Do not turn teachers into spies!

Recently the European Bangladesh Forum invited me to participate in a debate on violent extremism. At stake was the question: How to prevent violent extremism?  

According to the UN violent extremism undermines peace and security, human rights and sustainable development. No country or region is immune from its impacts. It is neither new nor exclusive to any nationality or belief. At the same time, we must acknowledge that terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaida have shaped our image of violent extremism. More importantly they have defined the debate on how to address the threat of violent extremism. 

Programs to counter violent extremism are often based on wrong assumptions. One assumption that is disproven by decades of empirical research is that extremist ideology is a driver of terrorism. Many people have extreme ideas but never act violently. Another false assumption is that the path to terrorism is predictable and that potential terrorists have identifiable markers. 

This approach creates a serious risk that individuals who have nothing to do with terrorism will be labeled potential threats. In the UK thousands of people, including children, have wrongly been identified as potential terrorists.  Government agencies waste enormous resources in their approach to counter violent extremism. Their way of working might even be considered counterproductive since it fuels narratives of grievance and actual or perceived injustice.

Politicians and lawmakers react on the threat of terrorism by doing what they do best: making new laws. New laws for massive data collection, discriminatory and stigmatizing measures are adopted. This overreaction is a threat to human rights and not effective in the prevention of terrorism. 

Violent extremism is not new to Western European countries. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were more terrorist attacks, with more casualties in Europe than today. A remarkable difference in perception between then and now is the conviction that the legal framework was sufficient. What was needed was enhancement of the police force. Today’s policy is exactly contrary to that. In many European countries thousands of policemen were laid off at a time when classical policing is needed more than ever. Classical police work is relevant in the prevention of violent extremism. 

According to the French expert on terrorism, Olivier Roy, half of the violent extremists in France, Germany and the United States have criminal records for petty crime. Roy estimates that 60 percent of those who turn to violent extremism in Europe are second-generation Muslims who have lost connection with their country of origin and have failed to integrate into Western societies. These individuals live in an identity vacuum in which violent extremism thrives. They have scant knowledge of Islam and Roy suggests that they are radical before even choosing Islam. He concludes that we need to investigate Islamification of radicalism, not the radicalisation of Islam. 

Having a poor education and almost no religious knowledge makes youngsters vulnerable to indoctrination. Membership of a group, either engaged in criminal activities or in violent extremism, gives them a sense of belonging. Efforts should be made to help religious and community leaders to reach out to vulnerable youngsters. Countering violent extremism requires a framework that views Muslims as a source of strength rather than suspicion. Communities should feel comfortable sharing information when they suspect criminal activity, rather than pressured to detect unproven markers of radicalization. 

At its World Congress in Ottawa in 2015, Education International noted that “education is key to tackling all forms of extremism. Inclusive education for all is an important preventive measure which promotes citizenship, strengthens critical thinking and teaches to understand and accept differences of opinion, conviction and belief while respecting the rule of law, diversity and equality.” There is serious concern as well. Teacher unions object to teachers being enlisted in programs to counter violent extremism. The American Federation of Teachers describes such programs as “ideological profiling and surveillance” that would have “a chilling effect on our schools and immigrant communities, jeopardizing children’s sense of safety.” The National Union of Teachers in the UK passed a motion calling to scrap the present program to counter violent extremism because it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.” These concerns need to be addressed properly. Teachers are not hired to spy on their students, to read their minds and to predict the future. 

The prevention of violent extremism is in line with UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 which calls to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. It stresses one of the major aspects of the post 2015 agenda: education. Investment in education is investment in the prevention of violent extremism. When it comes to violent extremism the investment in prevention is far more cost-effective than allocating resources to deal with the consequences. 


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Harry van Bommel holds a bachelor’s degree in Education and a master’s degree in Political Science. He worked as a language teacher at a school for vocational training in Amsterdam before he entered politics. From 1998 until 2017 he was a Member of the Dutch Parliament and spokesperson for Education, European and Foreign Affairs. He is currently an election monitor and foreign affairs analyst. 

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