The Role of Arts in Countering Violent Extremism

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

Reporting on the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the BBC wrote that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sponsored by numerous global powers surrounded ISIS within a small patch of land near Syria’s border with Iraq. This revelation came from the SDF that it had captured the last piece of ISIS territory. Acknowledging this news, leaders from the West highlighted that ISIS still poses a threat.

“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 the 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.

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 could be better achieved by “smart power”, a combination of both soft and hard power.

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, photography, and debates that resonate with the 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 technology blogger Margaret Rouse explains, “A filter bubble is an algorithmic bias that skews or limits the information an individual user sees on the internet. The bias is caused by the weighted algorithms that search engines, social media sites, and marketers use to personalize user experience”. A filter bubble – what some have described as “echo chambers” – 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, non-government 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 the song because songs have power in reaching people, in energizing them, in lifting their spirits. I believe that strongly and I’ve seen it.”

A 2015 UN article notes, “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. These 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 the economic development of global societies and nations. It is, therefore, the UN statement that concludes, “We must offer them a positive vision of their future together with a genuine chance to realize their aspirations and potential”.

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, “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 socio-economic 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 soldier shooting hearts out of their gun. Via


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