The Role of Arts in Countering Violent Extremism

This article was originally published by “NATO Association of Canada” on March 25, 2019.

After five years of brutal fighting, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by several world powers left ISIS with all but a few hundred square meters near Syria’s border with Iraq.

On Saturday, the long-awaited announcement came from the SDF that it had captured the last piece of ISIS territory. Western leaders hailed the announcement but underscored that ISIS was still a danger.

“We will remain vigilant… until it is finally defeated wherever it operates,” President Donald Trump said in a statement. French President Emmanuel Macron said, “the threat remains and the fight against terrorist groups must continue”. The UK Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the “historic milestone” but said her government remained “committed to eradicating (ISIS’s) poisonous ideology”.

The US and its allies are befuddled regarding the next moves of the terrorist organization, but action is certainly needed to ensure that ISIS does not continue to pose a threat. To sustain the victory that was mainly accomplished by “hard power”, we must now use “soft power” to counter future radicalization and toxic terrorist ideologies through educating and rehabilitating the former terrorists.

Solutions to terrorism that are excessively focused on “hard power” can create more of a problem than they solve, as people inclined towards radicalism can sometimes become even more alienated as a result of intensive methods of surveillance or repression. Although counter-terrorism operations most often involve “hard power” — intelligence, law, policing, and military might — counter-radicalization methods also require “soft power” tools, such as social and cultural involvement, broader policy initiatives on the environment, development, critical infrastructure, migration, humanitarian intervention, and the widespread participation of civil society. Hard power — represented by military strength — is indeed essential to our security; still, modeling soft power measures like good governance, public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, educational and employment opportunities can be equally important in the long run.

American political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” to remind us that a viable civil society would help mitigate violence. Nye concluded that a nation’s interests in national and international politics can be better achieved by “smart power”, a fusion of both soft and hard power. To counter radicalization and terrorism intelligently in today’s global information age, nations must infuse conventional hard power tactics with more flexible and strategic cultural soft power approaches. The declining enrollment in arts, which is part and parcel of soft power, is a short-sighted strategy that weakens the fabric of society, leaving young people believing they are dependent on external forces to give their lives meaning. Therefore, educational institutions must harness popular and multicultural music and other forms of arts and create opportunities for youth to write and produce music, poetry, film, and debates that resonate citizenry, identity, unity, diversity, equality, and most importantly the value of human life and family. These mediums are not merely entertainment but provide an essential message about the value of all life.

It will be hard to break through the barriers of today’s youth because they live within a “filter bubble”. A “filter bubble” is an algorithmic bias that skews or limits the information an individual user sees on the internet – what some have described as “echo chambers”. The bias is caused by the weighted algorithms that search engines, social media sites, and marketers use to personalize user experience. A filter bubble, therefore, can cause users to encounter significantly less contact with contradicting viewpoints, causing the user to become intellectually isolated. While social media is critical in captivating and radicalizing today’s youth, the internet, as reported by the US Homeland Security Institute, is merely a tool through which radicalization is accelerated.

Youth radicalization is also rapidly unfolding offline, in face-to-face contexts. Today’s youth rapidly want to make a ‘difference’ in a globalized world, but they do not have enough outlets; they are highly suggestible. Thus, arts education should be introduced towards molding youth and steer them away from violent extremism. Youth ideas should be turned towards fostering artistic expression in a local community context, so that it channels youth energies into creative rather than destructive pathways through the arts. Because the arts have largely been pushed out of schools and away from families that cannot afford private extra-curricular lessons, nongovernmental and civil society organizations should return them to the children whose creativity is no longer being harnessed.

Numerous scholars have argued that music is a powerful force for cultural mediation and social change, showing that music promoting tolerance and reconciliation can be used to reconnect with “at-risk” individuals and groups. Or, as Phyllis Creighton put it in a short film about Toronto’s “Raging Grannies” — a group that protests all forms of social injustice by singing — “We chose song because songs have power in reaching people, in energizing them, in lifting their spirits. I believe that strongly and I’ve seen it.”

We will not be successful in countering radicalization to violent extremism unless we can harness the idealism, creativity, and energy of young people, who constitute the majority in an increasing number of countries today. At the beginning of 2012, a UNESCO survey reported that the world population surpassed 7 billion with people under the age of 30 accounting for more than half of this number (50.5%). According to the survey, 89.7% of people under 30 lived in emerging and developing economies, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. This young people globally represent a great untapped resource and therefore, must be empowered to make a constructive (rather than destructive) contribution to the political and economic development of global societies and nations. We must offer them a positive vision of their future together with a genuine chance to realize their aspirations and potential.

As outlined by the UN General Assembly, children and youth constitute invaluable partners in our striving to prevent radicalization to violent extremism. Thus, we must identify better tools to support them to take up the causes of peace, pluralism, and mutual respect. The rapid advance of modern communications technology also means that today’s youth form an unprecedented global community. This interconnectivity is already being exploited by violent extremists; we need to reclaim this space by helping to amplify the voices of young people already promoting the values of mutual respect and peace to their peers.

As the United States Department of State report above points out, the majority of the Islamic jihadist organizations, as well as other ethno-nationalist insurgent groups, far-right wing radical organizations, violent white supremacists and skinheads, environmental radicals, and animal rights activists all place a high degree of importance on attendance at mass popular, cultural, and social events, music concerts, festivals, debates, motivational speeches, and other large gatherings. They all use their popular cultural music and art to recruit, indoctrinate, train, and mobilize members. Therefore, open democratic societies must produce effective counter narratives and create a platform for countervailing and counter messaging against extremist ideologies through arts education.

Nelson Mandela once said that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It is very true that arts and education will indeed enlighten our society. Arts education is a key factor in empowering our youth. Education provides better opportunities to families and children, and arts education in particular is key to the socioeconomic growth of our societies. There are substantial benefits to a more educated population in all areas of society including health, community development, civic engagement, and the economy. In order for these benefits to be further nurtured, a more educated society must be a priority for any government.

Featured Image: A solider shooting hearts out of their gun. Via


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