Tread Lightly: Tackling Radicalization through Education

On 16 November 2016, Spark and the International Finance Corporation  organized the annual IGNITE conference in Amsterdam. This year’s theme was ‘Tackling Instability, Radicalisation and Forced Migration’. The main purpose of the conference was to facilitate discussion on how the root causes of instability, radicalization and forced migration in Africa, the European Union and the Middle East can be tackled. These are timely issues, not only for fragile and war-torn states and regions, but also more stable societies.

Reflecting on two panel discussions at IGNITE, which were led by The Hague Institute in collaboration with other partners, this commentary focuses on the role of education in tackling the root causes/drivers of violent extremism. It argues that education can be preventive but greater attention should be afforded to the design of policies and programs. Education, after all, does not always prevent conflict and it can be contested and politicized among conflicting parties. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, education can even cause or exacerbate violence. In other contexts, it can have negligible impact, which over time can lead to disillusionment and frustration in this respect.

Radicalization and violent extremism have come to the center of both the international security and development agendas. Multiple international top-down initiatives have been undertaken to frame and direct policy and practice on how to counter this type of violence and instability. Three key examples include: The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, 17-19 February 2015; UNESCO’s Preventing Violent Extremism through Education conference in New Delhi, 19-20 September 2016; and the UN Secretary-General’s (UNSG) Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which was presented to the UN General Assembly on 15 January 2016.

In the latter, Ban Ki-moon argued that “violent extremism is the scourge of our times.” He continued to state that: “[T]he international community needs to adopt a comprehensive approach which encompasses not only ongoing essential security-based counter-terrorism measures, but also systematic preventive measures which directly address the drivers of violent extremism at the local, national, regional and global levels.”

“Violent extremism is the scourge of our times.”

The main message in the UNSG’s statement is that the prevention of violent extremism requires the drivers at all levels to be addressed. Therefore, efforts to prevent violent extremism should not exclusively be security-based but include education, skills development, and employment creation, which are listed among the seven priority areas in the UNSG’s  Plan of Action. The EU similarly recognizes the importance of education and youth action in preventing violent extremism.

While there appears to be relative clarity and consensus at the upstream policy level on how to prevent violent extremism through education, the implementation of policy and practice has yet to resolve some fundamental differences. First, there is a lack of rigorous evidence on attribution and impact, which has led to an ambivalent relationship between the ‘problem’ and proposed ‘solution’. Second, more fundamentally, there is disagreement on the terms ‘violent extremism’ and ‘radicalization’, and both have taken on negative connotations. In response to these two challenges, some researchers assert that educational programs need to be carefully designed and evidence-based.

At a more conceptual level, other commentators have highlighted the risks of merging traditional security approaches with education-based programs. For example, Sieckelinck, Kaulingfreks and de Winter argue that security services and teachers will approach radicalized youth in very different, and at times conflicting, ways.

In a recent paper by The Hague Institute, Macaluso observes that measures adopted in Europe have put more emphasis on countering rather than preventing violent extremism: “[M]ost of the measures enforced so far in Europe in fact focus on countering radicalisation and using schools to identify individuals or groups who might have radical attitudes, rather than investing in prevention.”

The pivotal question then is how can effective education prevention programs be designed and delivered that complement, or at least not conflict with, counter-terrorism approaches?

Towards answering this question, preventative measures need to be carefully planned and based on existing insights or preferably evidence. For example, it is known that in many cases, parents, schools and other educational institutions are reluctant to engage in programs and even discussions that use the terms ‘violent extremism’ and ‘radicalization’. Instead, it may be more constructive to focus on improving how students are taught and enabled to think critically and reflectively alongside the development of social skills.

It may be more constructive to focus on improving how students are taught and enabled to think critically and reflectively alongside the development of social skills.

This would include learning about the dynamics of group behavior (for example, the effects of groupthink), the construction of identities, and how to get involved in decision-making processes. These examples are grounded in debates on ‘resilience’, which is also a concept not without critics. Nevertheless, at a minimum, it has the potential to challenge current thinking on preventing violent extremism and it promotes an integrated approach to violence which should resonate with traditional security actors.

In conclusion, preventing violent extremism through education has gathered momentum at the international policy level and it has the potential to be effective in practice. Nevertheless, policymakers need to listen more carefully to the experiences and insights of practitioners. Policies and programs, more generally, that attempt to resolve complex and deeply sensitive problems head-on rarely succeed.

Attempting to ‘tackle violent extremism or radicalization’, where these terms are disliked and not used by the policy users, will be fruitless and perhaps counter-productive. Instead, focusing on the root causes, for example, the gaps in the cognitive and social skills at the formative stage of development, may not only prevent the current risks of violence but also help create longer-term resilience among individuals and communities.

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