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The fight against violent extremism should start in religious education classes

  • A new Civitas essay calls for the teaching of Nathan the Wise in schools to promote mutual tolerance and understanding between those of different faiths

Religious education should be better harnessed to combat violent extremism, a new Civitas paper urges. Rather than focusing on the teaching of ‘British values’, R.E. lessons could draw on the teachings of different faiths to promote shared values and mutual tolerance.

David Conway, professorial research fellow at Civitas, suggests that classes should read and discuss the 18th century play Nathan the Wise, in which characters from each of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come together to transcend their differences.

In the essay, Conway says that such an approach would do more to foster mutual respect between different faiths than the recent emphasis on teaching ‘British values’, which may alienate some.

‘The teaching of religious education could be harnessed to combat religiously-motivated acts of violent extremism in a much more inclusive way than by insisting on presenting the appropriate tolerant and moderate values we would like all our young people to acquire through their schooling as somehow the special preserve of Britain and the British,’ he writes.

Conway sets out the potential value of teaching Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, particularly the section which presents the ‘Fable of the Three Rings’, which recognises the universal values that are espoused and shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.

At the end of the play, set in Jerusalem around 1191, characters from each of the Abrahamic religions join together in an embrace of mutual amity and friendship, all potential friction arising from their adherence to different faiths having been transcended.

‘Combatting religiously-motivated violent extremism through what is taught in schools would stand a much better chance of success if it could draw on the religions of the young people whose immunization against radicalisation is being sought,’ Conway writes.

‘Those concerned today about the radicalisation of young British-born Muslims often speak of the need to develop an appropriate counter-narrative that will help to immunise them from the possible appeal of Jihadism and Salafism.

‘Yet however admirable such an aspiration might be, any prospect of success for the development of such a counter-narrative is immediately threatened if it is constrained to be framed, as the British government has lately demanded it be, as requiring Muslims to recognise the need to embrace British values.

‘As many have noted, the requisite values in question are universal, and have long been espoused in moderate and mainstream version by all three Abrahamic faiths.’

Conway urges the current Commission on Religious Education to consider how the subject might be better used to combat extremism than the approach emphasised in recent years of teaching British values.

‘Religious education still remains a compulsory school subject whose resources for combatting religiously motivated violent extremism have hardly begun to be tapped. There is hardly a better time than now for considering how it might be made to do so, given that the subject is currently under review by a special independent commission.’

Exploring Religious Pluralism in the Classroom: How to use religious education in schools to combat violent extremism

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