New project takes the fight against extremism to students

A UNESCO campaign launched recently in the North African countries of Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan aims to empower youth in the fight against extremism and strengthen the capacities of universities and other educational institutions to contribute to national prevention efforts.

Funded by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre and the government of Canada, UNESCO’s pilot project entitled “Youth Preventing Violent Extremism” was launched on 24 April.

The project aims to promote global citizenship education as a tool to prevent extremism and strengthen the capacities of national education systems to appropriately and effectively contribute to national prevention efforts.

Global citizenship education empowers students to become active local and global promoters of peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable societies by instilling the values, attitudes and behaviours that support creativity, innovation and a commitment to peace, human rights and sustainable development, according to a 2017 report entitled Promotion and Implementation of Global Citizenship Education in Crisis Situations.

The project comes against the backdrop of concerns over a lack of international perspectives in North Africa's educational systems and an increase in terrorism activities.

"Despite the rich cultural heritage in North Africa and the Middle East region, it lacks constructive educational models and global perspectives," said a 2015 article entitled “Global Citizenship and Global Universities: The age of global interdependence and cosmopolitanism”.

According to the Gobal Terrorism Index for 2017, several North African countries are among the top 50 countries. They include Libya at 10, Egypt at 11, Tunisia at 41 and Algeria at 49.

A February 2018 report entitled The Southern Front Line: EU counter-terrorism cooperation with Tunisia and Morocco shows that the highest number of fighters joining violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq were Tunisian nationals.

Dana Day, a fellow at the Ethics, Youth and Sport Division of the UNESCO Social and Human Sciences Sector, told University World News that universities would be part of the Youth Preventing Violent Extremism (YPVE) project.

“As the project specifically operates with youth aged 29 and younger, we aim to include institutions of higher education as we progress,” Day said.

“There will be opportunities for formal and informal education regarding peacebuilding methods among youth populations in which students and faculty of institutions of higher education will be encouraged to take active roles,” Day said.

“Each programme will have a specific objective, with an aim to strengthen the vital role of young people as peacebuilders in their communities and beyond and as change-makers and positive influencers in areas of conflict prevention and peace sustainability,” Day said.

Actively rejecting and countering violence increases the education available for marginalised and at-risk communities, which can increase support of higher education institutions and potentially increase enrolment, she said.

“Involvement in our multidisciplinary approach to YPVE can serve as a supplement to university education as there are toolkits and programmes regarding formal education, media, cross-cultural or cross-religious dialogue, capacity-building programmes, and trainings and seminars,” Day said.

Despite an argument that global citizenship education can in fact contribute to youth radicalisation and terrorism engagement once the disjuncture between global citizenship values and local and global economic and sociopolitical realities becomes clear, the YPVE project has generally been welcomed.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo’s National Research Centre in Egypt, cautiously welcomed the launch of the YPVE project.

“The YPVE project, along with the recently-launched Arab States Regional Global Citizenship Education (GCED) Network, will help strengthen the universities’ capacity in the development and implementation of GCED policies, training, research, learning content and practices,” Abdelhamid said.

"However, concerns raised about the potential impact of GCED must be investigated and feed into considerations when formulating preventive and disengagement strategies," Abdelhamid said.