Orlando, Jo Cox, Istanbul: What young people must do to move forward

It was the opening ceremony of One Young World 2015. 1,300 young leaders from 196 countries - including myself - buzzed with energy and excitement under Bangkok’s starry night sky to listen to the opening remarks of the week’s most notable speakers.

When Sir Bob Geldof took to the stage, his grim expression was immediately a sharp contrast to the bright festivities of the night. When he spoke, his message was not a warm welcome or a happy remembrance of past One Young Worlds. His message was a direct accusation.

“It’s your fault,” he said.

The world had just reeled from the events of November 13, 2015 in Paris, France, and he was pointing the finger at us. 

The deaths of 130 in Paris - and hundreds more in other terrorist attacks - is blood on the hands of young people, he said. Our generation is increasingly becoming responsible for a new era of terror.

He’s right.

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Most of the perpetrators linked to the attacks in Paris were under the age of 30.

Omar Mateen, who was responsible for killing 49 and injuring many others in the mass shooting in Orlando, was 29 years old.

According to a US report, 28 is the average age of US citizens and residents linked to terrorism. A third of those involved in extremist activity in 2015 were 21 and under.

In my own country, the Philippines, the notorious Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization - which recently beheaded two Canadian captives - was founded and is led by young men in their 20’s.

With these facts, two questions come to mind. The first is: Why does this happen? The second is: What can we - as young people - do about it?

Thomas Koruth Samuel’s “The Lure of Youth Into Terrorism” gives tremendous insight into why young people are at the forefront of today’s terror landscape. Terrorist and extremist organizations “attract youths by exploiting their vulnerabilities and providing them with a sense of identity, belonging and cohesiveness”. Over time, “these youths begin to define their identity with that of the the group and its struggle”.

Every young person desires - in varying degrees - power, adventure, meaning, and belongingness.

When young people cannot find what they are looking for in their schools, jobs, families, or communities, they look elsewhere. In vulnerable regions, that ‘elsewhere’ may just become a hidden door to an extremist or terrorist ideology. Political, social, economic, and historical grievances further drive young people to commit and engage in terrorist acts.

Understanding these drivers among young people is the first step to addressing the problem. Each group, community, region, or country will have specific drivers and grievances pushing young people towards violent extremism. It is our responsibility to discover and dissect where our young people are most vulnerable.

The next step is to attack these vulnerabilities. We must lay the groundwork in addressing drivers to extremism - be it poverty, unemployment, religious intolerance, historical grievances, or many others. We must also provide positive answers to young people’s quest for identity, belongingness, and purpose.

In the Philippines, I lead an organization called KRIS Library that builds interfaith libraries for Christian and Muslim children in conflict-stricken communities. We discovered that one particular root cause of terror in our country is the tension and misunderstandings between a Christian majority and a Muslim minority, so we decided to create libraries that are havens for peace and dialog. It is our hope that assuaging tension between these two sides will eventually lead to the creation of a shared meaning, purpose, and identity.

Libraries are just one solution. There are many others waiting to be done.

Your contribution to addressing conflict need not be big, but it has to be done soon.

The recent attack in Turkey shows us that our generation is already too late. Now is the time for our generation to fix something that is truly its fault.

Let us not wait for the next One Young World to remind us of that.

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Arizza is one of 10 young leaders from Extremely Together - an initiative by the Kofi Annan Foundation that brings young people together to counter and prevent violent extremism across borders and cultures. For more information, please visit this page.