Protect scholars in fight against terrorism

Indianapolis Star, April 29, 2015

Just two weeks after Al-Shabab’s horrific attack at Garissa University in Northeast Kenya, which left an entire university community destroyed, the Somalian based terrorist group continues its bloody assault. This time they dispatched a car bomb, followed by a deadly shoot out at the Ministry of Higher Education in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu. While investigators struggle to understand why Al-Shabab would gun down scores of innocent students, and then destroy an education ministry, we ask what this means for higher education around the world as the sector finds itself increasingly targeted by violent extremists.

Garissa was a hub for learning in Kenya and home to students of different ethnicities and religions from across the country. Despite the intermittent violence and sectarian instability in the region, Garissa was a place where students and professors alike could focus their energy on tolerance, peace and higher learning instead of violence — until it was shattered by a senseless attack.

What is it that drives so many young people into the arms of these extremist groups? And more importantly, how best to protect young people from falling prey to such recruitment schemes?

We say higher education is the most effective weapon against the lure of the extremists. In particular, it is the influence of professors, each of whom over their academic careers could teach and advise thousands of students, showing them a positive path towards academic engagement and career goals and away from terror and jihad.

The growing violence against scholars and professors in so many parts of the world is a trend that we would ignore at our peril. Every scholar or university department saved today could mean thousands fewer extremist recruits tomorrow. This rescue is essential in cutting off groups like ISIS and Al-Shabab at their very source. Reports indicate that only two police officers (both killed) were protecting the Garissa University campus. We call on governments better to protect their schools and universities from attack, and to take steps to bring responsible parties to justice, in order to deter future attacks.

In addition, we call on the higher education community – and donors – worldwide to protect threatened scholars by joining in the effort to offer them safe haven at host institutions where they can continue their research and teaching, and to provide funding to enable them to do so.

In the 1930s, our assistant director (later a renowned journalist), Edward R. Murrow, and the Emergency Committee to Rescue Displaced European Scholars, saved many brilliant scientists and scholars who went on to be highly productive, winning Nobel Prizes and developing new technologies that helped the world to flourish after the war.

Today’s need is much different. We must redouble our efforts to keep every scholar alive, working and connected with the young people in their home countries, so that, when it is safe to do so, the scholars can return home to provide hope and opportunity instead of terror and jihad.

By giving senior academics safe haven, we can save entire academic departments and universities that are necessary for providing a country’s youth with the option of becoming educated and productive members of society. Keeping the higher education system – the “national academy” – alive and functioning is the best weapon any country could have to counter the unrelenting terrorist and jihadi propaganda and recruitment. Simply put, the multiplier effect of saving scholars offers the best chance to save the next generation.

We have seen firsthand how rescued scholars have gone home to offer crucial educational and professional opportunities. Here is but one case from Indiana:

Dr. Eunice Kamaara, a Moi University professor and researcher of religious studies in Kenya, is a particularly inspiring example in light of the attack at Garissa. She was threatened and forced to flee a few years ago due to ethnic and sectarian violence. With a fellowship from IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund, Dr. Kamaara spent a year at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis teaching and conducting research in religious studies, public health, and conflict management and reflecting on the factors that led to the violence she witnessed, before returning home to become a powerful force for positive change.

Now back in Kenya, Dr. Kamaara teaches courses on culture and religious studies, interreligious dialogue and religion and human rights in Africa. The courses that Dr. Kamaara now offers to students in Kenya focus on educating young people on issues that are crucial to the peace and stability of the region.

The next generation of young people must have an alternative to terror and jihad. Every professor, every department head, every dean and president whom we save is a potent weapon against the tyranny of the extremists. We could ask no more of host universities and donors the world over than to help in this essential effort. They should do no less.

Goodman is president and chief executive of the Institute of International Education, which administers, among other projects, the State Department’s Fulbright exchange programs. Angelson is chairman of IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund and a teacher and trustee at Northwestern and Rutgers universities.