The end of the Cold War and the illusion of the ‘End of History’, as imagined by Professor Francis Fukuyama, ushered in a brief era of reform and optimism. Many hoped to see a new multilateral world order emerge, where peace and justice would serve as the moral barometers of the international community and where peaceful and cooperative relations between peoples and societies would be advanced. A world free from geopolitical strife, neo-colonial pursuits and other power-games. With the end of the Cold War, decision-makers said “Never Again” when contemplating the devastation wreaked upon societies as a result of five decades of Iron Curtain policies.
These were the illusions that shaped the post-Cold War order. In the Arab region, the last two decades have also seen the unfolding of hopes and disappointments. Societies across the Middle East and North Africa region have experienced a change of oligarchies accompanied by internal and external conflicts, political instability, humanitarian calamities, inter-communal strife and migrant flows. A situation reminiscent of an Orwellian future defined by political insecurity and social disorder.
Against this background, decision-makers are invited to reflect on the solutions required to defuse internal dissentions and inter-communal turmoil, and to give expression to the ideal of restoring the commitment to make the aspirations for a world living in peace and harmony. Ultimately, such change requires a deep and profound transformation of our approach to peace-building and conflict-resolution. And at the heart of that, education can make the key difference in addressing inter-sectarian violence, helping rebuild the fractured social fabric of diverse and multi-cultural societies.
To combat discrimination, prejudice and related intolerance effectively, we must first recognize a difficult truth: that the much-repeated concept of “tolerance” is not necessarily the answer to the problem of intolerance. The opposite of intolerance is, rather, a deep understanding and appreciation of all cultures and peoples as not only our equals but our fellows, inseparable from ourselves. Any truthful observation of our own cultures and histories will show us the other, and how we have been shaped by interaction. And an honest observation of the other will reflect ourselves. In seeing that the lines we draw around “me” and “you” are so arbitrary as to be meaningless, we go beyond simply tolerating each other and gain the ability for genuine identification and appreciation. What we call “Intraculturalism”. It is by recognizing humanity’s differences as a source of richness that we will build the bridges between peoples and societies and arrive at unity in diversity, at peace through understanding. The universe is there for all to share and enjoy. There is no need to rate things, to impose competition between cultures. No need to homologate the world. It is our appreciation of the vast diversity of the planet that will inspire and sustain us.
Schooling and education at all levels can play a crucial role in nurturing this positive vision, where differences between peoples and societies are celebrated, and actively valued. One’s perception and understanding of the other should not lead to exclusion, rejection and inter-sectarian tensions, but should instead foster mutual interest, respect and empathy. Greater reciprocal understanding is key to breaking down cultural and social barriers that prevail between and within societies, communities and different ethnic groups. Curriculums should be amended to encourage more awareness of the differences and the linkages between cultures, to give more space to inter-faith understanding, as an example, not just by examining other faith groups from afar, but by looking within ourselves to see how others have contributed to shaping our identities. This, more than any other approach, will strengthen the sense of community, address biases against minorities, and promote a climate of engagement and trust within societies.
Education must likewise be at the forefront of addressing radicalization among youth. No country or society is immune to the spread of radical ideas, violent extremism and jingoism. Defeating violent extremist groups through military means is one option, but more important is to address the sense of fear and insecurity that leads to prejudice and rejection, to identify the root causes of radicalisation and violence, which sometimes are rooted in long-standing social injustice. Even this understanding will not without preventive strategies keep individuals away from violent extremist groups. The goal is to find lasting solutions to address and roll-back radicalization.
In the era of digital communication, pedagogical teaching methodologies must commit to strengthening, in particular, digital literacy and critical thinking among youth – as highlighted in the United Nations Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism – so as to “build learners’ resilience to hateful narratives”. The Internet has become a powerful tool used by violent extremists to spread their messages of hate and recruit youth to join their ranks. More than ever, youth must develop, at early school age, the capacity to recognize, challenge and resist extremist narratives and intolerance – which feed on latent biases. Critical thinking, like any other skill, requires practice, and teachers must be able to engage in two-way communication with their students, sharing the process of learning with them – a more difficult way of teaching, to be sure, but one with multiple benefits. Students must be allowed to contribute, question and formulate ideas on their own, so that those abilities can be carried through to the rest of their lives, making them less likely to become disengaged, more resilient to attempts to radicalize them, and better prepared to succeed in a changing economy.
Today’s education needs to challenge the divisions that create distance and walls between and within societies. And for this to happen, education must be transformed and be one that resonates with tolerance, empathy and social cohesion.