How to start addressing extremism in the classroom

Discussing extremism requires knowledge of a wide range of issues unconnected to the mainstream curriculum, as well as clarity, objectivity and the confidence to respond to difficult questions. Here are some suggestions as to how to frame the major questions — and approaches to answering them

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 introduced statutory obligations on schools relating to radicalisation. The accompanying Prevent duty guidance states that schools must be “‘safe places’ in which young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology, and learn how to challenge these ideas”.

What is terrorism? We routinely use words such as “terrorism”, “extremist” and “extremism”, but they are difficult terms to define and are often used with emotive or subjective overtones to label people or opinions we don’t like. Pupils should be aware that there is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism and that perceptions of what it is differ and change over time: Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for being the leader of a terrorist organisation but later won the Nobel prize for peace. The use of violence for political or religious goals has been around for centuries; history can help us to understand the characteristics of terrorism and what makes it different from other kinds of violence.

Why do people use violence? Some pupils’ contemporaries will have gone abroad to fight, but young people know that if they go online to discover why their friends have disappeared, their own habits, interests and online behaviour may be regarded as potentially criminal. Pupils will be better equipped to resist extremist ideologies if they understand them. They need to learn about the reasons, goals and methods of terrorism and the pathways that lead to violence. Many people feel angry, have radical opinions and strong grievances but have no involvement in violence. There is no one “pathway” into terrorism and no automatic “conveyor belt” from extreme or radical views into violence. The process may begin with curiosity, loneliness, boredom or a quest for adventure; it may involve access to social media sites that preach violence, but at some stage it will involve peers, kinship groups or a powerful or influential communicator.

What is the role of the media and social media? Introduction of the terms fact, opinion and bias can lead into a discussion of how misleading or distorted messages change the way a media story is presented. Pupils should be aware of manipulation, and encouraged to adopt a critical response to online source evaluation, devising counter narratives that challenge pro-violence messages. The media debate can be extended to censorship and freedom of expression, and the issues raised by the Charlie Hebdo attack.

What is the link between religion and violence? This link is often exaggerated. Many forms of terrorism have nothing to do with religion. Religious doctrine may be distorted for propaganda and to encourage the belief among recruits that they have a strong community of support and a pure set of beliefs that “justify” violence. Religion is commonly a component but not usually the principal driver of terrorism, which evolves more from historical and geopolitical grievances.

Does terrorism ever end, and if so, how? South Africa and Northern Ireland show that it does, often at a point of stalemate and exhaustion with violence when neither side believes it can win. It requires courage, determination, willpower and powerful advocates for peace. Women can play a vital role as peacemakers.

Alison Jamieson is co-author with Jane Flint of Radicalisation and Terrorism: A Teacher’s Handbook for Addressing Extremism, Brilliant Publications, www.brilliantpublications.co.uk


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