Preventing violent extremism: The power of education

It is not enough to counter violent extremism --- we need to prevent it, and this calls for forms of ‘soft power’, to prevent a threat driven by distorted interpretations of culture, hatred, and ignorance. No one is born a violent extremist – they are made and fueled. Disarming the process of radicalization must begin with human rights and the rule of law, with dialogue across all boundary lines, by empowering all young women and men, and by starting as early as possible, on the benches of schools. Marco Pasqualini works at UNESCO’s Education Sector, on the Prevention of Violent Extremism through Education. Today, he shares on UNESCO’s e-platform on intercultural dialogue his thoughts about the power of education in preventing violent extremism.


When I first saw their photos in the news, I told myself that they could be some of my friends. Some of them were university students. Their young and joyful look, the afternoons revising together before an exam, the lunches shared at the canteen, the nights out... and then the massacre, and their face on the TV. 

Some of them were ordinary students. They were fans of Real Madrid. They used to have fun breakdancing with their friends. They dreamt of meeting their favourite football player. They committed mass shootings, knife attacks, suicide attacks, vehicle attacks, killing hundreds all around the world.

What went wrong? There is no easy answer.

There are a number of factors that drive young people to violent extremism. They vary from the identification in collective grievances, the search for identity, the attraction of charismatic leaders, to the lack of economic opportunities, marginalisation and injustice.

But one thing is clear. If they had been convinced that violence was not an option, that bringing change and acting for justice can take peaceful forms, that we are all part of a shared community … if he had had the means to understand that the hate messages and violent extremist narratives he had been told were little more than lies, prejudice and stereotypes, this might have never happened. 

When I was a child, at school, my teacher used to tell me that differences and diversity are a strength. She used to tell me how other children were living in other parts of the world, that even if we might have looked different, we all shared the same values, the same needs. She used to tell me that if I wanted my voice to be heard, I had to find the right way to express my feelings and positions, while accepting that other people might not think the same.

Today, these teachings still resonate in my mind.

This is what quality education should be. This is what Global Citizenship Education aims to produce: a sense of belonging to a broader community and common humanity, by building the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that learners need to be able to contribute to a more inclusive, just and peaceful world.

Education cannot stop someone who is about to commit a violent extremist act from doing so. But it can create resilience to violent extremist messages. It can help learners understand, decrypt, and reject those messages that fuel violent extremism. It can empower them to reject violence and commit to peaceful ways to make their voices be heard and make change happen.

This is UNESCO’s approach in the Prevention of Violent Extremism through Education. Since 2015, UNESCO is advocating, producing guidance, and training teachers and policy-makers so that every learner can develop these competences, so  that, even in the face of injustice, lies, discrimination, calls for hate will make him or her say ‘No!’ and peacefully act against them.

Over the past year, UNESCO has trained teachers and policy-makers in the Sahel region to bring these ideas in classrooms. In Iraq, UNESCO is helping Iraqis rebuild Mosul – after a 3-year occupation by violent extremist groups – through education and culture. In Central Asia, it is empowering teachers to build a culture of peace and strengthen learners’ commitment to non-violence.

This is teaching to live together in peace, which stands at the heart of UNESCO’s mandate, the very reason why it was created more than seventy years ago: ‘to build peace in the minds of men and women’, so that soon a commitment to peace and responsible engagement will be the story of any learner. 

More information on UNESCO’s work and publications in this field can be found here.