Global terrorism is spreading like a dangerous cancer that knows no borders. It cannot be defeated by the military alone. As the Islamic State’s grip on Mosul is faltering today, so must its grip on the young minds of Iraq through instruction in religious freedom and reconciliation.
But it will take a form of Marshall Plan for the minds of traumatized and scared youth to accomplish the task. Though the challenge is daunting, failure to act and carrying on the status quo dooms the region to continuous religion-inspired blood feuds. We must break this never-ending cycle of violence by addressing the root causes of this dangerous ideology through re-education of Iraq’s youth.
President Trump has an opportunity to end the “genocide of our generation” and put to rest centuries of pent-up resentment and sectarian hatred that has culminated in the rise of the Islamic State, also called Islamic State — the most nihilistic manifestation of religious intolerance witnessed in recent history.
He can start by helping the real victims of the ongoing religious war — the children of Iraq. For the past 14 years, they have grown up only knowing violence and hatred but that can and must change for Iraq and the surrounding region to know peace, prosperity and liberty.
The most egregious example of this threatened generation is the so-called “cubs of the caliphate” — which, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, includes at least 900 children who were abducted, indoctrinated and forced to fight for Islamic State.
One Yazidi woman who rescued her son from Islamic State shared with me how he had not only forgotten his family, neighbors and schoolmates, but they had become his enemies. Without education in the values of religious freedom, he will be lost forever to hate.
Then, there are 600,000 children who lived under Islamic State in Mosul for the past two-and-a-half years. Youth were taught to justify violence in the name of religion, and were forced to witness beheadings and public attacks on anyone who failed to comply with their religious rules.
And finally, there are millions of displaced children scattered across the region who, along with local children, are being influenced by Islamic State, often without even realizing it. The terrorist group’s power over the hearts and minds of these children is chilling.
One Iraqi teacher described to me how she found a group of students pretending to behead one another on the playground. Sadly, this example is not unique, and teachers do not know how to respond.
Disassociating the hearts and minds of children from identifying with Islamic State and their radical ideology will take a unique educational model — one that not only teaches children to tolerate one another, but rather to value the inherent dignity and religious freedom of others and develop the skills and intrinsic motivations that will enable them to respond differently when confronted with intolerance and extremism.
Nearly a year ago, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report on children in the Islamic State recommended that special preparation be made for rehabilitating the children living under Islamic State.
Children who have been forced to fight with Islamic State must be de-radicalized immediately. But re-education programs cannot be limited to those children most at risk of extremism. Children across Iraq and other countries in the region are equally at risk of being influenced by the ideas that lead to violent extremism and need help.
Education in the value of religious freedom is already yielding results and should be accelerated to realize Iraq’s full potential and rescue an entire generation from hate and terror.
Last year, the Lebanese-based Adyan Foundation worked with 50 government leaders in the region to develop new guidelines for educational reforms that would promote respect for religious freedom and help create societies resilient to extremism.
In February 2017, my organization, Hardwired Global, launched the first initiative to develop educational programs with teachers in the region based on religious freedom. The programs are helping teachers rehabilitate youth indoctrinated by Islamic State and re-educate the broader youth population.
Children are learning to deconstruct and challenge the narrative of extremism and develop new ways of thinking about the intolerant beliefs taught by Islamic State.
These programs are helping youth redirect their feelings and release their trauma in a safe environment where they can begin to find new ways of expressing themselves through positive emotions that build respect for the rights of others.
President Trump can and should adopt a Marshall Plan to reshape the hearts and minds of children indoctrinated by extremists. He can begin by directing the Departments of State and Defense to devote a small portion of U.S. aid toward helping these children value religious freedom for all.
After spending trillions to fight terrorism in Iraq with no end in sight, it is time to try something new or this will not be the last iteration of terror Iraq — and the world — will face.
• Tina Ramirez is the president of Hardwired Global and travels to Iraq regularly. She is a contributing author and editor of “Human Rights in the United States: A Dictionary and Documents” (ABC-CLIO, 2010 and 2017).
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