc.) We must focus on these universally shared grievances that we, as humans, can all relate too. People don’t necessarily join ISIS to wage war on the West, but rather they join to find themselves. They are searching for identity affirmation. Searching for meaning in a world that has left them excluded and confused.

So what can be done? What are youth's role? Atran proposes 3 conditions: 

1.) “The first condition: offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship”.

  • ISIS is filling this gap to many, and it is why it is often effective in recruitment.
  • “When I hear another tired appeal to ‘moderate Islam,’ usually from much older folk, I ask: Are you kidding? Don’t any of you have teenage children? When did ‘moderate’ anything have wide appeal for youth yearning for adventure, glory, and significance?”
  • Material rewards may not be strong enough incentives to deter youth. We need to appeal to youth’s dreams and desires.

2.) "“The second condition: offer youth a positive personal dream, with a concrete chance of realization.”

  • “The appeal of Al Qaeda or ISIS is not about jihadi websites, which are mostly blather and bombast, although they can be an initial attractor. It’s about what comes after. There are nearly 50,000 Twitter hashtags supporting ISIS, with an average of some 1000 followers each. They succeed by providing opportunities for personal engagement, where people have an audience with whom they can share and refine their grievances, hopes and desires. In contrast, government digital “outreach” programs typically provide generic religious and ideological “counter-narratives,” seemingly deaf to the personal circumstances of their audiences. They cannot create the intimate social networks that dreamers need.”
  • Counter narratives are often ineffective because they are acting as “countering” and are often negative in nature. Providing information that is already known instead of providing positive incentives and narratives about not joining extremist groups.

3.) “A third condition: offer youth the chance to create their own local initiatives.”

  • Small local (endogenous) initiatives are far more effective than large scale exogenous initiatives.
  • Those that doubt what youth can do should look at the examples of how they have been a force for counteracting violent extremism. Atran provides the example of Seeds for Peace, started by a 16 year old and her sister. 

A transcript of Scott Atran's address can be found here.

Source: Psychology Today, Scott Atran Ph.D.

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