Democratic Dilemmas in Education Against Violent Extremism

  • Jennie SivenbringEmail author
Part of the Young People and Learning Processes in School and Everyday Life book series (YPLP, volume 2)


This chapter addresses preventive measures that are suggested for education against radicalization and various forms of violent extremism in the Nordic region. Education in the Nordic countries is founded upon common values and a strong tradition of democratic governance. Previous research has shown that schools may have a key role in the opportunity to work preventively against violent extremism through democracy education and by equipping young people with norm critical values and critical skills to resist extremist propaganda. Schools can also afford forums for discussion of differing world views to strengthen democratic values such as equality and freedom of speech. However, policy for preventing this form of violence such as the national actionplans for prevention against radicalization and violent extremism in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, advocate that teachers and school staff identify, investigate and report students that show signs of being radicalized. Since these signs of radicalization have little or no scientific evidence of being relevant, this surveilling task may result in restrictions of the democratic human rights of young students and citizens.


In the Nordic region schooling and education have a strong emphasis on developing democratic citizenship and values founded on human rights, tolerance and equality. Educations is is also constantly regarded as a remedial solution for different societal problems, one of the latest being the preserving of national security and the struggle against extremist violence and terrorism. As in many other places around the world, the Nordic countries are facing the challenges of threats posed by violent extremism from Islamic-, right- and left-wing positions that share the objective to disturb or destroy democracy in its’ current form. In recent years frameworks, policies and research in the field of preventing radicalization and violent extremism has undergone a discursive shift in focus; terrorism and violent extremism are no longer a concern restricted to security services and police agencies alone. These instances are still of greatest importance in working against terror and violence, but they need to be complemented with long-term strategic prevention. In line with this, the field of preventing violent extremism (PVE) has become a significant supplement to the countering of violent extremism (CVE) as subfields in the struggle against terrorism (Romanuik 2015).

Governments of the Nordic countries are, as in other parts of the world, taking actions to counter and prevent the threat of extremism and terrorism to society. However, the demand, that social and governmental institutions participate in the task of safeguarding democracy and the objectives and measures recommended in various action plans can, invoke contestations of democratic values and human rights. This chapter takes its’ point of departure from the Nordic actionsplans against violent radicalization and extremism, and the implications the recommended actions may have for education, teachers and students. I will point out two interconnected challenges for schools and discuss how the actions meant to safeguard democracy can become counterproductive and instead promote antidemocratic practices.

(Violent) Extremism and Radicalization

Violent extremist groups are allegedly a threat against democracy by their ideological motifs and willingness to use violence to disturb or destroy democratic systems and contemporary governance. The definition of extremism is sometimes related to thought or views that go beyond the norms, rules and regulations of mainstream society. In example Neuman (2010) uses the following definition: “Extremism can be used to refer to political ideologies that oppose a society’s core values and principles. In the context of liberal democracies this could be applied to any ideology that advocates racial or religious supremacy and/or opposes the core principles of democracy and universal human rights” (Neuman 2010, p. 12). Following this definition, there are reasons to make distinctions within the concept of extremism as extremist views or radical ideas held by an individual may never lead to violent actions (Hafez and Mullens 2015; Herz 2016; Kühler and Lindekilde 2012). Some might even argue extreme or radical views, are rather strengthening a pluralistic society and enforcing democratic values. Not all extremists proceed from words to deeds, individuals can hold extremist views, but it doesn’t mean that he or she will ever use violence, someone may even be a terrorist without holding radical or extremist views ( Borum 2011; O’Donnell 2015). To avoid surveillance and restrictions of thoughts and views and the practice of thought-control, it is important to emphasize that it is the use of violence that is the main problem. To speak about violent extremism makes it clear that violence and damage done to people and property, rather than individual extreme or radical thoughts, is the actual threat to society that needs to be addressed. A common definition for radicalization is: “a change in beliefs, feelings and behaviors in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence” (McCauley and Moskalenko 2011). Radicalization is likewise a construct that has undergone a lot of academic dispute. A critique that often scrutinizes radicalization as a linear process or a behavioral and cognitive transformation that can be detected and prevented; especially since there is no scientific support for risk profiling or detecting signs of radicalization. Furthermore, there are no research that supports a clear alignment between radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism, neither are there any strong connections between theological persuasion and terrorism. These alignments and connections are seemingly relying on anecdotal evidence (Kundnani 2015; O’Donnell 2015; Spalek 2011).

In the Nordic region, violent extremism is portrayed as primarily stemming from three milieus: the right wing, the left wing and Islamic extremism. In short, what defines the commonality of the three milieus is that they are dissatisfied with contemporary democratic governance and demonstrate a will to challenge, change or disrupt it. The autonomous left regards the contemporary democracy as vehicle of capitalistic repression and that the representative democracy is not representative, rather it mainly serves to reproduce existing relations of power. On the other hand, the right wing firmly rejects democracy as a mode of governance, and believe that democracy should, to reach an ideal society, be replaced by a strong authoritative ruler. The Islamic extremist milieus demand that society is run based on conservative interpretations of the religious laws of the Quran (Sivenbring 2017). Whereas the political movements and activist violence of the left and the right has a long history in the north, the Islamic extremism is a novelty for the region. Resent changes in the political landscape both in the nordic countries and in the middle east, have given that the number of individuals that have left the Nordic region to join conflicts in the middle east, Syria and Iraq, are by European measures over represented (Hegghammer 2014; Larsson and Björk 2015; Lindekilde and Bertelsen 2015). In the last decade, the emergence of terror organizations (like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS)) along with contemporary rises of right wing, socialconservative political populism and violent ideologies creates new challenges for younger generations, their families and teachers in school as well as for democratic societal rule.

Individuals that participate in violent extremist milieus and engage in violent actions and criminal activity are primarily men in the ages between 15 and 25; in general, it is unusual for individuals to commit crimes as they pass the age of 23. An exception to this estimate are Islamic extremists that are estimated as being around the average age of 27. There are off course Islamic extremists that are a lot younger and a lot older, hence the average age is not statistically reliable (Gustafsson and Ranstorp 2017). Considering the age of these individuals, it might be argued that there is little rhyme and reason for pre- and primary education to prevent and intervene in the societal struggle against radicalization and violent extremism. But radical and undemocratic attitudes do not evolve over night, there is no such thing as quick radicalization, nor are there any quick fixes.

Countering Extremism and Terrorism by Education

Since the beginning of the new millennium, and in the wake of “the war on terror” (Hodges 2011) and following the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, governments all over Europe has recognized the need for counterterrorism to be handled by all levels of society. In European policy and governmental acts, education is put forward as one of the most efficient ways to foster democratic values and imbue tolerant attitudes amongst its future citizens. In the Action Plan on the Fight against Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism (Council of Europe 2015) the measures suggested for educational institutions includes both prevention by building of cohesiveness and by detection and identification of individuals that might be at risk of radicalization. These aspects are reappearing in National policies all over Europe, as policies seem to be inherited, adopted and (re)enacted (Mattson et al. 2016; Ragazzi 2017).

Firstly, the development of tolerance and democratic values are believed to incubate society from antidemocratic values that might lead to individuals using violence to promote ideological and political aims, and in the long run acts of terrorism. In 2016 The Council of Europe developed several competencies that are disseminated in European schools to promote education of democratic citizens (EDC) and education for human rights (EHR). Schools, preschools and other institutions with an educational purpose are in this instance framed as places where most European children and youngsters come in daily contact and interaction with professional adults that may have great importance both when it comes to fostering the next generation and, in their ability, to serve as democratic role models. Schools and preschools are also put forward in international research as significant as unique possibilities to serve as safe environments that can offer routines and structure for children that have experiences from war, violence or terrorism (Gurwitch et al. 2002; Svensson 2017; Williams 2007).

Secondly, beside the aspects of fostering democracy by education, teachers and school staff are sometimes urged or even obliged to observe and detect signs of radicalization among their students and refer suspicious individuals and behavior to security services. The signs and indications of radicalization, which teachers can use as checklists for detection, are often taken from manuals or methods developed by governmental agencies or various NGOs. However, although a lot of research has been conducted on the issue, there is still no established scientific evidence for the indicators of radicalization that are used in the manuals (Ragazzi 2017).

This means that there is a double bind in the directives given to educational institutions. On one hand, they are supposed to build trust and resilience and contribute in the construction of social cohesion and the safeguarding of democracy and fundamental human rights, on the other hand they are meant to surveille their students’ behaviors and attitudes acting as observers and informants for the security services.

Educating the Children of the North

The Nordic societies are cooperating in a line of societal issues and the common foundation for the region is a long tradition of democratic governance and societies characterized by high levels of trust in people, public institutions and for advocating peaceful resolutions to social and political conflicts. The states of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and their autonomous regions are underpinned by democratic governance, egalitarian principles and social cohesion. In these societies education is an important convener in promoting and safeguarding democracy for its citizens. In fact, the curriculums in the Nordic region, emphasize the use of democratic practice as a pedagogic tool in preschool, primary and secondary school education. Thus, democracy is believed to be learned by participation in democratic culture, rather than being lectured and taught as facts. In the Nordic countries, almost all students continue their education in voluntary upper secondary school, most of them for another 3 years after finishing compulsory school. Students are also shown to have a strong belief in education as an equal and secure pathway to future establishment in the labor market (Grytnes 2011). When young students speak about different aspects of their time in school, they give voice to the importance of education in fostering common values as tolerance, inclusion and collectiveness for all (Sivenbring 2016). Thus, democracy and democratic values are well implemented and regarded as important for the current society as well as for the future. In the 2016 survey International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), Nordic students were given among the highest test scores for their knowledge and skill in democracy.

Hence, education and teachers have significant importance for children, both for their present wellbeing and for their upbringing. Education and teachers are also believed to serve as conveners of democracy with, amongst other things, the somewhat new task of preventing radicalization and extremism that might in the end lead to terrorism. However, it might be argued that educational systems cannot profit from being an extension to security services in the struggle against extremism and terrorism. Instead it benefits from fostering democracy and democratic practice as one of the pathways to protect young people from coming to, or doing, harm and in the long run to prevent extremist ideologies and attitudes to develop among youngsters.

Actionplans Against Radicalization and Violent Extremism

The objectives for policy guiding and regulating the preventive work against violent extremism are off course to prevent any harm induced by extremism or terrorism to society and its citizens. The Nordic actionplans against radicalization and violent extremism (DK 2016; FI 2016; NO 2016 SE 2016) contains actions, measures and strategies that are supposed to counter and prevent radicalization and violent extremism on different societal levels. These are formulated as prioritized areas followed by suggested actions (Denmark and Norway); as short- or longtime goals followed by plans for action (Finland) or as actions on a local or national level (Sweden).1 Due to differences in institutional settings and ministries, there are several internal differences in precision and distribution of responsibilities among the measures, actions and objectives between the national plans and strategies. However, a well-established and often repeated structure for PVE policy is to define actions as: promotive, preventive and obstructive, which is the case for all the Nordic action plans. This three-level structure is often portrayed in the formation of a pyramid where the basic level of promotion involves the task of democratizing measures, aiming at strengthening first line personnel in schools, child and health care, youth centers, social services and so on. This first level is supposed to be strongest and best activated since it includes and promotes the democratic human rights for all citizens and works as a foundation for the other levels. The stronger the base is, the less work needs to be done in the upper levels. The second level is the preventive section that is aiming towards professionals that are working with individuals that are at risk of engaging in extremist activities, the ones that may become radicalized. This level involves Police, security- and social services in general. The top of the pyramid concerns obstructive actions that are aimed towards individuals that are already engaged in extremist groups. Even though the introductory texts and explanatory parts of the actionplans focus on the basic levels and formulate the need for strengthening societal structures and democratic governance, the specified means and actions are primarily aiming at the preventive and obstructive levels (Sivenbring 2017). All the plans formulate the need to gain more knowledge about drivers behind extremism and terrorism, often with the purpose to facilitate identification of individuals and groups that might be at risk of – or vulnerable to radicalization. The security discourse is also most evident as the actionplans request sanctions, legislative strengthening and tougher punishments for individuals committing or planning to committ extremist offences; these forms of sanctions are especially aimed at Muslim groups and Islamic foreign fighters.

In my analyses of the content of the Nordic actionplans against radicalization and violent extremism (Sivenbring 2017), education is – given its alleged importance for fostering and educating future democratic citizens – ascribed a rather marginalized position. The analysis show that the objectives for educational institutions are relatively broadly projected, in general following the European examples. Its main objectives can be identified as: (1) Safeguarding democracy against violent extremism and terrorism and (2) Identification and reporting risk behavior and signs of radicalization. In the following section these preventive directives and their means and measures will be discussed and problematized.

Safeguarding Democracy

The common denominator for the violent extremist groups is the belief that democracy and democratic rule is either; not sufficient, not legitimate or not enough as a mode of governance. Therefore, the most evident logic in the actionplans is to safeguard democracy from harm done by extremism and terrorism. Also, the strengthening of democracy is prescribed as the way forward in preventing future extremism and violence to emerge. In all the Nordic national actionplans against radicalization and violent extremism, fostering of democracy is put forward as a main part of the solution. This is visualized in the introductory texts in all the plans, where the common task for societies is portrayed as first and foremost ensuring democratic values as freedom, tolerance and equality. As agreed upon by the European minsters of education in the Paris declaration of 2015, education is to ensure that “children and young people acquire social, civic and intercultural competences, by promoting democratic values and fundamental rights, social inclusion and non-discrimination, as well as active citizenship” (European Commission 2016, p. 3). Democracy is then by means and values of democracy, supposed to safeguard itself against threats. This mean that educative institutions need to practice democracy actively and use the transformative process of education in a democratic setting and utilize democracy as a pedagogical tool.

When analyzing the pedagogical recommendations and means to enforce democracy by education, there are no specific directions in the actionplans. Instead democracy is put forward as something the students are supposed to have knowledge about in terms of rights and obligations, rather than something that is to be lived and practiced within the educational institutions (Sivenbring 2017). This is opposed to what is otherwise stated about democracy in programmatic texts of education and in the curriculas. Thus, democracy in the actionplans is put forward as a self-evident and indisputable (but unspecified) entity, the good force that is to defeat the evil one. By only giving directions to safeguard and preserve democratic values like human rights, tolerance and equality, it neglects the transformative character of democracy as negotiable and tolerant. Also, the notion of democracy as an entity seems to be constructing moral categories of good and bad, rather than political distinctions (Mouffe 2008). However, democracy is in its purest form, and with its imbued values, a construct that holds the meaning that it can never be regarded as an essential entity; democracy is by definition under constant contestation and (re)development. According to Giert Biesta (2014) democracy is a forever ongoing project of transformation where individual problems are converted into collective issues. When democracy is under threat, it is because certain individual problems are not being handled as collective issues.

Accordingly, we need to scrutinize the exceptional and guarded position that democracy is ascribed in the Nordic societies, or rather in the Nordic actionplans. This means that we need to investigate what consequences this position might have when enacted in practice. When Chantal Mouffe (2008) defines and conceptualizes democratic politics she argues that politics with consensus and reconciliation as its main objective may be misguided and even imbued with antidemocratic dangers. What Mouffe means is that democracy in its current form is much impregnated with positive idealistic motifs that underestimate the ambivalent nature of human beings trying to avoid conflict. For Mouffe (2008) agonism is an alternative mode where the conflicting parts are aware of their different views and that there may be no rational solution to a certain problem, however they admit to the legitimacy of their opponents. In a reality where there are few or no arenas or channels for conflicts to be handled, developed and negotiated in agonistic manners, there is only space for antagonism. Using Mouffes elaborations, one can draw the conclusion that extremist attitudes are given room to thrive when legitimate political channels to vent dissatisfaction are unavailable. This is also the case described by young people that are active in extremist movements. Grimm and Pilkington (2015) demonstrate how young right-wing extremists in Russia, Germany and UK find that democratic channels are not available to them, how their views and questions are silenced by the adult world and especially by teachers. In turn, this has led to negative attitudes towards politics and democracy as governance and the young individuals have accepted the (more simplistic) solutions offered by the extremist milieu. Thus, one of the main issues for democratic politics is to convert antagonism to agonism, or to use agonism to prevent antagonistic violence.

The importance for educational institutions to be able to handle and take care of controversial issues and topics has recently gained ground in academic discussions. This discussion regards the preventative role of education as placed in the opportunities for responding to extreme opinions and attitudes with open dialogue between opponents and differing attitudes in a safe environment (van San et al. 2013; Sieckelinck et al. 2015; Thomas 2016; Mattsson 2018). In educational settings, students should be afforded opportunities to speak about politics, religion and ideals even if they differ from common beliefs and norms of the educational institution. This notion is connected to the use of pedagogical methods, positions and democratic values which also/even include those who experience that their views are not taken seriously. In the words of Sieckelinck et al. (2015 p. 338) “When student practice hate speech they are better approached, not as villains or victims, but as political agents in spiritual and educational need”. Democratic education for equality and tolerance could have an approach that includes equipping students with knowledge and competence to give voice to their opinions, feelings and attitudes, even if they are extreme or intolerant (Thomas 2016). If opinions and attitudes can be expressed, they can be met and disputed, questioned and considered. This calls for the clarification that it does not mean that extreme or intolerant attitudes are respected or accepted, on the contrary it means that extreme opinions should be seriously addressed and handled by professional teachers. As O’Donnel (2016) puts it “If alienation, disaffection and estrangement are some of the reasons that young people may turn to terrorism and violent extremism, it would seem wiser that schools create the space for sensitive questioning and exploration of issues affecting students’ lives” (O’Donnel 2016 p. 58). This is of great importance since previous research has shown that teachers avoid confrontations with youths that express extreme views, instead they are silenced or neglected without further action (Grimm and Pilkington 2015; van San et al. 2013). This fact is explained as an inability or ignorance from teachers to handle controversial issues, to engage in dialogue or offer alternative narratives, interpretations and perspectives. Zembalayas and Bakerman (2013) illustrate how schools in different parts of the world actively avoid raising questions on topics that involves politics or religion because of the chance that students might have different opinions. This avoidance might reinforce barriers and psychological boundaries between groups. In the long run, disallowance and taboo of controversies can cause individuals to seek acceptance among like-minded in other arenas or alternative mileus.

In addition to handling and sometimes even challenging extreme attitudes by creating turbulence, Davies (2014) advocates the need for horizontal networks where students can use their social engagement as active agents to achieve real changes. The competence and knowledge of how to perform resistance and protest without violence along with the understanding of the importance of having a realizable goal is according to Davies competences that can make young people into the political agents that Sieckelinck et al. (2015) are asking for, making extreme and radical views constructive in the continuing formation of a pluralistic democratic society.

Identify and Report

Teachers’ responsibility to identify and report individuals at risk of becoming radicalized are given rather ample space among the specified assignments for educational institutions that are declared in the Nordic actionplans (Sivenbring 2017). Teachers’ professional positon, their everyday meetings with children and students and their knowledge of how young individuals usually act and behave makes them suitable monitors for detecting individuals at risk. Therefor teachers are positioned as having a certain responsibility to observe, investigate and report suspicious behavior. Lindekilde (2012) writes that teachers are “privileged informants” as they are in daily contact with young people who trust them, which gives them a position that intelligence services can never get access to. Thus, teachers and school staff are presented with a contradictory assignment. On one hand, they are supposed to build trust, strengthen and reinforce democracy and ensure that students gain knowledge of, and practice human rights and democratic citizenship. On the other hand, they are supposed to use their classrooms as observatories to detect future radicals and criminals, and report that a crime has not yet been committed. Supported by sets of unreliable prognostics and predictions teachers are assigned to hypothezise a future crime that may in fact never be committed. The criteria and behavioral indicators of radicalization are after all not even related to risk, but only to potential risk (O’Donnell 2015).

Even if professionals in the Nordic countries are asked to support the security services by “spotting radicals”, it is not a statuary obligation (which is the case in the UK). As mentioned before in this essay, the idea that radicalization or future mobilization into terrorist activities or other criminal activities can be foreseen or predicted is afflicted with several problems and inaccuracies. However, signs and behavioral indicators of radicalization can according to the Norwegian action plan (NO 2016) be: the use of extremist groups symbols, changes in appearance (style, clothing etc.), truancy, participation in demonstrations or manifestations, new friends or changes in social belonging. In the Swedish action plan (SE 2016), teachers are, in cases of concern, referred to the additional material for conversational support (Samtalskompassen) recommended by the (former) National coordinator against violent extremism and radicalization (2015). The manual lists signs of concern that involves expressions of radical attitudes, giving voice to conspiracy theories or legitimizing violence as means of reaching societal change. The conversational support material also gives some examples of attitudes, opinions and relations that should cause teachers’ concern. These are when young individuals: express intolerant views, reject democratic principles, are convinced that their own views are the only real ones and when they try to argue and convince others. Furthermore, they might express conspiracy theories, view others as enemies, and enunciate hatred against certain groups as Jews, Muslims, Swedes, capitalists, immigrants, homosexuals, etc. Teachers are also encouraged to enter into dialogue with the students, with the purpose to investigate rather than to discuss, problematize and challenge their views. The result of the investigation can then be used to decide whether the student should be reported as at risk of radicalization.

Following the task of safeguarding and developing democracy, it is important to reason the consequences of such an approach. As Mattsson et al. (2016) argues, investigations, interrogations and mapping of suspicious individuals in school is counterproductive; it will most certainly create and reinforce young individuals mistrust against governmental institutions, agencies and democratic governance. This can in turn have negative consequences for the possibilities to collect the requested information and instead generate resentment and discrimination that fuels radical attitudes (Ragazzi 2017). Maltreatment of trust between societal actors and citizens is deleterious for any society and can end up in some drawing away from public life while others are provoked or start to question their own ideas and ideals. O’Donnell (2015) emphasizes the concern for democratic and public life, if students and citizens in general begin to practice self-censorship in institutional settings to avoid being constituted as vulnerable, suspect and at risk.

Another sign of concern mentioned in the Swedish conversation support material is when young people try to legitimize their views by pointing to injustices in society. This also mean that something that can be regarded as a democratic right and opportunity, the possibility to use the human right to express opinions and participate in change, is seen as possible signs of radicalization. Thus, dissent and disagreement with the majority society is considered as radical. If resistance and dissidence become criminalized, are we then not practicing in policing of “thought –crime” (O’Donnell 2015), risking that students are silenced and that dialogue and conversations of philosophical and controversial matters are avoided? Also, The convention on the right of the child states, among other rights, the freedom of expression: to freely think and express views.

Children and young people, like all other citizens have the right to start and to participate in associations and organizations, as well as the right to enjoy freedom from discrimination, the freedom of religion and the right to practice their religion. The Nordic actionplans are not specifically listing the exercise of religious rituals or religious clothing as signs of concern, as the case is in i.e. France or UK (Ragazzi 2017). However, in a quantitative content analysis of the actionplans, Muslims, immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees and foreigners are given far more space than other categories and collective identities (Sivenbring 2017). In this case, individuals belonging to “the others” (in contrast with the native Nordic citizens) are identified as vulnerable and at risk of radicalization as they are positioned as living under uncertain circumstances. Thus “the others” are mentioned in the plans both as victims of poor integration, intolerance and hate speech; and as villains that can easily be seduced by propaganda and quickly become radicalized. In this case policy is contributing in constructions of us and them (Mouffe 2008), as refugees, asylumseekers and immigrants who are made into “non belongers” that require special treatment some of which include: special surveillance, detection and adjustment to “our values”.

There is also every reason to mention the overrepresentation that Islamic extremism is given in the actionplans. Occasionally the terms religious extremism or religious motivated violence is used, but there is little reason to doubt that it is focusing on Muslim religiosity (Sivenbring 2017). There are a vast number of studies and reports that show how European Muslims, in the wake of the war on terror, are being targeted as a suspicious community, which is being reinforced by policies and actionplans aiming at PVE (I.e. Coppock and McGovern 2014; Guru 2012; Human Rights Watch UK 2016; Kundnani 2015; Kühler and Lindekilde 2012; Ragazzi 2017). This is a serious consequense that borders on structural state supported racism, and in turn has given rise to conspiracy theories and discriminating practises against Muslims all over Europe (Awan 2014; Spalek 2016).

Dilemmas and Conclusions

In this essay, I have by using the Nordic countries as an example, tried to show some of the controversies and contradictions that are imbued in the PVE- work focused on educational institutions in countries all over Europe. First and foremost, we need to recognize that there is a discursive overlap, or struggle, between two dominating points of view on prevention. The democratizing and securitizing approaches try to interconnect but seem to “harmonize in dissonance” as they cause pedagogic dilemmas that affect professionals and students in school. The safeguarding of democracy as an untouchable entity that needs to be kept safe and stable, are instead contradicting the pluralistic, tolerant and transformative core principles of democracy. Likewise, the idea that teachers and educational settings can be used to monitor and identify future delinquents,violates the fundamental democratic rights of students to think and speek freely.

At the same time, we need to recognize that if there is resistance and antidemocratic powers and tendencies that are trying to disturb and destroy societal system and governmental rule, democracy is under contestation and negotiation. However, it should also be recognized that radical thoughts and groundbreaking ways for interpreting society might contribute in the ever-ongoing project of a pluralistic and democratic society. The key issue is to use democratic governance and democratic practice to make individual struggles into collective issues (Biesta 2014).

Neither are there any ways to teach democracy by one-way communication and information or to lecture young people into democratic behaviors. Democracy is learned as it is lived and done, amongst other things it is done as people are participating in democratic processes and negotiations where they are included and given influence as democratic subjects. In line with the view that democracy includes negotiations, we can use the verb democratizing instead of democracy as a noun. A democratizing educational setting should let young people discuss and problematize controversial issues in an agonistic manner in a safe environment without moralistic taboos and restrictions. School has the potential to be a legitimate channel for questions and problems concerned with being a member of society. Democracy needs to leave space for negotiations and development of how to reach aims and objectives buy parliamentary means. This is also in line with both democracy and education as transformative processes.

Also, there are few reasons to believe that more security and securitizing measures will promote safety and safe environments for students and teachers; as Francesco Ragazzi (2017) puts it in a report for the Council of Europe, “Privileging security over liberty is a false solution that results in more insecurity (Ibid, p. 9). The ill fitted orientation of the preventive and countering measures that focuses identification of vulnerable individuals in school, are guiding attention away from societal injustices, politics and violence of the public sphere. It’s stealing focus from systematic failure and places blame on individuals rather than the contemporary context of politics, war and terrorism. Mattsson (2018) highlights how prevention on the policy level has shown little interest in neither relating extremism or radical ideas to the surrounding society in which radicalization emerge nor taking students experiences into account. Surveilling and reporting expressed grievances and attitudes can jeopardize fundamental human rights. The UN convention on rights of the child, ascribes every human being under the age of 18 a special protected position; in the Nordic countries, teachers and first line personnel, as professional actors and state officials, already have the responsibility to report if there is any concern for a child or youths’ wellbeing or health. This obligation puts the best interest of the child in the foreground and ought to be enough when it comes to signs of concern.

It could also be argued that the problems with students that require some extra attention, has usually been dealt with by teachers as experts in education, and is often transformed into security issues by way of PVE programmes. This is not only degrading the teachers’ professionalism and forcing them to function as informants, it also transforms and obstructs the important relations between students and teachers. Instead of being a remedial institution in the struggle against violence and terrorism, education should be regarded as best serving society by and through democratic practice, as concluded by O’Donnell, “society is best served when educational institutions remain autonomous sites of enquiry, critical dissent, exploration, reflection, enquiry and fearless speech, spaces in which students and educators can trust one another” (O’Donnell 2015, p. 63).


  1. 1.

    Iceland does not have a specified actionplan aimed at preventing radicalization and violent extremism.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Education, Communication and LearningUniversity of GothenburgGothenburgSweden

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