At the end of February, my fellow scholarship holders and I, who received a stipend from German institutions to finance our stay in New York with the UN, organized a panel discussion on:
The Youth, Peace, and Security agenda and its implications for European Youth.
While the discussion did not turn out as fruitful as we had hoped, it nevertheless alluded to one of the core problems that we, and youth all over the world, face in global politics at the moment: being taken seriously – or rather: not! While I won’t mention the names of the participants and speakers (it was a rather informal discussion), I want to give you some impressions about how the discussion quickly turned out to be a signifier for the lack of voice and credibility that is given to youth.
Background on Youth and Violent Extremism
We chose the topic after the Security Council adopted the first ever Resolution (2250) on youth, peace and security in December 2015. This Resolution “urges greater representation by young men and women in the prevention and resolution of conflict amid the rise of radicalization to violence and violent extremism amongst youth, which can be conducive to terrorism.” The implication and occasion are clear: the topic of youth has gotten a major push in international politics since ISIS/ISIL/Daesh (etc.) has started to successfully attract more and more young people to join their ranks.
Since politics has understood that millennials are not just plain disinterested in politics but rather attracted to the ‘wrong politics’, there have been many hypotheses on the table. An interesting episode of BBC’s podcast series ‘The inquiry’ tracks the erronous understanding in politics after 9/11, that all people joining Al Qaeda and the like must be religious fanatics and/or psycho-/sociopaths. However, more and more research has shown that there is no clear indicator for a certain ‘type of person’ (much less type of mentality) that is attracted to violent extremism. Instead the origins of the recruits cover all possible backgrounds, genders, socio-economic and political systems. Moreover, going beyond socio-economics towards psychology, in his address to the UN Security Council anthropologist Scott Atran said:
“Most foreign volunteers and 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”
While there are of course exceptions (e.g. a supposedly 80-year old Chinese man), the only common denominator of recruits is their demographics: it seem to be predominantly young people that radicalize (a CNN article called them ‘Jillennials’ – jihadi millennials). That said it has to be kept in mind, what one of our speakers rightfully pointed out:
“Young people are always the majority in violent extremism, but the majority of young people do not engage in violence”.
Nevertheless, youth obviously plays a major role. In the concept note for our event in February, I identified three main roles of youth, the first two of which are also highlighted by Resolution 2250:
- Youth as driver of extremism:
As outlined above, I think we can be certain that this is the main reason youth is now in the spotlight of politics. And there is reason to worry of course. However, Resolution 2250 is wisely cautious with limiting the role of youth to this negative aspect.
- Youth as counter-force to violent extremism:
This is what many specialists hold to be one of the most important factors. Yes, youth are radicalizing – but as we have learned in painfully slow and terrifying processes, real change has to come from within, which makes youth also a chance to turn things around. This is even more important since recruitment for IS happens mostly through close relationships with radicalized friends/family/role-models. As Atran says: “what is most important is quality time and sustained follow up of young people with young people”.
- Youth as the scene where political conflict is captured:
This third point may sound a bit strange – and most people were asking me after reading the concept note what this is supposed to mean. It seems really easy: if youth are the biggest source of recruiters, aswell as the biggest chance to counter continuing recruitment, this is where the struggle happens – in networks, relationships, discussions etc.
However, after all it is not THAT easy! Imagine a street fight where youth from all over the world can come to air their grievances – at their parents, the labour market, the ‘system’ and politics! And of course they wouldn’t be united… What we are seeing is that not only ISIS is getting overrun with motivated recruits, but also – and often neglected in these discussions in Europe – the right-wing movement has been a lucky recipient of more and more people willing to go on the streets, throw stones, set fire on refugee homes, etc. This is violent extremism, even though European politics often shies away from calling it by its name. And it’s a two-way spiral. Xenophobia and Islamophobia, especially in Europe, have been an important driver of radicalization. In turn, European’s fear of terrorist attacks is a major driver for right-wing xenophobia. All very logical, right? But that makes the street fight super complicated – and explains why I think that youth is the ‘scene’ of political conflict. Many violent and non-violent conflicts are captured in youth activism.
Yet another panel discussion
If you learn something working at the UN, then that the organisation is a hotbed of panel discussions: they are called interactive, or expert, high-level or any other name – in the end they’re simply that: panel discussions, where people say diplomatically and politically correct things and there is never enough time for a Q&A (much like at universities). For our panel discussion we invited three representatives/experts on violent extremism and/or youth. One from the UN, one from the EU and one from the German mission to the UN (kind of like an embassy to the UN). We were hoping to get a grasp on how the Resolution is being implemented, what the approaches are by country- and EU-level politics and what the UN is doing to make progress on the new Resolution and get their member-states to successfully implement policies. Above all, we wanted to know how young people were and are included in the process (in relation to point 3 above).
We learned that the UN had hosted a Global Forum on the issue and had received 11000 applications for a cap of 200 participants. Germany had hosted a conference of “Young Islam”, where young Muslims could give input on legislation and methods to counter violent extremism. We learned that Germany had a rather vague action plan, which includes different ministries and different levels down to the community level policy-making. That the EU is targeting the root causes (one of the favorite keywords in UN talk, by the way) and has the Middle East as the main area of focus (on security measures). The European Council is actively involved in engaging youth and the European ERASMUS programme is being expanded.
This was all very interesting, but what really made the discussion a highlight for me was the Q&A – or even more so: the more or less subtle contradictions within it…
“Agesplaining*” – the Q&A
While there was a lot of rhetoric by our speakers, highlighting the importance of youth’s voices, speaking out what they are thinking and criticizing politics to find a joint way to stop violent extremism, there was a clear limit to this, which came out during the Q&A. The bomb dropped with a comment by one member of the audience, which highlighted the “obvious” relationship between precarization of politics and labor markets on the one hand and violent extremism on the other. Regarding this comment, there was a striking reaction in the audience. Almost all the young people around the table were nodding. However, the speaker flat-out denied any relationship between economic marginalization and radicalization. This was remarkable! It is true that there have been studies that have shown that it is by no means the poor and unemployed that radicalize more – instead especially the recruits from Europe tend to have high education backgrounds. That does however not mean that there is a disproven relationship between PRECARIOUSNESS and radicalization – at least I haven’t found it. Instead it is widely acknowledged that precariousness and social activism are correlated – in the anti-austerity movement, and /or the Arab Spring.
What is needed to capture the well-educated and/or employed/priviledged parts of violent extremism is a new definition of ‘marginalization’. Marginalization or rather is more diverse than just ‘unemployment’ and ‘minimum wage’. It is about a lack of social security, pensions, but it is also about the necessitiy to constantly change jobs, to have a university degree and high amounts of debts only to not be able to find a job in your industry. But it is also much more multi-faceted than economic terms would capture. Of course there is ethnic marginalisation and discrimination. And in the face of a lack of economic opportunities, there is also political marginalization. Some people have called for a more ‘accountable democracy’ in the face of social movements. Instead, there are little ways of youth to make their voices heard in politics, where a combination of economic power, privileged ethnicity and age often seem to be a precondition for credibility. This is why there is ideational marginalization on top of the economic and political ones. Youth do not see a space to shape ideas and structures and turn to powers that promise them a voice and/or an alternative – right-wing extremism and violent Islamism. I am far from saying that this is the only or in any way a conclusive explanation for the rise of violent extremism among youth. There is definitely a lot more research required to understand the different facets of marginalization, the different way precarity is experienced by different groups and individuals. However, that there is a clear political, economic and ideational precarization of youth from all backgrounds is absolutely clear to me – and it even became clearer through the discussion – despite against the will of the speakers.
While keeping up a narrative of openness, transparency, mutuality – in the end, the people in power did not want to hear what we thought
While keeping up a narrative of openness, transparency, mutuality – in the end, the people in power did not want to hear what we thought as soon as it would have required going beyond the usual political lines. To all our comments and questions, they did neither have an answer nor were they taking them seriously but instead just repeating their politics like a mantra – even though they know and acknowledge that exactle the one-way-exclusive politics is part of the problem. But stuffed with the latest theories and research, produced mostly by old men and women in their late academic career (because these are the people we take serious), their ears are quickly shut when hearing something from the mouth of non-celebrity people in their 20s. Scott Atran (remember, the white, old anthropologist who could speak to the Security concil about youth) thinks so too. In his proposal to the UN, he included three propositions:
I. Offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship.[…] Ask yourselves: What dreams may come from most current government policies that offer little beyond promises of comfort and security?
II. Offer youth a positive personal dream, with a concrete chance of realization.
III. Offer youth the chance to create their own local initiatives.Let youth engage youth in the search for meaningful ways to make sense of the issues on their personal agenda, whether that be about oppression and political marginalization, lack of economic opportunity, the trauma of exposure to violence, or problems of identity and social exclusion.
According to Atran, governments have to offer the framwork for youth to come up with their own solutions. But so far, their voices remain unheard – the ones on the street, the ones in the refugee camps, the ones in the panel discussion. Instead of realizing youth as ‘actor’ and ‘scene’, they are still mostly treated as perpetrator and subject in learning. Inclusion without listening is top-down, brushing away is patronizing, not ever being taken seriously is marginalizing, and talking over the top/for youth is not creating a valid counter-narrative.
_________________________________________________________________* I hereby refer to the widely used term ‘mansplaining’ which indicates a situation in which a man by nature of his priviledge assumes to know more than other genders and insists on explaining the topic at hand to them in a patronizing way. In our panel discussion the same happened with the privilege “age”.