How to counter far-right extremism? Germany shows the way
Teachers are better able to identify radicalisation than most, yet in the UK they are too often ignored
Dozens of heads of state, policymakers and leaders of technology companies gathered in Paris this week to discuss social media’s impact on global terrorist violence. Their goal – to eliminate terrorist and violent content online – is a laudable, necessary step toward combating extremism. But a critical group was missing from the meeting: educators.
During dozens of meetings about extremist radicalisation and violence across Europe and the US over the past several years, I’ve met plenty of academics, CVE (countering violent extremism) specialists, terrorism analysts, policymakers and diplomats working to understand the roots of extremism and ways to stem violence. These discussions typically bring experts together to discuss collaborative approaches to law enforcement and surveillance, learn about new research findings and practical efforts on the ground – and forge high-level, international public-private cooperation around issues such as online radicalisation.
But I have been struck by how rarely these meetings include the very experts whose practical knowledge is most central to understanding how young people might be vulnerable to radicalisation to begin with – the teachers, social workers, careers counsellors and youth development workers who interact with young people every day. Sometimes these gatherings include first-line responders and practitioners working in counter-radicalisation, but ordinary educators are left out.
This is an easily remedied oversight. In fact, there is already a robust model in place to facilitate just these kinds of exchanges. For decades, scores of teachers and headteachers, careers officers and counsellors and others have travelled to Germany from across Europe and around the world to learn about the German vocational training system – the manner in which most Germans use a dual system of workplace apprenticeships combined with school-based learning.
Visitors participate in intensive study tours, trips to training centres and certificate courses in Germany to learn about this apprenticeship model.
Even if apprenticeship-style systems never develop in their home communities, for teachers who have only experienced a comprehensive academic high school model, observing the German approach can open up an entirely new way of thinking about secondary education. This creates awareness among teachers and careers counsellors about non-college-bound pathways, helping them understand alternative routes to adulthood for all young people.
Germany can also be the model for education-based counter-extremism work. The German approach – rooted in decades of experience rebuilding democracy after the Holocaust – is unquestionably the broadest and most comprehensive to combating far-right extremism globally. Classroom teachers and educators receive significant guidance to improve knowledge of extremist youth culture and learn new strategies to engage those at risk.
The approach goes beyond the classroom and operates across all levels of society, embedding counter-extremism education into local theatre and arts programmes, football teams, concerts, work with religious groups and more. There are even local “mobile advisor” centres in every region, deployed to help local communities hit by extremist violence or propaganda.
Just as educators outside of Germany have been studying the country’s apprenticeship system for years, this could easily be adapted for people to learn from the German approach to preventing extremism.
Educational borrowing doesn’t always work, of course. Attempts to adapt and transfer educational policies and practices across borders are often critiqued for failing to consider local cultural, political, or economic contexts. But when done well, cross-national exchange is a vital strategy.
It would be relatively simple to adapt the model of international educational exchange to focus on counter-extremism work, using approaches that go far beyond surveillance and law enforcement.
Classroom teachers and youth workers are the individuals most likely to encounter youth during the periods when they are first exposed to extremist content. They are ideally situated to recognise and respond to early signs of radicalisation. To do so effectively, they need training, resources, and exposure to new ideas, strategies and promising practices from across the globe.
But first, they have to be invited to the table.
• Cynthia Miller-Idriss is professor of education and sociology at the American University in Washington, DC and senior fellow and director of outreach at the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right