Oct 25, 2016

Study of CEGEP students shows vulnerabilities to violent radicalization

October 25, 2016

A survey of students at eight Quebec CEGEPs published Tuesday has led to some surprising conclusions about what makes youths vulnerable to radicalization — and what may shield them from it.

For one, the youths most supportive of violence did not fit the profile we are used to hearing from police or politicians: It turns out Quebecers and second-generation immigrants are more likely to turn to violent solutions than first-generation immigrants.

What’s more, religion — and religious or spiritual practice — can protect youths from becoming radicalized to violence, the survey suggests, upending our common notions of religiously motivated youths joining Daesh or other jihadi groups.

Students who said they had no religion tended to support violent radicalization more than those who said they are Christian or Muslim.

“It goes against our pre-conceived notions — this is not a problem with immigrants or religion but one that can affect us all,” said child psychiatrist Cécile Rousseau, who is also the director of SHERPA, the university research centre of the CIUSSS West-Centre Montreal, which conducted the survey in association with the federation of Quebec CEGEPs.

“It shakes up our ideas and tells us to look at the problem differently … But it’s easier now to talk about sex than to talk about religion.”

In all, some 1,894 full-time students were surveyed in this first phase of the study at eight CEGEPs: Jonquière, André-Laurendeau, Maisonneuve, Montmorency, Rosemont, Sainte-Foy, Saint-Laurent and Vanier.

They were asked various questions about their social adaptation, their support for radicalization and their mental health. For example:

*To what extent do their friends represent a variety of ethnic or religious backgrounds?

*Did they experience anxiety or depression?

*To what extent did they support the use of violence at a protest to defend their group’s rights?

The results show that radicalization is a very marginal problem, Rousseau said.

That said, one of the most important factors leading to support for radicalization, seems to be the presence of adverse life experiences — including violence, experienced personally or at home, and discrimination.

While the study found most students were “comfortable” at their CEGEPs, 25 per cent said they had heard hateful or denigrating comments about their national, ethnic or religious group.

When these experiences lead to distress and depression, it can make youths more susceptible to being radicalized, Rousseau said at a news conference at Collège de Rosemont, one of the eight CEGEPs.

Some 20 per cent of respondents reported being seriously anxious or depressed.

Strong identification with a group, however, can go both ways — leading to or away from radicalization. Under normal circumstances, a young person will be less likely to engage in violence if he or she has the support of family, friends or a whole group of people with whom he or she identifies.

But if there is perceived discrimination or violence toward that group, that sense of belonging can lead someone to choose more violent responses, Rousseau explained.

Pierre Tremblay, the director of the federation of Quebec CEGEPs, said after years of government-imposed budget cuts, these results should prove the need for more psychosocial resources for CEGEP students who may be distressed or depressed.

CEGEPs are more than just classes and teachers, he said, and have to provide environments where students feel respected.

Rousseau suggested these new findings should also change our way of thinking about youth radicalization.

In Quebec we have avoided the rise of extreme right-wing groups now seen in Europe. But these groups are present and responsible for as many hate crimes as religious extremists, Rousseau said — we should be watching both.

Given that religious or spiritual practice can be a balm for those who have experienced violence or discrimination, and who might otherwise turn to violence themselves, perhaps we should rethink the place of religion in schools, she added.

“But that is a very delicate issue,” Rousseau said. “If we establish prayer spaces it could be good for some but throw fuel on the fire of (others who are against them) and increase inter-group tension.”

The study is one of several research initiatives to have emerged in the last year, after at least 18 youths left or attempted to leave Quebec for the Middle East in 2015 to join terrorist groups, or engaged in violent extremism here.

Eleven were students at Collège de Maisonneuve.

The research team hopes to expand the study to more CEGEPs in Quebec, and repeat the study over time to see how attitudes toward radicalization evolve.

Asked if there may have been a selection bias in the study — that those who don’t support radicalization were more likely to participate — Rousseau said yes.

But there seemed to be biases on both sides: One student was angry about the questionnaire, because he felt it suggested that those with more radical ideas were psychologically deranged.

Another said it was obvious the questionnaire was biased in favour of religious people and “Religion makes me puke!” she wrote.




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