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The role of education in preventing violent extremism

Interview with Tawakkol Karman, human rights activist, journalist, politician, and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Interview by Akriti Mehra, Communications Specialist, UNESCO MGIEP

In commemoration of the International Day of Non-Violence on October 2, 2017,  Ms. Tawakkol Karman delivered the second Ahinsa Lecture at the UNESCO Headquarters, Paris on the theme ‘Working Towards Peace Building and Sustainable Development’. Ahinsa is derived from Sanskrit word ‘hims’, meaning injury and its opposite (a-himsā meaning without any injury) refers to non-violence. This ethical philosophy was popularised by Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest champion of nonviolence in the world. The Ahinsa Lecture brings forth public speakers of the highest calibre active in the field of peace and non-violence to the forum for the benefit of peace builders, policymakers, youth, UNESCO Member states and international community. The Ahinsa Lecture is organised to mark the International Day of Non-Violence celebrated on 2 October to mark the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

Post the lecture, we spoke with Ms. Karman and gathered her views on the role of education in preventing violent extremism.

What role does the education system play in preventing violent extremism?

Unquestionably, the educational system plays a large role in both preventing and spreading extremism. In fact, this basically depends on the philosophy of education, and on the school curriculums and the methods used in introducing them to students. I believe that having a coherent, progressive and contemporary education system is a crucial factor in preventing the infiltration of extremist ideas. In the end, the educational system plays a key role in whether the outcomes of the learning process are good or bad, and therefore the quality of education must be constantly monitored.

Do you believe that current education systems are equipped to provide students with the right skills to develop more peaceful and sustainable societies?

If this question is about the Arab world, I believe that the current education systems are unable to provide the needed skills for students, as there are obvious deficiencies regarding the curriculum and teacher qualification in addition to the shortage of equipment and laboratories that help increase students’ capacities to absorb the educational content and develop their mental and physical skills. There are good examples of successful schools, but they are few. As for the current education systems, they still suffer from several weaknesses and they are not keeping up with the latest developments related to techniques and laws.

In a peaceful and sustainable society, what does the education system look like?

In my view, the education system will be more developed, and will be a catalyst for the acquisition of different skills, creativity and innovation, as well as critical thinking. Such skills would never be accepted by any tyrannical regime that is based on indoctrination instead of debate and free thinking.

If the goal is to prevent violent extremism, what skills do students need in order to not fall susceptible to extreme ideologies?

As mentioned earlier, in order for students to not be vulnerable to radical ideologies, they must be equipped with the skill of critical thinking. Cognitive skills such as thinking, learning and the ability  to discuss and criticise constructively away from taboos are imperative for students  to be more committed to logical reasoning  and not to be susceptible to any attempts  of polarisation.

What are the major current factors that are inhibiting education systems from shaping compassionate and empathetic students?

There are several factors that make it difficult to shape compassionate students, most notably the absence of the political and moral project at the state level, the inability to deal with emotions and questions of students, in addition to extremist platforms, including media outlets and social media, which could reach them, deal with them the way they like, and provide answers to their questions, even if these questions were not correct (unclear). Therefore, attention should be paid on methodologies to increase the level of rational thinking among students and encourage their questions instead of oppressing them.

What is the connection between education systems and women’s rights?

Family and education contribute significantly to women’s access to their rights and helps prevent their margina-lisation and persecution. Societies with a high education rate are better able to understand women’s demands and are less likely to oppress them. Education is essential in correcting wrong behaviors  and misconceptions towards women.

“The Youth is a positive force that must be maintained and not allowed to turn into a negative force or a burden on society.”

What do you think are the main tools for fighting violent extremism?

There is no doubt that education is one of the tools that can help eliminate the ignorance that leads to violent extremism. Besides education, however, other fundamental factors are required to overcome extremism and terrorism. Freedom, democracy and justice help  create cohesive and non-extremist societies. Tyranny dilutes education  and creates extremism and terrorism.

What social actors should be involved in shaping education systems?

They include states, researchers and institutions concerned with education development, NGOs and students themselves. Students should be consulted and allowed to assess what they are studying.

Ms Tawakkol Karman is a mother of three as well as a human rights activist, journalist, politician and President of Women Journalists without Chains. She is the General Coordinator of Peaceful Youth Revolution Council and a member of the advisory board for the Transparency International Organisation and for several international non-government organisations focused on human rights. Ms. Karman is bold and outspoken and has been imprisoned on numerous occasions for her pro-democracy and pro-human rights protests. Amongst Yemen’s Youth movement, she is known as ‘the mother of the revolution’, ‘iron woman’, and most recently as ‘the lady of the Arab spring’. Ms. Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 in recognition of her work in non-violent struggle for the expression rights, safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work in Yemen. Upon being awarded the prize, Ms. Karman became the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman at that time to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She encompasses a great deal of courage which she has shown, on countless occasions, through her perseverance to constantly confront injustice and build peace.