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Quebec is using theatre to stop its teens from joining the Islamic State

It's part of a plan to fight radicalization announced by the government following the arrest, last May, of ten youths who were trying to leave Montreal to join extremist groups in the Middle East. Eight teens before them did leave.

by Tamara Khandaker
Jun 27 2016, 11:25pm

7Strong/Reuters

The Quebec government is turning to theatre in a bid to combat the radicalization of young people.

Among five newly government-funded projects will be the production of a play by high schoolers with the help of psychologists and social workers, in "which they can express their words, their aspirations, their worries, and the way to deal with them."

Led by theatre company Théâtre Parminou, the play seeks to develop young people's critical thinking abilities, by teaching them "how to decode what is hidden behind propaganda and manipulation to advocate actions that restore dialogue and trust," according to a government press release issued on Monday.

This all part of an action plan to fight radicalization announced by the Quebec government last June, shortly after ten youths were arrested while trying to leave Montreal to join extremist groups in the Middle East. In January of last year, eight youths actually left the city — two eventually returned, while six remain in Syria.

In May, the government also announced anti-radicalization measures, which include training more police officers on radicalization, and hiring more outreach workers. An anti-radicalization center has been operating in Montreal since last November and had received nearly 800 calls by the end of May, resulting in 14 police investigations. In March, the center, which employs psychologists, researchers, and others trained to detect signs of extremism, got a $500,000 funding boost to its $2-million budget.

Related: An Anti-Radicalization Center in Montreal Isn't Officially Open Yet — But It's Already Busy

On Monday, Minister of Immigration, Diversity, and Inclusion Kathleen Weil said the new projects are designed to "provide young people with role models... including those of racialized minorities, to promote inclusion and increase their sense of belonging to Quebec society."

"These projects are varied and will equip young people by boosting their confidence and express their creative potential, while developing critical thinking skills and encouraging them to pursue their dreams," the minister said in a press release.

Aside from the theatre company, the Quebec government has tapped a democratic engagement organization, a center dedicated to preventing psychological issues and violence among young people, an organization that works with young people to prevent discrimination and bullying, as well as a human rights education center, to assist them in the fight against youth radicalization in the province.

'A lot of these youth do want to talk about global politics, and what's happening overseas to Muslim communities.'

The other projects, run by the Institut du Nouveau Monde, Institut Pacifique, Equitas - International Center for Human Rights Education, and Ensemble pour le respect de la diversité, include workshops and roundtables on "living together" and encouraging citizen participation by soliciting project proposals from the youth in the programs.

Institut du Nouveau Monde, for example, will host presentations and workshops in CEGEPs — pre-university colleges in Quebec — discussing social cohesion, and issues of identity and discrimination, Pamela Daoust told VICE News.

The center has been running such workshops and presentations for years, but only by invitation. Now, they will be touring schools across the province.

"What I've seen is first of all, it gives them the opportunity to be heard, and to give us feedback — feedback about what they're going through and what they see in their school," Doaust said. "That's the first step — being heard and having a voice. Our mission boils down to giving the citizen a voice."

Related: Don't Ask Why People Join the Islamic State — Ask How

Amarnath Amarasingam, who researches foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo, said while "out-of-the-box" thinking is necessary in addressing the issue of youth radicalization, the success of the projects will depend on how much safe space they create for young people.

"A lot of these youth do want to talk about global politics, and what's happening overseas to Muslim communities, they want to talk about foreign policy, Islamophobia, so it depends on when they want to actually roll these things out, how much of a space it is, how much of an open space it is, and how much they're allowed to have the conversations they want to have," he said.

Hicham Tifati, an Islamic law and religious studies scholar who used to work at Montreal's anti-radicalization center, also said his initial impression of the projects is a positive one.

But while he agrees that working directly with youth is the right approach, he says the government must be careful to "enlighten youth without pushing them away" — especially those who belong to "suspect" communities.

"There are prerequisites for this violent radicalization, among which are when youth reject society, when they lose hope and trust in this promise of living together, of a just society." Tifati said. "And when they're somehow exposed to what we call push factors, like stigmatization, Islamophobia, racism, and at the same time, when they're being non-critical ... and when they have social and familial issues, they can easily be recruited by radical groups."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk