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The Preventive Role of Open Youth Work in Radicalisation and Extremism


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Open Youth Work in Austria means both working in youth centres, youth clubs, drop-in centres and working in public areas in the form of outreach work or detached youth work. This article will highlight the role of open youth work in the prevention of radicalism and extremism and why the general principles of this approach are one of the keys to young people at risk.

Since early 2014, extremism is a hotly debated issue in Austria, especially in the media. On the one hand it is an issue about young men, preferably with migrant background, which „radicalised themselves“ or „were radicalised“ depending on one’s point of view. Some of them are even ready to kill for their belief, their religion, their ideology. On the other hand we have new movements like the „Identitären“(Identitarian Movement) which gain significant attention among young autochthonous Austrians.

Already beginning with the year 2012, thus long before the „Islamic State“ media hype youth work practitioners increasingly reported a significant relevance of religion for many youngsters. They also detected an increase of one-sided-polarising ideology and an extreme increase of antisemitism among a large group of youngsters.

So far 2014 was the climax of the „Islamic State“-issue in Austria. Until now, according to Austrian Intelligence, 230 persons have left for Syria as foreign fighters or supporters, about 20 of them were youngsters known by Viennese Youth Workers. Meanwhile (summer 2015) both those movements have almost come to a standstill and also the verbal support or at least sympathy has significantly decreased. But this is true only if you limit the issue to “Islamic State” – or Daesh how they would be called in Arabic. I would like to severely warn against doing so. The main issues are still there and need to be dealt with.

Antisemitism, Homophobia, debasing, pejorative and insulting behaviour towards females and absolutely everybody with a different opinion is – connected with (often pseudo-)religious or “ethnic” values – still prevalent

It is the lack of orientation, (social) security and crisis in establishing your own identity in a diverse, competing and often not supporting society combined with traditional family systems breaking up, which makes radical ideologies attractive. On the other hand, many youngsters note the importance and influence youth workers have on them in their personal development and keeping them “on track”, even though their general situation was precarious.

Principles of Open Youth Work and their role in extremism prevention

Referring to the Theory of Change of Open Youth Work in Vienna, youth work is aimed at „enabling youth“(youth in the sense of adolescence).

It is the lack of orientation, (social) security and crisis in establishing your own identity in a diverse, competing and often not supporting society combined with traditional family systems breaking up, which makes radical ideologies attractive

The period of adolescence nowadays is no longer a protected space period in which young people grow up largely unchallenged by economic compulsions, develop their identity and prepare for job and life – usually predetermined by the family and its social status.

Lothar Böhnisch, one of the leading German youth researchers, says it is more and more the function of Open Youth Work to „enable youth“; meaning to give them the chance to act beyond the requirements of the adult world and the working environment „It [youth work] encounters mainly socially disadvantaged youngsters, who lack possibilities of making different experiences, which they then try to make sometimes with high risk and often get stuck in negative circumstances.“  Hence key tasks for Open Youth Work are enabling self-expression, self-efficacy and creating an appreciative environment. Association of Viennese Youth Centre’s theoretical concept summarises “Open Youth work “makes youth possible” [enables adolescence] as it provides time, space and relationship and particularly focuses on emotional components, fun, encounter and things young people are keen to debate on“

Openness for all

As outlined in the general principles, openness in the form of a “positive welcome culture” for everybody, combined with the voluntariness in participation, is the structural key, the entrance to Open Youth Work. It enables the youth worker to get into contact and relationship with groups who are often no longer approachable for anybody else. This is also facilitated by an absence of any formal barriers, no pressure to commitment up to anonymity.

Create an open but also safe and constructive environment for dispute and discussion

It is a quite demanding and ambitious challenge behind this principle, namely take and accept the youngsters as they are, with all their opinions (also those narrow-minded, downgrading and pejorative ones). Give them some safety but at the same time don‘t let them take over and exploit the whole youth club.  Active participation of the youngsters and taking over responsibility by them are an important part of this principle.

Have an own clear and arguable political position

To have an attitude of acceptance towards youth does not mean not to have an own, maybe different political opinion. Quite the contrary, in the context of extremism it is essential to develop your own standpoint and also to clearly express it. In this respect, Open Youth Work acts as a part of Human Rights Education. In the scope of which are equality of all human beings and in this sense it is a counter narrative to all ideologies (and religions) of inequality. This principle is also particularly challenging because it requires the full authenticity of the youth worker.

Know the world of youth

What is evident for youth work in general also especially applies here. Explicit knowledge about the immediate living environment, the social, economic and cultural conditions of youth, is a fundamental precondition for working with them.

Professional knowledge on issues which are important for youth

Hardly any other issue is so much discussed in the current dispute about the work with „radicalised youngsters“ as this one. Hidden behind this discussion is the question of the role of religion in radicalisation in general. Regarding current developments, there is one thesis saying that only religiously well and intensely educated persons (such as religious educators or imams ) are able to sustainably work with those kids, because only they can show them the „right“ (religious) way by delivering the „right“ translation and interpretation (of religious text). However, this is a contradiction to another thesis – often held and promoted by the same persons – that radicalism doesn’t have anything to do with religion. In the end it is about striking a balance – the social worker, youth worker, therapist, whoever is working with those youngsters, has no other choice than to deal with their themes and this includes religion as well. But it is not about deep, it is about SOLID knowledge, such as for all other themes and issues which are important for youth. In working with radical youth, it sometimes makes sense to consult and involve a religious expert. In working with those kids, professional and solid knowledge about religion is also important for the youth worker. It is not necessary to have attained one’s own degree in religious studies, especially when it is about prevention.

Judge on behaviour, not on person

A permanent professional relationship on a volunteer basis can only work with a mutual appreciation of the involved persons. So in the case of verbal or physical offence, the misbehaviour of the person must be in the focus of criticism and not the person itself, especially when it is about violence, glorification of violence, about racism, no matter whether of verbal or physical.

Set clear borders still respecting the person

Borders must be absolutely clearly defined, meaning both the borders in behaviour and in expression (verbal, written, …). Borders must be explained coherently and should not appear random. Violation of those borders must be addressed immediately and in an appropriate way, sometimes also requiring sanction. This is a principle sometimes hard to follow, because it challenges the quality of the relationship between the youth worker and the youth. But especially for persons searching for orientation, clear boundaries are all the more important and frequently it is surprising how thankful they often are accepted.

Time and Continuity

It is important to be aware of the fact that prevention (and also de-radicalisation) is something which needs time and continuity. You have to keep an eye on the ongoing process and need to formulate proper (intermediate) outcomes, regularly reflect and evaluate this to adjust your strategy if necessary.

Most of the measures described above are not new for youth work. However, it is important to recall those basically known principles and adapt them to the current needs. Even though it is essential to resolutely contradict mass media’s dramatization of radicalisation and to put things into perspective, it is also not to be ignored that some polarising pejorative behaviours among youngsters are increasing. The amount of sympathy for Daesh, Salafist movements and their right wing “counter-movements” (which share the same attitudes at the end of the day!) do not give ground for hope that those phenomena will disappear soon.

It enables the youth worker to get into contact and relationship with groups who are often no longer approachable for anybody else.


by Werner Prinzjakowitsch (2015)

Werner Prinzjakowitsch is Educational Director at the Association of Viennese Youth Centres, with more than 300 employees the largest Open Youth Work providing Non-Profit Organisation in Austria.


Photo Kickboxing: © Paul Posse


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