Education is a Security Issue

Photo/Mark Garten

Foundation Update

Education is a Security Issue

21 Nov 2013

The last time I sat here and addressed members of the UN Security Council I was the Prime Minister, the date was September 2000 and the world seemed very different. We were trying to articulate the new security order in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The mood was optimistic; the atmosphere light.

Today we face a scourge that has seen innocent lives taken, communities scarred and nations destabilised, in an arc that stretches from the Far East through the Middle east to the streets of cities here in the USA. There can be debates about how we defeat terrorism, about its political causes and effects, and how to resolve them. But there is little disagreement now about the nature of the scourge.

It is extremism based on a perversion of religious belief, a fanaticism that abuses faith to justify violence against innocent civilians. We see it in the Middle East of course; in Central Asia; in many parts of Africa; most recently in the terrible events in Kenya; but also in countries in the Far East. And here in the USA, in the UK and most of Europe we have either experienced terrorism or are spending vast amounts of money, effort and energy to prevent it.

My case to you today is very simple: yes, of course politics plays its part in fuelling this extremism, and the extremists are adept at jumping on the back of political grievances; they use them and exploit them.

But the soil in which they plant the seeds of hate, is the soil of ignorance, of warped thinking producing warped minds and in particular of a distorted and false view of religion. We will not deal with the root causes of terrorism unless we confront this fact. That is why in the 21st Century education is a security issue and not any education but education specifically that opens young minds to "the other", those who are culturally and religiously different; and shows them how the only future that works is one in which people are respected as equals whatever their faith or culture. "To see myself in you": peaceful co-existence should be our aim.

It is time to mobilise and to organise to achieve this aim and as yet we are doing neither adequately or with the necessary urgency.

The threat from this extremism is within the experience of many nations represented in this room.And it is a menace, both for what it does directly and for the consequences of division and sectarianism it creates indirectly. Every killing is a human tragedy. But it also causes a chain reaction of bitterness and hatred. There is real fear in the communities scourged by such extremism, fear that paralyses normal life and pushes people away from each other.

It is an ideology, even a cult. It resembles the extreme political ideologies like fascism of the 20th century. They too said they had "the answer" and those who disagreed were enemies. Likewise with extremism based on religion, those that adhere to it, insist they have "the answer". We most frequently link this to extreme views found in those who claim to follow Islam; but in truth there are also extremist acts perpetrated against Muslims because of their faith and all the major religions today have fanatical elements that disfigure the true nature of their faith Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists too.

Extremism based on religion defines those who are different as "the enemy" not just their enemy but the enemy of God. So they justify killing in the name of God. This is an obscene perversion of proper religious faith, since all the main religions have at their core a belief in love of your neighbour, compassion for others and social justice.

Globalisation intensifies and multiplies the extremism. The world is more connected than at any point in human history, physical integration and online interaction are so huge that more and more people come into contact with those who are different. So the need to respect a neighbour who is not like you, is so much greater; but the scope to identify them as an enemy is also greater.

People like to belong: to tribe, nation, community race or faith. Faith can give a sense of identity.

Taken to extremes that sense of identity and belonging becomes something that regards those who don't belong as inferior, as harmful, as opponents.

The extremists who use religion in this way, know this well.And this is what we have to acknowledge.They are organised.They indoctrinate.

They get into places of worship, community centres and activities; informal schooling; they're online; in print; and above all they educate. They propagate and they do so successfully.

Young people swallow their poison.

How are they able to organise? Because they play on fear and fear is born of ignorance.

Many young people have no true understanding of those who are different. Instead they are taught misunderstanding and misconception about the other.

The extremists are able to organise because we are not organised.This has to change.We have to educate.

We have to educate the next generation of young people to have an open mind, to know about "the other" and through that understanding to learn to respect them as equals.

We have to organise this: to put into our communities, online and above all in school, the basic platform of understanding and knowledge that counters the false message of the extremists. We must look upon this education as every bit as important as educating young people about maths, science and literature.

Of course for the foreseeable future, Governments and States will need to protect themselves by security measures and where necessary by force. But this can only contain the problem. It cannot solve it. To solve it, we have to uproot the thinking of the extremists, not simply disrupt their actions. We have to recruit with the same passion as them.

We have to organise with the same determination.

We have to put up against their idea of closed minded exclusion of "the other", a better idea, the open minded case for co-existence, as the route to prosperity, peace and progress.

The challenge then is to show our young people who are vulnerable to appeals from terrorists that there is a better way to live your life, a better path to having your voice heard, a more meaningful way to engage with the world. And we must address the extremists' funding and support so that extremists have less ability to teach and promote hate, persecution and murder.

The good news is that you and I know what environments allow those seeds of co-existence to flourish. They are environments where there are sound education programmes that promote cultural acceptance. Every successful society today – every economically prosperous society today – is one that embraces cultural acceptance. There has rarely been in the recent history of the world, a failed state in a place of religious tolerance.

The lessons of tolerance as a key ingredient to peace and economic prosperity have been proven by experience. They are actionable and achievable. We know they work. They are liberating and uplifting and they are surely cheaper than allowing extremists to cultivate our youth and have them emerge as security threats which then require imperfect military solutions.

So how to do it?

I will use my Foundation only as an example. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has begun a schools programme, now running for over 4 years and independently evaluated, which promotes cross cultural dialogue between students aged 12-17 across the world.

Reaching students in 20 countries with Morocco just signing on, my Foundation's programme called Face to Faith connects students worldwide via a secure website where they interact from their classroom under the guidance of a teacher trained in facilitating the critical social and emotional skills young people need.

For schools in the poorest areas, we use special arrangements because they cannot access the internet themselves.

My Faith Foundation programme features facilitated video conferences where students discuss global issues from a variety of faith and belief perspective. Through Face to Faith, students gain the dialogue skills required to prevent conflict by breaking down religious and cultural stereotypes. It teaches religious and cultural literacy. It teaches people of different nations and religious traditions to see themselves in one another.

In so doing we are working to promote cross cultural understanding – equipping young people with key 21st century skills needed to live in a world of diverse faiths and beliefs. And we are giving students key mediation and negotiation skills so that they are able to hold meaningful and respectful interfaith discussions – even if their views diverge.

Of course we only reach a tiny fraction of global youth. But with experience in now well over a thousand schools, 50,000 students and working in countries as diverse as the USA, Canada, Australia and Italy on the one hand and Pakistan, India, Jordan, Egypt the Philippines and Indonesia on the other we can see the great and beneficial impact the interaction has.

Basically, it works. The students love it and it changes minds and mindsets.

There are many other fantastic examples of inter-faith programmes for young people and in every corner of the globe.

So what's the challenge. They have neither the resource, weight or recognition they need.Our opponents too have their programmes. They are funded and they are highly organised. They are, unfortunately effective. So our challenge is straightforward.

We know what works. The challenge is to mobilise. The conquering of any prejudice requires two things: an honest discussion of the prejudice and a mobilisation of support to defeat it. This is true whether the prejudice is of race, nation or gender. It is also true of religious prejudice.

I would like to see the UN and its security council recognise this. I advocate Governments taking seriously their responsibility to educate young people to cultural acceptance and respect between people of different faiths and cultures. I would ask that each Government establishes at least a pilot programme in such inter-cultural understanding. Experiment with it. Experience it.

Let the young people in your country experience first-hand an opportunity to learn about the world and to form a relationship with someone far away who may not look like them, but for whom, once they have been schooled in cross-cultural education, they may see themselves in.

My Foundation is willing to work in any country which invites us. But there are many other excellent organisations who do similar work. The 2007 Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools adopted by the OSCE, show how this can be done sensitively.

We should seek to do this as United Nations.

Then let us consider the results of such pilot programmes and see how they can be scaled and how each and every Government can meet the challenge of opening the minds of their youth to mutual religious and cultural respect.

Education in the 21st century is a security issue. There is no better cause; nor one more urgent. Thank you.

Learn more about how the Face to Faith program works.