Best Practices for Countering Violent Extremism: The Importance of Social Education

By Maxime Bérubé, SSHRC postdoctoral researcher, Project SOMEONE and UNESCO-PREV Chair

The far right, Jihadism, incels, and “sovereign citizens” are some examples of ideologies that can be associated with radicalization and violent extremism. The processes of engagement in violent extremism, known as radicalization leading to violence, are varied, complex and evolving. Indeed, the relative involvement of the various influencing factors associated with them varies in time and space depending on the contexts in which radicalization takes shape. To counter this phenomenon, a significant number of preventive strategies have been developed to avert the potential effects of extremist discourses.

These strategies can be divided into four categories. The first, somewhat more offensive than the other three, involves disrupting distribution networks or censoring extremist speeches to limit their proliferation. The second is to implement counter-speech, most often to undermine the credibility and veracity of particular extremist discourses. As for the third, rather than countering a discourse, it produces alternative ones that correspond to the needs of populations likely to adopt to this discourse. Finally, the fourth category belongs to a social education perspective, in which attempts are made to foster the development of digital literacy and citizenship skills of the general population. Unlike the previous three, the last approach proposes tools to develop transversal knowledge and skills that can easily be applied to prevent different forms of extremism. However, while training more knowledgeable citizens may be more sustainable and these strategies could reap multiple benefits, several questions, including the way in which to implement such strategies, remain unanswered.

My current postdoctoral research with Project SOMEONE focuses on social education and promoting alternative discourses. More specifically, I address various issues for which uncertainties persist. For example, besides skill building, where does education on the ideological and religious character of violent extremism fit in? If we value engaging in public dialogues on sensitive topics such as jihadism or the extreme right, how should we proceed? What aspects should be addressed, and which should be left out? Is it better to censor or control communication spaces that may contribute to radicalization leading to violence? Considering that radicalization processes take place in online and offline environments, how should preventive efforts be divided? Who are the most favorable stakeholders to do this work? Which target audience should we be advising?

To answer these questions, I conduct interviews with people who have already dealt with individuals labelled as “radicalized” or who are likely to adopt radical ideologies. Building on the experience of religious and community representatives, teachers, law enforcement officials, public policy officers, psychologists and social workers, our goal is to identify the best practices to adopt for the development of preventive educational strategies. Radicalization leading to violence is a very complex phenomenon that requires multisectoral prevention approaches. Thus, it is thanks to the pooling of the expertise of each of these stakeholders that the most effective and sustainable methods of education and intervention will emerge.

In future publications, we will discuss some aspects of social education in more detail, and unveil some preliminary results on this study. Meanwhile, I encourage anyone wishing to contribute to this study to contact me by email at the following address: maxime.berube@concordia.ca