The myths and reality of the education and extremism nexus
A recent World Bank study concluded that recruits of the Islamic State (ISIS) are likely to be well-educated. That this caused surprise is itself surprising, given that previous studies into causes of violent extremism in various conflicts and parts of the world have not shown lack of education as a main driver.
Despite that, this popular belief persists, partly because it suits parties and interests to portray ignorance as the culprit rather than injustices and grievances in which they play a part. In other words, the issue of education is sometimes used as a diversion. There is also a tendency to simplify violent extremism as driven by a single or predominant factor — one size fits all — either out of expediency, laziness or ignorance.
A 2013 study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, stated: “The most commonly cited reasons for [foreigners] joining [Syrian] rebel forces are the horrific images of the conflict, stories about atrocities committed by government forces and the perceived lack of support from Western and Arab countries.”
There is no evidence or reason to believe that a lack of education makes people more sensitive to injustice, perceived or otherwise. Education can arguably contribute to a greater awareness of injustices and grievances that push people to violent extremism. However, it can also be argued that education becomes almost irrelevant when people are pushed to violence by their surroundings.
For example, pro-Israel propagandists push the falsehood that the Palestinian education system teaches children to hate and be violent. However, there is no greater influence than Israel’s military occupation and colonisation of Palestine territories, which dominates every aspect of Palestinian life.
A textbook preaching peace and coexistence becomes meaningless to a child whose home has been demolished, whose loved one has been jailed or killed or whose movement is controlled by walls and checkpoints. The same holds true of Iraqis during the US occupation. Insurgents did not benefit from Iraqis’ level of education but from their understandable anger at the invasion and occupation of their country.
The World Bank study, while shedding light on the education levels of ISIS recruits, leaves important questions unanswered. There is no indication of the quality of education. According to the study, “poverty is not a driver of radicalisation into violent extremism”. However, that assumes that one cannot be poor and educated. Many poor societies, in the Arab world and beyond, place great emphasis on education.
Most ISIS recruits had jobs prior to travelling to join ISIS but we do not know what kind of jobs or whether they were happy in them. The higher level of education one receives, the more disaffected they may be if they feel that their potential, efforts and academic investment are not being adequately realised.
Sadly, efforts in certain countries to address the link between education and radicalisation have taken a draconian approach of monitoring teachers and pupils. In April, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly said Britain’s Prevent programme risked “promoting extremism rather than countering it” because it had “created unease and uncertainty around what can be legitimately discussed in public”. This points to the fundamental problem of defining what constitutes extremist sentiment.
There is no quick or universal fix to violent extremism and all relevant factors — including education — must be considered. However, regarding the Middle East in particular, the focus seems to be decidedly on military strategies, dealing with effect rather than cause. That approach, when taken on its own, is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.