Lebanese youth organisations challenge extremism

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Young men from Lebanon’s Tripoli take part in rehabilitation work in a city neighbourhood. [Photo courtesy of The One Voice Team]

Young men from Lebanon’s Tripoli take part in rehabilitation work in a city neighbourhood. [Photo courtesy of The One Voice Team]

In addition to warning teenagers about the dangers of extremist ideology, Lebanese community groups in Tripoli and elsewhere have been helping youth channel their energy into positive work that will improve their neighbourhoods.

Through these efforts, activists told Al-Mashareq, some have succeeded in preventing disaffected youth from joining the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in Syria and have rehabilitated others who fought in its ranks.

The One Voice Team, founded after the 2013 bombing of al-Taqwa and al-Salam mosques in Tripoli, has been overseeing a project to paint 26 stairways between the rival neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli.

The public service project enables the participants, aged 14 to 17, to turn their negative energy into positive energy, said team co-founder Sara Rahouli.

Art was the "main platform for the expression of views and sentiments by youth who lost their parents" in the 2013 bombings, she told Al-Mashareq, adding that the organisation works to resolve conflict through art and theatre.

The team has completed 25 of the 26 stairways to date, she said, but has faced many difficulties in the course of its work.

Some of the youth had lost parents or loved ones in the rounds of violence that hit Tripoli, she explained, leaving them vulnerable to extremist ideology and recruitment attempts and susceptible to drug abuse.

"We have so far worked with 60 youths who were influenced by the ideology of ISIL and other terrorist groups," she said.

Some had fought in the ranks of ISIL, she added, noting that the team has been able to rehabilitate more than 10 former fighters into the community.

"We are continuing to work with others to rehabilitate them," Rahouli said.

Aspirations for peace

In 2015, a group of Tripoli youth founded The Spirit of Youth, a community organisation comprising men and women of various ages, social and cultural backgrounds from Jabal Mohsen and other parts of Tripoli.

The organisation aims to steer youth away from extremism and safeguard them from social ills, according to its president Ahmad Hamad.

"In the wake of the rounds of violence that occurred in the city, we aspired for peace," he told Al-Mashareq.

"The security plan implemented by the army needed to be complemented by the enhancement of the role of social work to instill the spirit of citizenship and faith in the constructive role of the youth in society," he said.

"We work throughout Tripoli, and Jabal Mohsen especially, through 100 youth volunteers who carry out developmental, educational, cultural, social and health-related projects," Hamad said.

The organisation also holds educational activities that warn young people about the dangers of getting involved with terrorist groups, he added.

The Spirit of Youth networks with other organisations to enhance the role of youth in the community, to provide psychological support for them, and to conduct training courses on the prevention of violence in all its forms, he said.

Challenging extremism

In October, a group of nine Beirut Arab University (BAU) students launched the "Seeming" campaign to raise awareness among fellow students about extremist ideology and the violent actions it can incite.

Launched with support from the university's Human Rights Centre, the campaign seeks to explain and debunk the core radical thinking of extremist groups.

One member of the campaign staff is a former extremist who now talks to the youth to immunise them against radical ideology, said Marwa Faraj, the Human Rights Centre official in charge of the campaign.

The Seeming campaign aims "to show an extremist who is convinced of the correctness of his beliefs the right path he must take to realise his ambitions in the right way", she told Al-Mashareq.

This might include engaging in civil society activism to demand rights in a civilised and peaceful manner, she said.

The students leading the campaign are focusing on the 14 to 25 age group, she said, as studies and statistics indicate this demographic is most vulnerable to extremist ideology, and are focusing on confronting religious extremism.

The campaign kicked off on social media, and was followed by a "Combating Extremism" training workshop, Faraj said, adding that students involved in the campaign were selected as "peace ambassadors".

The workshops explored the "history of extremism and its relationship to democracy, and with Islamist groups", she said. "Also, extremism was addressed from a psychological perspective, as was how extremists use social media to reach the largest possible number of people and promote their ideas".

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