BOOKS NOT BOMBS

An innovative program in Iraq is fighting ISIL with peace education

AL QOSH, Iraq – Eight miles from the Dost High School in this 3,000-year-old town, Kurdish peshmerga continued to hold the line against the Islamic State forces that control Mosul, 20 miles to the south. Inside the school, 18 students considered a different approach to a crisis that has pushed Iraq toward its breaking point. These young Iraqis talked about the ideas and skills needed to build peace.

“I found this special, very interesting,’” Nawras, a skinny 17-year-old, tells Quartz, “because we learned things we didn’t learn any time in our life. Peace is the most important thing in our life. Without it, we can’t have Muslims as our brothers.”

Nawras acknowledged it was “very strange” to be discussing how to build peace when his exclusively Christian community is so very close to territory that has been controlled by the Islamic State (ISIL) since August. But, he added, despite their tenuous security situation, he and his fellow students wanted more peace-oriented education. “How [can] you be peaceful with [people] like ISIL? I don’t want my soul to be black.” 

Much of the international focus—and a lion’s share of international resources—is currently being poured into the military campaign against ISIL. The US department of defense estimates it spent $1.8 billion on the fight through March 15, and continues to spend $8.5 million per day.

The US House of Representatives now is discussing quietly whether to begin sending arms directly to Iraqi Kurds. Al-Monitor reported on March 24 that the House foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce, a Republican congressman from California, has been circulating a letter “asking colleagues of both parties to sign on to legislation that would allow the Obama administration to bypass Baghdad” in order to provide military support directly to the Kurds.

Such a move, however, could prove counterproductive, draining resources from where they are needed most: education.

If the US and its allies are serious about ending the threat posed by ISIL, Congress would start prioritizing the provision of better, more accessible education—particularly peace education—to the millions of youth who have been affected by the insurgency; and before that, the Syrian civil war. Only by developing the next generation’s critical-thinking skills can the messages of intolerance and the glorification of violence promoted by ISIL be put to bed.

The United Nations estimates that 754,000 of Iraq’s 2.6 million internally-displaced persons (IDPs) are school-aged children, aged six to 17, and that 68 percent of them remain out of school. Another 246,000 refugees from Syria have fled to Iraq, mostly to the Kurdish region, and approximately 12% of them are aged 12 to 17. Yet just three of Iraq’s nine refugee camps for Syrians have functioning high schools, and just 3% of refugee youth who have completed primary school are attending secondary school.

British soldiers train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on how to use a heavy machine gun in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq October 13, 2014. British soldiers are in Iraq training Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Britain has supplied machine guns, but the Kurds say they need heavier weapons such as tanks and attack helicopters to counter IS, which plundered Iraqi arms depots after seizing control of the northern city of Mosul in June.
British soldiers train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to counter ISIL. (REUTERS/Azad Lashkari)

Stefan, a 21-year-old Iraqi displaced from his home 30 kilometers northeast of Mosul last August, has taken refuge alongside 200 others in a Chaldean community center in Duhok. Stefan told Quartz recently that the youth there have “no school, no books, nothing.” He worries that “after a few years, there will be a lot of ignorance.”

An uneducated, young population is exactly the opposite of what Iraq and its neighbors need. If my conversations with displaced Iraqis during a recent two-week visit to the region are any indication, Iraq’s affected youth have begun to agree. Despite the huge education gaps they are facing, and the images of ISIL and opposing forces they see constantly on television, these youth are realizing that military and humanitarian intervention alone are not meeting their needs. They want education, and education focused on peace in particular.

On a recent Saturday night, 25 young people came to the office of a Yazidi relief organization to ask representatives of the University of Duhok’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies for peace education. Supported by a grant from the US department of state, the university has provided three-day peace education workshops to students in 35 middle schools and high schools since January. Headmasters and students at every school ask for more, but the 12-person team already is stretched thin.

Basim, a 22-year-old Yazidi student at the University of Duhok’s College of Dentistry sent me an email asking how he could participate in peace education workshops. Basim fled with his family from their village near Sinjar last August after ISIL fighters arrived. He said his uncle and his grandmother were kidnapped and are still in captivity to the best of his family’s knowledge. If the US and its allies are serious about ending the threat posed by ISIL, Congress would start prioritizing more accessible education. 

“How [can] you be peaceful with [people] like ISIL?” he asked when we eventually met in person. “How can we not [seek] revenge? … My whole life, I have never taken revenge on anyone. But now they’ve kidnapped. They’ve killed. You know what they’ve done to our girls … I don’t want my soul to be black. Now I see someone with a long black beard and I hate him … I don’t like this reaction. Everyone who has a beard doesn’t do what [ISIL] does.”

Nothing should be more important than encouraging Iraq’s youth to break the cycle of violence that is tearing apart their country and their region. Understanding the phenomenon of violence, exploring non-violent approaches to conflict, and learning how to engage constructively with members of different ethnic and religious groups will make them far less susceptible to ISIL’s violent messages.

Re-orienting the struggle against ISIL to focus on peace education might seem naïve and counter-intuitive to anyone who believes in the almighty power of military intervention. But in our results-oriented world, it is worth asking how well a military approach to extremism has worked up to this point. If we don’t seriously invest in the kind of education that youth in Iraq, Syria and neighboring countries want and need, we won’t just lose battles. We’ll lose the war, too.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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