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Education is a Security Issue

LONDON – In November, I spoke at the United Nations Security Council for the first
time in 13 years. It struck me how different the mood is now. In September 2000, the
world seemed very different. We were trying to articulate the new security order in
the decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course there were challenges. But
the atmosphere was light, positive even, as we discussed eradicating poverty in the
developing world.

This time, the mood was dark. And the first days of 2014 have made it darker still.
Scroll down any day’s news summary and you find stories of terrorism and violence
perpetrated in the cause of a false view of religion. Some of it is committed by
non-state actors, and some of it by state actors; but all of it is committed in the
context of division and conflict defined by differences of religious faith.

This is the new struggle of the twenty-first century. We will not win it unless we
fight its root causes as well as its ghastly consequences.

Today, in an arc that stretches from the Far East through the Middle East to the
streets of cities in Europe and the United States, we face a scourge that has taken
innocent lives, scarred communities, and destabilized countries. It is a threat that
is constantly evolving, growing, and mutating to counter our fight against it.

The extremists propagating this violence have networks of outreach to young people
and know the power of education, whether formal or informal. Extremists are filling
young minds with the belief that anyone who disagrees is an enemy – and not just
their enemy, but God’s enemy.

The security debate has understandably often focused on the consequences. After an
attack, states consider immediate security measures. Terrorists are hunted down.
Then we get back to our daily lives, until the next time it happens.

But lasting change depends on dealing with the root causes of extremism. Of course
politics plays its part. And the extremists are good at jumping on the back of
political grievances. But the soil in which they plant the seeds of hate is
fertilized with ignorance.

That is why we need to start thinking of education as a security issue.

The extremists justify killing in the name of God. This is an obscene perversion of
proper religious faith. And it is a menace, both for the harm that it does directly
and for the damaging division and sectarianism that it nurtures indirectly. Every
killing is a human tragedy. But it also causes a chain reaction of bitterness and
hatred. There is real fear in the communities plagued by such extremism, fear that
paralyzes normal life and pushes people away from each other.

Globalization is intensifying and multiplying this extremism. Not limited by
borders, it can spring up anywhere. We are more connected than at any point in human
history, and more and more people come into contact with those who are different
from them. So the need to respect a neighbor who is not like you is much greater;
but the scope to identify him or her as an enemy is also greater.

And this is not only about Islamic extremism. There are extremist acts perpetrated
against Muslims because of their religion, and today there are fanatical Christians,
Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists who disfigure the true nature of their faith.

That is why education in the twenty-first century is a security issue for all of us.
The challenge is to show young people who are vulnerable to appeals from terrorists
that there is a better path to having their voice heard, a more meaningful way to
engage with the world.

The good news is that we know how to do this. I use my Faith Foundation only as one
example. Our schools program promotes cross-cultural dialogue among students aged
12-17 around the world. Reaching students in more than 20 countries, our program
connects students via a secure Web site, where they interact from their classrooms
under the guidance of trained teachers.

Through facilitated videoconferences, students discuss global issues from a variety
of faith and belief perspectives. They gain the dialogue skills required to prevent
conflict by breaking down religious and cultural stereotypes. For schools in the
poorest areas, we use special arrangements, because they cannot access the Internet
themselves.

To be sure, we are only a drop in the ocean. But we now have experience in more than
a thousand schools; over 50,000 students have been taught, and we are working in
countries as diverse as Pakistan, India, the US, Jordan, Egypt, Canada, Italy, the
Philippines, and Indonesia. I have been privileged to witness these students
becoming at ease with the cultures, faiths, and beliefs that inspire so many people
around the world.

There are many other fantastic examples of this type of work. But they lack the
resources, weight, and recognition that they need.

We need to mobilize to defeat extremism. And we need to act globally. All
governments must take seriously their responsibility to educate young people to
accept and respect people of different faiths and cultures.

There is no issue that is more pressing. There is a real danger that religious
conflict replaces the ideologically based struggles of the last century in an
equally devastating form.

It is up to all of us to show people that we have a better idea than the extremists
have – to learn from each other and live with each other. And this needs to be a
core part of young people’s education.

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007, is Special
Envoy for the Middle East Quartet.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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