How religious education can – and cannot – help to prevent extremism

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How religious education can – and cannot – help to prevent extremism

Several European countries are offering Islam classes at state schools, promoting integration and combating religious extremism. Our analyst Han Chang addresses the role of education with particular attention to religious deradicalisation.

This weekly comment was written by Han Chang and reflects her personal analysis and opinion, rather than those of EARS.

Earlier this year, French President Macron proposed a law against what he called ‘Islamist separatism’. According to Macron, one of the breeding grounds for radicalisation and separatism, created by France itself,[1] is homeschooling.[2]Measures including a ban on homeschooling and major government scrutiny on religious schools thus are needed to combat radical Islamism, said Macron.[3] Harshly hit by Islamist terror in the last decade, the draft law in France is not suprising for many. Nevertheless, the question of whether the proposed law will be effective in fighting extremism in France, has not yet been answered.

Religious education and extremism
The huge challenge represented by Islamist extremism is also shared by other European countries, resulting in policy-making at both national and international levels.[4] Alongside reactive measures such as military action and expensive government surveillance, the necessity of long-term preventive measures through education has also been addressed. The Chef de Cabinet to the United Nations Secretary-General, for example, has underscored the key role education can play in countering extremist ideologies.[5]

In addition, a great concern for policymakers is a clear increase in the number of young people involved with extremism in recent years. In response to this emerging issue, educators and educational institutions in Western countries are asked to engage in efforts to counter violent extremism.[6] As of 2015, the UK has legislated a requirement for schools to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorist activity’.[7] Accordingly, teachers in the UK are obligated to identify and report children considered ‘vulnerable’ to radicalisation, with teachers being trained to undertake their prevention duty. Similar training for teaching staff can also be found in France.[8]

The paradoxical role of education
Education’s role is not to be underestimated in dealing with extremism, since it has been used by extremists to spread ideology and radicalise young minds.[9] [10] Research suggests that to combat extremism effectively through education, we need to understand its ability to indoctrinate individuals and promote religious extremism. For example, religious education plays a crucial role for the global religious extremist organization ISIS. The ministry of education and higher education in ISIS territory teaches Salafi ideology that includes gender segregation and removes topics related to citizenship, history, diversity, or religions of religious minorities.[11] It would be naive to assume that this radicalisation through soft power can be combated through hard power such as aggressive state measures, including military strategies and security tactics. In this sense, a critical, dialogic, and respectful education is needed to enable youth to develop values and skills of critical and resilient citizenship.[12]

Education as soft power combating extremism
The German Federal Government has significantly increased its efforts to prevent extremism and promote democracy. As an important instrument for social participation, civic education, with a special focus on young people, plays a vital role.[13] Supported by the state, Islam classes in school curricula and university programmes for Islamic theology have been developed at all stages of education.[14] Similar developments are also seen in Austria, where Islamic theology is viewed as a tool for social integration and a preventive measure against religious radicalisation.[15]

In Spain, it has been found that Islamic Religious Education (IRE) in public schools is proven to be more effective than in madrassas (Islam class outside of public institutions).[16] With IRE content and teacher recruitment under state control, Islam classes contribute to the fight against Islamist terrorism and violent radicalisation, while the madrassas are beyond government control.[17]

Nevertheless, experts also suggest that there is no evidence that Muslim schools or homeschooling are the root problems of radicalisation and Islamic separatism in France. On the contrary, experts broadly agree that the alienation of French Muslims, especially in France’s exurban ghettos, or banlieues,[18] leaves some susceptible to radicalisation and violence. The specialised curricula offered in some Muslim schools could actually help guard against both radicalisation and one of its root causes – the perceived incompatibility between being Muslim and being French.[19]

In Britain, teaching Islam has historically been an effective method of integrating religious minorities throughout the development of the education system as well.[20] Case studies in Britain suggest that there is a genuine interest from pupils in discussing the relationship between terrorism and religion.[21]

Critical education
The fact that religious extremism has provoked youth who have been educated in Western nations to carry out terrorist acts in their countries, should be a matter of great concern to policymakers and educators.[22] Steps to instil moderate religious values through Islam class form the character of tolerance and understanding in a liberal Europe. For this reason, religious education under state control that is critical and dialogic can be effective in preventing religious extremism. By allowing scope for critical discussion, and by exploring religiosity and identity, we can really begin to move away from prejudices and stereotypes, and actually work on the very principles people say they are trying to defend.

This weekly comment was written by Han Chang and reflects her personal analysis and opinion, rather than those of EARS.

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[1] Letter: France is against ‘Islamist separatism’ — never Islam

[2] Home-schooling for children over 3 years old will be banned with very targeted exceptions. What Macron forgot about ‘Islamist separatism’ – POLITICO.eu

[3] What Macron forgot about ‘Islamist separatism’ – POLITICO.eu

[4] Floris Vermeulen (2014) Suspect Communities—Targeting Violent Extremism at the Local Level: Policies of Engagement in Amsterdam, Berlin, and London, Terrorism and Political Violence, 26:2, 286-306, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2012.705254

[5] (PDF) Can education counter violent religious extremism?

[6] The role of schools and education in countering violent extremism (CVE): applying lessons from Western countries to Australian CVE policy

[7] The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 – Legislation.Gov.Uk

[8] The role of schools and education in countering violent extremism (CVE): applying lessons from Western countries to Australian CVE policy

[9] Chan, W. Y. Alice & Ghosh, Ratna. (2017). The role of religious education in countering religious extremism in diverse and interconnected societies.

[10] Ratna Ghosh, W.Y. Alice Chan, Ashley Manuel & MaihemutiDilimulati

(2016): Can education counter violent religious extremism?, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal,

DOI: 10.1080/11926422.2016.1165713

[11] Chan, W. Y. Alice & Ghosh, Ratna. (2017). The role of religious education in countering religious extremism in diverse and interconnected societies.

[12] Ratna Ghosh, W.Y. Alice Chan, Ashley Manuel & MaihemutiDilimulati

(2016): Can education counter violent religious extremism?, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal,

DOI: 10.1080/11926422.2016.1165713

[13] National Programme to Prevent Islamist Extremism During this legislative term in particular, the Federal Government has signific

[14] National Programme to Prevent Islamist Extremism During this legislative term in particular, the Federal Government has signific

[15] Studying Islamic theology in Germany and Austria

[16] Madrassa refers to a specific type of religious school or college for studying the religion of Islam. Madrassa | Definition of Madrassa by Merriam-Webster

[17] Islamic religious education and the plan against violent radicalization in Spain

[18] Perspective | Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam’

[19] Muslim schools are allies in France’s fight against radicalization – not the cause

[20] Muslim Schools in Britain: Challenging mobilisations or logical developments?

[21] Discussing terrorism: a pupil-inspired guide to UK counter-terrorism policy implementation in religious education classrooms in England

[22] Ratna Ghosh, W.Y. Alice Chan, Ashley Manuel & MaihemutiDilimulati (2016): Can education counter violent religious extremism?, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, DOI: 10.1080/11926422.2016.1165713