Education initiative aims to counter student radicalisation

Morocco and the European Union (EU) have launched a two-year initiative to enhance tolerance in societies where terrorism and violent extremism exist.

The ‘Education for the Prevention and Countering of Violent Extremism Leading to Terrorism’, which will run from 2023-25, was announced during the 21st meeting of the coordinating committee of the Global Counterterrorism Forum held in Cairo, Egypt, earlier in May.

In a video introducing the initiative, Nasser Bourita, the minister of foreign affairs, African cooperation and Moroccan expatriates in Morocco, said education is a powerful tool to counter radicalism and eradicate extremist ideologies that develop in “precarious environments”.

He added that access to education enables individuals to develop skills that can counter extremist narratives and ideologies, and promote peace.

For his part, Josep Borell Fontelles, a foreign affairs and security representative of the EU, said: “The objective is clear: to help develop societies that are more tolerant and resilient against terrorism and violent extremism.” The EU will be offering financial, technical and educational support.

The EU’s counter-terrorism policy focuses on cooperation with countries most affected by terrorism in the region’s neighbourhood, including North Africa, to improve security inside the EU, according to a March 2023 report, Understanding EU Counter-terrorism Policy.

The EU has supported similar initiatives in the Western Balkans, according to a 2023 report titled Dealing with Extremism in an Educational Environment in the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans include countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia.

Morocco is 83rd out of 163 countries listed in the 2023 Global Terrorism Index ahead of Egypt (16), Libya (32), Algeria (37) and Tunisia (40) – underscoring its standing as the safest country in North Africa.

However, Morocco continues to face sporadic threats from small, independent terrorist cells, the majority of them claiming to be inspired by or affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, also known by its Arabic acronym Da’ish or Daesh , according to Country Reports on Terrorism 2021: Morocco prepared by the United States Department of State.

Combating extremism

Under the initiative, customised training-of-the-trainers programmes will be designed and delivered to educators to build learners’ resilience to violent extremism.

A series of indicators will also be developed and implemented to assist the government’s efforts to monitor and evaluate programmes and policies to prevent and combat violent extremism in the educational space.

Dr El Mostafa Rezrazi, the president of the Moroccan Observatory on Extremism and Violence, told University World News that specialists at Morocco’s universities and higher learning institutions are working on an action plan to implement the initiative.

The initiative will be implemented in partnership with the Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism Hedayah in the United Arab Emirates which supports educational institutions in enhancing youth resilience to violent extremism through specific educational programmes aimed at preventing radicalisation in the student community.

Combating root causes of extremism

Abdellah Benahnia, a part-time international researcher and professor at the Superior Institutions of Science and Technology, an associate college of Cardiff Metropolitan University in Casablanca, told University World News: “This can be a great initiative for the university community as long as it is able to tackle the problem of violence from the different angles already existing in society.

“The initiative should not only focus on religious and ideologically driven extremism, but also address other root causes, including socio-economic factors such as the unemployment of university graduates, corruption practices, unethical behaviour and illiteracy, along with social and political grievances.”

He added: “Moreover, the new initiative must focus on promoting critical thinking, tolerance and respect for diversity (within the principles and the norms of society) among students and the academic community in Morocco.

“By doing that, the initiative will be very significant for university students because it will equip them with appropriate capabilities, including skills, knowledge, understanding and awareness, to make them resilient to any type of violent extremism that may face them.”

The role of the university

“Moroccan universities could contribute to the initiative by engaging in curriculum development and providing models for integrating courses on extremism and hate speech in various disciplines,” said Rezrazi, who is also a senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, and Affiliate Professor at Mohammed VI Polytechnique.

He added that research and analysis courses can help universities to do studies to understand the causes and impact of extremism and hate speech inside university campuses.

“It could be much more significant to promote awareness campaigns and outreach by organising events to engage students, faculty, and the community in debates. In the university, we could also engage students and encourage them to be involved in initiatives that promote tolerance and inclusion,” Rezrazi added.

“The university will be an important platform in spreading knowledge and in using students as human chains to disseminate knowledge within families, within public spaces and within their future work centres,” Rezrazi emphasised.

“At managerial level, the creation of partnerships and collaboration with organisations and agencies to share knowledge and resources could be a very important stage to make the role of the university much more inclusive,” he noted.

“The engagement of the university in policy discussions and advocating evidence-based approaches to prevention is crucial to make this initiative efficient and successful,” he added.

He noted that these efforts collectively empower universities to address extremism and hate speech through education and community engagement.

Improving the education system

“Education is key in preventing and countering violent extremism leading to terrorism,” Benahnia emphasised.

“Therefore, the first thing to tackle is the quality of education itself ... we cannot work on other issues via a weak system of education,” he explained.

He said that, through the initiative, university students can be empowered to play an active role in promoting peace and security within their communities.

Benahnia’s views are supported by the 2020 study, ‘The role of education in the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism in developing countries’, which found that the poor quality of education and the gap between education and employment could increase the vulnerability of youth for radicalisation.