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The educated terrorist

THE ASSASSINATION of Sri Lanka's foreign minister last month has once again raised the question of how the conflict on this ill-fated isle will end.

What bedevils conflict analysts most about Sri Lanka is that it defies the most common causal factor raised by terrorism experts -- a lack of education. Among all South Asian countries, Sri Lanka has the highest literacy rate of an astounding 92 percent. Yet this is the country where the cult of suicide bombings finds its origin with more than 200 suicide attacks since 1970 that have claimed thousands of lives. The victims include several politicians including the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed by a female suicide bomber in 1991. Clearly the educational development in this country has not had a direct correlation with conflict reduction.

Sri Lanka is not the only example of this phenomenon. Another country that is frequently associated with radicalism, Iran, has one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East -- over 70 percent. In this case, the gender argument on literacy is not applicable either, since there are now more female college graduates in Iran than men. Yet, this has not translated into a culture of tolerance among the masses, who continue to overwhelmingly support radical ideologies.

The quality or extent of education, rather than literacy itself, may be considered another metric for preventing radicalism, but this too does not hold ground on closer analysis of some of the most charismatic terrorists. America's elusive Unabomber was a Harvard graduate; Abimael Guzman, the leader of Peru's Sendero Luminoso, was a university professor; and the intellectual leader of the Maoist rebels in Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai, has a doctorate in urban planning. Among the Al Qaeda hierarchy, Aimen Al-Zawahry is a medical doctor, and Mohamed Atta was an engineering student fluent in three languages.

Such examples clearly show that education is not a sufficient condition for tolerance or conflict reduction, but perhaps it is a sufficient condition for development and can thereby lead to conflict reduction? Here too the data is not supportive. Analysis by NYU economist Bill Easterly shows that from 1960 to 1985, sub-Saharan Africa had a remarkably high educational capacity growth of over 4.5 percent while East Asia's was growing at only 2.5 percent despite having similar starting points. However, GDP per capita growth in East Asia was over 4 percent during this period while sub-Saharan Africa languished at 0.5 percent.

So what are we to make of this dismal linkage? Education is important, and it still may be a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for lasting development since all developed countries do indeed have high literacy rates. Education thus helps to sustain economic development. However, the linkage between education and a reduction in extremism and conflict is much more tenuous. Here it might not even be a necessary condition for conflict reduction since we have several examples of relatively peaceful indigenous communities where educational indicators are relatively low.

What is clear with conflict linkage is that incendiary information -- whether through educational channels at modern schools, madrassas, or at home -- can play a significant role in conflict development. Education in the Internet age is particularly challenging since we are overloaded with specious information that is often absorbed by educational institutions. Indeed, while researching madrassas in Pakistan, it is remarkable to find how proficient many of the students are in accessing Internet chat rooms and radical websites. These sites can of course be accessed by anyone. However, the cultural milieu in certain institutions may lead to an uncritical absorption of this material more so than others. Any conflict reduction strategy must thus try to focus on knowledge-based sources of conflict as well as the institutions -- many of which will be educational in nature.

Hence our attempts at reducing radicalization should take place independent of where the targets are. This may lead us to propagandist literature inciting violence, conspiracy theories presented by pretentious intellectuals who distort facts, or a culture of intolerance in some religious and secular institutions. Each avenue should be explored with recognition that human behavior has complex motivations. We should not let linear solutions beguile us into problem-solving, even when it is that most noble goal of knowledge acquisition.

Saleem H. Ali teaches conflict resolution and environmental planning at the University of Vermont.

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