Education to Combat Religious Extremism

Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is on a crusade of sorts. Yesterday, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, the former premier gave a poignant speech as the head of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation about why education is the answer to racial and religious extremism. ” [I]n the 21st Century education is a security issue,” he said. “The extremists are able to organize because we are not organized. This has to change. We have to educate,” he said.

Education to combat extremism?  Perhaps Mr. Blair is on to something. He is arguing that terrorism is the result of racial and religious intolerance––hardly a new idea. His approach to the problem is highly irregular, yet fresh and innovative. He believes that changing common core curriculum in schools to include religious and racial education that focuses on the diversity among peoples of the world is the answer to ending terrorism and extremism, making the world a safer place.

But, can education really make all the difference? Without question, education is a powerful tool. In South Korea educators are perceived as nation builders, mediums through which a fair and strong society is build. And, if our educators can teach children to read, write, do math, and learn about Government, then they should probably be equipped to teach about race relations and religious extremism too, right?

Not so fast. Take the United States, for instance. The U.S. is the most ethnically and religiously diverse nation in the world, with a population made up of all colors and creeds; Its Constitution provides stringent religious protections and powerful limitations on state-sponsered religion, and is highly protective of equal rights. But, all those protections may have the practical effect of limiting a schools ability to teach a racial, but especially a religious, curriculum. I can smell the law suits already.

Imagine a majority Christian town whose school’s are compelled to teach religious diversity in its curriculum pursuant to federal law. Now imagine what parents that have deeply seeded beliefs will do when they learn that their children are being taught the ways of Siddhartha Buddha, verses from the Qur’an, or the teachings of the Hindu Gods. I submit that those parents would march to their attorneys’ offices and demand that a suit be filed for injunctive relief and a finding that such a curriculum is a constitutional violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Now, whether that is a winning claim or not is irrelevant. The point is that people take their religious beliefs very, very seriously. In Switzerland they have banned minarets in an effort to maintain religious homogeneity, in France the hijab being worn at university is heavily debated for the same reason, and in America people are fighting for the right to say non-secular prayers in public; the list goes on and on.

After all, these are the reasons why Tony Blair is advocating for reform. Mr. Blair believes that if all students learned diversity then, as adults, they would be less likely to develop hate in their hearts for someone who is different than they are. Probably true. But, some hate is so deeply rooted that a public education initiative would probably fail.

Personally, I agree with Mr. Blair. In fact, I believe that education has the potential to solve ALL problems. The point that I am trying to make is this: The very extremism that an initiative like Mr. Blair’s seeks to address will be used to fight the implementation of any such program. Those interested in religious supremacy will likely line up to defeat this initiative before it could ever be agreed upon. Do you think that the United States would be willing to negotiate a treaty, or even a non-binding agreement, that promotes general religious studies in primary schools? Do you think a country like Saudi Arabia would support such a measure? China? Brazil? Switzerland? Mr. Blair’s U.K? Do you think that there are valid domestic legal challenges to a primary school curriculum that includes religion?


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One comment

  1. I agree with Tony Blair and you on some points. Religious extremists, like Al Qaeda for example, high jack their respective educational systems in order to indoctrinate hatred and intolerance via misrepresentation of religion. This is one of their most potent weapons. These terrorist organizations sustain themselves and grow by manipulating their country’s youth while they are still impressionable. However, the problems and issues involved are very complex, and although it sounds nice in theory, I think your “preach diversity” idea would fall on deaf ears in places where it is needed most.

    Ultimately, I tend to take the opposite view. Instead of needing to teach all types of different faiths to students, I think religion should be completely separate and divorced from education (and this is coming from someone who went to a Catholic school no less). I don’t particularly agree with your straw man argument: “Now imagine what [Christian] parents that have deeply seeded beliefs will do when they learn that their children are being taught the ways of Siddhartha Buddha, verses from the Qur’an, or the teachings of the Hindu Gods.” I don’t know whether a lot of Christian parents would necessarily be hostile to this. I sense some stereotyping of religious people on your part that goes against the very point you are trying to prove in this article. Your argument could easily be flipped: “Imagine what muslim extremists will do when they learn their children are learning about Jesus, Siddhartha Buddha, etc. etc.” This is why I think religion serves no purpose in the classroom. Religion is necessarily polarizing because it teaches people to simply assume they are correct at the expense of all other beliefs and viewpoints.

    I think teaching the subjects above from a strictly historical perspective is OK, but preaching their tenets as truth in the classroom is something I simply don’t agree with, whether we’re talking about Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Hindu Gods, whoever. Or, if teaching all these faiths in the name of diversity is OK, then teaching students on atheistic and agnostic viewpoints should also be fully embraced and implemented. If diversity is so important, then the full spectrum of ideas should be taught. This includes the beliefs of people who don’t believe in religion at all.

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