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Education’s role in combating violent extremism and terrorism

Jul 16, 2022 | Studies & Reports

Andie Flemström

Andie Flemström

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

Education’s role in combating violent extremism and terrorism

Author:  Andie Flemström – Stockholm Sweden  – Researcher in extremism and terrorism issues

“Ideologies are not defeated by guns, but by ideas”

The danger of extremism and terrorism no longer confined to a specific country or region, but has become a global cross-border threat. However, Young people are most at risk. They are the main targets of recruitment strategies and fall victim to extremist violence. This phenomenon alerts us to the risk of losing a generation of youth to despair and disengagement

In the face of this threat, there is no single solution.Undoubtedly, security responses are important, but they are not sufficient.It will not tackle the many fundamental circumstances that breed violent extremism and drive youth to join violent extremist groups.We need soft power, like education. In particular, we need relevant, inclusive and equitable quality education.

The importance of education in confronting violent extremism and terrorism has increased in recent years, especially since many political and ideological movements view education as a platform through which their views and values can be instilled in society. As extremist and jihadist groups exploit education to present fanatical interpretations of religion and culture that contribute to increasing intolerance of the other and incite violence and hatred. Therefore there is an urgent need to integrate education into any effective strategy to confront violent extremism. [1]

A quality education will dry up any fertile environment that extremist and terrorist groups exploit to spread their ideas. In addition, education contributes to raising children and youth from an early age on a system of positive values that encourages coexistence, moderation and tolerance and rejects fanaticism, extremism and terrorism.

Role of education in the prevention of extremist ideology 

Education plays an important role in achieving sustainable development and combating extremism and terrorism. As the war against terrorism is an intellectual war in the first place, and this makes education a fertile main arena for the forces of extremism to wage this war, especially since the forces of extremism and terrorism have worked and are still working to penetrate the educational field, and infiltrate it in different ways.

Recourse to education as a means of prevention and combating violent extremism has become a growing international trend in order to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of extremism and terrorism, where interest has increased in the means and efforts to address the conductive environment for extremists to spread their ideologies and recruit their supporters. Many countries in the world have established convictions that education is one of the most important tools for reaching young people, working to change their perceptions and immunizing them against extremism.That is why governments are funding measures to combat violent terrorism as part of education. The World Bank also recommends that governments and development partners work together to identify the ways in which education can be utilized to build resilience and reduce radicalization to violent extremism. [2]

The growing social and moral responsibility in any society would enhance government efforts in confronting extremism and terrorism, because it means a high level of awareness among its members and an increased awareness among its institutions of the danger of this phenomenon on the one hand, and the need to work to confront it through a comprehensive and integrated strategy on the other hand.[3]

The United Arab Emirates provides a leading model for countries where social and moral responsibility is widely spread, and the efforts of various institutions are integrated with the state in addressing the phenomenon of extremism and terrorism.Educational institutions come at an advanced rank within the comprehensive strategy adopted by the UAE in confronting this phenomenon. Perhaps this explains the state of overall stability that UAE enjoys at all levels.

The social responsibility of educational institutions in UAE in confronting extremism

United Arab Emirates was a pioneer in combating extremism and terrorism through education, because the Ministry of Education became aware of the danger of extremist ideology infiltrating the educational system. [4]

Educational institutions come at an advanced rank within the comprehensive strategy adopted by UAE in confronting extremism and terrorism, not only because they play a major role in immunizing students from a young age against extremist ideology, but also because they cooperate with other institutions of society, family, media, civil society and the private sectorin confronting of extremism and terrorism and in a way that enhances government efforts in this regard.

One of the many qualitative educational initiatives that UAE launched in confronting  extremist ideology and raising awareness of the danger of terrorism is “Moral Education” or “Ethics” initiative that Launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi 2016.

This initiative supports the educational process with the subject “Moral Education” in curricula, which aims to promote and instill the system of moral and positive values among school students, ​​based on the principles of tolerance, moderation, openness and coexistence respect for others, civilized dialogue and peaceful coexistence between nations and peoples, a system of values that confronts and tackles the culture of hatred and the intellectual extremism that follows. [5]

This initiative reflects the great awareness on the part of UAE leadership, of the importance of the role of education in building a balanced personality that adheres to its civilized, cultural and community identity, immunizing itfrom any extremist ideas, and protecting youth from slipping into the clutches of extremism and terrorism. This step has enriched the Emirati experience and expertise in this field, and made it a role model in the region.

Ethics and moral values system 

The Moral Education Program (Ethics) offers an innovative and interactive curriculum designed to develop young people of different nationalities and ages in the UAE by enhancing their knowledge of universal principles and values that reflect common human experiences.

The program revolves around building a student’s personality with the aim of preparing the next generation of leaders and role models, who contribute positively to enhancing social life, upgrading human relations and adopting the concept of coexistence at the level of local community and world at large. In addition, the program aims to consolidate the concept of good citizenship. The use of the word “ethical” in this context represents a set of principles and values that will be instilled in the consciences of future generations to build global citizens who can contribute to the security and well-being of this world.

The program is a comprehensive approach in supporting and consolidating basic societal values such as tolerance, openness and respect for others.  The program is designed as a graduated series of modules to be taught over a 12-year period, from first grade to twelfth grade. [6]

United Nations – Preventing Violent Extremism through Education

In the same context, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) acknowledged the importance of education in preventing violent extremism, as it represents a great force of persuasion, especially if this education seeks to address the underlying conditions that drive individuals to join violent extremist groups.In 2018, UNESCO issued a guiding guide for policymakers, teachers, explaining how education contributes to creating the environment against extremism, by instilling and building adequate awareness among learners, enabling them to confront extremist ideas and beliefs and to combat extremism and terrorism.  [7]

Education cannot prevent an individual from committing a violent act in the name of a violent extremist ideology but the provision of relevant education of good quality can help create the conditions that make it difficult for violent extremist ideologies and acts to spread.  In other words, education policies, educational contents and teaching approaches can ensure that places of learning do not become a breeding ground for violent extremism and develop learners’ resilience to violent extremism.

In the context of violent extremism, “resilience” indicates “the ability to resist – or not adhere to – views and opinions that portray the world in exclusive truths, which legitimize hatred and the use of violence”.In education, it means developing students’ ability to think critically, to learn by inquiry and to verify facts so that they do not fall prey and victim to the simplistic and one-dimensional views of the world propagated by violent extremist groups. Building resilience among students and youth is one of the main measures that can be implemented by the education sector to prevent the spread of violent extremism. [ibid]

The role of education is, therefore, not to intercept violent extremists or identify individuals who may potentially become violent extremists, but to create the circumstances that build the defenses, within learners, against violent extremism and reinforce their commitment to non-violence and peace.

 Combating violent extremism starts from school 

Security is closely and fundamentally linked to education, where school is an environment in which the young people imbibe social and cultural values in the community, and  the more noble moral values are instilled in the souls of the members of society, the more security and stability prevail in that society. This should be supported with social prevention that focuses on the social and economic factors behind crime and how to address it through education and training. [4]

Education experts stress that school has a prominent role in instilling the values of tolerance and coexistence among students from a young age and prevent them from being attracted to violence, terrorism or anti-social behavior. Teaching tolerance culture from a young age would enhance the importance of respecting the opinion of others, the importance of listening, respect for others’ convictions, and how to control oneself and not be drawn into the quagmire of anger, which would reducecases of violence that may occur between pupils and students in schools and at various stages. In addition, it would reduce manifestations of intolerance of origin, gender, sect, tribe and other affiliations. [8]

The University also plays a crucialrole in confronting violent extremism and terrorism through its contributing to activities leading to the elimination of violence and extremismby creating training programs to develop the teaching and administrative staff in higher education institutions in the specialized, educational and leadership fields, and spreading the values of tolerance and constructive communication through its curricula and conferences. Building the student intellectually and immunizing him against extremism and terrorism by formulating an educational discourse aimed at building and developing  students’ intellectual  security andPromoting the values of citizenship and national and cultural identity, and teaching global citizenship with the aim of participating in the peaceful and sustainable development of own society and human society as a whole.[3]

For UNESCO, Global citizenship is a sense of belonging to the global community and common humanity, where its members experience solidarity and collective identity among themselves and collective responsibility at the universal level. Global citizenship education is an emerging approach to education that focuses on developing learners’  knowledge,  skills,  values  and  attitudes  in  view  of  their  active participation in the peaceful and sustainable development of their societies.  Global citizen education “GCED” is about instilling respect for human rights, social justice, gender equality and sustainable development, which are fundamental values that help raise the defenses of peace against violent extremism. [9]

Based on the foregoing, the development of the education system at its various stages can constitute a strong wall of resistance in confronting extremist ideology. This is why many experts call for the need to continue and constantly update plans, programs and awareness campaigns in schools;to educate male and female students,addressing them in the language of their time, and alert and enlightening them to the danger of this extremism and terrorism. [10]

Education- instill moderate thinking

It is very important to develop educational curricula to instill “moderatethinking”and constantly provide them with materials that help in spreading awareness in society, thus contributing to filling any gaps that extremist and terrorist groups try to penetrate into the minds of young people. In this context, Dr. Khalifa Ali Al Suwaidi, an academic and media personality, at United Arab Emirates University, said: the problem lies in the existence of curricula that promote extremism. Therefore, curricula must work to promote moderation, by linking education to national goals, including belonging and loyalty to the homeland and promote citizenship, and transform the subject of Islamic education into a material recommending morals education “Ethics”, and instill the meanings of moderation.[4]

Dr. Karima Al Mazrouei, from Abu Dhabi Education Council explains how extremist groups have exploited the educational system to attract loyal teachers and developed curricula that support their ideologies. She discusses that the expected role of school in confronting extremism ideology in isolation from development of the elements of the educational process will not have a significant impact, indicated to the important role for teacher. She emphasized also that the student should not be just a recipientwho has no role in understanding the information, or scrutinizing it, because this will make him more docile to ideas and more rigorous in application them without thinking or discussion: Such individuals could be an easy prey to become intellectually and practically ideologues, whereas this would not be the case in the participatory learning experience. [ibid]

Extremist and terrorist groups can recruit vulnerable individuals who are victims of an educational system that lacks intellectual dialogue and is limited in its methods of learning. Such methods revolve around memorization and rote learning of study materials, where there is an absence of critical thinking and constructive dialogue by educators, educational institutions and the media. All this plays a role in paralyzing the thought of individuals and making them susceptible to terrorism culture and radical intellectual trends which embrace violence). This supports and strengthens the role of intellectual factors in the formation of terrorist’s behavior and thought, where individuals refuse reality and seek to fight the modern principles and beliefs through murder and destruction of others, reflecting their incapacity for individual thought. [11]

Education’s role in confronting destructive ideas: 

Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, Director General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Dubai has pointed thatthat education is a double-edged sword. Education can be leveraged to both radicalize and to de-radicalize young people. It can be used as a beacon to spread awareness, and is an effective and influential tool to immunize young people and youth from destructive ideas, enhance their affiliation, belonging and loyalty to the homeland, and consolidate their pride in their national identity.  He says that education can play a critical role in building a generation armed with open minded and conscious mentality capable to confront those destructive ideas spread by extremist and terrorist groups.  He assures that combating extremism requires spreading and consolidating the culture of positive thinking, tolerance and promoting the principle of moderation and strengthening the role of women in the family and society as well the role upbringing and parental role.

Extremist groups have exploited modern technology as social media as a platform to spread their violent ideology and plant their poisonous ideas in the minds of young people and youth in a way that aims to drag them into cycles of extremism and violence.  Therefore it is very important to confront them where they are active. For example, school can use social media application to present positive material to combat these misguided and destructive ideas and enhance and develop students’ intellectual security.

Another method to combat extremist ideology is using animation, an easy and attractive method. The Egyptian Dar Al-Iftaahas established a unit “short audio fatwas accompanied by animation”. The unit will be specialized in producing animated films to formulate short responses to advocates of extremism and terrorism in modern technological templates, enabling it to reach youth groups.Itdisplays the misconception and then refutes them by providing correct information and understanding through animation techniques.Dar Al-Iftaa stressed the need to devise attractive and effective methods and means that prevent the ideological expansion of terrorist currents that use the Fatwa as a weapon to implement foreign agendas to seek sabotage. [12]

Recommendations – Prevention Strategies

Terrorism is the outcome and product of intellectual and ideological extremism, which is the first enemy of humanity. Therefore it must be a comprehensive treatment of this phenomenon based first on sustainable development, and secondly on education that must be innovative and creative.

The importance of educational institutions is not because they play a major role in immunizing students from a young age against extremist ideology, but because they cooperate with other institutions of society like family, media, civil society and the private sector in a way that enhances government’s efforts in this regard. Therefore it is of great importance to build a comprehensive strategy to combat extremism and terrorism, especially, since the role played by educational institutions in this context focuses on the preventive aspect of extremist ideology by educating students about the dangers of this thought and by consolidating the system of positive and moral values thatImmunize them against any extremist ideas.

The development of the education system in its various stages can constitute a strong wall of resistance in confronting this extremist ideology. For this reason, many experts call for the need to continue and constantly update plans, programs and awareness campaigns in schools;to educate male and female students about the danger of extremism and terrorism, to address them in the language of their time, and to alert them to the danger of extremism and extremism. [10]

The curricula are the mainstay of the educational process through which information is provided to the student. Therefore there is need  to develop a strategic plan for the curriculum, emanating from the changing needs of society, so that the student comes out of the educational process and has the ability to scrutinize, criticize and compare issues in a way that serves the public interest.

The curricula must work to promote moderation, by linking education to national goals, including: belonging to the homeland and loyalty to its law, transforming the subject of Islamic education into “moral education- Ethics”. Especially since Islamic education curricula were among the most important means that have been used and exploited in recent decades by extremists to manipulate the minds of the youth of the country and direct them towards implementing their agendas and malicious purposes.  This supports the argument for Supporting of educational institutions with ethics and eliminating the teaching of Islamic religion through opening the curriculum of philosophy and comparative religions, Encourage and support the reform initiatives carried out by some Arabic intellectuals to purify the Islamic heritage from violence, hatred and atonement.

Any effective strategy to confront extremism and terrorism should be based on promoting the values of tolerance, coexistence and moderation. In addition to the security dimension, it includes cultural, social, religious and development dimensions. There is no doubt that education is one of the most important means that will help implement this strategy successfully.An advanced education that seeks to instill the values of openness, acceptance of others and tolerance in the hearts of young people would dry up any fertile environment exploited by extremist and terrorist groups to spread their ideas.


European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI


[1] Anderlini, Sanam.2017. “Education, Identity and Preventing Extremism”, ICAN Forum, USA

[2] De Silva.Samantha 2017. “Role of Education in the Prevention of Violent Extremism” world Bank Documents

Bin Qaqa.Khaled Omar. 2017.” Education is the first line of defense against extremism and terrorism”

[3] Al-Ali. Mohammed Abdullah.2020. “The social and moral responsibility of educational institutions in the face of extremism and terrorism: the United Arab Emirates as a model “

[4]Seminar on Education, Extremism and Terrorism, Ministry of Education in the UAE.2021

[5]The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi launches “Moral Education” to promote tolerance… instilling ideals in the hearts of children. The official website of the UAE Cabinet

[6] What is moral education? UAE

[7] UNESCO. 2018. “Preventing Violent Extremism through Education: A Guide for Policy Makers”. United Nations

[8]Al Arab, 2021.“Resisting violent extremism in Tunisia starts from the school community”

[9] UNESCO. 2016 “A Teacher’s Guide on the Prevention of Violent Extremism”

[10]Al-Zayed.Manal. 2014. “Immunization of “young minds” in the hands of education…Terrorism does not kidnap them!” Riyadh newspaper, Saudi Arabia

[11]Al-Hussein, Asthma bint Abdul Aziz. 2011. “The causes of terrorism, violence and extremism, an analytical study”, Islam site

[12]Sky news “The Egyptian Dar Al Iftaa fights extremism with animation”


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