“World Leaders, This is How We Can Prevent Extremism”

“World Leaders, This is How We Can Prevent Extremism”

“World Leaders, This is How We Can Prevent Extremism”

Commentary

5 min read

Posted on: 12th November 2019

Today we have the youngest global population in history, with 1.8 billion people aged 15 to 24 years, more than one out of every four people on the planet. This ‘youth bulge’ trend is set to continue over the coming decades.3 Never has there been a more important time to have strong policies, systems and societies that deliver for the needs of young people, including how to support them to be tolerant, open-minded global citizens. To achieve this, young people must have a voice in development of their societies. In this essay two youth activists, from Pakistan and the Philippines, share their vision for harnessing education to tackle extremism, online and offline.

Embracing Knowledge and Resisting Hatred

Ahmad Nawaz, Pakistan

Embracing Knowledge and Resisting Hatred

After the terrorist attack on my school in Pakistan in 2014, in which my brother died and I was badly injured, I started to think about why such attacks happen. I also started to think about why a human being, with a heart and a brain, would do such an atrocious thing. I thought about what the government was doing to stop these people and wondered whether it was the right solution to the problem.

When there is a rise in extremism in a country, the focus is almost always on dealing with the people who embody the extremist ideology. The focus is never on tackling the ideology itself. I believe that if we target the ideology, which is possible by providing the right education to the vulnerable in society, we will cut the roots of extremism. In the long term we will be able to eradicate extremist thinking.

I realised that the terrorists targeted us in school because they feared young people shaping their future, embracing knowledge and resisting hatred.

When I was in hospital after the attack, my mind was swamped with all these questions. I realised that the terrorists targeted us in school because they feared young people shaping their future, embracing knowledge and resisting hatred. I realised that the terrorists were terrified of us and everything that we represent. They were terrified of the hope and the potential that comes from educating young people.

The terrorists have realised that attacking the education of young people will do much more harm than attacking military forces.

The relationship between extremism and literacy is strong. In Pakistan, the literacy rate varies from province to province, city to city. The northwestern tribal part of Pakistan–where the literacy rate is approximately 22 per cent–is where the majority of terrorist activities in the country have taken place over the past decade.4 However, in Islamabad, the capital, and the province of Punjab, where the literacy rate is relatively high, there have been very few terrorist activities over this period.

When a person is deprived of the right education they become vulnerable to being brainwashed and radicalised. I believe it is not only the problem of extremism which can be eradicated by providing the right education. Education can help with many other social problems. We can provide young people with an education that encourages them not only to become successful themselves but also to help others. An education that teaches pupils to be compassionate and understanding. An education that teaches people to treat everyone as equals. In this way, education can help to eradicate the things that feed extremism such as racism, inequality and hatred.

Fighting Terrorism Online: Digital Skills for Young People

Arizza Nocum, The Philippines

Fighting Terrorism Online: Digital Skills for Young People

At 10 hours per day, Filipinos spend more hours online than internet users in any other nation in the world.

Filipinos also spend the longest time–over four hours per day–on social media.5

It is no surprise, then, that extremist groups in the Philippines turn to the internet and social media to influence, recruit and sow fear. This extremism is manifested not only by the presence of Islamist groups pledging allegiance to ISIS, but also in political parties seeking to gain mass of support through an ‘us versus them’ narrative.

As an example, a young Muslim who posted a message on Facebook sympathetic to the cause of violent extremist organisations like the Islamist Maute Group reported that he was contacted and then invited to join.

In other reported cases, invitations sent on Facebook Messenger for study groups for Islamic instruction or Arabic language have been veiled attempts at indoctrination and recruitment.6

Islamist extremism, however, is a small blip in the Philippines' social media radar.

More common is polarising political content generated by ‘architects of networked disinformation’ hired by politicians to spew propaganda against opponents or promote their own political parties with fake news deliberately created to ‘go viral’.7

The Philippines’ political landscape is divided between supporters of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte and former President Benigno Aquino III. Since Duterte's election in 2016, the exchanges between the two groups in social media have been vicious and relentless.

The common target of this propaganda is inevitably young people, who now comprise the majority of  the Filipino population. In fact, among the 76 million internet users in the country, the median age is 25.8

While extremist groups invest their time, resources, and creative ideas into spreading their own narratives on social media, the government has yet to do much to combat these forces. In the most recent elections, for instance, no clear regulations were proposed to address widespread disinformation.

And the Philippines is not alone. Extremism and disinformation online are challenges for nations worldwide. Even after numerous investigations by lawmakers in other countries, no clear steps have been taken globally to address online extremist narratives or the fake news and trolls that perpetuate them.

If extremists recruit followers by indoctrinating them, then we must have teachers, trainers and thought leaders building resilience in young people against extremist ideologies.

While it makes sense to make large digital companies such as Facebook accountable, it also makes sense to create a barrage of content centred on the values that extremists dislike: unity, empathy, and understanding. And the best way to ensure these positive narratives are sustainable is through education.

Digital literacy and critical thinking skills are just two important lines of defence against extremist tactics.9 This is where our leaders come in.

It is time for leaders to invest in making digital literacy, critical thinking and empathy the core components of school curriculums. If extremists recruit followers by indoctrinating them, then we must have teachers, trainers and thought leaders building resilience in young people against extremist ideologies.

There must also be consistent campaigns, particularly aimed at the young, promoting the same values on social media to take the extremists on in their own battleground.

Government need not be alone. Corporations, civil society organisations, youth alliances, student clubs and religious groups should also take part.

Social media is not the only pathway that leads to extremism, but it is a space that is so connected and so personal that it begs for our attention.

Ultimately, extremist groups seek to imprison minds, but through education, we can free them.

Protection Is Not Enough: We Must Prevent Extremism

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