It all boils down to education


On social media we find many people who are unable to reason things out, or to accept different points of view. They are absolutely certain they are right.

Marina Mahathir, The Star

The root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is in the schools.

IN the end it all boils down to the same thing: education. I was reading an international newspaper and two articles struck me because of their similarities. One was a story about the French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman to be made Education Minister in France. More remarkably, she is both a Moroccan immigrant and Muslim.

Vallaud-Belkacem has been put in charge of educating young French people about the dangers of radicalism, the type of so-called religious fervour that led to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. She believes that schools have a big role to play in this. And indeed she is living proof.

The minister was born in Morocco but went to France with her mother and older sister to join her construction worker father. There, her five younger siblings were born and the entire family lived in poverty in a small northern city. Vallaud-Belkacem credits the French education system with giving her the opportunities she has had, and which allowed her to enter politics and eventually be where she is now.

But she also understands that it is the poor education that most immigrant youth, especially Muslim youth, receive that drives them to become radicalised and to want to take up arms against their perceived enemies, both at home in France and abroad.

These youth are poorly educated because of discrimination. At the same time, that poor education sets them up for even more discrimination, especially in the job market. This creates frustration and anger and makes them vulnerable to the sort of easy answers that radical preachers may provide.

The other story was about Nigeria where stereotypes about the Muslim North and the Christian South abound. The author of the article, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Christian, recalled that when she was growing up, there were special boarding schools that were set up to help the different Nigerian communities understand one another. These schools offered a high quality education and had quotas for the different communities so that they had a diverse mix of students.

However, there was a persistent problem of poor education in the north of the country. The quota system ensured that many northerners got jobs but often without the same level of education as the southerners.

That same low quality education meant that the northerners also did not value education for their own people, leading to a constant downward spiral of frustration due to the lack of opportunities despite the richness of resources in the region. This thus created conflict with southerners who were more educated and thus could avail themselves of better opportunities.

Needless to say, the north is also the home of Boko Haram, a violent group that has a particular distaste for education, particularly Western-style education. The exploits of Boko Haram are now well known and suffice to say that only uneducated people would think nothing of sending out eight-year-old girls as suicide bombers.

The point of these two stories is clear: the root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is education. More specifically, the type of education we provide our children will predict what they will do in the future. Poor quality education, that does not prepare our children for a competitive global market, will be the root of all sorts of trouble, including the kind where a 14-year-old girl thinks it’s exciting to go to Syria to marry a gun-toting stranger she met on Facebook.

We are seeing now the beginnings of the true results of our messed-up education system. Our young people are unable to think beyond what is immediate and exciting. They actually believe that you can get to heaven by killing people for reasons they are unable to articulate. These are not illiterate people but are certainly not educated in the broadest sense of the word.

On social media we find many people who are unable to reason things out, or to accept different points of view. They are absolutely certain they are right, mostly because people they see as authoritative have convinced them that authority is always correct, even when those in authority tell them to do things that are patently wrong, such as to discriminate against or kill those different from them. Not all human beings are equal, is a mantra they are hearing every day.

“All men are not equal”, by the way, was the chilling ideology I happened to read at the site of the former headquarters of the SS, the Nazi stormtroopers, in Berlin recently. And the propaganda the SS used had an uneasy familiarity to it.

And what is propaganda after all but another form of public education?

Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.