In these uncertain and divided times, political and civic leaders often tout education as the best antidote to extremism and its violent extension, terrorism. Yet evidence suggests that terrorists are more likely than not to be educated. While radicalization (the process by which an individual comes to support extremism or terrorism) is a contentious issue that produces little consensus, researchers some years ago identified ideology and grievance as two necessary drivers. If increased education means an individual is more susceptible to extremist ideologies and grievances, and therefore more susceptible to radicalization, then how exactly should we respond through education?
In this context, few would argue for less education as an antidote. But this dynamic does highlight the importance of getting education right when it comes to building peaceful and tolerant societies that are free of extremism and free of terrorism.
In the U.K., the government has required since 2014 that schools teach “fundamental British values” in the curriculum. While there has been some stiff opposition to the nomenclature, few would argue with the importance of the values themselves: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs.
While the teaching of these values may be a critical component in helping young people understand their democratic rights and responsibilities so they can fully participate in modern society and, hopefully, eschew violence for political ends, such education still doesn’t directly confront extremism and radicalization.
But, while some educators in the West are confident and capable enough to rigorously discuss extremist ideologies, it is unrealistic to expect the majority of teachers to be familiar enough with the intricacies of far-right and extremist worldviews to compete with the powerful messaging of recruiters and radicalizers.
Previous education efforts, for instance, have focused on the noble intention of explaining, through religious education, the true meaning of terms like jihad (such as its connotation for struggle, striving, or effort). But while the brutality may capture the headlines, the propaganda of extremist groups is very advanced, and such basic education efforts pale in comparison to the intellectual and theological rigor with which violent extremists justify their actions and worldview.
Teachers might be better-positioned to undermine or build resilience to grievance narratives used by extremists. Grievance is unique in that it can be both personal and vicarious (felt on behalf of a group), it can be real or perceived, and it can be both local and global.
Extremist propaganda perpetuates narratives of injustice, humiliation, and suffering at the hands of another group. Nazism, for example, held Jews responsible for the humiliation of the Germanic people, just as al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden held Americans responsible for what he viewed as the humiliation of Muslims.
Terrorists often see themselves as responding to these real or perceived injustices. Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the July 7, 2005, London Transport bombings that killed 52 people, injured hundreds, and became the worst terrorist attack on British soil, declared himself ”directly responsible” for avenging the suffering of his “Muslim brothers and sisters.”
These global narratives of oppression and suffering can marry up with personal setbacks that can be explained as part of a broader pattern of injustice. The online subculture known as the Incel movement channels male sexual frustration into a comprehensive misogynistic worldview that has, on occasion, emerged into the real world with deadly consequences, as in Toronto earlier this year.
Tree of Life Synagogue
The Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shootings have provided recent, horrific evidence of the power of grievance. Gunman Robert Powers, in a reference to a Jewish-American refugee aid organization, posted on social media prior to the attack: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” This suggests that Bowers held the Jewish aid group (and by extension Jews) responsible for a perceived attack by refugees and other immigrants on “his people,” and that violence was a necessary response.
My own organization, SINCE 9/11, has delivered programs in a number of U.K. towns and cities, aimed at bringing difficult conversations surrounding extremism, terrorism, and conflict into the classroom. Our aim has never been to give students the right or wrong answers. But by opening up debate on issues which are too rarely discussed in any depth in a school setting, we have observed students moving away from conspiratorial worldviews to a far more nuanced and complex view of global events.
We have also observed a shift towards greater sympathy for the human victims of extremist violence at the expense of empathy for the cause of the perpetrators — directly undermining concepts of “vicarious responsibility” (that a wider group of people is directly or indirectly responsible for individual or group suffering). In the longer term, our hope is that the young people we reach will be more resilient to the grievance narratives and “hooks” that extremists seek to peddle.
While the notion of building “critical thinking skills” has at times become synonymous with building digital literacy, as UNESCO research indicates, building critical thinking skills and an improved ability to interpret world affairs is a much broader aim and one that has a proven impact on building resilience to extremism. The approach taken by SINCE 9/11 and other initiatives such as the Faith on the Frontline project (in which the British Army’s Muslim Chaplain spoke in U.K. schools about his work in Afghanistan) sits firmly in the territory of critical thinking and undermining grievance narratives surrounding world events.
Every educator is in a position to challenge grievance narratives. They can do so by not allowing black-and-white thinking or binary worldviews to take hold, by challenging “us-and-them” rationales, by showing multiple sides of arguments, and by discouraging the interpretation of personal setbacks as part of a broader conspiracy perpetrated by external forces or a group.
The issue of showing multiple sides in a debate and tolerance for alternative political viewpoints is especially important, even if the educator agrees or sympathizes with an expressed opinion. It is our responsibility as professionals to show different sides of a debate, within reasons, even when we may not agree.
Finally, we should not devalue knowledge at the expense of values and critical thinking. Grievance and conspiracy thinking thrive in the grey areas of ignorance and uncertainty. Extremists prey on these gaps and fill them with their own rhetoric even if the facts suggest something entirely different. Young people emerging into the world with a more critical and nuanced understanding of global events will be our most effective bulwark against extremism.
IMAGE: Flowers and candles are laid in a street in tribute to the victims of a deadly shooting the day before in central Strasbourg on Dec. 12. The suspected gunman, who shot dead several people and wounded a dozen at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, was known to police and thought to be a religious extremist. (Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images)