Learning to Live Together: The role of education in preventing violent extremism

Rev. Dr Hans Ucko

By: Rev. Dr Hans Ucko

Whenever I hear words such as “violent extremism”, it is as if I am drained and a feeling of fatigue overpowers me. The words conjure up images of dead and wounded children and young people. Children as victims. There is Alan Kurdî, the little boy found drowned on the beach in Turkey. There is Omran Daqneesh, the little boy covered in dust in the ambulance in Aleppo wiping away blood from his face. The first victims of war and conflict are children. Political and religious rhetoric advocating violence is attracting and motivating individuals or groups but there is nothing that could justify violence against children.

We are drained because we are powerless watching children dying from the bombs and in the waves of the seas. And even if and when a political deal is made, a truce is decided, a declaration is promulgated, suffering continues and children will die and I can’t do anything about it. And we have seen more often than not that many of the attempts to put an end to conflict quite the reverse lead to overkill and to a polarisation of conditions.

Is pressing the dislike-button on Facebook the only way out to express my frustration? I’m not being flippant. The question remains, what else can we do? The dislike-button may make us feel good but it won’t do good.

Violent extremism conjures up not only images of the victims but equally graphic the images of the victimizers. Your first reaction is not sorrow. You are filled with repulsion, you shake your head, and it is horrific and awful to see what you see. Will they also come close to where you are living? You see how it all falls apart, the way you’ve always been used to and the order that you’ve grown accustomed to, it all begins to collapse and the decorated walls of your own secure space come tumbling down. You see that the world you built is beginning to break down. And in fear and despair you look for ways out of this anxiety and frustration. You turn away from what you see and switch off any of the few remaining channels for communication that there might have been. You end up demonising the other. Your only way out is to think in categories of essentialism as your modus operandi, looking at the victimizers in unchanging and inflexible characteristics. You are unable to discount any variation among the victimizers and if you do, you will simply regard them as being at most secondary. They’re all the same.

Primal fear erects walls to keep the victimizers far away from you, makes sure that they don’t live among us, prefers to fill horizons and memories with images of how it used to be, asking yourself and friends. “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” (“Where is the snow of yesteryear?”) and fails to take in that that snow is gone, it melted last year as snow does and that the landscape that is now before you looks completely different.

Whenever we talk about violent extremism it is rather over there than among us here. Our minds seem unable to dissociate it from the foreign, from that which does not belong among us. It is never from our house. It’s from their house. It is always the other, who doesn’t belong here.

The absolute fear strikes us when one day we discover that they are not strange and foreign. They’re our own and they look like us. Our own young people turn against us and they have changed completely. They leave our context culturally and mentally and end up in Syria or Iraq, wanting to destroy the world they left with a commitment that looks fanatic. What do we do?

In the light of events, when they are themselves killed and we get their story as it was, we may begin to understand that the victimisers, when push comes to shove, are themselves victims. They are the young adults or teenagers, only slightly older than the boy on the beach or in the ambulance, who suddenly disappear from home and become young killers and suicide bombers. And the question arises, when they were still with us, what did they receive as guidance, education, and way to live? What did we give them, while they were at home with us that would make them long for worlds completely different from ours? What made them open to the instruction they receive in Syria or Iraq? Did we set the parameters for education on violent extremism? What did we give them or did we not give them that a vision of violent extremism took hold of them?

Violent extremism doesn’t come out of thin air. It is a reaction to something that has grown inside to the point of no return. It is not as if they, while walking around, were just discovering beautiful flowers a bit further down the road to look at and admire. There is a break-up point, a need to close doors behind oneself. Something has gone utterly wrong.

In order to understand why they left, why they turned to such violence, there are those who would want to take short cuts or find easy answers, reluctant to ask questions about why young people feel the need to leave and from where, instead being more disposed to see where they went. One shuns the complexities and is instead quick to blame Islam. Islam is seen as the vehicle for violent extremism. It is a dangerous short cut when you begin to amalgamate: Islam and terrorism go hand in hand and that any Muslim is a potential terrorist or prone to engage in violent extremism. It is a slippery slope into a morass of hatred and a dangerous polarization of society towards an ultimate collapse. There are ominous signals about it in many places: the present election campaign in the US, the profiling of Muslims in many countries in the EU, etc.

The talk of Muslims as a fifth column will of course have consequences. Muslims feel insecure. It will unsurprisingly put Muslims on edge. You come across it in many exchanges with Muslims, when words and phrases of self-defence already from the beginning enter into the conversation, irrespective of the content and the thrust of the meeting. It is destructive and disruptive to the unity of society to seek answers to the problem of violent extremism at the threshold of Islam. It is a cul-de-sac for cohesion in society to lay the blame for violent extremism on Islam or making violence intrinsic to Islam. It is a lie to claim that Muslims, if you get sufficiently close, would be more prone than others in relation to violent extremism. We come across this uneasiness in many Muslim communities in Europe. It is not an a priori uneasiness that they cannot live among us; it is an a posteriori apprehension and anxiety born out of essentialism and Islamophobia that they have encountered on the way.

Ludvig Holberg, a writer, philosopher and playwright from Denmark and Norway in the early 18th century wrote the play “Jeppe of the Hill, or The Transformed Peasant”. In the play Jeppe is on the floor, drunk, unkempt and ruffled. He says, "Alle sier at Jeppe drikker, men ingen spør HVORFOR Jeppe drikker" (“Everyone knows that Jeppe is drinking.... But there isn’t anyone asking, why is this man drinking!”)

The drinking and squalor of Jeppe comes neither from heaven nor from hell or from one day to the other. Just like that. It comes from a situation, where, if you want to understand why Jeppe is drinking, you have to listen to the whole story, how it began, what happened, what were his dreams, where did he bounce into the wall, what did he feel and what did the others say? It is a long story and any shortcut you take to avoid listening to Jeppe will lead you astray and there will be nothing left but stereotypes.

It happens that there isn’t even a light in the tunnel and in such a situation you either give in and go under with the help of the bottle or you do like Samson in the Bible, you pray to God. “Then Samson called to the Lord and said, ‘Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines ....’ And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. Then Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ He strained with all his might; and the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it.” (Judges 16,28-30). The temple collapsed on top of him and of his enemies alike! A suicide bomber!

While there is no excuse for violent extremism and it should not be dismissed in political slogan and jargon, we mustn’t look at it as only a problem with religion in general and Islam in particular. The major player bringing about the suicide of Samson and all the people he brought with him are the people and the society that he lived in and where his voice didn’t carry and no one listened. Society went along without him or simply took advantage of him. The violent extremism in the Middle East that frightens us and carries names such as Daesh or Al-Qaeda refers to names and events that were brought to them from our part of the world. These names are corrosive memories and are never laid to rest but continue to hurt and burn.

We remember this year the centenary of the Sykes–Picot Agreement between the colonial powers of Great Britain and France, to which the Russian Empire assented, which defined mutually agreed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East and no one of those who had always lived there was asked to be involved. The establishment of the State of Israel had the good intentions towards fulfilling the Jewish dream and healing the Jewish plight of pogroms and annihilation but led to the forced exile or exodus of those who lived in Palestine. And there was no Promised Land in the horizon but only refugee camps. Colonisation was maybe on the way to be dismantled but the bitter taste of the fruits of subjugation and alienation remained in memory and you couldn’t easily assume a new identity. The invitation to come as “Gastarbeiter” to Germany and other European countries may have given reasonably good salaries but the Gastarbeiter was never really accepted. It suffices to quote from Amin Maalouf’s “Les identités meurtrières”: “How could they not feel insecure and bereft of their real identities? They are living in a world, which belongs to others and obey rules made by others, a world where they are orphans, strangers, intruders or pariahs? What can be done to prevent some of them feeling they have been bereft of everything and have nothing more to lose, so that they come, like Samson, to pray to God for the temple to collapse on top of them and their enemies alike?”

If we want to address the problem of violent extremism and particularly religiously inspired violent extremism, it is not enough to protest against the violence. We must work to counter the conditions under which people are humiliated or denigrated for being part of some ethnic or religious or national group. And today this is an unavoidable truth and reality: Arabs are bleeding, Muslims are reviled, migrants are feared.

What does it take to begin addressing violent extremism in a way that it serves Learning To Live Together? Above all, there needs to be a new vision of society, a society of cohesion, where there is a feeling of belonging together, yes, more than a feeling, a glue that keeps us together, so that we are not only like vessels maybe passing each other in the night but otherwise living in parallel worlds, unrelated to each other or when meeting, then only as victim and victimizer. And in a quest for a new vision of society, there will and need be diversity and plurality, not as a concession but as an a priori. Religion will have its space as well as non-religion, secularists as well as humanists, agnostics as well as firm believers, poets and peasants, space for those who just arrived and for those who’ve been there for donkey’s years.

There is in many different quarters a realization that our time demands new common thinking to meet the needs of today but it looks like we still don’t know how to achieve it. We don’t seem to have the methodology or the process and we are still not sure about what the end product should be like more than in general terms and maybe as a vision. The recognition that there is a need for a rethinking on how to shape society to genuinely reckon with plurality as a given reality should prompt the many stakeholders to consider that that which we can do together, we should not do separately.

People of different cultures, faiths and convictions, religious as well as non-religious share a space, although not always on the same level or in equality. Globalization, economic migration and the recent refugee crisis have changed many societies, and they will keep on changing, still looking for a functioning sustainability. Many Muslims live since several generations as imported labour in Europe and are struggling with the perception and reality of exclusion or marginalisation. They are all looking for a meaningful and constructive role in the shaping of a society at ease with plurality.

For cohesion to become a defining reality in society we will be challenged to reconsider and reimage cemented positions, established teachings, perceived eternal truths and even that which we refer to as divine revelation. Although not making too much of our time, saying that it is more unique than other times, the significance of plurality needs today to be taken seriously even in the setup of society itself. This means openness to revisit and reimagine that which we have received. It is not without difficulties and hurdles. We will have to navigate between two extremes: “fait accompli”, that which we have received as an eternal set menu for the plural society, and “tabula rasa”, that nothing of that which we have received matters anymore. Neither will do as key for learning to live together in a changed world. Education will have to struggle with a methodology that can deal with a world that is governed by more than a reiteration of yesterday.

It will therefore touch religion present in society. There is always a risk in co-opting God into the service of human political institutions. The question we, as religious people, need to ask us is: How does faith change us? Does it make us better people—kinder, gentler and more compassionate to others? Does it alter our perspective on things like violence, war, and suffering? Which narrative will ultimately prevail? People of faith need to take ownership over the ethical consequences of their ideologies. Can we tolerate a definition of religious life whose essence is defined by how we treat others? Those who think they own God believe they have the right to determine whom God loves as well as the legal implications of that love. Therefore, can we recognize the religious primacy of the ethical in the sense that the essential purpose of religion is not ritual or faith in God but rather a life defined by ethical sensitivity toward others. The primacy of the ethical must define religious theology and authority. Religion must teach that despite God’s transcendence, love of God may not blind religious people to the realities of human dignity and need.