Creating sustainable ‘soft’ approaches to counter radicalization and extremism

“With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”
Malala Yousafzai 

Most research and thinking surrounding radicalization and counter-radicalization bears roots in psychological, security, and law and order-based schools of thought. Despite being a lasting and inherently global issue, this body of research generally centers on a single community – Muslim – as the source of radicalization. The consequence? Suggested solutions are grounded in a securitized perspective, offering a short-sighted, often discriminatory view, toward a universal challenge.

Recent events have sparked a realization that radicalization is not confined to this community. Last year’s Quebec City Mosque attack, for example, and other occurrences across North America demonstrate the multi-faceted dimensions of the subject. Extremist views are not exclusive; they transcend societies and ideological affiliations. Law and order and securitized approaches have so far seen little success, urging global governments to adopt a different stance. When it comes to ‘soft’ approaches, counter-radicalization through education and communities have emerged as viable preventative strategies for all kinds of religious or right-wing radicalizations.

“Any long-term and sustainable solution to countering extremism and radicalization will require a change in thinking,” write Professor Ayaz Naseem and Professor Adeela Arshad-Ayaz of Concordia University.

“…As policy makers in Canada embark on a ‘soft approach’ to counter the scourge of extremism and radicalization, it is important that sound counter-radicalization educational policies be based on a larger understanding that links extremism and violence to different forms of injustice.”

But education is not insular to the securitized bias of discourse surrounding this complex subject. Many conversations on radicalization and extremism originate in closed spaces (where decisions affecting public life are made without extending the limits of inclusion) or those created by/within existing institutions. More often than not, these spaces are initiated by the state institutions or privately-owned organizations already linked to the state.

Some of the exchanges in the initially well-intentioned field of CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) education has grown into a securitized view. A distinct example of this lies in the UK’s PREVENT strategy. Here, what started as a scheme for educational intervention soon became a surveillance regime that seeks to co-opt teachers, administrators and students as agents of the state against the British-Muslim population. Educational spaces drawn from CVE-oriented approaches separate institutions and their people from majority and minority communities, encouraging them to suspect each other.

Community engagement and involvement is the best way to alleviate extremist tendencies and attitudes. But with policing and surveillance techniques simply bolstering suspicion, it is clear securitized and law and order methods don’t yield positive results.

It’s in this context that the two professors, M. Ayaz Naseem and Adeela Arshad-Ayaz from Concordia’s Department of Education started to think about creating transformative, inclusive and invited spaces where conversations around these issues could take place organically and authentically. Here, voices that aren’t included in the traditional ‘invited spaces’ could speak up and be heard. The primary objectives of such spaces are:

  • To challenge knowledge created in closed spaces by creating new ones with the potential to disrupt the hidden, visible and invisible power;
  • To build horizontal alliances against radicalization and bring them into conversation alongside the vertical, and;
  • To achieve a Praxis between the academic knowledge and that ‘from the trenches’.

“The idea is to create inclusive educational places, and to foster an exchange of ideas between the general public and those making or influencing policy decisions, including politicians, academics and the media,” the professors explain.

The initiative – led by both Naseem and Arshad-Ayaz – has so far been successful in creating two types of spaces:

  • International Symposia in Teaching about Extremism, Terror and Trauma (TETT Symposia);
  • International Institute/Summer Schools on Creating Learning Against Radicalization (CLEAR).

TETT Symposia

Beginning in 2015, the TETT’s vision is to nurture a space where interdisciplinary, multi-vocal and multi-perspectival knowledge on radicalization and extremism can occur. The Symposia brings students, academics, teachers, research institutes, city initiatives, community organizations, think tanks and NGOs together, encouraging detailed discussions on all issues relating to this controversial topic. The TETT has so far facilitated conversations on:

  • TETT 2015: Teaching about extremism and terror: Policy, pedagogy, curricula
  • TETT 2016: What is extremism? What can educators do about it?
  • TETT 2017: Creating learning against radicalization
  • TETT 2018: (June 28 – July 1, 2018) Communities as agents and spaces against radicalization

The upcoming 2018 event will strive to create a space in which critical issues can be addressed, such as: how to engage communities in ways that generate trust and empathy rather than distrust and doubt; and how can communities be involved in a more consultative manner so they can provide valuable inputs to policymaking?

The Symposium will offer new ways of thinking about communities, reconceptualizing the fast-evolving and diverse nature of current populations, also considering the roles they play in countering radicalization.

CLEAR Institute and Summer Schools

Based on insights gained from TETT discussions, Professors Naseem and Arshad-Ayaz launched CLEAR – a unique Praxis project. Here, participants seek to create actionable knowledge and pedagogical projects that can be used to educate against radicalization and extremism at various education levels. The first CLEAR Institute, held in September 2017 at Concordia’s campus, encompassed five innovative workshops:

  • Using social media for CLEAR
  • Curriculum interventions for CLEAR
  • CLEAR through Arts
  • Art Media for CLEAR (Comic Strips)
  • CLEAR through Participatory Action (Cellphilms)

Together, student-teachers, teachers, undergraduates, graduates, facilitators, artists, parents and academics created actionable knowledge and products that could be used to tackle radicalization and extremism. These include:

  • Five short films created via cellphones; highlighting various facets and causes radicalization that could be used for countering radicalization
  • Curricular interventions with accompanying lesson plans
  • Educational/pedagogical activities using comic strips and cartoons to teach against radicalization
  • Multiple Arts-based activities and interventions to educate against radicalization

Each product or activity was accompanied by a corresponding lesson plan that could be used in educational and community settings.

The second CLEAR Institute is due to take place in Concordia’s International Graduate Summer School of Counter-radicalization Education July 2-6, 2018. The Summer school will follow the interactive, hands-on Praxis methodology developed at last year’s CLEAR Institute, but the addition of exciting workshops – such as Children’s Stories Against Radicalization and Board Games Against Radicalization – ensure outcomes remain relevant and informed.

For more information on the 2018 Summer School on Counter-radicalization Education, contact:

Dr. M Ayaz Naseem

Dr. Adeela Arshad-Ayaz

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