“A conscious mind can change” – A Cyprus Youth Perspective on preventing radicalisation.

Written by Eliza Patouris, PhD

Violent youth radicalisation impacts the stability of our societies as it threatens the European and international democratic principles. In Cyprus, violent radicalization has not been officially reported amongst young people and thus efforts to understand and prevent it are limited. While there have been recorded tendencies that relate to youth radicalization such as racism, intolerance and hate crime (Cyprus Office of Analysis and Statistics, 2015), the prevention measures are not radicalization-specific and focused on front-line practitioners and intelligence services. Indeed, the voice of young people in prevention efforts is severely understated which brings into question the efficacy of measures already in place.

In the context of an EU-funded project in Cyprus research was conducted on the perspectives of youth in the prevention of violent youth radicalization. A youth-led innovative methodological approach was adopted which meant that, for the first time ever, young people were given the opportunity to lead research on a current societal challenge they face, such as youth radicalisation.

Provided that Cyprus has yet to take actions to integrate non-nationals in the community context, as indicated by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI, 2016) it was crucial to include both Cypriot and migrant youth (i.e. Secondary Schools and Youth Migrant centres) as part of our research. Young people (young Cypriot secondary school students and young unaccompanied migrants) were interviewed and called upon to share their views on what can prevent and discourage radicalisation among youth.

Recognising and Challenging Extremist Ideologies

The reasons young people join extremist groups, according to Cypriot youth, are to satisfy the need of revenge (i.e. response to being a victim of bullying), to obtain a sense of wider recognition and attention, to combat social isolation, due to weakness of character, peer pressure, withdrawal from family, and the adoption of violent practices from the family (i.e. a pro-violent attitude to resolve conflicts).
On the other hand, the young migrants explained that in their native country (i.e. Somalia, Syria, Congo) young people join extremist groups with the ‘right intentions’ such as “To fight for their family, their generation, their freedom”. Many young migrants from war-ridden countries stated that there is a significant lack of education among young adults due to political conflicts, making them even more vulnerable to radicalisation: “Most of these young people lack education- they just follow social media. They don’t think for themselves. They see radical groups portraying how they are renowned and are making a change…they see how they control the world. They want to become like them, like the people in these groups”. The absence of a critical thinking mentality leads youth to join terrorist / extremist groups based on religious advantages (i.e. going to heaven), technological know-how (i.e. learning how to make bombs), and peer control.
Overall, it was suggested that a way to counter extremist messages is with the implementation of open dialogue on a peer-to-peer level as well as personal positive reinforcement to encourage reflection and critical thinking: “The best advice can only come from within you. Local services can help, but you must eventually decide for yourself. We need to focus less externally and more internally…A conscious mind can change. Only fools and the dead cannot change their mind!”.

The importance of positive reinforcement and belongingness

One of the key causes which leads young people to join extremist movements is the lack of a fulfilling life and/or having future goals. In order to deter from becoming radicalised it is important for young people to feel satisfied with their lives and positively reinforced that they can achieve their future aspirations. Financial support, spiritual development and positive reinforcement were the three basic factors which according to young people are necessary for them to achieve their life ambitions and goals. “For us to feel capable we must be told and shown that we are so”, “Young people need to go into more spirituality- they need a source of love if they are to succeed in life. They need to be encouraged by justice. Universal justice can only be recognized in church.”
The migrant youth explained that for them to be better integrated it is important for them to feel that they belong in the society in which they live. To enable their sense of belongingness they referred to the following aspects: citizenship, medicinal access, equal opportunities, participation in sport teams (i.e. football), shelter, learning national language and social support.

Where do we go from here?

There is a social need for more proactive youth initiatives that will improve the social integration of young people and reduce the likelihood of violent radicalization. Empowering young people to take ownership of their choices is an important step forward in preventing youth radicalisation. Our research supports this as we found that young people are calling for a constructive, positive approach that does not view them as “risks” that need to be managed, but as individuals that can build on their strengths when given the right resources and opportunities. If we continue to view young people as threats that need to be handled, they will continue to disbelieve in themselves and search elsewhere for opportunities to gain ‘fulfilment’; a vulnerability that terrorist groups manipulate to recruit young people. Based on the Good Lives Model (GLM) all people are goal-influenced and search for certain ‘goods’ in their lives, not material, but psychological (i.e. happiness, belongingness, autonomy, excellence in work, etc.) in order to increase or improve their psychological well-being (Ward, Mann and Gannon 2006; Foresee Research group 2016). Young people are more likely to search for positive “goods”, and thus interested in improving their lives if granted a sense of ownership. To do that, we must foster an approach that helps develop the positive identities of young people and enable them to lead lives that do not involve or need crime. We need to step away from a risk-managing approach and towards a constructive, growth-oriented approach that creates positive life alternatives that prevent youth from becoming radicalised. This is further supported by research undertaken by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (2019), which concluded that to safeguard young people from negative peer influences and resulting problem behaviour, including violence and radicalisation it is necessary to strengthen their skills, connect them to caring adults and activities, develop a sense of bonding and engagement with community environments, and promote quality education and healthy family environments that support positive development of youth identity.

In order to foster a more stable and safer Europe, we need to concentrate on improving the lives of young people in a constructive and positive way.