February 4, 2019

“I am a Muslim, am I an extremist?” – Kurdish youth reinventing the narrative

“For years we’ve had ISIS and many people joined [ISIS] because of not having a job”. Sarab Attar is a 19 year old Mechanical Engineering student in Erbil, Kurdistan. Much of Sarab’s childhood has been peppered with the fallout of a civil war against ISIS being fought just miles away. In December 2017, ISIS was defeated but young people’s battle was far from over.

“The biggest problem in Kurdistan is jobs,” explains Sarab. “Many people leave for Europe, to find jobs…You know, if you don’t have experience you can’t work here in Kurdistan”.

Wanting to gain some practical skills and do something for her community, she joined the Erbil Digital Workforce (EDW), part of the Boosting Your Beliefs (BYB) programme at SPARK.

Students in KR-I at the BYB Campaign Meeting
Students in KR-I at the BYB Campaign Training

The EDW trains young, future leaders in effective methods of countering (potentially) extremist views in their peers by using digital and storytelling techniques. The 20 young people that are part of the EDW find new solutions to radicalisation of youth in Kurdistan by creating social media campaigns and organising key events to start the difficult, but necessary, discussions about youth radicalisation in the community.

Hear Sarab’s story here:

Debates instead of speeches
One such event recently took place in Erbil, with an on-stage debate entitled: I am a Muslim, am I an extremist? Provocative as it sounds, the debate was designed to help separate Islam from its association with violent extremism.

Young members of the EDW organised the debate between two mullahs – educated Muslims trained in religious law and doctrine and usually holding an official post. M. Hawzhin Mullah Amin (a more secular figure) and Dr. Mullah Idris Karitany (more religiously conservative) tackled the issue of extremism from two ends of the spectrum.

Mullahs play a particularly important role in Kurdish society as they are often in direct contact with youth. By challenging them to debate key issues, rather than delivering unquestioned teachings, and pulling audience members into the discussion, everyone was challenged and engaged in active learning.

Abdulla Kamaran, a former extremist, was also invited to address the participate. Kamaran now advocates for deradicalisation and has published a book that offers insights into the process of radicalised youth, their grievances and how to provide alternatives to young people with so few options.

By providing a platform, a safe space, for these conversations to be had in Kurdistan, the EDW members are opening up debate and providing alternative pathways for young people.

Peace through moderation
Towards the end of 2018, the team in Erbil organised a large-scale, international conference: ‘Peace through Moderation’, which focused on practical solutions for countering violent extremism (CVE). The conference brought together many diverse stakeholders; CVE experts, local leaders, diplomats, policy makers, ministers, all consulate generals in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I), university lecturers, as well as UN and NGO representatives. Such a high profile event naturally caught the attention of many local media agencies.

The unique event was able to raise the issue of radicalisation higher on the political and public agenda. The post-event ‘to-do list’ was long, including: understanding the role and importance of social media, the need for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to do more to support CVE and the establishment of a center for prevention and CVE in Iraq and KR-I. Also emphasised was the importance of early intervention, in schools for example.

Training teachers
The Deradicalisation Teacher Training (DTT) programme, another pilot CVE-focused project by SPARK in KR-I, engages high school and university lecturers in Erbil in how to identify signs of radicalisation in their students, as well as preventative strategies. So far 63 educators and 580 high school and university students have been brought together in seminars and workshops to discuss the difficult subject of radicalisation.

Hopefully, the deep scars of war and economic turmoil in the region can start to heal as youth themselves begin to carve new narratives. By providing the tools to support young people in developing their skills, more opportunities can become available to them, reducing the risk that youth will choose a violent or radicalised path.

Related news