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Critical minds and sense of belonging are key weapons against radicalisation

Focusing on social inclusion of young people, helping them to develop self-confidence, a sense of identity and belonging, and teaching them how to think critically are among the most important elements of successfully preventing youth radicalisation, a panel held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) heard in Brussels last week.

But the hearing "The role of civil society in the prevention of radicalization of young people" also revealed that society tends to act only after something has happened instead of being proactive, and that there is no coordinated, multi-agency approach.

The EESC hearing gathered representatives from both the European Commission and local authorities who work on the prevention of radicalisation or 'de-radicalisation', as well as education experts and representatives of organisations involved in formal or non-formal education of young people.

The hearing was organized as part of the EESC’s preparatory work for the opinion on the cooperation with civil society to prevent the radicalization of young people, due to be adopted at the EESC plenary in December.

The experience of Vilvoorde, the Belgian city with the highest number of foreign fighters in Europe, has shown that a successful countering of radicalization requires political will, long-term funding, a multi-agency approach, and a structure and methodology, all of which are currently lacking or limited, said Jessica Soors, the city’s head of service for de-radicalisation.

She stressed that her first advice to local communities would be to be prepared for tackling radicalization, something her town was not when young citizens started to leave to fight in foreign conflicts.

“We started by extinguishing fires,” Ms Soors said, adding that many local authorities still “have to act before they can think.”

But work on radicalization should not start with individual casework or law enforcement, which are the two upper levels of the so-called ‘prevention pyramid’ and should only be applied as the last resort, she maintained. Instead, the focus should be on prevention.

"There is no hard data on how education can prevent radicalisation, but it can certainly make a major contribution," Szilvia Kalman of European Commission's DG EAC said, adding that schools should pay more attention to teaching social and civic competencies, something which is currently not adequately addressed. The Commission has already earmarked more than 200 million EUR for projects promoting social inclusion through education. The projects involve teachers, youth workers and other actors, and deal with various topics such as media literacy, critical thinking or role models.

Karin Heremans, principle of the Royal Atheneum Antwerpen school, told the audience schools should focus on diversity and active citizenship. "The extremist groomers are part of the children's environment, they isolate them from society, they mess with their value systems. It is important for children to develop positive identity and have strong role models," she said.

Ms Heremans presented a project on prevention policy in Flanders schools, which features among the practices showcased in the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), set up by the Commission and gathering first-line practitioners in the field of countering extremism and terrorism. The project included training some 1200 school staff to produce alternative and counter narratives to extremist propaganda.

It was found that the most powerful weapon against the lure of radicalisation is increasing complexity in thinking and developing a critical mind-set from a young age.

"We have to move away from black-white thinking and try to make young people comfortable with grey," said Lynn Davies of the University of Birmingham. "Valuing pluralism does not mean you must accept everything: what you are going to tolerate is based on a common framework of rights. Rights are the best we have," she concluded.