Lessons in tolerance

A recent seminar by The Democracy Forum at King’s College, London debated how education can be used to fight – or fuel – terrorism.

‘The role of education in combating terrorism’ was the theme of a recent Democracy Forum seminar held at King’s College, London. The event was chaired by Dr William Crawley from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and the list of distinguished participants and speakers included Stephen Hammond MP, Chairman of The Democracy Forum, and His Honour Judge Sir Mota Singh, the Vice-Chairman; Professor Jack Spence OBE from the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London; Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University; G Parthasarathy, former diplomat and visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi; Shiraz Maher, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR); and Mushtak Parker, Editor of Islamic Banker magazine.

After a brief introduction by Dr Crawley, Stephen Hammond offered a short overview of the topic, considering definitions of education such as the ‘process of nourishing or rearing’ and a ‘systematic extension of learning’. He concluded that access to education meant access to prosperity, and was a means of deflecting people from the path to terrorism.

Professor Jack Spence began by considering the importance of military education and co-operation between states in countering terrorism, and drew a key distinction – which he conceded is often ‘fuzzy’ – between ‘old’ and ‘new’ terrorism. The former, he said, is dedicated to bringing about change, freedom and human rights for oppressed peoples, and could be seen as a weapon of the weak for those with reasonable objectives and no viable alternatives, such as the blacks inSouth Africafighting against apartheid. New or ‘apocalyptic’ terrorism, on the other hand, aims to transform entire social structures into the image of the terrorists’ ideology, and usually seeks the unachievable, so is pointless and more harmful – though Professor Spence pointed out that both kinds of terror involve the unacceptable killing of innocents, even if some views hold that ‘no-one is innocent in politics’, a view the professor described as ‘nonsense’.

The accountability of the educator as a ‘responsible authority’, the disclosure of his/her moral views through language use and the importance of students challenging their teachers were among other issues he raised, as well as the idea of negotiating with terrorists, which Professor Spence said is possible when the costs of continuing a political struggle exceed the costs of stopping.

Next to speak was Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, whose presentation focused on how education fuels terrorism in his homeland, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Dr Hoodbhoy saidPakistanhas changed so totally over the years that he barely recognises his own neighbourhood ofKarachi, once home to Hindus, Parsis and Christians. NowKarachiand the country as a whole are so much less diverse with ‘no place for minorities’, and Lashkar-e-Taiba and other extremist groups, who employ ‘Islamic idiom’, can attract huge crowds.

All this has not come about by accident, insisted Dr Hoodbhoy, but due to the changing face of education in Pakistan. He offered disturbing examples from the current school curriculum, showing how children as young as 7 are being fed extreme religious, pro-violence and anti-India views, including images and text from a school primer that gave the Urdu equivalent of A as standing for ‘Allah’, B for ‘bandook’ (gun), Te for ‘takrao’ (crash or collision, with an alarming 9/11-like picture by way of illustration), J for ‘jihad’, Kh for ‘khanjar’ (dagger) and Ze for ‘zunoob’ or sins, which included pictures of such ‘sinful’ objects as a kite, guitar and satellite TV. Examples from another curriculum document included tasks such as ‘Understanding Hindu-Muslim differences and the resultant need for Pakistan’, discussing ‘India’s evil designs against Pakistan’ and ‘making speeches on shehadat and jehad’. All this, said Dr Hoodbhoy, reinforced the cycle of extremism in the country that showed no signs of abating.

‘There has been a sea change inPakistanin the last six decades,’ he said. ‘The poison put into education by Gen Zia-ul-Haq was not changed by subsequent regimes. And attitudes have changed over the years, [this] makes my country alien to me.’

The Taliban are, said Dr Hoodbhoy, ‘the worst news’ for education inPakistan, and madrassas are partly responsible for the deteriorating situation. Efforts initiated during General Pervez Musharraf’s regime to reform them, as a result of 9/11, did not go very far and madrassa reform was now ‘dead’. After the 2007 Lal Masjid incident, liberal voices were also less welcome inPakistan’s media, he said.

Dr Hoodbhoy did acknowledge that there was a minority inPakistanwho sought change but, he warned, the situation would worsen until something drastic was done. He concluded by apologising for his pessimism but could not, at present, offer a brighter view.

A little more hopeful was G Parthasarathy, whose angle was the need for pluralism, secularism and inclusivity in educational and social structures. A sense of participation is key to a strong society, he said, and education should evoke social consciousness. Tensions – and terrorism – arise when it does not promote respect for religious and cultural diversity, and when feelings of alienation are rife. He cited India as a model of a successfully diverse society and a ‘unique example of democratic living’, though the country had endured its own experience of terrorism, including fundamentalism in Punjab and Kashmir, and Maoist violence that still affects many regions today.

‘The most important part of education is that diversity should be cherished, that unity does not mean uniformity,’ he said.

Mr Parthasarathy expressed unease about the Afghan-Pakistan border as an epicentre of global terrorism, and about what will happen when theUSpulls out ofAfghanistan. But he ended on a tentatively optimistic note, saying that Indian politicians would not repeat past mistakes and that, following the visit toIndiaby King Abdullah in 2006, the Saudis were more responsive to Indian concerns.

Before opening the floor to questions from the audience, Dr Crawley praised Professor Spence’s maxim that students should challenge their teachers’ views, and his refusal to accept the notion of collective guilt, as well as acknowledging Dr Hoodbhoy’s rather bleak portrait ofPakistanand Mr Parthasarathy’s insistence on respect for pluralism and reform. Questions and comments from the audience included the role of electronic media in fuelling or reducing terrorism, whether poverty creates terrorism and the funding ofPakistan’s madrassas.

After a lunch break, it was the turn of Shiraz Maher from the ICSR, who offered an assessment of Saudi Arabian deradicalisation through education initiatives, including excerpts from a documentary he had made. Faced with a glut of al-Qaeda prisoners,Saudi Arabiahas taken a new approach to these people with deep ideological convictions, said Mr Maher, and created an ‘Orwellian’ Ideological Security Unit to defend and reclaim the ideology of the Saudi state. He discussed how these units deconstruct and challenge radical ideas using re-educative films and therapies, and how the Saudi government is able to engage with Islamic theological debate and ideology in a way that Western governments cannot. The documentary clips showed ‘beneficiaries’ – not ‘prisoners’ – undergoing art therapy to probe background problems and alter the way they viewed Islam.

When asked by one audience member if these techniques worked for very hardline ideologues, Mr Maher admitted that such people’s thinking would be harder to deconstruct, while another questioner wondered about deeper educational reforms inSaudi Arabia, leading Mr Maher to agree that these were short-terms solutions rather than deeper reforms in the system. To a query about the link between religious education and radicalisation, Mr Maher suggested that those who have grown up with theological counterpoints are harder to radicalise, while those who have not can go from ‘nought to sixty’ very quickly.

Finally, Mushtak Parker took the stage to speak about the Islamic financial industry and terrorism, saying he wanted to demystify Islamic finance as it is viewed in the West, especially post-9/11. He explored links, misconceptions and misrepresentations regarding Islamic finance and terrorism, demystifying concepts such as Hawala, which, simply put, is an alternative remittance system but is still believed by the US Government to be a primary vehicle for raising funds for radical groups, and debunking myths that all Islamic banks and finance systems are linked to terrorism. Mr Parker examined the faith-based nature and ethics of Islamic finance, such as its proscription of usury and punitive approach to fraud, and discussed differing concepts of money within the Muslim world, as well as financial literacy and how education programmes in Islamic finance both in the Muslim world and the West are contributing to an improved corporate governance and disclosure culture and thus towards combating terrorism.

Questions from the floor centred around banking regulations under sharia law, how Islamic banking might lead to a better society, and whether Western bankers should be learning to operate within the Islamic system. Mr Parker elaborated, saying that Islamic finance was among the most regulated and, though it did not claim any moral high ground, it did have a different approach to risk, and thus not one Islamic bank had been affected by the current banking crisis.

The seminar concluded with a few words by The Democracy Forum’s Vice-Chairman, HHJ Sir Mota Singh, who commended the eminent speakers for their enlightening and eloquent presentations. Violence is the curse of the modern world, said Sir Mota, and serious consideration should be given to winning the hearts and minds of those who are committed to it.