There is an increasing awareness amongst politicians and policy makers worldwide that education is central to preventing extremism. However, the paradoxical relationship between education and extremism is often overlooked.
Education can be used both in aid of, and to combat, extremism. This review demonstrates that education has been particularly damaged by the worldwide proliferation of violent attacks motivated by religious extremism. Through case studies, the review shows how extremist groups, such as ISIS and the Taliban, directly attack education institutions, remove opportunity to access education, and use education to indoctrinate and recruit young people.
However, this review also shows that the use of education is indispensable to the sustainability of counter violent extremism (CVE) projects. The type of education is important. This review suggests that vocational training alone is not enough and highlights that education must instil critical thinking, respect for diversity, and values for citizenship if it is to successfully prevent extremism. Moreover, teachers need to be well prepared and resourced for this to be effective.
Yet current government CVE responses have largely developed extensive, costly counter-terrorism military and security strategies at national and international levels. These measures continue to be reactive to terrorist acts after they are planned or committed. Despite tremendous investment, terrorist attacks have increased. Whilst critical to combatting extremism, these responses do not prevent the initial development of violent extremist ideologies leading to radicalisation and terrorism.
This review suggests that more young people today are being radicalised by the ideas, ideology, narratives and propaganda spread by extremists. It questions whether these can be countered adequately by military responses, as they appeal directly to the psychological, intellectual and emotional states of young people.
The review finds that social institutions, like schools and universities, have not been sufficiently supported to effectively foster resilience in students to resist the pull of extremist ideology and narratives. Since universal education implies that all young people spend approximately 16 years of their lives in schools, education is an obvious tool with which to develop resilience and offer a counter-narrative.
The review reports that where CVE programmes do encompass education, they are largely underreported. Governments in Scandinavia, Western Europe and parts of Southeast Asia, have established such programmes. Many non-governmental organisations across the world have well-established programmes. Part of the problem, the review notes, is that evaluation of CVE is still difficult and imprecise. It is hard to measure what has been prevented, and more needs to be done to improve this area.
Education is a double-edged sword used by both extremists and for CVE. Formulated or conducted improperly, education can indoctrinate and develop a fear of others, as well as reinforcing attitudes that predispose people to accept monochrome understandings of the world. However, if prepared and properly led, education can instil in young people the ability to critically assess, engage and rebut extremist ideas.
The radicalisation pathways of young people vary and are dictated by their level of education. In poverty-stricken or ill-educated areas, manipulative narratives are more likely to take root, and simple monetary incentives might sway individuals. Where education levels are higher, extremists appeal to emotional and intellectual grievance narratives of inequality and injustice.
Education in general will not prevent extremism. Training – gaining knowledge and skills for a career or on a topic – is different to an holistic education that develops critical thinking, values for citizenship and respect for diversity. Specific teaching aimed at these latter aspects is vital for CVE.
More CVE educational programmes have been deployed in informal settings than formal education settings. This highlights the necessity for more organised educational efforts. However, extremist groups have been increasingly dependent on informal education, such as social media. Governments need to learn about, and support, informal and non-governmental initiatives further.
Open education systems have been more effectively contributing to CVE than closed educational systems, where national curricula may actually exacerbate the situation. The education systems in secular states are not necessarily better. Open and critical pedagogy is paramount. Learning must be student-centred and should encourage identity development and foster critical thinking and appraisal.
The role of women in CVE has become increasingly prominent and their education should be equally so. As mothers are core pillars of communities they are instrumental in creating environments conducive to preventing radicalisation and extremism.
Evaluation of preventive methods remains difficult due to the imprecise nature of establishing long-term success. The most established programmes are also located in conflict zones with a high concentration of religious extremism. As such, up-to-date and detailed reporting on their initiatives, efforts and success is difficult to gather.