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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Remarks to Institute of Gulf Affairs

Teaching Tolerance and Promoting Pluralism: Challenges and Opportunities  

Presentation by Knox Thames

October 22, 2020

Education reform to teach the benefits of pluralism should be a top priority for the region. Doing so would get upstream of hateful ideologies that lead to human rights abuses and deal a severe blow to extremism.  

I specifically speak of promoting pluralism over diversity. Why? The word pluralism is much richer in meaning. According to the dictionary, pluralism means "a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture within the confines of a common civilization." Pluralism is about maintaining a community without losing the unique aspects of the various components.

In contrast, diversity's meaning is narrower, and in the context of this discussion, it fails our goals. It is defined as "the condition of being composed of differing elements." Diversity is a fact; pluralism is a destination.   

The Middle East is the birthplace of many great religions and has a rich history of different faiths living side by side. Unfortunately, that pluralistic tradition is under stress due to a combination of problematic social and cultural paradigms, negative government policies, outmigration, and terrorist activity. The world witnessed just six years ago ISIS' deliberate campaign of mass atrocities that attempted to erase the physical and historic religious landscape in Iraq. While the horror of ISIS grabbed headlines, negative dynamics against minorities have existed for decades–if not centuries—as longstanding discriminatory government policies placed ethnic and religious minorities in a second-place status.   

Equal citizenship with equal rights has not been realized in many countries in part because education systems reinforce a lower status. Instead of being beacons of tolerance, education institutions have at times promoted religious discrimination explicitly or implicitly. Instead of fostering inclusion, others have failed to instill an appreciation for pluralism or awareness about human rights, including religious freedom. Curricula have omitted historic religious diversity, taught "revisionist" history that diminishes minority faith communities' role, or forces a particular theology on minorities. Simultaneously, dark actors actively promote philosophies that teach children to fear "the other," sometimes even justifying violence. 

In these environments, if children learn to hate, then human rights abuses will eventually follow. The risks are large for the Middle East. The Middle East is young, with the World Bank reporting that nearly two-thirds of the population is under 30. The Middle East is diverse, with people from different religions, ethnicities, and cultures are intermixing as never before. Moreover, the evidence of pluralistic societies remains, but are fading, in the form of crumbling synagogues, churches, temples, and heritage sites.  

These trends taken together require new approaches for teaching students the importance of interfaith tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and pluralistic societies. However, despite our increasingly interconnected world, the international community has generally steered away from these topics. Billions of dollars are spent annually to help ensure children receive a quality education in reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, donors spend a pittance on equipping students to appreciate pluralistic societies, respect equal citizenship, and prepare them to live in an increasingly religious and ethnically diverse world. There is a need to harness education's power to prepare students for this multi-ethnic, multi-religious future.   

The 2019 Abu Dhabi Guidelines for Teaching Interfaith Tolerance provides an expansive menu of options to get upstream of the problem. I was involved in drafting these guidelines while at the State Department, which encapsulated discussions from a regional follow up event to the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The guidelines are divided into three main areas to consider when teaching interfaith tolerance education to develop better global citizens: Expanding, Equipping, and Empowering. 

Regarding Expanding, the Guidelines identify the need to "expand formal and informal learning opportunities in interfaith tolerance and respect to build understanding and acceptance of diversity, as well as social cohesion." For Equipping, they focus on the importance of adequately training teachers and reforming curricula to ensure the "impartial and respectful teaching about different religions, beliefs, and cultures" in an "effective classroom environment." For Empowering, the Guidelines highlight  how educating "youth to live together in diversity and respect" can build "resistance to extremist narratives, promoting peace and stability, and reducing violent conflict."  

Despite these good ideas, we need more action to protect students from indoctrination by intolerant and hateful ideas. So how can we improve learning outcomes for students to increase their awareness and respect for pluralistic societies? What can be done to inoculate students from hateful philosophies and expand their understanding of different belief systems, and foster an understanding of the rights of conscience for every individual? Certainly, there are ways the United States and the international donor community can do more to foster education systems that promote peaceful coexistence and pluralistic societies and push back against dark actors promoting narrow or violent worldviews.   

The United States should use this inflection point of COVID to devise innovative strategies and new educational approaches to promote pluralism. Much can be done under existing authorities to help improve national education policies, curricula, teacher training, and student outcomes. The new "Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom" tasks USAID with developing "a plan to prioritize international religious freedom … in foreign assistance programs." Also, in 2017, Congress passed the Reinforcing Education Accountability in Development (READ) Act. It requires "a comprehensive, integrated U.S. Government Strategy to promote basic education" to "achieve a world where education systems in partner countries enable all individuals to acquire the education and skills needed to be productive members of society." Teaching interfaith understanding fits well within both mandates. In fact, doing so will be critical to their long-term success.   

For instance, USAID missions and international actors in the field can directly engage education officials on teacher training and curriculum development. Back in headquarters, USAID and other international donor organizations can add work requirements promoting peaceful coexistence in pluralistic societies into upcoming requests for proposals. USAID can amend existing grants to require new programs that expand student understanding of different belief systems and foster acceptance and respect individual conscience rights. The State Department can advocate for these reforms at a political level.  Congress has a role to play by pressing both State and USAID to do more in this space. None of these must come at the expense of traditional work but can be married into longstanding efforts to improve reading, writing, and arithmetic.   

And this is not an attempt to foist an outsider's view onto different societies. The countries of the Gulf have a history of pluralism. I have visited the various churches, synagogues, gurdwaras, and temples in the region. Educating populations about their pluralistic histories is a natural way to have an impact. Working to preserve cultural heritage sites with religious significance can bring communities together across religious lines and remind communities of their pluralistic past.   

In conclusion, evidence shows an appreciation for religious pluralism correlates with peaceful societies, human rights protection, economic growth, resilient communities, and a reduction in conflict and violent extremism. We must find ways to encourage more tolerant communities by mainstreaming teaching about interfaith acceptance, coexistence, and pluralism. Doing so will prepare students to succeed in our increasingly diverse world and get upstream of the problem. It will be challenging in some environments, but these topics are too important to ignore.    

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