Demythologising extremism

Teachers are ideally placed to counter extremist narratives before they fully take hold of pupils, says Jonathan Russell

False narratives are poisonous to developing minds, and the one propagated by Islamist extremists is especially deadly. Charismatic ISIL recruiters exploit perceived grievances and feelings of alienation among vulnerable children, convincing them that life under ‘The Caliphate’ is full of heroic purpose. This story, plainly untrue to anyone familiar with ISIL’s crimes, can be alluring to impressionable teenagers already receptive to “Us vs. Them” dichotomies. 

In 2015, we’ve been unfortunate enough to see this in action. March saw the departure of Amira Abase, Shamima Begum, and Kadiza Sultana from Bethnal Green Academy to ISIL-controlled Syria; further pupils from the same institution have been issued with travel bans for fear they will do the same. The school, rated ‘Outstanding’ in all categories by Ofsted, had previously been subject to police visits as part of the Home Office’s Prevent strategy – provoked by the earlier departure of one of their friends (which must have seemed quite anomalous at the time).

Radicalisation is a genuine social ill, and one as contrary to liberal values and human rights as racism, bullying, homophobia, and sexual grooming. To instruct a schoolchild in extremism may not provoke the same sense of instant, visceral horror as the latter, but the danger it poses is just as pronounced.

Teachers and counter-extremism

If you’re an educational professional, you might well wonder exactly what you can do about this problem; you may feel talk of jihadi brides and Islamic State is outside your area of expertise, and it’s understandable to feel like it’s something that should be left to the police.

Unfortunately the police are not always in the best position to deal with problems in schools. Their attentions are concentrated on enforcing the law and they seldom have regular contact with pupils.

‘The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which came into effect July this year, asserted that a teacher has a legal duty to prevent their pupils from being drawn into terrorism’

Teachers however are in a very different position: they have a direct line to pupils, and are ideally placed to counter extremist narratives before they fully take hold of pupils’ hearts and minds. More to the point, they’re now obligated to do this: the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which came into effect July this year, asserted that a teacher has a legal duty to prevent their pupils from being drawn into terrorism. Additional Ofsted guidelines introduced in tandem with this act have emphasised the importance of ‘targeted’ and ‘primary’ prevention.

Spotting the signs of radicalisation

‘Targeted’ prevention is simple in theory: if a teacher spots a sign of radicalisation, they are to immediately report it to a specialist. In practice, this is a bit more difficult; at-risk students are not going to whisper about the beauty of jihad in A-Level French, nor hold clandestine meetings behind the bike sheds to discuss a midnight jaunt to Syria. If it’s not happening in front of your eyes – and it typically won’t be – you may again wonder exactly what you can do about it.

To better understand, it’s worth thinking about how pupils are radicalised in the first place. The ISIL recruiter’s process is not dissimilar to that of modern sexual grooming: initial contact is very often made via social media, the conversation transitions to a private instant messaging service, and over time, the victim is coaxed into doing something they otherwise would not. Recruiters will use funny cartoons illustrating the jihadist mind-set and the perceived injustices committed by Western governments; they’ll make videos about the honour of martyrdom; they’ll use every shiny digital bauble at their disposal to entice prospective converts. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it does sometimes work.

Generally speaking, even if your at-risk teenager buys into ISIL’s toxic mythology, they’ll still be smart enough not to hold conversations with terrorists on school computers. That said, they can still engage in suspicious communication with other pupils and search for extremist materials on the internet.

‘To the untrained eye, much extremist vocabulary fits seamlessly alongside standard, often incomprehensible teenage jargon. “YODO”, for example, stands for “You Only Die Once” “jihobbyist” indicates tentative support for jihadist goals without being a member of any particular extremist organisation’

In-classroom software might allow you to block dangerous domains, but where particularly vulnerable children are concerned, this frequently won’t be enough. Firstly, any moderately savvy pupil will, after being blocked once or twice, simply change their tactics. All it takes is a Google search on how to circumnavigate network blocks and they’ll have access to the information they want. Secondly, you won’t always know when a pupil is engaged in this kind of behaviour: to the untrained eye, much extremist vocabulary fits seamlessly alongside standard, often incomprehensible teenage jargon. “YODO”, for example, stands for “You Only Die Once”; “jihobbyist” indicates tentative support for jihadist goals without being a member of any particular extremist organisation.

At Quilliam, we’ve been working with Impero Software to compile a list of these keywords and distribute them to schools. Whenever a suspect term is used, the system will alert the relevant teacher; if it’s deemed sufficiently worrisome, further steps can be taken. The point isn’t to spy on children or demonise them for their curiosity, it is all about safeguarding: a one-off search for ‘jihadi brides’ isn’t as concerning as a series of searches for related topics over an extended period of time. Whether we like it or not, ISIL are now part of the daily news cycle, and students shouldn’t be discouraged from intellectual inquiry about the world around them. But if a pattern of dubious communication or internet use is detected, teachers can take pre-emptive action against this potential radicalisation and this is an important part of helping to prevent tragedies.

Dismantling the myth – and building a counter narrative

‘Primary’ prevention, the other part of the equation, is less to do with risk assessment and more to do with reinforcing positive human rights values – values that ISIL does its utmost to oppose. This seems like it should be a considerably easier task, given the regular harrowing news from Syria and Iraq, but it is, unfortunately, not that simple. Jihadi recruiters tend not to lead with tales of Yazidi massacre, ritual burnings, or the greater-than-average probability of dying alone and afraid.

The life of an ISIL soldier or bride is romanticised by Islamists and framed as part of a higher moral crusade. The narrative they peddle to children is of heroic fighters waging a just war against an evil oppressor: of glory in victory, and reconciliation with Allah in defeat. If something negative appears in Western news, it’s either a gross distortion – and therefore exactly what you’d expect from ‘the kuffar media’ – or justifiable in the context of ‘Western imperialism’.  By the time reality sinks in for the convert, it will be too late.

Dismantling this false narrative should be a priority for educators of at-risk pupils. Preventing them from accessing extremist material at school is one thing, but if they then seek it out at home or elsewhere then precious little has been accomplished. When a pupil has viewed this material, the sensible approach is not to limit their computer privileges or pass it on to the authorities, but to have an honest conversation about why they find extremist mythology so attractive – and to set about deconstructing it with appropriate support.

‘Before they entertain the idea of venturing to Syria, a vulnerable schoolchild should be apprised of everything they stand to lose in doing so.’

Before they entertain the idea of venturing to Syria, a vulnerable schoolchild should be apprised of everything they stand to lose in doing so. Again, the narrative peddled by extremist recruiters is convenient, and neglects to mention that the inalienable rights we have in the UK – to freely speak our minds, practice our religions, and cohabit with whoever we please – are expressly rejected by ISIL. The best way to effectively safeguard schoolchildren is to give them a general understanding of good, universal human rights. The UK may be a far cry from political or cultural perfection, whatever that may be, but here you can be simultaneously British, Muslim, gay, and Pakistani and still live a productive, happy life.

We recently produced #NotAnotherBrother, a short film designed to reinforce these positive values – and combat this propaganda head-on. Ironically, for all their professed hatred of Western culture, ISIS videos take more than a few cues from Hollywood. There’s the soundtrack, carefully calibrated to build suspense and anxiety – even as you know what’s coming. It’s also worth thinking about the legitimately high-quality cinematography: an imposing figure in a balaclava framed against a vast, beautiful desert; rows of prisoners marching on a beach towards a sadly certain fate. The production values are excellent; one suspects their recruiters might not have had such success with a self-shot smartphone effort.

With #NotAnotherBrother, we attempted to bring the same level of care and attention to a film with the precise opposite message. Focused on a lone, bloodied, trembling figure, the clip takes place in a dark, poorly lit building instead of the clean, bright desert; the backing track is a hail of erratic explosions and gunfire instead of stirring battle music; and the camera jitters, shakes, and refuses to stay focused. The central character reads a letter from his brother (rendered in voiceover) apologising for causing his current circumstances, where he is less conquering warrior, more scared boy.

The video received widespread attention and coverage from outlets such as The Guardian and The Huffington Post, but whether this specific clip is a useful counter-extremism tool is not for us to say. Nonetheless, the importance of providing alternatives to the jihadist narrative cannot be understated. To a certain type of youth, the myth of ISIL is alluring indeed; it presents a world where bloodshed is imbued with epic power; where a violent death assures Allah’s favour; where Islam only survives by eradicating nonbelievers – religious and irreligious alike. A teacher’s duty is to supply a counter narrative built on truth: that you can follow Islam without being an Islamist; that killing outside of self-defence is never just; that a peaceful – if occasionally humdrum – life in the UK is always preferable to an ignominious death in the Islamic State.

Jonathan Russell is Political Liaison Officer at Quilliam Foundation 

Jonathan will be presenting advice on detecting the signs of radicalisation at the Online safety in education: keeping up with change seminar in London on 24th September 2015. 

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