The Counter Terrorist Classroom: Countering Extremism Through (Religious) Education?

Foundation Update

The Counter Terrorist Classroom: Countering Extremism Through (Religious) Education?

06 May 2015

The problem of modern religious education remains how to ground the subject when it is no longer grounded in the religious life, in the life of the holy. Contemporary efforts to use religious education for the countering of extremism are a subset of the wider grounding of religious education in political life and concerns. When religious education is harnessed to secular purposes and no longer provides any meaningful pathways to pursue the holy, we leave that vital space empty for the extremists to fill. If we do not recognise this, any attempt to use education to counter extremism is bound to fail, writes Liam Gearon for our Global Perspectives Series.

The Counter Terrorist Classroom: Countering Extremism Through (Religious) Education?

By Liam Gearon

Religious education needs to be grounded in the religious life in order to address the critical moral and existential questions at the heart of the religious domain in human experience. Within a religious community, for example, religious education involves nurture within a tradition. This does not mean that such education fails any test of criticality of that tradition, but its broad parameters, even when contested, are grounded within it. The problem for modern non-confessional religious education becomes how to ground the subject when it is cut from any meaningful connection to forms of religious life.

In answering these questions, For a full account of the opinions and arguments I express here, see L. Gearon, On Holy Ground: The Theory and Practice of Religious Education, London and New York, Routledge Research in Education, 2014; L. Gearon, Religious Education MasterClass, London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013; L. Gearon, 'The Counter Terrorist Classroom: Religion, Education, Security', Religious Education, Vol. 108, No. 2 (2013), pp. 129-147; L. Gearon, 'European Religious Education and European Civil Religion', British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 60, No. 2 (2012), pp. 151-169; and L. Gearon, 'The Securitization of Religion in Education', in Theo van der Zee and Terry Lovat (eds.), New Perspectives in Religious and Spiritual Education, Münster, Waxmann, 2012, pp. 215-233. I have mapped how modern approaches to religious education have sought grounds in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment forms of knowledge that have had a particularly close, but often conflictual, relationship with religion. Philosophy, the natural sciences, the social sciences, psychology, phenomenology, politics and aesthetics have each been defined in relation to, and often in reaction against, the sacred. Each, in being the grounding for religious education, has tried to appropriate religious education for its own ends.

These appropriations have pedagogical impacts. Philosophical models see the object lesson of religious education to make thinkers and proto-philosophers. Socio-cultural models see the object lesson of religious education as creating ethnographic, cultural explorers. Psychological models see the learner as a seeker after personal meaning and fulfilment, 'spirituality' more preferable to 'religion'. Phenomenological models see religious education as creating a detached observer of religion who is perpetually distanced from it. Political models, emphasising the public face of religion and most commonly used for enhancing community and social cohesion in religiously plural but open democratic societies, see teaching and learning in religious education as concerned with the creation of citizens and even activists. Aesthetic models see a role for the arts in religious education, not simply the noting of art in religious contexts but also religious education classrooms as forums, through the expressive arts, for creativity as spirituality, the artist as spiritual seeker.

Recent decades have seen one or other of these objective groundings being prioritised. Currently the political seems to be emerging as of paramount importance. See especially the work of Robert Jackson, for example R. Jackson, 'Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict', British Journal of Religious Education, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2011), pp. 105-10. Given world events, this seems likely to be established as a priority grounding for the future. There is a longer history of political forces defining religious education of course. This is tied closely to the relationship between European civil religion and European religious education, the latter being compelled by the former to comply with international standards. Jean-Paul Willaime identifies this compulsion as a 'double constraint':

"a sociological one, in that the religious and philosophical pluralisation of European societies obliges them to include ever more alternative religions and non-religious positions into their curricula, and ... a legal one, through the importance of the principle of non discrimination on religious or philosophical grounds (as well as others such as gender or race) in international law, especially in the European Convention on Human Rights". J-P. Willaime, 'Different Models of Religion and Education in Europe', in R. Jackson, S. Miedema, W. Weisse and J-P. Willaime (eds.), Religion and Education in Europe: Developments, Contexts and Debates, Münster, Waxmann, 2007, pp. 57–66.

However, a third constraint has become apparent within the political paradigm of religious education that I have termed 'the securitisation of religious education'. Simply put, this 'securitisation' is apparent where the political uses of religion in education outlined above take on, or are strongly determined by, security concerns.

Education has become an integral element of national and international security landscapes, from surveillance, counter-surveillance and intelligence gathering within schools and universities, to curriculum development, pedagogy and institutional policy at national and global levels. This is notable in relation to the countering of often, but not exclusively, religiously motivated extremism and terrorism. Education has become a critical element in a battle of ideas that painfully reflects real conflicts in the theatres of contemporary war.

Yet at present we do not know the implications or the effects of, nor even have we much idea of the philosophical or pedagogical rationale for, the use of education to counter extremism. Academically, the interface of education, security and intelligence studies has received relatively sparse attention. Even the association of religion itself with security is relatively new and correlations between international terrorism and religion are contested. B. Buzan and L. Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies. London, Routledge, 2009; C. Seiple, D. Hooper and P. Otis (eds.), Routledge handbook of religion and security: Theory and practice, London and New York, Routledge, 2011; A.P. Schmid, The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research, London and New York, Routledge, 2011.

The emergence of education, and specifically religious education, as one part of the complex interface of security and intelligence is manifested in key policy documents worldwide. United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee's Executive Directorate (UNCTED), Compilation of International Good Practices, Codes and Standards, UNCTED, 2005; The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 9/11 Commission Report, Washington, United States of America Government, 2004; Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Toledo guiding principles on teaching about religions and beliefs in publicschools, 2007, [ http://www.oslocoalition.org/documents/toledo guidelines.pdf]; HM Home Office, Preventing extremism together, London, HM Home Office, 2005, [ http://www.aml.org.uk/pdf files/PETReport.pdf]; HM Home Office, Review of counter-terrorism and security powers, London, HM Home Office, 2011, [http: // www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm80/8005/8005.pdf]; HM Home Office, Select bibliography of terrorism sources, London, HM Home Office, 2011, [ www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05866.pdf]. The involvement of any curriculum area in such matters as security and intelligence may have critical and fundamental implications for the nature of the roles and purposes of education. For religious education this interface means disconnecting it from the religious leaving empty a space that can be occupied by the same extremists that this approach is meant to counter.

The impact of this shift can be seen in national and international security policy developments. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools is one influential example of this expanding interface. In the United Nations, two months after 9/11, Abdultaffah Amor, then UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, addressed an International Consultative Conference on School Education on 'The Role of Religious Education in the Pursuit of Tolerance and Non-Discrimination'. A. Amor, 'The role of religious education in the pursuit of tolerance and non-discrimination', UN Geneva, International Consultative Conference on School Education in Relation with Freedom of Religion and Belief, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination, 2001. In 2010, Amor's successor, Heiner Bielefeldt, addressed the Human Rights Council and remarked that the "there seems to be worldwide consensus that the right to education is of strategic importance for the effective enjoyment of human rights in general". UN Human Rights Council, Sixteenth session, Agenda Item 3, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, United Nations General Assembly, Document A/HRC/16/53, Geneva, United Nations 2010, Paragraph 20. He referred to the contribution made by his predecessor and Ms. Jahangir, who had assisted in the development of the Toledo Guiding Principles. The official UN summary thus records:

"States should favourably consider . . . the final document adopted at the International Consultative Conference on School Education in relation to Freedom of Religion or Belief, Tolerance and Non-discrimination and to the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools". Ibid, Summary. 

It is in this same movement, that Tony Blair gave a speech to the United Nations Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee on education as a security issue for the 21st century in November 2013.

However, the risks of such an initiative, politically, pedagogically and religiously, are considerable and deserve greater analysis. To this end, I will be editing a special issue of the British Journal of Educational Studies on Education, Security and Intelligence Studies. We have no clear understanding of how or if an education directed towards countering terrorism and extremism, what I term 'the counter terrorist classroom', can be effective. Politically and pedagogically the evidence at present is limited. Religiously, the dangers of limiting the focus of religious education to countering extremism are more significant. They could amount to a potentially permanent barrier to engagement with the religious life itself. An epistemological problem, how to ground religious education when it is no longer grounded in the religious life, therefore becomes a moral, even existential one.

Modern religious education, it seems, must be grounded in 'enlightened' epistemological parameters. These have their foundations in Kant's 'bounds of reason', Rousseau's 'civil religion', Dewey's 'religion of humanity' and, more recently, the counter extremism agenda manifested by the 'counter terrorist classroom'. I. Kant (A. W. Wood and G. di Giovanni (trans. and eds.)), Religion and Rational Theology: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996; J.J. Rousseau (V. Gourevitch (ed.)), Rousseau: 'The Social Contract' and Other Later Political Writings and Rousseau: 'The Discourses' and Other Early Political Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997; J. Dewey, Experience and Education, New York, Free Press, 1997; J. Dewey (J. Boydston (ed.)), The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882–1953, 3rd edn., Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. Modern religious education is therefore governed by three principles: rationality – autonomy of reason, freedom of will and action, students are encouraged to think for themselves, rejecting religious authority and faith at face value; secularity – directing its purpose to worldly concerns, especially political and security concerns, by removing the transcendent as a term accessible to reason; and temporality – an understanding of time which, given the first two principles, focuses on the here and now.

Modern religious education, it seems, must be grounded in 'enlightened' epistemological parameters. These have their foundations in Kant's 'bounds of reason', Rousseau's 'civil religion', Dewey's 'religion of humanity' and, more recently, the counter extremism agenda manifested by the 'counter terrorist classroom'. Modern religious education is therefore governed by three principles: rationality – autonomy of reason, freedom of will and action, students are encouraged to think for themselves, rejecting religious authority and faith at face value; secularity – directing its purpose to worldly concerns, especially political and security concerns, by removing the transcendent as a term accessible to reason; and temporality – an understanding of time which, given the first two principles, focuses on the here and now.

Indeed, however misguided in its violence and its brutality, there is some distant recognition within the extremist mindset that what is offered as 'Western education' does indeed lack higher transcendental goals and perspective. If we offer a 'religious education' emptied of the sacred, extremists will be ready to fill that void. Until policy makers and indeed security and intelligence services realise this, their struggle is likely to be in vain and their programmes for securitised forms of religious education the most ineffective weapons of all.

 This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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