Global attention turns to education for countering extremism

The rising financial cost of fighting terrorism raises the need to combat the issue with education

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Amid the high financial cost of combating religious extremism, global attention appears to be shifting to the role that education may play in containing the phenomenon.

In a recent address to the United Nations, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair explained that extremism is rooted in the perversion of religious belief, because it uses faith to justify violence against innocent civilians.


Extremist messages, conflict, hatred and violence could be countered through education specifically focused on “opening young minds to the other,” Blair said.

Financial cost

Education’s role in tackling violent extremism is gaining traction with policymakers. The United States Institute of Peace in August 2013 identified countering violent extremism (CVE) as a growing and evolving practice.

Blair, an advocate for this approach, explained to the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee last month that reactive approaches towards counter-terrorism require large amounts of money, effort and energy.

Liberating and uplifting youth is a more cost-effective measure than allowing extremists to cultivate their ideologies in this vulnerable group, who later potentially emerge as security threats, according to Blair. According to The Washington Post, the United States in the 2012 fiscal year spent $17.25 billion on counter-terrorism and has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence post-Sept.11, 2001.

Prevention not reaction

Blair’s remarks followed President Barack Obama’s announcement in May 2013 to change the direction of America’s counterterrorism strategy and the broader international shift toward preventative, rather than reactive, terrorism measures. In his May remarks, President Obama pledged to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism” and to “help countries…upgrade education.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Blair characterized education as a security issue and called upon the U.N. Committee to alter how counter-terrorism and threats are understood. The aim of these new measures is “peaceful coexistence” – to show young people the only sustainable future is where people respect each other as equals, regardless of faith and culture.

The general consensus amongst experts is that globalization has seemingly intensified the impact of extremism. The world is more interconnected than at any other point in human history. Blair continued that more and more people are coming into contact with each other and consequently, the need to “respect your neighbor” is greater than ever.

The former prime minister said “extremists play on fear, and fear is born of ignorance.” While faith can provide a sense of identity and belonging, those who do not belong are portrayed as “inferior, harmful and as opponents.” In the goal of recruiting young supporters, extremist groups are actively penetrating the social networks and technologies that appeal to these demographics. Internet, Skype and social media have now turned into new recruiting tools. Even an informal schooling would aid vulnerable youth populations in combating the lure of extremism.

‘Many young people do not have a true understanding of those who are different and are taught misunderstandings and misconceptions of others,” Blair told the United Nations. Schooling which counters the “false knowledge” of extremists is, according to Blair, “every bit as important as educating young people about math, art and literature.”

Education promotes cross cultural dialogue and “conquers prejudice through honest discussion.” Blair said he would like the international community and the United Nations Security Council to educate young people on “cultural acceptance.” Adding, “if you can put a human face to someone who is different, it is a lot easier to respect them, and harder to hate them.”

An uphill battle

The challenge remains in providing education in places which are difficult to access. Blair acknowledged getting to where the problem really lies presents a “risk.” The single most important thing is to first “get the issue on the table.” He noted that any great cause, including the United States civil rights movement in the late 1950s, had to begin somewhere.

By raising awareness, generating respect for others, and creating dialogue, education equips youth to resist the pull factors of extremist recruitment. Naureen Chowdhury Fink, the Center of Global Counterterrorism Cooperation’s Head of Research and Analysis, said young people are particularly vulnerable to extremist messages because they “lack critical thinking.” Fink added that people without an education depend on being told what religious and other texts say.

A prime example of the radicalization of youth is the Somali youth group, Al Shabaab, whose members are aged between 14 and 22. UNESCO, in a 2010 study, looked at the impact of conflict on education.
Data collection at the end of 2006 showed young men in rural and urban areas of Somalia averaged just one year of education. The report also identified military recruitment on school grounds, highlighting the fact extremist groups are aware of young people’s susceptibility to their messages.
The first hurdle

Understanding cultural differences is important, yet this push for education faces some legitimate challenges due to the high illiteracy rates in the Middle East.

Iraq and Pakistan were ranked number one and two, respectively, on the Global Terrorism Index in 2012, compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace. They also each have the highest numbers of terrorist incidents, deaths and casualties. Their ranking indicates the impact of terrorism on their societies in terms of fear and subsequent security responses.

There is widespread illiteracy in both countries. In Iraq, 14 percent of school children have no access to suitable schooling while in Pakistan 25 percent of seven to sixteen year olds have never been to school. A critical first step in addressing extremism through education is to ensure the development of basic skills like reading and writing.

It’s all in a word…

Fink warns of the associated dangers with “securitizing education” saying those working in development are undertaking a “security operation,” and may be uncomfortable with adding a different, counter-terrorism label to their role. There also exists a concern that personnel working in the field could be endangered as they are perceived to be “taking sides.”

Despite these challenges Fink says “education will not necessarily directly prevent terrorism. It will however, mitigate factors conducive to terrorism and can help peel away layers of support for extremist ideas and activities in communities.”

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