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Extremism disenchanted: what role can education play?

Start: Jun 02, 2015 12:00 AM

Young people in the UK today who are attracted to extremism are typically well educated. Given the weaknesses of this ideology in terms of its use of history, internal coherence of arguments and moral standards, its success with many educated young people requires explanation. The explanation, according to Dr. Farid, is multifaceted but education has a big role to play in curbing the trend.

Dr. Farid Panjwani

2 June 2015


The current form of extremism in Muslim contexts, majority or minority, cannot be explained without the backdrop of education. There is a long list of well-educated terrorists, from the World Trade Centre attackers in 1993 and 2001 to many among those who have joined ISIS. A close relationship between the well-educated and Islamism or political Islam – the theory behind contemporary Muslim extremism – has been noted in scholarship since 1980s, and is well narrated in novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Yacoubian Building. It can thus be asked, is education part of the problem or solution?

Modern education nurtures material, political and social aspirations. It can also bring awareness of the structures of political economy and workings of power at national and international levels. Once such consciousness is generated, young people need concepts to express their critique, and an imagination to conceive a better world. Today, for many these needs are being fulfilled by extremist ideology. However, given the weaknesses of this ideology in terms of its use of history, internal coherence of arguments and moral standards, its success with many educated young men and women requires explanation.

Part of the answer lies in the type of education, particularly at the higher levels, that many of those attracted to extremism have received. They seem to lack strong background in the humanities, which would have enabled them to scrutinise truth claims, including historical claims, and analyse logical fallacies. To this extent, counterfoil to extremism is an education that nurtures individuality in thought, develops capacity to critique received ideas and practices, and fosters imagination through exposure to alternatives. But, weak background in the humanities cannot be the only or predominant explanation for the seduction of extremist narrative.

Research on the attraction of extremism shows the importance of push factors ranging from festering post-colonial political wounds and wars on Muslim majority societies to a vanishing welfare state and problems of integration, alienation and felt inequality. These create a search for identity, belonging and social justice. Though useful, this analysis still leaves unanswered the question why young people are seduced by extremism in their search for identity, belonging and quest for social justice?

I would like to propose that part of the explanation is the lack of secular alternatives, and the pull of a religiously based alternative social imagination. Over the last several decades Islamism has managed to position itself as an alternative to the grand narrative of neo-liberalism that increasingly underpins governing ideology in many countries. Particularly after the weakening of Socialism, Islamism successfully made Islam seem relevant to modern society – as an alternative to both Capitalism and Socialism - while simultaneously linking it with the question of meaning and salvation.

Mawdudi and Syed Qutb, the two pioneering theorists of Islamism, wrote for the educated youth in the Muslim world. Encounter with Qutb’s work (particularly Milestones) is a very common step in the radicalization of many people. At the heart of Islamist writings is the desire to appropriate features of modernity such as technology, material growth and the notion of progress but reject the accompanying cultural Westernization and military interventions by the West.

Islamist narrative usually starts with the critique of the contemporary West by claiming to show economic injustices, wars, moral depravations and political hopelessness in existing systems. This is followed by an appeal to the so called golden age of Muslims, presented as an epitome of justice, welfare and equality. To establish this, selective and anachronistic use of religious texts and history is made. Finally, Islamic revival is presented as the solution to the ills of modern times. ISIS has built on this base, and added visceral elements to attract through violence and idyllic visions of a utopian society.

The Islamist vision has come precisely at a time when there is a lack of secular grand narratives and alternatives for young minds to grapple with in formulating their worldview. It is here that education can play an important role in disenchanting extremism by introducing alternative ways of social change that work within democratic tradition, respecting human rights. For example, recent attempts in some universities towards teaching a wider variety of economic models than just the predominant neo-classical model with its implicit uncritical acceptance of neo-liberal capitalism are a welcome trend and need encouragement.

In short, strengthening critical capacities through the humanities and introducing secular alternatives to dominant socio-economic paradigms are two important roles that education can play in disenchanting extremism.

However, to commit to these roles of education is not as simple as it appears. This is not just because the benefits may not be immediately visible. Such an education will nurture active citizens capable of criticising extremism not only in religion but also in economics, challenging the power of dogmatism as well as that of corporatism, and deconstructing not only religious sermons but also the discourses of politicians. Education that develops critical capacities and social imagination for a better world will require political will to redistribute power and move towards a polity where people will regain hope in the possibility of change through votes, deliberations and civic struggles.

Education is a necessary but not sufficient response to extremism. An educated population with limited hope of fulfilling aspirations can in effect be a ready-made pool for extremist ideologies. A comprehensive response requires capacity for analyzing Islamist ideology through the humanities, an exposure to alternatives socio-economic ideas and practices and a politics of hope based on common good, social justice and fairness.


  • Dr. Farid Panjwani is Senior Lecturer at UCL's Institute of Education and Director, Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education