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Young People, the Question of Identity, And Radicalization

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Jun 06, 2016 / 0 Comments
Photo: Reuters / J. Rinaldi

Both rims of the Mediterranean region are facing today difficulties, from disarray to impotence, and violent extremism. Young people, bearing the brunt of these worries and of exclusion, are a favorite niche for radical movements. In 3 articles Jacques Ould Aoudia depicts the push and pull effects across the Mediterranean region, playing in favor of violent extremism’ propagation. The author will identify as well key solutions to pulling young Mediterranean people out of this threat.


This article is the third in a series of three.


The identity issue.  Questioning one’s identity is common to everyone:  years leading to forming an adult solicit a period of vulnerability for every individual.[1] When the questioning of one’s identity coincides with these moments of fragility, a gap unveils one that radicalism can take hold of (becoming a man, traveling to a mythical distant land, being in charge and entrusted with a weapon in one’s hands etc).


An individual can reach a state of equilibrium when they embrace this multiplicity of identities without anxiety. An individual born in France can be Moroccan, Berber, European, Mediterranean, Parisian, French, Muslim, from the neighborhood of Aulnay-sous-Bois, from “93” (Seine-Saint-Denis) … People will live their identities in accordance to where they live and their surrounding environment. In Morocco, there’s no value or resonance to one’s neighborhood identity or neighborhood affiliation, since nobody knows the names of the neighborhoods and suburbs of France. An individual may self-identify/be perceived as a Frenchman (or as a Parisian) of Moroccan origin; this person cannot say that they are Moroccan, because they are different from the native-born Moroccans of their own age. Similarly, a group of young people from the “T” suburbs, hosted a visit by young Swedes to show them around Paris claiming they’re Parisians, even though they’d only visit Paris to start troubles and fights with groups from other neighborhoods in the Paris region, stigmatized by their narrow identity as “The Youth from the T.”


Many young people from the “suburbs” do not manage to live comfortably with their multiple identities due to a lack of contacts with other environments and cultures in other social situations than those they live in their neighborhoods. Therefore few of those youth get trapped into a reduction of those multiple identities, and end up with only one, simple in its radicalism, catered to them on stand-by by Jihadist websites,[2] with all-too-familiar consequences.


It is not a matter of the “radicalization of Islam”, but rather the “islamization of radicalism.” The paltry knowledge of Islam possessed by the French young people who carried out the terrorist acts in January and November of 2015 would support this view. If this thesis is correct, it should be possible to work with broad segments of the youth population that might be drawn into embracing violent extremism in order to preempt radicalism. If it were a matter of the islamization of religion, then one would be dealing with the religious sphere, where public policies and the involvement of NGOs have, by definition, little influence.


An approach through religion is therefore not relevant for tackling such issues of radicalization, and that is good news!


Preventing radicalization: tackling the questioning of identity


In order to develop a public policy for preventing radicalization, or to design an NGO project for this purpose, such identity issues should be taken as a point of departure, to be further used in other spheres of inclusion (training, civic affairs, employment etc).


This effort should be therefore focused on youth, targeting those who have not succeeded in integrating into the societies of which they are formally and legally members of, and those who do not feel that they fully belong, in the areas of symbolic, social and economic recognition.  Young people who feel only French “on paper.” These segments of the youth population in Europe constitute a niche for radicalized young people.  It is these young individuals, including young non-migrants in poor neighborhoods,[3] to whom we believe priority should be given.


The first approach to be adopted with those youth would involve working (implicitly) on the multiple identities, whether they are issued or not from immigrant backgrounds, and thus helping them to reconcile with this multiplicity of identities.  The symbolic plane activates the sphere of the existential emotions in response to the critical question that arises during the period of life when one transitions to adulthood: Who am I? This is why one must engage on this symbolic plane at the very beginning, without losing sight of the other spheres: training, employment, involvement in civic affairs.


Actions to take. Among the actions that can be taken, there is one that is simple and inexpensive: workshops and exchanges between young people both on a national level and as well between countries and on both sides of the Mediterranean. These workshops would be a relevant setting in which the issue of the multiplicity of identities can be discussed and dissected and shared among young people. It is only by meeting others and interacting with them that the essence of one’s identity reveals, making it possible to compose a “bouquet” of identities with which one must reconcile. These activities may be accompanied by an introduction to the history of migrations, classic history, and family history, often discouraged by migrant parents.


The workshops could also have a component involving an introduction to occupational training (workshops) and/or cultural and intercultural exploration.


An opening to inclusive actions. This initial work should lead to other spheres for action (with the support of national and local public policies) under the banner of inclusion. Social, cultural, economic and civic inclusion, in particular through job training.


Such actions would make it possible to offer young people the means to transform the fragility resulting from the multiplicity of identities into a positive force for their own benefit as individuals and for the benefit of their families, host societies, and societies of origin.


Disclaimer: The content of this blog is the sole responsibility of the author and does not reflect the views of the institutions with which he is affiliated, nor does it reflect the opinion of the Center for Mediterranean Integration.


[1] Françoise Dolto compares the individual at this period of life to a lobster that has shed its infant shell, which no longer fits, and feels vulnerable until it grows a new adult-sized shell.

[2]ISIS engages in very modern simplistic propaganda, the complete opposite of what Al Qaeda does with its lengthy religious sermons preached by bearded, off-putting sexagenarians, who hold no interest for young people. Nothing of the sort with ISIS: one deals with the sensational, one writes a macabre epic in which one can be a hero, very quickly, whether here or in the hereafter.

[3] A young native of a small village in the Ardennes (North-East of France) ravaged by deindustrialization and unemployment spoke to an old immigrant who was telling his life story this terrible phrase: “You have an origin at least”!


Jacques OULD AOUDIA is a Development Economics Researcher.

Professional experience: Until 2011: Economist at the Treasury Directorate (Ministry of Economy, France): analysis of the institutional foundations of development economics, in particular in the Arab world. Research associate at the Royal Institute of Strategic Studies (IRES, Morocco).

Volunteer work: President of the “Migration and Development” association established by Moroccan migrants in 1986. Website of the association:

Author of several publications: including: Captation ou création de richesse? Une convergence inattendue entre Nord et Sud, Gallimard, Le Débat n°178, January-February, 2014 ; Des migrants marocains acteurs du développement, (with Yves Bourron), Hommes & Migrations No.1303, July-September, 2013.

Author website:   


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