Teaching Tolerance to Fight Extremism

The battle against religious extremism should be waged in the classroom, not just the battlefield.

By Osama Al Sharif

Our war on violent religious extremism became even more essential after the horrific execution of air force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh by Islamic State militants. Jordanians grieved together, rallied around their leadership, and expressed anger at this deranged group whose bloody practices have shocked even the most ardent fundamentalist.

Al-Kasasbeh’s death also led to growing calls for a systematic campaign to uproot religious extremism from Jordanian society. But away from emotional reactions and hasty calls for action, one must be wise and prudent when going about this. Religious reform is a big undertaking and we have to tread carefully as we debate what to do and how to do it. When it comes to people’s faiths and religious convictions, society as a whole must bear responsibility.

What we can be sure of is that this war won’t just be won on the battlefield, it’s a war that will be won in homes and in classrooms. It all boils down to education and the way we behave as citizens. It’s about embracing universal values and creating an egalitarian society where the endemic challenges of poverty and unemployment are overcome. It’s about correcting attitudes around self-righteousness and bigotry. It’s about fighting corruption and providing help to the less fortunate in our society.

We should worry when an estimated 1,500 Jordanian youths are said to have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq. We should worry when fundamentalist dogma thrives in impoverished towns like Ma’an and Zarqa. We should worry when tolerance and acceptance of the “other” seems to have disappeared from society.

Cultivating a new culture, one that espouses openness, tolerance, moderation, charity, and modesty, will take a long time. But now is the time to start. And it starts with education. Our goal must be to protect future generations from the prevailing culture of hatred and distrust. Our aim must be to instill in young people the universal values of plurality, social responsibility, and adherence to laws.

I understand this will be easier said than done. Our education system is dilapidated. Our schools are in trouble and so are our universities. This existential challenge must be addressed today. Salvaging our education system must now be a national priority. We simply cannot afford to allow poor curricula, meager resources, and inefficient teaching staff to wreak havoc on impressionable young minds.

Schools and universities should be beacons of hope and launch pads for the future. But we know that lack of resources and oversight have degraded both. Teachers need to be selected carefully to undergo one of the most delicate tasks in society: the education of our youth. Their job goes beyond instilling information; it’s about shaping young people’s character.

Our war against extremism needs to begin and end in our classrooms. Young boys and girls spend more time in schools than they do at home. The ideas we cultivate in their minds ultimately help to shape their characters.

Defeating extremism over the long-run requires that we, as a society, must become a stakeholder in the campaign to reform and salvage our schools and universities. Those who studied in Europe and the United States know very well that they got much more than education there: In addition to learning arts and sciences, they were also taught that they were part of a wider civil society; to listen and become members of a community that expects social responsibility.

Without focusing on education, our war on extremism and ignorance will be long and difficult. We need to prepare future generations to think and ask questions, so that they become builders, not destroyers. We need them to strive to become part of an international community that aspires to make this world a better place.

Parallel to this we need to continue with political and economic reforms to strengthen our democratic experience and buttress the rule of law. We need to believe that we can contribute to humanity and to civilization as Arabs and Muslims.

We belong to a civilization that has contributed a great deal to humanity. The militants are a historical anomaly and their cause is doomed. But defeating them means that we must safeguard future generations and protect them from extremist dogma. That mission begins at schools.