Youth Wellbeing as a Pathway to Peace Education in Muslim Societies

By Ilham Nasser

Peace education is a needed area of educational programming that is relevant to all learners and most critical in vulnerable communities impacted by wars, conflict, and economic and political instability. Research on attitudes about psychosocial wellbeing may provide additional insights into forming a peace education agenda as an alternative to violence and wars. For example, research on forgiveness and reconciliation contributes to educational thinking about implementing conflict transformation programs as part of learning modules (Abu-Nimer, 2018). The difficulty is not in the research per se but in the implementation in different contexts, especially when conflicts do arise. Starting early to infuse peace education that addresses skills such as empathy, forgiveness, and self-regulation as part of the curriculum among youngsters reinforces this approach. As interventions in forgiveness education have shown, life skills can be taught through hands-on activities and modeling, among other techniques (Abu-Nimer & Nasser, 2017). This is also true when empathy, as a learned behavior, is also targeted (Castillo et al., 2013).

This article highlights the contribution of a study on socio emotional learning and its implications for accumulated knowledge on peace education in Muslim societies. Understanding the views of youth and educators about sets of psychosocial skills provides guidance on ways to infuse them as a starting point towards peace, whether it is in the classroom or beyond. Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of skepticism and mistrust of the intentions of researchers in many contexts around the world, especially in Muslim societies. Some of it has to do with many communities’ fears that there are hidden agendas behind research and interventions, especially when generated by Western countries. This stems from the lack of knowledge of local contexts and the lack of consideration of socio-cultural aspects that is at play by western organizations, such as conflict resolution and reconciliation rituals (Abu-Nimer & Nasser, 2017). These, in part, contribute to the failure of international agencies to address values of peace in Islamic schools and in Muslim societies in general. Programs on peace building, for example, seldom include the cultural sensitivities that exist around communication skills, gender differences, age, etc. I suggest and reiterate the need to localize the interventions and to frame them in cultural, religious, and political contexts. 

Further, socio-emotional education (SEE) and learning should be part of peace education as it provides an integral framework that is relevant to preparing the younger generations for a complex world across the North and South binary. SEE or Socio emotional learning (SEL) is defined as the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions ( There is weight to the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of learning across contexts when SEE is part of a peace education framework (See Figure 1). In fact, this also provides an institutional entry point in places where it is a challenge to introduce peace education as a standalone program. Further it allows access in places where peace education is misused and or overused ( Peace education needs to include education for the whole person so that human beings can have a sense of fulfillment in various aspects of life (Bresler et al., 2001). 

In a study of youth in 15 Muslim societies and based on previous research, we identified three qualities that allow for personal transformation: open-mindedness, responsibility, and a collaborative collective (Nasser et al. 2020). Rather than zooming in on extremism and its prevention among a small minority of youth in Muslim societies, this study directly addresses psychosocial wellbeing of learners in Muslim-majority communities, thereby taking a hopeful and an asset-based approach to identifying views and attitudes under the three mentioned categories (Nasser et al., 2019). The study explored the attitudes of secondary school and university students, teachers, and administrators on values and competencies such as empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, sense of belonging, and self-regulation. This study contributes to educational transformation efforts in the communities of interest and the promotion of youth learning and education. The skills targeted are all important and relevant for peace education and the development of non-violence approaches to solving conflicts (García-Vázquez et al., 2020). In addition, the study provides evidence-based recommendations for the implementation of sound and appropriate practices and policies to enhance personal transformation (Nasser et al., 2019).

More than 20,000 youth participated in the study over a two-year period between 2018-2020.  The insights suggested and lessons learned from this study identify competencies and values that promote each one of the three qualities mentioned. In fact, when collecting feedback about the survey items, young people expressed enthusiasm about the opportunity to be asked about social values and personal skills.  Conceptually, open-mindedness was defined as a value and a skill that includes the ability to think matters through, to adapt and maneuver in solving problems with critical thinking skills, and to examine all sides and perspectives (Proyer et al., 2011).  Responsibility was defined as the ability to not only react to contextual and social cues; rather, it was defined as people’s capability to proactively manage and control their functions and actions (Bandura, 1989; 2001). The collaborative collective builds on the sense of community and shared values that drive the understanding that it is not sufficient to rely on the clan and immediate collective, but rather encourages the interdependence to the betterment of life for all. In this scenario, there is room for forgiveness and reconciliation in cases where individuals or communities are engaged in violence. Building the foundations for these three qualities in schooling experiences is a contribution to peace education tools and skills. Competencies such as empathy, gratitude, and forgiveness are essential in educating for wellbeing and the feeling of being included, accepted, cared for, and supported. Educating to increase youth’s sense of belonging is also important because it links to social support that has been found to positively correlate with coping mechanism, physical and socioemotional well-being (Allen et al., 2018). 

Previous research suggests high correlations between the constructs we measured in the study and general healthy growth and coping mechanisms, including physical and mental wellbeing. For example, empathy highly correlated with prosocial behaviors and social connectedness (Oriol et al., 2020). Forgiveness also correlated highly with empathy and gratitude (Marigoudar & Kamble, 2014).  There is also a positive relationship between social responsibility, justice, and collaborative citizenship and constructs such as empathy and forgiveness that we measured (Dyck, 2014). In fact, one of the highlights of this study is its indication of the important role empathy plays in predicting other variables among Muslim youth and educators. 

One of the recommendations of the study is to nurture a critical thinking orientation and intentionally address the competencies mentioned earlier in the curriculum and in pedagogy. For example, teaching ways to ask open ended questions and engage in dialogue as an alternative to violence and as a tool to discover world views, including blind spots and hot buttons. It allows the person to self-reflect and develop constructive ways to manage relationships with different identity groups. Dialogue also deals with misperceptions and negative assumptions that fuel negative attitudes and justify exclusion and discrimination. When taken to a deeper level, dialogue can unveil the fear of the other and guarantee a safe space to delve into difficult and painful issues in the relationship with the other or the group. In many schools in Muslim societies, we must start with the skills of asking open ended questions and having conversations with the students instead of frontal teaching and rote memorization. 

Dialogue as a teaching methodology does not have to start with controversial issues. On the contrary, learning to have a conversation and engaging in dialogue can be between peers, a teacher and students, and teachers and administrators. Despite the power and influence of economic, political, and social structures that inherently block transformation and personal and social changes, starting with these skills will improve students’ wellbeing and open the door for considering views of the self and the other. This, of course, is in parallel to nonviolent social and political movements for resistance that are also essential components for change. Dialogue is not a substitute for social and political action but when combined with Socio emotional education, it has the potential to lead to peaceful resolutions of conflicts, at least on the interpersonal levels.



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Ilham Nasser is the director of Empirical Research in Human Development, at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and part of the initiative on Advancing Education in Muslim Societies (AEMS). She has spent over twenty-five years in research addressing children’s development and their psycho-social wellbeing. She is also a teacher educator and curriculum developer who trained teachers on civic engagement, forgiveness, and diversity in many communities around the world. She holds a PhD in Human Development and Child Study from the University of Maryland–College Park. Dr. Nasser was a faculty in teacher education (promoted to Associate Professor) at George Mason University and is the author of peer-reviewed books, journal articles, and book chapters in education. Her recent research focus is on teaching and learning as well as curriculum development in sociocultural and political contexts and ways these influence children’s development. Dr. Nasser has launched the first curriculum and regional research on forgiveness in the Arab World. She is the past President of the Peace Education Special Interest Group of the American Education Research Association (AERA). She is the co-editor of the Journal of Education in Muslim Societies (JEMS).