Syrian refugee students sit in their classroom at a Lebanese public school. (Photo: Hussein Malla/AP)

Open dialogue in schools is the first step in fighting violent extremism

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Open dialogue in schools is the first step in fighting violent extremism

By Dr Anantha Duraiappah

(Original article: The Guardian.  October 10, 2016)

In the last year the world has seen attacks by violent extremists in Gaziantep, Turkey, Brussels, Orlando, Nice and far too many others.

No longer are these isolated incidents; they are global threats to lives and to freedom of speech, movement and choice. Fighting fire with fire is clearly not a viable solution. The need for peace through dialogue, respect and understanding has never been more acute.

Schools are a good place to begin. The UN secretary general has identified education as a central tool in the fight against violent extremism. But the type of education is critical if the fight is to be won.

A recent global survey by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) at UNESCO found no significant difference in attitudes of compassion and empathy across groups who have and have not experienced peace education.

A 2015 survey conducted by Bengaluru-based NGO Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness, covering about 10,000 high-school and college students from 11 cities across the country, found more than 65% of young people felt that boys and girls from different religious backgrounds should not be allowed to associate with each other. Worse, over 40% of boys agreed that women had no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence.

It is particularly shocking that this is happening in a country that has had elements of peace education in its curricula for at least the past 30 years.

The sad fact is that the present curricula on peace, morals and citizenship are just not working, and new approaches need to be used if we are to address the rising trend of intolerance and extremism.

Simply telling young people about the evils of violent extremism is not enough. What is needed is a holistic education model that lays emphasis on dialogue, fosters critical thinking skills, inculcates respect for diversity and gives the students the socio-emotional and behavioural skills that will help deconstruct the messaging used to promote violence.

At the heart of such a seemingly utopian model is the need for space in the classrooms for a free, honest and “no-holds-barred” dialogue with peers and just as critically, with oneself.

Neuroscientist Dr Marilee Bresciani Ludvik and her colleagues at the San Diego State University advocate incorporating the notion of “self authorship”; they call for including time for students in the classroom to reflect on relationships with others and themselves leading to the development of their own value and belief systems.

In the fight against violent extremism, an open dialogue can be the first step towards questioning and reflecting on one’s beliefs, assumptions and contribute significantly to understanding the push and pull factors of radicalisation.

The good news is that while we wait for education systems to evolve, the internet presents an immediate opportunity to exchange ideas in an open and unrestricted manner across geographical and ideological barriers.

The MGIEP recently concluded an extensive online dialogue on preventing violent extremism spanning six weeks and engaging about five million young people on Facebook and Twitter.

The exercise received more than 1,000 detailed comments from across the globe, demonstrating how young people perceive their role in the prevention of violent extremism.

In recognition of the need for such “safe” spaces to exist for the dialogue on critical issues to continue, Unesco MGIEP is developing a dedicated dialogue-driven platform for young people to exchange ideas on critical issues.

At MGIEP’s flagship Talking Across Generations on Education held last month in New Delhi, a young psychologist from France offered this revealing insight: “When one is continually suppressed, violent extremism becomes a form of communication.”

We must provide young people with the assurance that there is an alternative; that there exists a space (online and offline) where they can communicate their views, frustrations and anger; a space where differences and diversity are respected and violence is not a language.

Dr Anantha Kumar Duraiappah is director of the Unesco Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development in New Delhi, India

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