- Problem: The debate around countering violent extremism has understandably often focussed on the consequences not root causes.
- Barrier to Progress: A lack of co-ordinated international agreement on how to help young people become global citizens in a rapidly changing world.
- Solution: The fight against religious extremism is sufficiently important to establish collective values and an agreed, common approach on education. We must expose our young people to others with different cultures or beliefs, help them navigate difference and enable them to build mutual understanding and respect.
The debate around countering violent extremism has understandably often focussed on the consequences. We see the horrific events happening in Syria, Kenya and across the world. States consider the immediate security and counter terror responses. Politicians make statements about tightening and reviewing security apparatus. Police are put on the streets to reassure the public. Terrorists are hunted down. Then it dies down and we get back to our daily lives, until the next time it happens.
But ultimately this is only half the story. Because at the end of the day we will only achieve lasting change if we deal with the root causes as well as the consequences of extremism. Whole countries are subject to religious tension and difference, expressed in violence. These countries are unable to function properly and their citizens lead lives of fear and lost opportunity.
Last month, Tony Blair was invited to address the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the United Nations Security Council. He had a stark message to the UN member states assembled – start thinking of education as a security issue.
The extremists propagating this violence are experts in the use of soft power. They are organised, dedicated to their work – and have networks of outreach, especially to young people. They are using informal community settings and infiltrating places of worship to sow the seeds of their hate. But above all, they know the power of education, whether it is in a formal or informal setting. They are filling young minds with the belief that if anyone disagrees they are an enemy, and not just their enemy, but God’s enemy. We cannot underestimate the long term damage this is doing to the world.
This is not to downplay the political issues that are obviously important and are used by extremists. But once the extremism takes hold, political solutions are harder, if not impossible to achieve.
Tough standard security measures are required, but should not be used in isolation. Furthermore they can have effects which can aggravate the situation.
The world is evolving and so must we. The challenge of this extremism is multiplied because the world is more connected than ever before. From high migration caused by economic development to the wide use of social media, people who are culturally different are mixing as never before.
Young people are at the forefront of a revolution in technology that continues to bring the world ever closer together.
Through the prism of an 18-year-old, there is no longer on or offline. It is just there – the connections, the news, the views and the bad stuff. So it is vital that our education system helps them respect difference, especially when technological advancement means they are vulnerable to those who advocate division.
We need to urgently replace ignorance with knowledge and exposure to others. If we can ensure our young people are educated to understand and know about those who are different – they are far more likely to be open to them and to accept their views.
This is why education for the open mind is a security issue. There is no answer to this problem that doesn’t start, and continue, with the importance of educating our young people at a grassroots level.
This is not about attainment, after all highly educated individuals are involved in religious extremist activity. But there is a link between a lack of cross-cultural education and religious extremism. From East to West we have not paid enough attention to the fundamental need to equip the next generation with the basic tools that will allow them to deal with the enormity of what it means to live side by side with people who are different.
The soft power used by extremists must be countered in kind. If we are to challenge religious extremists at every level we need to win over the hearts and minds of those with low levels of religious and cultural literacy around the world.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Face to Faith schools programme is just one of many ideas about how we could do this. Active in 20 countries, it helps young people become global citizens. By connecting 12-17 year olds worldwide via a secure and moderated website, it enables students to build mutual understanding and respect; to make the unfamiliar familiar. They discuss global issues from a variety of faith and belief perspectives. They gain understanding about one another, about religion and about how to be resolute in the face of negative influence. The curriculum is designed to encapsulate many subjects, including social sciences, and citizenship.
We have over 1000 schools registered. Over 50,000 students have been taught the programme. Increasingly we are working with national and state governments to advise them on how to incorporate the values and principles of the programme into teaching resources and curricula. These values must be universally owned, protected and implemented – even if the systems for embedding them will naturally differ from country to country.
We are a drop in the ocean, but we are also not alone. The sheer number of organisations across the globe that have been established to address challenges of citizenship, identity, civic engagement and youth leadership speaks volumes. They must get support from an international community that is working together effectively.
Mr Blair rightly called for action at the UN – this is a policy change that East and West must agree on. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation and many others are providing practical support to prevent religious conflict and extremism, but we need to take the work to scale. We can advise on content and approach but we can’t single-handedly take on this scale of challenge. The fight against religious extremism is sufficiently important to establish collective values and an agreed, common approach. That time is now.
Every country has its own history and is loyal to its traditions, its ethos and its culture. That is the preserve of national governments and they are right to protect it. But we need to work as international partners. We need to recognise that it is our duty to educate and expose our young people to others with different cultures and beliefs. We must help young people cope with the multifaceted fast moving world they are living. Those who distort religion for these ends are prepared to fight without hesitation, kill without mercy and die without regret. Our resolve and our willingness to act must be greater if we are going to make globalisation a force for good and ultimately defeat the religious extremism that threatens us all.