Building resilience to radicalisation

Lynn Davies on efforts to create a world where ‘everyone is an insider’.

Resilience means the capacity to deal with threat. But in terms of radicalisation, this initially  involves recognition of something as a threat, as something harmful. Instead, radicalisers will present something as an opportunity – to be a hero, to contribute to a mission, to have adventure, to join a new family. The first task in education is the fostering of recognition, including awareness of how extremism is a threat to society as well as to the individual.

In many countries, schools are tasked with a duty to prevent violent extremism. This involves both the safeguarding role and often surveillance too – identifying those at risk. The latter is hugely contentious, as it can lead to stigmatisation and unjustified referrals, even if there are also examples of young people who have been picked up in time by caring teachers and supported by mentoring. This brief article focuses on the resilience aspect, which should be targeted at all students, not just those seen as ‘vulnerable’.

There are many different ways to start a conversation on extremism. In a major review for the Segerstedt Institute last year on ‘what works’ in educational initiatives in counter-extremism, I looked at 23 countries and identified 20 different entry points. Clearly, much depends on the country content and the age of the students. Some are direct, some indirect, some foundational. Direct programmes will focus on Islamist radicalisation, theological interventions on the understanding of the Koran, or the ideology of far right extremism. More indirect approaches will focus on community cohesion, mutual understanding, inter-faith dialogue, inter-group contact, conflict resolution and anti-racism, in order to build trust so that hatreds cannot be sparked by ignorance or suspicion. Foundational approaches include rights education, Philosophy for Children (P4C), citizenship education, religious education, psycho-physical and PSHE (personal, social and health education) and ICT/digital literacy. They also include a raft of approaches around critical thinking and multi-perspectivity, such as integrative complexity and value pluralism, or using history – and different versions of history – to understand propaganda. In countries where the motivation to join extremist groups is augmented by poverty or unemployment, initiatives will try to improve economic opportunities and civic engagement.

Clearly, schools will often use a combination of all these. One cannot prescribe. Our organisation ConnectFutures is engaged in training and research around extremism and exploitation, and we’ve developed a range of face-to-face courses for teachers, students and parents as well as online modules for teachers. We have to update these continually and try to evaluate what has impact on different audiences. From our research on the backgrounds of former extremists (Islamist and far right) we’ve made films of former extremists talking about their experiences, why they joined and why they left. We’ve also recently made films of two mothers whose sons died from terrorism – one in the Manchester Arena bombing and one who went to join ISIS and was killed by a drone.

As with similar organisations using testimonials, we find the use of film (and where possible, live presentations from victims, survivors or former extremists) immensely powerful. Even with younger students, we do not shy from showing visuals of the recruitment material used by ISIS or neo-Nazi groups, to generate discussion on what they are appealing to, and how to see through different sorts of manipulation. We put such work together with training about gangs and guns, showing how grooming techniques can be similar, and often using ex-offenders to talk about their experiences of the myths of the romance of gang life.

But while we are given good feedback on the training days, the assemblies etc., we’re aware (as I found in my study) that one-offs are no substitute for a whole school approach. This means a school ethos whereby students know their rights and respect the rights of others: a report on the impact of UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools finds them being commended in inspection reports for keeping students safe from radicalisation. A whole school approach means a constant focus on critical thinking, dialogue and discussion, and teachers prepared to tackle controversial issues. Uncomfortable views from students should not be silenced, but surfaced, so that they can be challenged and the distinctions between freedom of speech and hate speech explored. Responsible digital citizenship means learning to use social media for constructive ways of relating to each other, not trolling, harassment or cyberbullying. Across all subjects, the habits of the search for evidence, and questioning what one is told, is a bedrock (even if it seems to undermine the authority of the teacher or religious leaders). I’m reminded of my favourite graffiti… it read ‘Question Everything’ and someone had written underneath ‘Why?’

The elephant in the room here is religion. How to talk about religious extremism without inciting Islamophobia? How can religious texts be questioned? One obvious approach is even-handedness, ensuring that all sorts of extremism (Islamist, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu as well as far right), are acknowledged. Surrounding that is the need for a dynamic secularism in education, one that recognises and respects all religions, but does not place them above critique. I argue in my book Unsafe Gods that young people need to understand how religion can be implicated in conflict and extremism (as well as sometimes healing after conflict). Again, a rights-based approach will help in recognition that religions don’t have rights, people do.

Coming from a cross-cutting secular approach gives the licence to stand back from one’s religion, admit when it is misogynistic or violent and explore which parts are social constructions from particular eras. Understanding the spread of extremist ideology means not just knowing that extremists cherry-pick bits of sacred texts, and replacing these with the nicer bits, but acknowledging that sacred texts of all persuasions have inherent dangers in their call for unquestioning acceptance of the divine word. A critical religious education is a key part of critical thinking generally.  

Resilience to extremism is, then, the opposite to demanding safe spaces empty of people you do not like, or arguing for no platforming. There is no right in international law not to be offended. Dealing calmly and coolly with offence is a key part of resilience to extremism, so that anger and hate and the urge for revenge are not intensified. For full resilience, schools have the seemingly paradoxical task of being edgy places for discussion and controversy while being safe places for students to feel comfortable. This is operationalised in mechanisms such as ground rules for discussion, but entails at a deeper level a strategy to ensure all students – and staff – feel included and valued. This provides emotional resilience, which relates to self-esteem as well as empathy.  

One key aim for schools is for everyone to be an insider, as captured in his 2016 book by Andrew Moffat, an openly gay assistant headteacher at a predominantly Muslim Birmingham primary school. The motto across the whole school is the deceptively simple ‘No Outsiders’. No-one is an outsider, of whatever ethnicity or religion, LGBT+ identity, refugee or asylum seeker status. The phrase comes from the South African rights activist Desmond Tutu who said ‘Everyone is an insider, no matter their beliefs, whatever their colour, gender or sexuality’. Given the more recent protests by some parents against the curriculum developed from this concept, it is clear that more work needs to be done to explain the Equality Act, its implications and the benefits for social cohesion.

In terms of extremism, a feeling of belonging to the school can act as a bulwark against the lure of belonging to a group, gang or cult. In our extremism training we emphasise students looking out for each other, and telling someone if they are concerned that a peer is at risk. Belonging is not about wearing the same uniform, or singing the school song, but about all students actively welcoming and according that sense of belonging to each other. All are citizens of the school, with the same rights and responsibilities and duty of care.

- Lynn Davies is Emeritus Professor of International Education at the University of Birmingham.
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Note: This article is part of a special collection.

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