What makes young people turn to extremism?As 2017 comes towards its closure, it’s only natural to look back on the year’s events. Whilst we should count our blessings on some fronts, it’s with a feeling of incredible sadness that we remember those who have lost their lives due to acts of terrorism.
In May, when the news hit that the Manchester Arena had been targeted, the British public drew a sharp intake of breath. Previous terrorist attacks had been centred on London, the country’s capital and an obvious target. Now we were seeing terrorism occur outside the boundaries of what we’d become used to, not just geographically but demographically too. Ariana Grande had been a child star, greatly admired by the young people who had come in their thousands to see her live performance. The attack on the arena had been premeditated with this in mind. Out of the 22 people killed, six were under 18 and there were 170 children in the foyer who witnessed the attack.
Are we looking for somebody to blame?
When considering those who commit these dreadful crimes, our natural reaction turns to anger. We search for an explanation, some cause that drives these people to act with such evil, often laying the blame at the door of religion or brainwashing or an egocentric desire for fame or martyrdom. What we find most confusing is that the people committing these acts of violence - not just in the UK, but across Europe - are not citizens of another country, but people born and raised in the very countries they choose to attack.
In the TED Talk ‘What we don’t know about Europe’s Muslim kids and why we should care,’ Deeyah Khan talks in detail about her experience as a Muslim growing up in Norway, where, as a young female musician she struggled to be accepted by both her own community and the predominantly white non-Muslim society in which she was born. After being continually harassed and threatened, at the age of 17 she fled to London, but was quickly met with the same prejudices. Describing herself as feeling lost and falling apart, she eventually moved to the US, giving up her music career because of fear. In doing so, she made a pledge: to help other young people in Europe who feel trapped in a position between family and culture.
The gap between country and culture
As a film director, Deeyah Khan now uses her experience to generate awareness of the clash of cultures between Muslim parents who prioritise honour over their children's desire for freedom. She argues that we need to understand what is happening to fight the pull of extremism. Over the last few years she has spent her time interviewing convicted terrorists, Jihadis and former extremists to find out how and why they fell victim to extremist organisations and ideologies. In her own words, she describes meeting: “Not monsters, but broken people. People who were torn apart from trying to bridge the gaps between their families and the countries they were born in. People looking for a sense of significance, belonging and purpose.” She found that people were lured by extremist groups because their leaders promised them the things they needed: a voice, visibility, importance and a community that loves and accepts them. Sadly, many of these groups have their own agenda: to channel people’s vulnerabilities and frustrations towards violence.
How technology has enabled extremism
Former Islamist extremist, Maajid Nawaz, now a British activist and prominent critic of Islamism, cites similar reasons for being drawn into extremism. Born in Essex, he recalls the feeling of being divided between his Pakistani and British identities as an important factor in his struggle to find his own identity. In his TED Talk, he discusses his own journey into extremism at the age of 16 and now, how borderless technologies and digital activism have enabled extremist organisations to propagate their messages across the world, capitalising on communication channels that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Whilst the Internet has brought us freedom to harvest information, we also know that it’s the perfect tool to reach and influence young people sitting at home in their bedrooms. Exchanges take place under the radar and can go undetected. In becoming part of an online extremist group, young people feel they’ve become part of something in which they feel exclusive and privileged, and often feel more valued than they would in wider society.
What can we do as educators?
Those of us in the teaching profession will be familiar with the Prevent Duty, part of the overall counter-terrorism strategy which aims to reduce the terrorist threat to the UK by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. One of the key strategy objectives is to respond to the ideologies spread by extremists that it is not possible to be both Muslim and British, and that Muslims living in the UK should not participate in our democracy.
The Internet is one of key channels that extremist groups exploit to spread their messages. By publishing fake news and propaganda, they aim to influence and manipulate young people’s perceptions of themselves and the world, ultimately impregnating their theories behind the justification for extremism and terrorist behaviour.
As teaching professionals, we can help prevent extremism through education, but also through the exchange of dialogue. PSHE lessons provide the perfect opportunity to do this. Young people should be encouraged to talk about how they use the Internet and how they evaluate and interpret the content they see. Conversations should include the understanding of how Internet content is produced, what people’s motivations are for producing particular content, and how students can make a valid judgement between what is, and what isn’t a credible source of information. These lessons can also prove invaluable for sharing experiences of content seen online that students may have felt upset by, or content they don’t understand and would like to discuss. It may also open the door for those being contacted by extremists, or who have researched extremism to seek help if they are feeling isolated.
Get up to speed on radicalisation awarenessIf you’re in need of additional support on the subject of anti-radicalisation, the topical resources from E-safety Support have been designed to help all members of the school community (pupils, parents and staff) understand more about the issue of radicalisation and in particular the part the Internet plays in encouraging people to consider extremist views.
Resources available include classroom materials, a parent guide, a school checklist, school policy and CPD accredited staff training