Education and Violent Extremism: Teaching Youth to Think for Themselves


How do we counter violent extremism at its roots? This question has become a prevalent feature among policy makers wanting to reduce the frequency of extremist attacks across the world. In line with overall counter violent extremism (CVE) practices, a new focus has emerged, that being education. In order to discuss some of these issues, the BIC-RHR organized a round table on the 31st of January 2018 entitled “Education and Youth Radicalization” to deliberate with experts strategies that will foster better educational practices to counter violent extremism in youth. Hedayah, the International Center of Excellence for CVE, has published a number of reports1] detailing push and pull factors in relation to violent extremism.


They note an absence of nuanced religious curriculum, incentives for attaining formal education, and trust in state educational institutions are just some of the multiple factors that may contribute to extremist narratives. In turn these are exacerbated by significant malicious online sources of false information, such as fictional or biased social media posts and online forums promoting extremist ideologies. However, it is not social media itself as a medium that is the problem, rather the ideas behind its misuse. Importantly, Hedayah also address the importance of developing critical thinking skills, and it is this concept that is the focus of this paper.

Critical Thinking as a Strategy

According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action[2]”. Or more simply, the ability to look at sources of information and assess their value and credibility for oneself without blindly trusting in them at first glance.



In this modern online age people are overexposed to vast sources of information, uncensored and unfiltered. Internet providers are only beginning to address the issue of false information posts. With such a dense amount of contentious information, it is our own ability to critically assess information that enables us to select relevant sources. The EU has also noted the importance of critical thinking skills in education and CVE in the 2015 Paris Declaration[3].  They noted that critical thinking skills are paramount in developing “resistance to… discrimination and indoctrination[4] ”. In addition to the reality of false information, there are other reasons why critical thinking matters. Here are just two:


  • Firstly, conventional educational strategies that attempt to undermine extremist ideologies directly, or promote their opposite, risk a backlash from young people who already feel alienated and patronized by state institutions they do not trust. Developing critical thinking skills gives the power back to young people to make the decisions for themselves.

  • Secondly, critical thinking skills assist in the overall development of young people as good citizens. These skills are transversal, and applicable in multiple contexts beyond the issue of CVE.

Another factor to be noted here is the recent evolution in/of conversation around identity and its role in CVE. It is common to approach the topic of CVE in relation to identity politics; especially when working to link extremism to religious identity. However, this approach can become unhelpful. By designating and delineating groups in this manner, the supposed benign attempts to acknowledge real group grievances can then substantively reinforce divisions. Ultimately, this identity-centric approach can be counterproductive if applied to educational practice. All young people should be engaged through educational practices, as no young person is completely immune to the potential of radicalisation. We must remember that extremism takes many forms, not only religious but political too.

Holistic Education

So far, the type of education that has been implied has been classroom-based, formal education. However, education does not end once a student exits a classroom. Approaches should acknowledge that young people are exposed to information continuously. We must acknowledge the role that non-formal education can play, such as extra-curricular activities, religious activities, sports and other instances of social interaction. In this sense, policy-makers must address the whole picture, and encourage a consistent message for young people. But this does not necessarily need to focus on a consistent message of content, but rather approach; in other words, a continuous development of critical thinking skills. We should not censor youth, but provide a platform for debate and exchange.


Granted, more must be done to combat false information online but these issues are of a more technical nature, we should not censor the internet. To combat supposed adventure or excitement incentives[5], we must present education and its benefits in a more engaging and stimulating way. Policy makers should take a more consistent approach to curriculum, one more proactive rather than reactive. And this approach should consult all stakeholders across society, including civil society organizations and religious leaders. Some reports[6] suggest the need for a community emphasis, to incorporate all levels of society in the process.  Indeed the EU has begun to notice that community cohesion projects have significant overlap with traditional CVE programs[7]. Some have suggested that volunteering may play a significant role in CVE, that voluntary projects provide meaning to young people that they may otherwise look for elsewhere[8]. Perhaps this may be a route of further exploration. Nevertheless additional, complementary activities do, and should, continue the process of making youths into well-rounded citizens., these Policy-makers should realize this too.


The BIC recommends to European policy makers, To contribute to counter-violent extremism initiatives:


More work must be done to develop critical thinking skills within young people so that young people can themselves assess information sources, without the risk of censorship or further alienation


Education must be approached holistically, and strategies must consistently be implemented across both formal and non-formal sectors, including religious organizations and civil society organizations, at community as well as local levels, so that development continually takes place


To assist a holistic approach, relevant stakeholders must collaborate cross-sectorally to develop strategies together; this will involve reaching out to established civil society organisations working on the ground, as well as educational providers, religious leaders and policy makers


The benefits of education should be presented in a more engaging and stimulating way to counter supposed excitement or adventure extremist narratives, this can be achieved by providing young people with a platform to debate relevant issues freely, whilst promoting concrete realised alternative narratives to extremism