Head of UNESCO speaks about dangers of extremism

Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, came to USC Monday to discuss the organization’s role in using education to counter violent extremism. The Q&A was moderated by Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation and the UNESCO chair on genocide education.

The idea for UNESCO formed in 1942 during World War II when leaders met to discuss how the world should be rebuilt after the war and how to prevent further wars. For 70 years, UNESCO has aimed to improve the world through education, science and culture.

“UNESCO is the United Nations organization that promotes cooperation in education, sciences, culture and communication,” Bokova said. “Since war started, it’s in the minds of men, and now we say women also, of course, that the defenses of peace should be built. It’s so topical nowadays [to] see extremism and violence, [but we] see once again how strong the soft power of sciences, of culture, of heritage, of education [are] in order to make this world peaceful.”

Bokova further talked about how important it was to focus on goals on smaller scales in addition to global problems.

“One of our biggest roles, in effect, is to transform societies,” Bokova said. “But in order to transform a society, it is not enough just to declare a commitment to a universal value. It is extremely important, but [we also] see what [the] local arguments and tools [are] and how to push the buttons.”

One of UNESCO’s primary duties is to identify sites of cultural importance for future preservation. One of their primary concerns right now is the destruction of cultural sites by ISIS, and they want to ensure that sites, such as Palmyra in Syria, are preserved.

“One of the most important contributions that UNESCO has brought to the world is the concept of common heritage of humanity,” Bokova said. “The basic criteria is outstanding universal value. The convention was adopted in 1972 and now we have more than one thousand sites. I think this is an extraordinarily revolutionary concept for the time. We see now in Syria and Iraq heritage like Palmyra [and others] which testify to how humanity evolved, how cultures permeated each other.”

Bokova used the ancient monument Palmyra to give the audience an idea about why violent extremists, particularly ISIS, destroy historical landmarks.

“I think they destroy precisely because history delegitimizes them,” Bokova said. “History shows that there are different cultures, and all of them contributed to the wisdom of humanity. Palmyra is one of those monuments that has in its beauty and its engravings a little bit of the Greco-Roman culture, a little bit of influence of the Christian culture, of the Mogul culture. It is really one of those monuments that shows that humanity is diverse, and this is precisely the diversity of humanity that they want to destroy.”

UNESCO wants to work with young people to educate them about this extremism.

“[We want to] try to change the narrative of the history because maintaining this diversity is important and engaging young people, who sometimes fall prey to these extremists with radicalization, to show that there is another history, there is another narrative. The truth about history is different from what these extremists want to impose on the world,” Bokova said.

For Bokova, changing this narrative begins with education.

“The importance of equitable, inclusive and quality education and lifelong learning for all,” Bokova said. “We believe, without it, we cannot have a sustainable development of profiteer education or tackling some of the issues of youth and jobs. The new concept is about global citizenship education.”

Bokova believes education is the starting point to ending violent extremism.

“This is why we think that this youth radicalization and extremism does not have a place,” Bakova said. “Of course I know that only education maybe is not only panacea, but it is important. This is how we open these young minds to a different story.”

Eric Roth, a master lecturer in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, asked Bokova why education is UNESCO’s primary tool to combat extremism and why there is so much violent extremism today despite all of our modern resources.

“The biggest challenge is to bring the global to the local, to make this bridge between the global and the local,” Bakova said. “In most of our programs and activities, this is how we translate our universal values or quest for human rights or tolerance to a local context so that it works.”