LONDON – Governments worldwide are increasingly facing a fundamental question: how to deal with the causes of violent – often religiously motivated – extremism. They are not short of advice – and from a wide range of sources.
A former Al Qaeda member, for example, recently stated that the UK authorities’ failure to explain properly why it had not intervened in Syria’s civil war risked radicalizing more Muslims. Meanwhile, London Mayor Boris Johnson suggested removing children from radicalized parents. Although such ideas have received a somewhat mixed reception, they are a welcome sign of much-needed public debate.
Most people accept the need for security services to respond to terror, particularly in the aftermath of an attack. Achieving lasting change, however, requires addressing not just the consequences of extremism but also its root causes. What can be done?
First, governments must start thinking about education as a security issue. For example, while endlessly worrying about the existence of dangerous material online, we could do more to educate our youth in the critical thinking skills needed to dismiss such content.
This is a new challenge, and it will not be easy. Before the digital revolution, young people met those from other countries and cultures in relatively restricted circumstances, such as on a holiday abroad or a school exchange program. Today, however, they can interact with any number of people from anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds on their smart phones. Many of these connections take place on un-moderated platforms that expose children to a wide variety of opinions, beliefs, and cultures – not all positive or safe.
Unfortunately, there are few sources of good advice to help young people navigate these dangers. Most parents are barely able to keep up with the evolving technology, let alone oversee their children’s online conversations.
This means that it is up to our education systems to intervene early to help the connected generation interact safely in today’s digital world. If we can teach children to recognize what they have in common with those from other cultures, we can also help them to resist the prejudices of those who seek to distort the truth and divide people.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s schools program has made an important start in this respect. It provides a moderated space in which 12-17 year olds worldwide can discuss challenging issues from a variety of perspectives, in a respectful and safe way.
Second, governments should support those groups that are already working on the ground and online to counter extremism. One approach is to encourage “counter-narratives.” In countries afflicted by religious conflict, such as Nigeria, this means helping religious leaders to develop strong inter-community relationships. We know that when people of different religions work together for the good of the wider community, they come to understand one another in a way that helps them resist the call of extremists.
This type of sustained long-term work comes into its own when the worst happens. For example, in response to attacks last year on a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, local Muslims formed human chains around churches, allowing them to hold services. Such visible demonstrations of defiance in the face of violence strengthen ties between communities and can prevent the division that extremists try to generate.
The benefits of such inter-community spirit are evident in one of the world’s most diverse cities, London. Last June’s arson attack on the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association’s center in the city’s Muswell Hill district (which followed the murder of British Army fusilier Lee Rigby by religious extremists) served only to unite its different communities. London Citizens, a network of local civic institutions, organized Jewish assistance programs for Somali Muslims, including after-school events at Hendon School and Eden School. Meanwhile, Finchley Reform Synagogue hosted a Ramadan festival, and Finchley United Synagogue hosted an Eid event. These activities sent a powerful signal to extremists that their attempts to turn religious communities against each other had the opposite effect.
Third, it is essential to remove online extremist content promptly. YouTube uses sophisticated technical procedures to ensure that the most inappropriate videos are swiftly taken down. But this is only half the story: we also need to support and promote alternative, credible voices online to counter the extremist narrative. Of course, this does not mean uploading videos of politicians in suits telling young men not to join the jihad in Syria. Rather, it means identifying and backing those groups whose anti-extremist messages resonate with the intended audience.
Finally, in these tough economic times, we need to consider cost-effective ways to promote this work globally. One future source of support for effective but under-resourced groups might be the recently established Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, the first ever public-private global fund to support local, grass-roots efforts to counter extremism.
As the pace of globalization and technological change accelerates, extremists are finding ever more creative ways to spread their message. Governments must respond in kind.