A Peacebuilding Approach to Teaching About Extremism

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(Original article: David J. Smith, Huffington Post, Dec. 2, 2015)

The recent attacks in Paris and elsewhere remind us of the global instability that we often take for granted. The events have now settled into our subconscious, and we and the news cycle have moved along. But for youth who might have limited experience with considering major violent events, we need to be cognizant of their needs. Consider that 9/11 is now nearly 15 years old, and for youth it is a historic event, rather than something that was experienced on a personal and emotional level. As such, educators and parents must seek to reassure young people of their own safety and well-being. Tragedies like Paris must not be quickly passed over. Anxiety in young people may not be self-evident, and as such, exploring their impressions, feelings, and fears after violent events is important.

But this should not preclude engaging young people in considering more broadly what is going on around them. By responding only to the major events of the day we run the risk of offering limited explanations that fail to consider more holistic understandings of the underlying causes of violence. Empowering students with broader awareness of conflict provides them with tools they can use to navigate both global and domestic discontent.

Violent conflict is not self-generating, and its causes are frequently found in the failure to meet basic human needs. These needs might center on the absence of human rights or dignity; conflicted social or political identity; the inability to practice a faith or lifestyle; or the lack of economic security, food, or shelter. We can argue that the Islamic State has its own agenda for domination, but it would not garner support and attract adherents if followers were not missing something in their own lives. The Islamic State consists of people – many in their 20s – who are deeply frustrated by their present circumstances, and thus susceptible to manipulation.

The language of peace is sometimes viewed with suspicion. In this country, peace evokes images of protest, pacifism, or political pandering often seen as unrealistic in a realpolitik world driven by self-interest and saturated by weapons. The result is the seemingly intractability of violent conflict. By moving beyond a reductionist view of peace, we can provide youth with more poignant answers to the challenges we face as a global community. Through this process, young people can consider their role in preventing conflict from deteriorating to violence. Considering peace as a constructive means to facing the future is the first step. Just as “terrorism” is a means used by extremists, “peace” is a means to building a better future. As such, “peacebuilding” advances ways to proactively prevent violence and mass atrocities.

Peacebuilding embraces civil engagement with others of difference. Engaging in discourse between opposing groups can advance the understanding of different objectives and worldviews. Increasingly, youth don’t have the opportunity, nor the skill sets, to converse with those who look, speak, think, or dress differently. Conflict can be an ever-present reality in the lives of young people: often manifested in their own families and neighborhoods. Sensitizing students to the world around them, and encouraging them to engage with others can lead to developing skills such as mediation and negotiation. Looking at the needs that propel groups to seek violence to achieve their objectives can advance critical thinking abilities. Peacebuilding involves a host of approaches to fostering engagement and seeking change including nonviolent protest, humanitarianism, education, and advocacy, particularly for those whose human needs have been denied such as refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

Going beyond a reactive approach to violence, educators and parents can engage youth in considering the universal needs we all share. Rather than looking at the actions of extremists, we can focus on the plight of refugees, not just their present reality of trying to find safe havens, but why their conditions require them to move in the first place. For a teacher or parent, exploring political and religious oppression in places like Syria can promote important learning, and enable young people to better understand how to respond to the challenges they will face now and in the future. In this way, a proactive rather than a reactive path can be illuminated for youth.

Follow David J. Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidjsmith2013

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