Addressing Religious Extremism: A Positive Approach for Policy Makers and Practitioners

Foundation Update

Addressing Religious Extremism: A Positive Approach for Policy Makers and Practitioners

07 May 2015

Extreme violence in the name of religion has become a feature of our society. However, there is a risk that hasty policy reactions to such violence can confuse extremism with conservative views that are legitimate in a liberal democracy that supports freedom of religion and belief. This can damage social cohesion by associating these events with a generalised picture of a religion. National policy needs to be integrated, including a positive educational approach. Better understanding of religions and engagement with people of other faiths, while not a solution on its own, is an important factor in countering extremism and building tolerance and respect among different groups. This can only help to foster democratic citizenship in national and global society, writes Robert Jackson for our Global Perspectives Series.

Addressing Religious Extremism: A Positive Approach for Policy Makers and Practitioners

By Robert Jackson

Cases of 'religious extremism' often involve extreme violence against innocent people such as the 9/11 attacks in the United States of America, the Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005 and the murders of British and American hostages in 2014. There is a real danger that 'knee jerk' shifts of policy in response to such events can contribute to social division and fragmentation rather than promoting social cohesion. This is especially true when the extreme views and actions of a few are taken to correspond to a generalised picture of a religion. Avoiding policies built on these dangerous generalisations requires well-researched, integrated strategies.

A positive educational response, that could form part of policy and practice anchored in a constitutional recognition of religious freedom, should have a broad set of aims. It should aim to increase young people's knowledge and understanding of religions, regardless of whether their own family background is religious or not. This should include, among other strategies, facilitating communication between young people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds. The Council of Europe, for example, through its ministerial recommendation on education about religions and non-religious convictions, Council of Europe, 'Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the dimensions of religions and non religious convictions within intercultural education', 10 December 2008, [ regards this form of education as necessary to the development of inter-cultural understanding. However, it is important that this is set within a wider strategy to counter violent extremism. A religious education that sets out only to promote tolerance and social cohesion is inadequate since it assumes that understanding and knowledge necessarily foster tolerance. Knowledge and understanding are necessary but not sufficient conditions for genuinely removing prejudice.

Liam Gearon See L. Gearon, MasterClass in Religious Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning, London, Bloomsbury, 2013. is a critic of this approach who misrepresents it as constituting a discrete 'historical-political paradigm' of religious education with a single aim of achieving 'political' goals (such as increasing tolerance) while failing to develop any understanding of what it means to be religious. This results, he argues, in its naively colluding with the agendas of security organisations, whose interest in promoting understanding of religions he perceives to be sinister. Gearon claims this approach filters out religious difference and conflict in the classroom, makes the assumption that all religions are equally true and that it uses the personal experience of children as the only source of information for learners. Its methods are also sullied, he suggests, by the use of research and didactical methods derived from social sciences and psychology, which he regards as inherently secularist in nature. Not one of these claims holds up to critical scrutiny. I address these criticisms elsewhere, but brief responses to some of them are present in what follows. I respond specifically to Liam Gearon's arguments in R. Jackson, 'Misrepresenting Religious Education's Past and Present in Looking Forward: Gearon Using Kuhn's Concepts of Paradigm, Paradigm Shift and Incommensurability', Journal of Beliefs and Values, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2015, pp. . For a full account of the opinions and arguments I express here, see R. Jackson, 'Signposts': Policy and Practice for Teaching about Religions and Non-Religious Worldviews in Intercultural Education, Strasbourg, Council of Europe Publishing, 2014. Also R. Jackson (ed.), Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict: Perspectives on Religious Education Research, London, Routledge, 2011; R. Jackson, Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy, London, Routledge Falmer, 2004; and R. Jackson, Religious Education: An Interpretive Approach, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.

Dr Gearon is rather coy about what he regards as legitimate 'religious education', but the numerous references associating it with initiation into 'the religious life' seem to reveal his position. What policy makers need to understand is that there is a fundamental distinction between forms of education which initiate individuals into some form of religious life, developing religious understanding, and those which promote an inclusive, general public understanding of religion, what I term understanding religion. I have no problem with the former in principle, if it results from the wishes of parents or young people themselves and does not necessarily depend on funding from the state. It is simply different to the activity appropriate for inclusive schools in which young people from a variety of religious and secular backgrounds work and study together and gain a better understanding of each other's beliefs and worldviews.

That said, these two approaches can be complementary. For example, an individual's religious understanding can, in principle, contribute experience that facilitates understanding of another's religious position. Just as an understanding of religious plurality can, in principle, inform one's own religious understanding. Indeed, many who are involved in educating for religious understanding within their faith communities regard it as important that learners have opportunities to develop an understanding of religious diversity. Moreover, dialogue between students experiencing each form of education can be successful. This is indicated, for example, in evaluations of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Face to Faith programme by Warwick University. Confusingly, both processes, depending on context, are often called 'religious education', or the equivalent of this term in languages other than English.

Policies intended to counter violent extremism need to promote 'understanding religion' for a range of reasons. The primary aim of inclusive 'religious education' is to promote an understanding of the language, experiences and values of religious people in order to understand another's religious stance. This goal is both intrinsic to the nature of education and instrumental to the benefit of individuals and society. Education is concerned with introducing young people to the full breadth of human experience, and this must include religion. In an international context where skills for employability and industrial competitiveness often dominate educational policy, this view acts as a counterweight, pressing for the inclusion of studies of religious and ethical issues and reflection on these as intrinsic elements of education, rather than optional 'add-ons'.

For individuals, study of, and reflection on, different religions can also help students to clarify their own personal religious positions or values and to appreciate the relationship between another's position and their own. Continuing reflection is a 'conversational' process in which students, whatever their family or cultural background, interpret and reinterpret their own views in the light of their studies.

For society, such study encourages recognition of the principle of religious freedom and tolerance of, and sometimes respect for, others' views and ways of life within society. For a discussion of the relationship between 'tolerance', 'respect' and 'recognition' see R. Jackson, (2009) 'Understanding the religions and worldviews of others', Alliance of Civilizations Forum, Istanbul, Turkey, 6 April 2009 []. Thus it makes a contribution to education for democratic citizenship. Participation in these debates links the social world and the individual and is a condition for the kind of inter-religious and inter-cultural communication that is necessary for the proper functioning of plural democracies.

The REDCo Project, For further analysis of the following findings from the REDCo Project see: I. ter Avest, D-P. Jozsa, T. Knauth, J. Rosón & G. Skeie (eds.), Dialogue and Conflict on Religion: Studies of Classroom Interaction on European Countries, Münster, Waxmann, 2009 (esp. T. Knauth, 'Dialogue on a grassroots-level: analysing dialogue-oriented classroom interaction in Hamburg RE', pp. 110-33); R. Jackson (ed.) Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict: Perspectives on Religious Education Research, London, Routledge, 2011; T. Knauth, D-P. Jozsa, G. Bertram-Troost & J. Ipgrave (eds.), Encountering Religious Pluralism in School and Society: A Qualitative Study of Teenage Perspectives in Europe, Münster, Waxmann, 2008; P. Valk, G. Bertram-Troost, M. Friederici & C. Béraud (Eds.) Teenagers' Perspectives on the Role of Religion in their Lives, Schools and Societies: A European Quantitative Study, Münster, Waxmann, 2009; M. von der Lippe, 'Reality can bite: The perspectives of young people on the role of religion in their world', Nordidactica: Journal of Humanities and Social Science Education, 2011 (2), pp. 15-34; G. Skeie, 'Dialogue and conflict in the religious education classroom: Some intermediate reflections from a research project', in H. Streib, A. Dinter & K. Söderblom (eds.), Lived Religion: Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches (Essays in Honour of Hans-Günther Heimbrock), Leiden, Brill Academic Publishers, 2008, pp. 337-348. which included various research studies with 14-16 year olds in eight European countries, demonstrates the importance of this link between the personal and the social. It shows support from young people for education about religious diversity, demonstrating that studies of religious diversity are not erosive of students' own commitments, but can help to develop a culture of 'living together'. The majority of survey participants wanted opportunities to learn about and from one another's religious perspectives in the 'safe space' of the classroom, with teachers acting both as sources of knowledge and understanding and facilitators of dialogue. Students were able to develop their own stances on the relationship between religions using skills of empathy and criticism in order to relate to the materials being studied, especially when trying to grasp another's religious language. There was absolutely no procedural assumption that 'all religions are equally true', but there was a commitment to the democratic and human rights principle of freedom of religion or belief within society, which is a very different matter.

'Conflict' and difference is not filtered out of such exchanges; indeed this approach, the development of safe, interpretive spaces, allows for discussions of religious extremism. As Joyce Miller argues, J. Miller, 'Religious extremism, religious education and the interpretive approach', Religion & Education, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2013, pp. 50-61; reprinted in J. Miller, K. O'Grady & U. McKenna (eds.) Religion in Education: Innovation in International Research, New York and London, Routledge, 2013, pp.121-133. the development of a nuanced approach to representing and interpreting any religion in the classroom avoids both 'satanisation' and 'sanitisation', encouraging recognition of internal diversity and avoiding stereotyping. This interpretive approach does not only draw on the experience of children – teachers are essential guides and sources of information – but credits students with the ability to distinguish between, and to show tolerance or respect for, different beliefs and perspectives; skills vital for citizens in plural democracies.

These debates are not just about the religious. Signposts, the book explaining the Council of Europe's ministerial recommendation on "the dimension of religions and non-religious convictions within inter-cultural education", makes some key points. See Jackson, 'Signposts', 2014 op. cit. Here, a form of inclusive education is recommended for all students, regardless of background, developing their understanding of a range of religious and non-religious life stances or worldviews. This education is intended to deepen students' understanding of different traditions present in late modern societies and to encourage dialogue and exchange between those from different backgrounds. It relates religions and 'non-religious convictions' to inter-cultural education, not to reduce religion to culture, but to mirror Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in giving public recognition to the plurality of deeply held commitments within our societies. A distinction is also made between 'organised' world views such as the religions of the world and secular humanism, and the 'personal' world views which individuals adopt that might mirror the organised, but are often more eclectic.

Clarification of terminology and processes, including distinguishing clearly between descriptive and normative meanings, is necessary when discussing the field of religion and education. For example, there might be wide agreement that we live in a world where cultural and religious diversity is highly complex, influenced by both 'local' and 'global' factors, a condition widely described as late modernity or post-modernity. This is very different from adopting the normative stance of postmodernism, in which, for example, truth is seen as internal to different ways of life. Similarly, religious plurality, describing the complex mix of religious phenomena, is different to pluralism, connoting a particular normative stance. For citizenship education this means that, as well as developing an understanding of insiders' meanings of religious language, it is important to unpack how religious people relate their religious identities to ideas of ethnicity, nationality and culture and also to examine examples of (mis)representations of religions by the media or by politicians.

The social and moral values behind this approach to 'understanding religion' relate to the idea of human dignity reflected in human rights codes such as the UDHR. There may be very different moral, religious and cultural sources for ideas of human dignity, but there is also some close overlap between these different ideas. These codifications are therefore important reference points for negotiating these differences through dialogue. By exploring different expressions of the concept of human rights, consensus might be found through the discussion of these 'overlapping values', in attempting to find some degree of common ground. This is close to what John Rawls means by an 'overlapping consensus'. J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993.

There is no space here to discuss best classroom practices. For this see R. Jackson, 2014, op. cit. REDCo research gives examples of techniques which were seen to improve the dynamics of dialogue, see especially research on classroom interaction in Estonia (O. Schihalejev, From indifference to dialogue? Estonian young people, the school and religious diversity, Waxmann, Münster, 2010, pp.164, 177) and in St Petersburg (F. Kozyrev, 'Dialogues about religion: Incident analysis of classroom interaction in St Petersburg', in I. ter Avest et al. (eds.), op. cit., pp. 194-224). One of the essential things for policy makers to note, however, is that promoting this form of education affects not only content, but also format. Democratic principles fostered by this education must also create a safe classroom space in which it can be explored. Various research studies demonstrate the need to create a safe classroom space by agreeing ground rules for the expression of views, directly involving students in their preparation. Such procedures should not simply be agreed, but should be understood as exemplifying the democratic principles of tolerance, non-discrimination and mutual respect for the right to hold a particular viewpoint, that underpin the public life of the school and society.

It is perhaps unrealistic to expect any classroom to be entirely 'safe' for all students all of the time. Providing opportunities for student dialogue and exchange inevitably holds some element of risk, though these can be minimised through suitable preparation and training. But this risk is one worth taking. Increasing the level of knowledge and understanding of religions and other worldviews, together with increasing the competence of students to practise and engage in 'civil' dialogue that includes questions related to religious conflict, will not completely remove issues in society related to extremism. However they can make an important positive contribution alongside other strategies and should be an important consideration in the development of national policies.

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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