Citizenship Education in the Conflict-Affected Societies of Northern Ireland and Syria: Learning Lessons from the Past to Inform the Future

  • Faith GordonEmail author
  • Adnan Mouhiddin
Living reference work entry


The role of education in peacekeeping has been well documented in the academic literature. While it has been argued that education provided through formalized structures of school-settings has the potential to create stable environments for children and young people to learn and to heal, this can be difficult to achieve when children are displaced during conflict and little formalized structures exist, as communities navigate loss, trauma, and uncertainty and as they rebuild their lives. Further, existing literature demonstrates that in light of the existence of contested or conflicting identities in relation to citizenship, the content and approaches taken in relation to citizenship education may represent part of the problem and also part of the solution, for conflict-affected societies. It is against this backdrop that this chapter explores the nexus between the challenges and problems that exist for conflict-affected societies, alongside the potential for solutions and the potential for a long-lasting positive impact of citizenship education on the children of the post-conflict, transitioning generation. To explore these larger questions, the chapter utilizes the two case studies of the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland and the ongoing conflict in Syria. In doing so, it will consider issues such as contested identities and notions of citizenship, dominant ideologies, division, and school structures, as well as exploring whether there are lessons that can be learned from the past to inform the future.


Post-conflict Conflict Transition Citizenship Education Approaches Challenges 


“[E]ducation can both reproduce the conditions which underlie civil conflict, hence exacerbating and perpetuating violence, and help transform society by challenging the deep-rooted prejudices and inequalities at the heart of the conflict.” (Leach and Dunne 2007: 11)

The role of education in peacekeeping has been well documented in the literature (see Niens et al. 2006; Smith 2010; Loader and Hughes 2017). As the opening quotation reinforces, there appears to be a wide consensus that education can play a vital role in rebuilding communities that have experienced violent conflict and are crisis-affected (Leach and Dunne 2007). It has been argued that education provided through the school-setting has the potential to create stable environments for children and young people to learn and to heal (ibid). Smith and Vaux (2003) outline several core reasons why the relationship between education and conflict is significant. They assert that “education is a fundamental right that should be maintained at all times, even in the most difficult circumstances … education … may provide an important mechanism for the protection of children” (ibid). They also argue that the loss of education “due to conflict … is not just a loss to the individual, but a loss of social capital and the capacity of a society to recover from the conflict” (ibid). However, Smith and Vaux (2003) also propose that “education can be part of the problem as well as part of the solution.”

This chapter explores the nexus between the challenges and problems, alongside the potential for approaches to citizenship education, which may have long-lasting positive impacts for children of the post-conflict, transitioning generation. In doing so, this chapter utilizes contextually, the two case studies of the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland and the ongoing conflict in Syria. The case studies have been selected to demonstrate how history can inform the present and can inform the future. The year 2018 marked 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland and therefore it offered an opportune time to reflect on the current arrangements for citizenship education. Further to this, the ongoing Syrian conflict, the displacement of children, and the estimation that 1.75 million children are currently out of school make it a key contemporary case study to explore how citizenship education could be developed in a constructive and positive way.

The chapter will review the current developments in the literature on citizenship education in post-conflict settings. It will also explore the United Nations’ commitments to education, as well as the role of nongovernmental organizations and their freedom or lack of freedom to provide alternative discourses. The chapter contextualizes both of the case studies on Northern Ireland and Syria, by outlining the history to each conflict, including discussions of historical legacies of the militarized nature of aspects of education in Syria or the involvement of institutions such as the Church, in shaping aspects of the education curriculum in Northern Ireland. In addition, it explores the current citizenship education arrangements in Northern Ireland, the lack of citizenship education for children from Syria, and considers alternatives to citizenship education when the latter could be counterproductive, if dominated by one narrative. Another significant issue explored relates to the contested nature of “citizenship” and the issue of conflicting “identities” in post-conflict settings, as well as the inclusion and subsequent exclusion of certain sections of society. The chapter concludes by proposing that realistic expectations and approaches are needed, when critically considering what citizenship education may be able to achieve in post-conflict and crisis-affected societies.

Citizenship Education in Post-Conflict Contexts

In recent years, citizenship education has become a key area of inquiry in the existing international literature (see Goren and Yemini 2017; Rapoport and Yemini 2019). However, as Quaynor (2011: 33) notes, very few previous “reviews of civic education scholarship include research from post-conflict societies.” Conflict-affected and post-conflict societies face a particular set of complex challenges, and this makes them unique and interesting contexts in which to explore the role of education as potentially promoting democracy, social cohesion, rights, equality, social justice, and as instilling a genuine sense of belonging moving into the future (see Hoskins and Janmaat 2019). Citizenship education has been referred to as central to the “reconstruction” of societies following periods of conflict (see Davies 2004, cited in Quaynor 2011: 34). There are particular challenges for the education systems and educators working in countries that have experienced conflict, as ideas and notions of “nationhood,” identity, violence, and dominant narratives, often feature in the curriculum and can be particularly contested and conflicted when societies remain divided. Yet it should also be acknowledged that there are often structural and context-specific restraints on educators in societies that have overgone or are still experiencing conflict and violence (Reilly and Niens 2014).

According to the international body UNESCO (2014: 9), a global citizenship for the twenty-first century includes fostering in learners “an attitude supported by an understanding of multiple levels of identity, and the potential for a ‘collective identity’ which transcends individual cultural, religious, ethnic or other differences.” To achieve that goal, it promotes a holistic approach, which demands “formal and informal approaches, curricular and extra-curricular interventions and conventional and unconventional pathways to participation” (UNESCO 2014: 11). However, recently UNESCO (2019) observes that the implementation of such goals is facing various challenges in conflict affected societies. In light of this, it strongly recommended a “renewed understanding of Global Citizenship Education that is centred on its concept of learning to live together and builds more on the local and country context” (UNESCO 2019: 10). Using case studies from South Sudan, Kenya, and Nepal, Barakat et al. (2013) drew the conclusion that education in war-wrecked societies contributes to the promotion of tolerance, respect, and critical thinking as well as the stability and the reconstruction process (Penson and Tomlinson 2009). Lochner (2004) emphasizes the role of education as a human capital investment that increases future legitimate work opportunities.

Context, Conflict, and Education: Northern Ireland and Syria

While Northern Ireland and Syria initially appear to have very little in common, they both represent post–World War II contexts which have experienced and endured (and still are) the impact of armed conflict, trauma, violence, displacement, and the loss of life. Northern Ireland and Syria have been selected for this chapter as case studies, as each of the authors was born there and each has conducted extensive primary, empirical research with children and young people in these countries, exploring the impact of conflict on their everyday lives, on their sense of belonging, and on their future prospects. It is evident that the shared issues of dealing with the past, contested identities, inequalities, belonging, and citizenship are concerns for children, young people, and their families in both societies. Further to this, as major structural reforms and changes have taken place in Northern Ireland in particular in the spheres of education and criminal justice, this chapter proposes that there is potentially a lot to learn from such societies who have implemented such reforms.

Therefore, in this chapter we argue that countries currently experiencing or in transition from conflict and violence can potentially learn from the experiences of societies that have already navigated challenges in relation to issues such as divisions, conflicting identities, conflicting narratives, belonging, and interpretations of citizenship. In the Syrian scenario, the ethnic and religious diversity of the country and the sectarian nature of the conflict have resulted in identity crisis and questions. Sectors that have been impacted in this war (e.g., education, justice system, civil societies) are exploring the experience of countries that emerged from conflict while observing local context and customs.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is a society emerging from over 30 years of protracted conflict (1968–1998). There is an established body of literature, which documents the origins and impact of the Conflict (see Gillespie 2009). Ruane and Todd (1996: 1) argue that during the Conflict, violence “damaged the whole fabric of the liberal democratic state and civic culture.” They note that: “normal” judicial processes were “suspended”; there were “repeated breaches of human rights”; “collusion between members of the security forces and paramilitaries”; paramilitaries took over the functions of the police in many areas; and there existed “the demonisation of the ‘enemy’” (Ruane and Todd 1996: 1). Space was divided with “the erection of social and physical barriers” in Northern Ireland, resulting in “open communities” being “turned into closed ones” (Ruane and Todd 1996: 1). Jarman (1997: 2) observes that “it is impossible to ignore the prominent role that historical events … continue to play in the political and social life of Northern Ireland.”

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 remains known as one of the most significant political developments in the contemporary Northern Ireland Peace Process. The 1998 Agreement consisted of a multiparty agreement that was signed by the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland (the DUP opposed the Agreement) and also an international agreement between the British and Irish Governments. Significantly referendums were held in Northern Ireland and also in the Republic of Ireland on May 22, 1998, with the majority of voters supporting the Agreement.1 The Agreement identifies and outlines a number of areas in relation to Northern Ireland’s future, in particular the system of government, the work of North-South bodies, the relationship between the British and Irish Governments, the decommissioning of arms and weapons by paramilitary groups, the release of prisoners, human rights considerations, and the “normalization” of policing in Northern Ireland. Following the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement a plan to reform policing was established and in light of the recommendations of the Patten Commission (Northern Ireland Office (NIO) 1999), on November 4, 2001, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) became the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).2

The Hillsborough Agreement (NIO 2010) outlined ways in which Northern Ireland could progress in relation to issues such as parading, the power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland and other issues that related to the St Andrew’s Agreement 2006. Following the Hillsborough Agreement 2010, criminal justice decision-making powers were devolved from the UK government to the Northern Ireland Assembly in April 2010. In political and media discourse it was represented as, “the final piece in the devolution puzzle,”3 with Northern Ireland’s First Minister asserting: “Throughout history there are times of challenge and defining moments. This is such a time. This is such a moment” (quoted by BBC News, March 9, 2010).4 International figures such as Hillary Clinton, United States (US) Secretary of State, commended Northern Ireland’s political leadership and described devolution as “an important step in ensuring a peaceful and prosperous future … for generations to come” (quoted by Guardian, March 9, 2010).5

On January 9, 2017, the Northern Ireland Executive (the government) collapsed, with the resignation of Martin McGuinness, who was the then Deputy First Minister. This was due to ongoing disagreements between the two largest political parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin. This collapse in the power-sharing arrangements led to a long period of instability for Northern Ireland, and with no functioning government, it was effectively run by civil servants on diminishing financial and other limited resources. As reports demonstrate, the lack of an active locally based and locally elected government had direct impacts upon health, education, and many other aspects of civic life (see Sargeant and Rutter 2019). The power-sharing was restored in Northern Ireland in January 2020; however, at the time of writing, the challenge of Brexit in the United Kingdom has raised a new set of concerns and questions in relation to identity, cultural diversity, and inclusion.6

The impacts of the protracted conflict and various points of political instability in Northern Ireland have long affected children, young people, and their families. Northern Ireland has the youngest population of any jurisdiction in the UK (Save the Children and ARK 2008) and was recorded as being one of the poorest regions in the context of the European Union (EU), with more than one-third of children and young people living in poverty (Save the Children and ARK 2008). Children, young people, and their parents continue to suffer from conflict-related trauma/intergenerational trauma, with a high proportion of working-class communities experiencing economic marginalization and social exclusion (see McAlister et al. 2009). As Scraton (2007: 148) argues, “several generations have endured pervasive sectarianism, hard-line policing, military operations and paramilitary punishments.” For many children “the notions of post-conflict or transition are distant possibilities as sectarianism entrenches hatred for the ‘other’” (Kilkelly et al. 2004: 245).

As Barber (2009: 126) observes, “children and young people in Northern Ireland have obviously paid a price for the political violence that has tainted the region.” Paramilitaries’ violence against children and young people has been endemic within communities and as a result children and young people have been “refugees, exiles for anti-social behaviour,” the “victims of punishment beatings” (Hillyard et al. 2005: 190; Gordon 2018), and there have been well-remembered incidents such as the Holy Cross Primary School dispute. Commencing in September 2001, there was a 12-week protest by loyalists, which resulted in Catholic schoolgirls from the nationalist Ardoyne area of North Belfast being subjected to abuse as they walked to Holy Cross Primary School (Cadwallader 2005). Imagery outside of the school, the children and their families were the subject of international media coverage. It is clear that in the context of education, as one community worker summarized, the “emotional effects of the conflict” have had a major impact on “children’s education, their mental health and their ability to participate in society” (quoted in Scraton, 2007: 149). Similar concerns were raised by Smyth et al. (2004: 43), who noted that those children deeply affected by the conflict had “difficulties in concentration and the aggressive behaviour that followed their traumatisation was misinterpreted by others, being seen as deliberately disruptive behaviour.”

The education system in Northern Ireland was divided between Protestants and Catholics, with churches maintaining their own schools. The government in the United Kingdom enacted a number of measures to establish “state run schools,” which would receive state funding in return for state (see Hayes et al. 2007). Protestant schools did agree to this change, whereas the Catholic Church insisted on retaining ownership of Catholic schools and this created a system whereby schools were divided into controlled (Protestant) and maintained (Catholic) schools in Northern Ireland. While controlled and maintained schools in Northern Ireland receive funding from the government, the key difference is that the Catholic Church manages maintained schools, while controlled schools are managed directly by the government. When the UK government implemented new legislation, the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, there was an emphasis on the development of a curriculum that accommodated difference (Schiaparelli et al. 2015).

With the period of relative stability and transition brought forth by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, calls were made for the revision of the curriculum in Northern Ireland to embed and promote “cross-community relations” between Catholics and Protestants. In particular the learning areas of history and citizenship have been identified by researchers as subjects that were likely to be “most susceptible to different treatment in the separate school systems” and along with further revisions to the NI Curriculum in 2007, there existed more opportunities for educators to select what topics they would teach (Schiaparelli et al. 2015). In their important study, Niens and McIlrath (2010) found that interviewees expressed considerable belief that educators should assist learners to engage and think critically about contested and controversial issues, in order for learners to avoid the negative impacts of potential indoctrination.

In Northern Ireland integrated education was established since the first integrated school, Lagan College, was established in Belfast in 1981 by the campaigning parent group “All Children Together.” As McGlynn (2007) notes, a further 56 primary and post primary schools were also set up, and there is also a small number of children who attend Irish medium schools and independent schools. That said, the education system in Northern Ireland remains largely segregated. This division in the way in which education was administered resulted in a lack of consensus and learner experience, with schools responsible for designing and implementing their own versions of civic education and history (see Schiaparelli et al. 2015).

Segregated education poses considerable challenges for societies in relation to social cohesion and collective notions of identity and belonging. The division of learners physically and incompatible perspectives can enhance and prolong entrenched sectarian divisions in societies such as Northern Ireland. The literature on the integrated education sector in Northern Ireland has referred to the “anti-bias philosophy” and “cultures of tolerance” that are enshrined in the principles of integrated schools (Abbott 2010). However, it is acknowledged that there remains a lot of work still to be done to continue to promote inclusion, especially in relation to “newcomers” to Northern Ireland.


While schools in Northern Ireland have been historically categorized as controlled and maintained, it suffices to say that all schools in Syria, whether public or private, are controlled by the regime and influenced by one ideology, namely that of Al-Baath. To appreciate the influence of Al-Baath Party on education in Syria, we may need to revisit the party’s history and how it retained and cemented its monopoly of political and social power. In 1963, a military coup in Syria delivered a group of Baathist officers to power. This coup resulted in decades of Al-Baath (which means “resurrection”) party ruling the country until now. Immediately after the coup, the party tightened its grip on power in Syria, which has shaped the modern history in Syria to date, leaving its impact on every sector in Syria, including in the sector of education. Assuming the role of the leader of both the state and the society, it is therefore important to touch briefly on the principles and doctrine of the Al-Baath Party.

Al Baath Arabic Socialist Party was founded in 1947 and according to its articles of association, the Party is a nationalist, populist, socialist, and revolutionary Party, which aims at the unity and the freedom of the Arab nations. Its objectives are to achieve unity, freedom, and socialism.7 In many ways, the influence of fascism and Nazism on Al-Baath founders remains a debatable matter today (Lee 2018; Hasanov 2008; Saghieh 2007). The Party aims to unite Arabs in one state by capitalizing on Arab nationalism and downplayed religion. In the heart of Al-Baath ideology is that Arabs are a noble race, ancient and everlasting and their progression requires their unconditional faith in the Arab nations across the colonial made up borders and sacrificial love (Seale 1995). The Party also presents the Arab race as the origins of civilization. Having said that, the Party did not argue for ethnic purity of Arabs, which probably distinguishes the party from its contemporary fascist movements. Establishing “One Arab Nation with an Immortal Message” remains its core objective and struggle.

In 1970, the late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad, an early Baathist, led a coup which eliminated the comrades of yesterday. Some were detained until their death, while some were exiled and others were subsequently killed (Seale 1995). During the following three decades, and under Assad’s leadership, Al-Baath Party cemented its power and transformed the education institutions to an apparatus that teaches, promotes, and disseminates its ideology (Van Dam 1996; Pierret 2013). To appreciate how this has been achieved, it might be useful to approach the argument here on both structural and curriculum level. On a structural level, every school in Syria, from primary school to secondary schools and higher education institutions, has Al-Baath Party Office presented by a secretary, who oversees the school activities and ensures that the latter as well as the staff and teachers are in line with the ideology of Al-Baath Party. Every morning, pupils start the school day by repeating slogans which consists of Al-Baath objectives which were highlighted above. In this sense, school governance emerged as a form of militarization, premised on fear and insecurity Mouhiddin 2019). These strategies, if anything, underlines the tension between the Syrian ruling party of the education sector and its institutions as the State sector whose legitimacy stems from enforced measures and human rights violations, and the principles of education as a public mission. This will become even clearer when we consider the impact of the Baath ideology on learning curriculum.

Moreover, ideologizing Syrian students in line with the principles of Al-Baath Party is vested in two bodies emanating from the party itself. The first is the “Baath Vanguards,”8 which recruits children in the primary level, and the second is the “Revolutionary Youth,”9 which recruits teens at the secondary level. Both bodies are present in public schools and the private ones, although to a lesser degree in the latter (Mouhiddin 2019). On curriculum level, students are not only taught what does it mean to be “Syrian” from the view of Al-Baath Party, but also being a citizen of the Arab nation which the Party aspires to achieve, this inevitably excludes Syrian students from ethnical minorities such as Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and other ethnical minorities.

Arabic is the official language of Syria. The national curriculum is designed and delivered in Arabic and education in the country is compulsory from the age of 7 years to 15 years and it is free of charge in public schools for all stages. The state’s tight control over curriculum content extends to other subjects such as history, geography, and national education, all of which are written from the point of view of Al-Baath ideology. Over decades, this has resulted in education being a tool for political indoctrination and subjects discussing citizenship as well as civil and human rights are entirely absent from the national curriculum (Al-Hinawy and Zeno 2018). Hence the majority of Syrian students do not have an adequate grasp of the meaning of being a citizen in a state that grants equal rights to all its citizens (Mouhiddin 2019).

Overall, the national curriculum is designed and delivered based on political decisions and stances. For instance, Russian and Persian languages have been offered as optional languages in schools in response to the robust support received by the Syrian government from both Russian and Iran throughout the civil war. At the secondary level, military class was a compulsory subject and taught to all students (both boys and girls) until 2003 when the class was abolished from the national curriculum. Classes provided military lessons and political education in line with the ideological doctrine of the Al-Baath Party. Furthermore, all pupils at that level were required to wear military uniform while in school. Recent voices within the Syrian government have been calling to restore these classes and some even found a link between abolishing them and the civil war (Jabbour 2017).

These concentrated efforts by Al-Baath Party did not preclude a group of students in Dara’a, a Syrian southern city, to write “It is your turn, doctor”10 on their school’s wall (HRW, 6op’ 2012) on March 18, 2011, in response to the echoes of the Arab Spring which by then had toppled two Arab presidents, the Tunisian and the Egyptian (Dabashi 2012; Kaboub 2014; Bayat 2017), and the role of the youth in shaping the Arab Spring was significant (Rausch 2017). Unfortunately, what started as peaceful demonstrations in Syria gradually became armed clashes in September 2011 and escalated to an armed conflict and civil war in July 2012. Beside the basic infrastructure which has been severely damaged (UNDP 2017), the impact of the war, which is ongoing at the time of writing this chapter, will affect the Syrian community for generations to come. Millions of children and young Syrians have been deprived of education, displaced from their domiciles and neighborhoods, and/or recruited as soldiers in the course of the conflict (HRW 2012).

At the time of writing this chapter, the country remains divided between various belligerent parties and regional power. If anything, the war in Syria has furthered the militarization of the society, including schools. Approaching the topic in light of the ongoing conflict may prove difficult. Every armed and political force (Opposition, Regime, Kurdish Forces, Al Qaeda, etc.) on the ground across the country has established its own curriculum, and this control could easily change tomorrow or by the time this chapter is being prepared for printing. The common factor among all these curriculums though is that they lack citizenship education and where citizenship is mentioned summarily, it remains subject to the interpretation of the controlling force and its ideology, may it be religious or secular. This may partly mirror controlled and maintained schools in Northern Ireland approach to school’s curriculum, and, as seen in Northern Ireland, this is resulting in conflicting identities and students learning different values in Syria.

Citizenship Education: Learning Lessons from the Past to Inform the Future

This section will explore the contested nature of citizenship and the issue of conflicting identities in post-conflict settings, as well as the inclusion and subsequent exclusion of certain sections of society. It will draw on the example of Northern Ireland to explore what can be learned from the past and further to this, it will look to the future and explore what citizenship education may be able to achieve in post-conflict and crisis-affected societies, such as Syria. It will call for the inclusion of the youth voice in all aspects of reform and educational development.

In moving from violence to political stability, societies such as Northern Ireland, which is a society in transition, face significant challenges (Aughey 2005). In Northern Ireland, these include challenges for children and young people as a social group, as they are framed on the one hand as both a threat to the stability of the “peace process” and, on the other, as the society’s greatest hope for the future (Gordon 2020). These pressures are coupled with the existing inequalities in relation to educational attainment levels. A series of reports have documented the inequalities existing in Northern Ireland’s education system. One such extended study that has produced several reports was initiated by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland into “Education Inequalities in Northern Ireland.” This study identified that young Protestant boys from working-class communities are “underachieving” academically compared to other groups of children (Burns et al. 2015).

There are clearly conflicted notions of the past, of history, and of citizenship in Northern Ireland. One such example of this is Niens and McIlrath’s (2010: 73) interviews with nongovernmental organizations, political parties, trade unions, and the police in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which found the existence of clear “differences” in opinion in relation to “national identity and political conflict,” which they argue “may raise questions for history and citizenship education.” Further challenges include the lost trust in politics by those tasked with designing and implementing citizenship education, the challenges that individuals may be confronted with in relation to dominant ideological perspectives. In addition, educators may feel unable to engage with issues or topics areas deemed as “controversial” and structurally and practically may be navigating working within the confines of a system that has limited resources (see Quaynor 2011).

Teachers working in integrated schools in Northern Ireland interviewed as part of Donnelly’s study (2004, cited in Quaynor 2011: 41) stated that they made personal choices to avoid controversial topics, were said to be compromising the learning of differences and the development of critical thinking skills. Further it was noted that when students engaged in “interfaith dialogues,” King (2005) reported that they tended to avoid discussions of controversial issues and did not seek to engage with a range of different perspectives. Despite this avoidance, those interviewed felt that the Northern Ireland curriculum needed to include controversial issues and that educators and learners needed guidance on how best explore these issues. This was deemed as essential in order for learners to be equipped to engage politically.

While a local context approach has been adopted in Northern Ireland coupled with a democratically elected local assembly and Department for Education with a Minister for Education, a local context approach may not be promising in the Syrian experience. In 2017, the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad admitted that the war in Syria has resulted in Syria losing its “youth and infrastructure” (SANA 2017). However, he added that the country has won a “healthier and more generous society” which eliminated the “sectarian dimension” and affirmed the “national unity of all the people of one nation” (ibid). This is not the kind of unity promoted by citizenship education which advocates for “identity, belonging and social cohesion” on national level (Osler 2013: 39).

At the time of writing this chapter, the end of the war in Syria has started to take shape. It could be assumed that Assad and his regime will remain in power for the foreseeable future. It could also be argued that the Syrian society has become a homogeneous society, as per Assad’s claims. Equally, the Syrian regime has inherited a broken country and a society whose fabric has been torn on ethnic, social, and sectarian levels. The civil war, which started as a peaceful demonstration, has developed into a sectarian conflict which involved major regional powers that act as a protector of certain sectarian groups and forces on ground. Although what the Syrian president meant by homogeneous society is not the scope of this chapter, it is worth mentioning here that “citizenship education will vary according to how the ideal citizen is framed” (Cremin and Bevington 2017: 107). The literature and principles of Al-Baath Party indicates that citizenship is about belonging to one and united homeland. This element of belonging should neither be confused nor contradict the belonging on macro level to the Arab Nation. This is a disputable notion in a very diverse country that remains as such even during the war (Atasi 2015). The official name of Syria as the “Syrian Arab Republic” excludes prominent ethnical communities of the Syria society such as the Kurds, Armenians, the Assyrians, the Circassians, and many others.

Furthermore, Al-Baath Party argues that citizenship establishes the notion of national sovereignty and opposes anything that may threaten that sovereignty. It then concludes that citizenship (distinguishing the latter from nationality) in contemporary Syria is synonym to “uprooting terrorism” (Al-Baath Bureau for Planning and Culture 2014: 25–26). Labeling those who oppose the Syrian government and its policies as terrorists is well documented and has been imposed systematically in Syrian media platforms as well as the public sector, including schools (see Assad’s statements on Al-Jazeera Dec 12, 201511; and on the Syrian Observer Dec 15, 201612). In light of Al-Baath supervision of schools and learning across education institutions in Syria, citizenship education designed and delivered by one narrative could be counterproductive. Assuming victory in this conflict, citizenship is becoming loaded with concepts that correspond to the principals of the ruling party. In this sense, “responsible citizenship” in Syria is measured by loyalty to Al-Baath Party and the regime it installed in Syria since 1963.

This reality inhabits a hostile environment for a citizenship education which draws from principles that are centered on learning to live together, rights, sense of belonging, social cohesion, and other principles outlined earlier in this chapter. Syria may need to develop long-term and short-term strategies. While emerging from war and conflict, the Syrian society is dealing with an abusive past which lasted for six decades. It has been demonstrated earlier in this chapter how the division of Northern Ireland’s society had been accentuated by the educational divide. In this sense, citizenship education becomes a societal necessity rather than educational need.

Building the capacity of Syrian citizens and communities through citizenship programs, community activities, and participation could potentially enable them to think critically and reflect on their present and past so they may foresee and construct a better future (Barat and Duthie 2017). Potentially, this could result in a level of awareness among Syrian community leaders, as happened in Northern Ireland, for the need to help Syrian students to think critically and avoid indoctrinating children in schools. This could be achieved in reliance on the civil society which has been suppressed in the country for decades but is emerging and gaining momentum amid the civil war. Various civil societies have been involved in extensive work with young people, adults, children, and vulnerable groups across the country. Vital social services they provide and their aloofness from politics could explain the regime’s tolerance of the existence of such organizations.

For the moment, Syrian civil society concerns itself with maintaining community spirit among Syrians, spreading awareness and providing young people with vital practical skills as well as peacebuilding approach to disputes and conflict. This has recently extended to adults too, including parents and the family as a social agency. The role of parents and their influence on citizenship education (Gallagher et al. 2019) may be a promising factor for the future of citizenship education in Syria. Peacebuilding programs have become a common feature among programs designed and delivered by civil societies in Syria. Whether peacebuilding could be the door to access citizenship education is something the future will tell.

As might be the case, authorities in countries emerging from civil wars concerned themselves with establishing order and stability in their countries (O’Connor and Rausch 2007), and Syria does not seem to be an exception. In the short term, peacebuilding and community spirit may well correspond to the aspiration of the Syrian government in achieving order and stability. In the long term, implementing citizenship education in schools remains a necessity; however, while this may not follow the classical route through structure curriculum, it has promising potential if undertaken by Syrian civil societies. Plans and reforms in relation to education should incorporate critical evaluations of the impact of education and learning on a longer-term basis, taking into consideration periods of change and progress, as well as times of setback and stagnation, in the road to stability and peace. Citizenship education has the potential to be utilized as a tool that responds to the needs of the post-conflict generation and one that can enhance social cohesion and equality in post-conflict societies, where the conflict has left a legacy of sectarianism and division.


As the case studies of Northern Ireland and Syria demonstrate, citizenship education is a complex and complicated area, particularly for educators and learners in conflict-affected and post-conflict societies, where there may be contested identities and conflicting notions of citizenship. By utilizing the reflections on the challenges in Northern Ireland in relation to the development of an “appropriate” model of citizenship education, the Northern Ireland case study shines a light on what challenges there may be when navigating the development of an appropriate model of citizenship education for Syrian children. The chapter proposed in light of the changing power dynamics operating in societies during and following periods of conflict, the creation of social cohesion is a complex task. Those tasked with designing and implementing citizenship education might well be navigating their own lost trust in politics, they may be challenged by dominant ideological perspectives, and educators may feel unable to engage with issues or topics areas deemed as “controversial” and, further to this, may be navigating working within the confines of limited resources (see Quaynor 2011). It is crucial that the meaningful inclusion of the youth voice in all aspects of reform and educational development is present. In order to work toward achieving meaningful democratic participation and ultimately ensuring that the “now” generation of children and young people have the uninhibited freedom to engage, challenge, and form their own views in relation to their citizenship and identity/identities, there is the need to embrace difference, challenge stereotypes, and ensure that the education system promotes critical thinking. As this chapter has argued, a great deal can be learned from the past to inform the future.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social SciencesMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.University of SurreyGuildfordUK

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