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New UNESCO chair to focus on prevention of radicalization, extremism

The initiative will feature three co-chairs with different specialties from three separate universities.


Ghayda Hassan is no stranger to radicalization and extreme violence. A professor of clinical psychology at Université du Québec à Montréal, she was born and raised in Lebanon during the multi-factional civil war that claimed 120,000 lives and caused an exodus of nearly one million people between 1975 and 1990. Dr. Hassan said it takes concerted strategies, resources and actions to identify and counter the extremist views that lead to violence among different political, ethnic and religious communities.

“No country is immune from a growing problem that affects millions of people around the world, including here in Canada,” says Dr. Hassan. “And dealing with it effectively requires collaboration.”

That’s why Dr. Hassan, who specializes in mental health and family violence intervention strategies for immigrants and refugees, is excited about the prospects of the new UNESCO Chair on the Prevention of Radicalization and Violent Extremism. Inaugurated in late February, the chair is a unique three-way partnership between UQAM, Université de Sherbrooke and Concordia University.

It notably features three co-chairs with different specialties from each of the universities: UQAM’s Dr. Hassan, political scientist David Morin from Université de Sherbrooke and education expert Vivek Venkatesh from Concordia. Sami Aoun, a political scientist and Middle East specialist at Université de Sherbrooke, is the scientific director of the new chair, which is being funded by the Quebec government to the tune of $400,000 over four years.

According the announcement from UNESCO, which is sponsoring the initiative, the chair’s primary mission is to act as a centre of excellence to develop, share and promote research to prevent radicalization and violent extremism. The results of that work will be disseminated, and acted upon, by roughly 40 groups and partners in Canada and abroad that are actively involved in the fight against radicalization and terrorism.

“We will work to develop innovative research-based action programs based on best practices, particularly in social, education and community services settings,” said Dr. Hassan. “We will also work to support and leverage an increase in the dialogue between centres around the world under UNESCO. There are a few collaborations, but they are in silos and not integrated into one structure.”

Though the issue of radicalization and violent extremism is less acute in Canada, Dr. Hassan says the new chair will also provide a channel through which our resources and research capabilities can help front-line countries in Europe, Africa and Asia to better manage their training and resources, which are often limited.

For his part, Dr. Morin says the new chair is a timely initiative aimed at combatting what he says is a growing global phenomenon. “Whether it is groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS or the far right or far left, or even environmentalists, extremism and radicalization that leads to violence is not waning, it’s on the rise,” said Dr. Morin, an international security expert and coordinator of research projects at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies and Security at UQAM since 2003.

He said the new chair, which will function “like a business consortium” in which Université de Sherbrooke will be responsible for annual reports and each university will handle the money granted to their respective co-chair for research projects.

“We want to be an international platform for prevention,” said Dr. Morin. “Hopefully our efforts will lead to a better understanding on how to deal effectively with the threat of radicalization and extremist violence in what is an increasingly polarized world.”

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