Books, not bombs: Exploring a crucial missing piece in counter extremism strategies

"...And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares..." A student sits in front of the Ardon Windows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Yannis Behrakis / REUTERS

This series explores religious education as a relatively untapped resource in governmental strategies for countering violent extremism.  Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the United Nations Security Council in November of 2013 with the claim that religious education is an issue of global security.  His speech underscores the need for an education approach “that opens young minds to ‘the other’, those who are culturally and religiously different,” and then demonstrates to these opened minds “how the only future that works is one in which people are respected as equals whatever their faith or culture.”  

Blair’s argument is not that international security concerns should be de-politicized. Rather, his speech claims that religious education should be a critical part of global policy approaches designed to address the root causes of violent extremism.

The Canadian government’s strategy for countering violent extremism currently contains a “prevent” element that targets “the root causes and factors that contribute to terrorism.” Included in this strategy is the five-year, $10 million Kanishka Project that is scheduled to conclude in June of this year. The project is named after the worst act of terrorism in Canadian history, the Air India Flight 182 plane that was bombed on June 23, 1985. Killed on that tragic day were 329 innocent people, most of whom were Canadian. The aim of the Kanishka Project has been “to build a stronger, multidisciplinary community of scholarship in Canada, to improve public understanding of terrorism and counter-terrorism, and also to support deeper dialogue between researchers and government on what knowledge is needed and why.” Such a purpose aligns well with Blair’s argument. Yet only a handful of the 39 successful Kanishka Project research proposals address education or religion in any significant way. None appear to explore religious education for its potential to address causes related to violent extremism.

The modest goal of this short series — a partnership between and McGill University’s Initiative in Globalization and the World's Religions (supported by Global Affairs Canada’s Religious Freedom Fund)— is to invite discussion on the role that religious education might play in government strategies for countering violent extremism today. This discussion involves an assessment of existing programs as well as proposals for new approaches.

There are obvious policy challenges to face if religious education is to be employed in governmental strategies for countering violent extremism. However, as this series seeks to demonstrate, there are potential benefits to be gained at all levels of society by at least entertaining the idea that religious education might play an important and, until now, less recognized role in countering violent extremism.

                                                                                                                         — Jon Waind

In the series


Q&A: The 'dangerous misunderstanding' of violence in the name of religion

In conversation with researcher Jon Waind, UN Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt clears up misconceptions about the links between religion and violence and why fostering understanding is even more complex than we imagined.

Countering violent extremism

How education, not surveillance, is most effective in countering violent extremism

Violent extremism is typically fought with expensive and reactive policing. Meanwhile, educational means are proactive, though they get less attention and, when religion is involved, can be tricky.  

West Bank wall

Tearing down walls: What a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth teaches us about fighting extremism

While dialogue between those from opposing sides of war is not always peaceful or easy, it teaches participants how to think critically, an essential aspect of peacebuilding.

Stalin march

Where is religion’s place in the extremism debate?

Positioning religious extremism as a variant of a larger species of modern ideological extremism offers a more balanced and non-partisan frame for constructive engagement.