Can Education Prevent Violent Extremism?

On the 2nd of June 2016, the Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) organized a Roundtable Debate on the Prevention of Violent Extremism through Education at the United Nations in New York.  The event, which was supported by the Permanent Mission of Andorra, Tunisia and the Republic of Korea, brought together policy-maker, researchers, practitioners and activists to debate the role of education in the prevention of violent extremism. During the debate, 6 panelists underscored the importance of turning policies and strategies into action on the ground. 

Mr. Jorge Sequeira, UNESCO Representative to the Counter-Terrorism Initiative Task Force and the co-chair of the Working Group on Conditions Conducive to the Spread of Terrorism, stated in  his opening remarks that extremism gains ground and flourishes when young people lack choices and meaning in their lives. He recalled that in debating the role of education in the prevention of violent extremism, it would be necessary to address questions related to not only the content of education but how it should be delivered, who must be involved, and what kind of policies would be needed for which population groups.

In his opening statement, H.E. Mr. Mohamed Khaled Khiari, Permanent Representative of Tunisia highlighted a number of actions his government has taken to address the threat of violent extremism including the development of a national strategy to combat violent extremism. He stated that “under the prevention pillar of the national strategy, particular attention is given to ensure that national education system improve access to knowledge on values of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance of other cultures”.    

Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea, H.E. Mr. Hahn Choonghee, referred to the diverse and complex root causes and structural issues that breed violent extremism and indicated that these have diverse outcomes at the levels of family, community, society and to national and international peace and security which must be addressed by all pillars of the United Nations. Pointing out that many of those joining extremist groups are often highly-educated youth, he stated that the orientation of education is fundamentally important and that young people must be encouraged to cultivate a sense of judgment and discernment to distinguish right from wrong.

Ms. Soo Hyang Choi, UNESCO Director, Division of Inclusion, Peace and Sustainable Development set the stage for the roundtable debate by asserted that while education per se cannot prevent individuals from becoming violent extremists, it can prevent the perpetuation of an environment conducive to violent extremism. In order to achieve this, she underlined the need for schools to be safe spaces where students can openly debate and discuss sensitive political and religious issues to prevent them from going elsewhere for answers. She also called for the creation of inclusive learning environments and processes to ensure that students do not feel marginalised in school settings and finally, where learning about diversity and respect is encouraged to eliminate negative values leading to an exclusive view of the world.

Mr. Dean Peidmont, Director of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Reintegration Initiative spoke about the dilemma of addressing PVE through education in peacebuilding processes as in many post-conflict and fragile situations it could in fact put already vulnerable communities and lives in peril. In situations where the impact could vary greatly for different groups of population, he said it would be imperative to avoid the provision of one “blanket” education and instead PVE through education should adopt a targeted approach based on sound research and analytics.

Speaking about the need for a gendered perspective of PVE and CVE, Ms. Naureen Chowdhury Fink, Head of Research and Analysis, Global Centre for Cooperative Security said that “traditionally we have heard of women as victims, passive bystanders and byproducts of this violence but now there is growing evidence of women as perpetrators and mobilizers”. She stressed the need for a gendered analysis of PVE and CVE in order to counter act on prevailing stereotypes which place female mobilization in a gray zone. For instance, by focusing the attention on women being coerced into joining extremist groups without paying enough attention to political grievances that may have led them to seek out these groups, she stated that a more nuanced thoughtful approach which could help mitigate the susceptibility to extremist narrative is being missed.

Mr. Abdihafid Yussuf Abdi, co-founder of Teachers Against Violent Extremism and co-chair of Community Development Initiative spoke of school and community-based approaches to challenge violent extremism in Nairobi, Kenya. Explaining that the Initiative’s work cuts across working with young people, women, religious leaders, law enforcement and school, he mentioned that the most critical component to this work was imparting skills to make young people critical thinkers and give them some form of incentive to reject recruiters and build up their communities. He also affirmed the importance of involving a wide range of stakeholders and members of the community as well as the peer to peer support to ensure the success of interventions.

Mr. Benjamin Ducol, Research Manager at the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, spoke of Quebec’s Approach to Preventing Radicalization through Education. He stated that because the threat of violent extremism and radicalization is complex, the responses need to be multi-dimensional. He explained that, as responses generally tend to be law enforcement-based, by providing a comprehensive response based on psycho-social support to parents, educators, community leaders and youth, the Centre aims to be the alternative solution to preventing radicalization. In addition to conducting research on the reasons behind radicalization, the Center offers training programmes for teachers and community leaders, works with youth to build leadership for peer to peer support, and equips teachers with digital literacy skills.

GEFI Youth Advocate, Ms. Anusheh Bakht, rounded up the discussion by presenting her views on the type of educational reforms needed to prevent violent extremism. Stating that curricula are often a political agent used to perpetuate a certain belief system to guide thinking, she held that in order to ensure a more balanced view of the world “we need to give young people the tools to critically analyze how political factors are influencing how they’re being taught”. Finally, she emphasized the need to not only educate youth but also the leaders to rise above military or political gains and means in order to focus on the greater good for humanity.


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