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Teaching about Violent Extremism and Religion

by Lynn Davies, University of Birmingham, UK

When looking at the educational background of extremists, it becomes clear that formal schooling does not always protect against young people becoming radicalised or joining extremist groups.  Part of the problem is the lack of a critical education, one that enables learners to deconstruct and challenge the myriad messages they receive. Teachers are particularly uncomfortable in encouraging learners to critique religious texts. Yet unless habits and skills are built to analyse messages – whether from the internet, from the media, from political and religious readers or from sacred texts themselves, young people will be prey to voices of authority – not all benign. Schools have to take the risk of enabling learners to question such authority.

This involves the usual skills for educators of teaching controversial issues. With regard to extremism, there is a range of ways to engage in this. In my forthcoming book Unsafe Gods: security, secularism and schooling (IOE/Trentham 2013), I look at some of the recent initiatives in this area. Most involve encounters – with different ideas and with people who hold different views. Some involve interventions from outside to provoke discussion, such as drama productions, videos or talks by ex-extremists - whether religious, far right or animal rights protagonists. To be successful, such interventions have to be hard-hitting, not moralistic, showing more than one side of an argument and leaving it to students to develop the debate. But there need to be ground rules for discussion in emotive areas. When talking about the impact of religion, for example, one rule is that one can attack a point of view but not the speaker or their identity personally. Other initiatives take the students out of school, acting as community ambassadors against hate crime, making films or mounting art exhibitions, or engaging in anti-violence or anti-gun campaigns. It goes without saying that this depends on context, and a school has to consider the safety of students, particularly in areas where schools themselves may be under attack.

Within religious education itself, a controversial area is discussion of the more anachronistic or patriarchal parts of sacred texts – whether in the Bible, Koran or the Torah. This is admittedly not easy from within a faith – because if one sees some parts of a sacred text as cultural constructions of their time, then why not see the whole thing as human invention? Yet it is vital that the selections made by extremist ideologues to justify violence and gender oppression are countered at least by other, more benign examples, and preferably by a disposition to question any black and white, over-simplistic exhortations. Acceptance that the world is complex, not divided into good and evil, friend and foe, but multi-layered and dynamic, is what characterises a suitable critical education.  

Yet this does not mean relativism, that anything goes. The foundation for a critical approach is some sort of value system to make judgements, one that can stand outside a religious framework, if necessary. Human rights constitutes such a fitting value system. A solid rights-based approach in school enables every learner to know his or her rights, but also what is not a right. In particular, religions do not have rights, people do. Hence there is the right to freedom of expression (as long as this does not harm other rights, such as the right to life), which includes the right to question acts done in the name of religion. Religion should not be privileged, not given special dispensation within an overall critical framework. Religion must be placed alongside politics or economics as equally open to discussion. There is no right not to be offended. Just as students learn of the history of harm done in the name of politics and nationalism – war, territorialism, colonialism – they should learn of harm done and mistakes made in the name of religion, from the crusades, the slave trade to current religious-based tensions across the globe. In the internationally agreed human rights conventions, and in contrast to what appears in some sacred texts, there is no right to revenge. 

Ironically, a school that contributes to greater security is one that takes risks. These are the risks of opening up debates, of finding alternatives to violent discipline, of telling girls their rights. It is also now the risk of accepting students’ skills on the internet and networking, and capitalising on these to encourage democratic social action in campaigning, lobbying or non-violent protest. Young people are often drawn to extremism not because of religious ideology but because of excitement and because they are given status and identity in a radical group. Schools have to try to find ways to replicate this, particularly for those who find no status or future in an academic identity. The challenge for a school is to foster and value the skills of highly active citizenship – argument, negotiation, challenging injustice – which can seem at odds with wanting quiet, obedient students. In the struggle against extremism, it’s a risk worth taking.    


Lynn Davies is Emeritus Professor of International Education at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her interests are in education and conflict, education and extremism and education in fragile contexts, and she has done research and consultancy in a number of conflict-affected states. Research in UK has included work on student voice in school and on the mentoring of those at risk of radicalisation. This comes together in a concern with religion, secularism, democracy, rights and freedom of expression. Lynn Davies’ books include Education and Conflict: Complexity and Chaos (2004) and Educating Against Extremism (2008). She has just completed a book called Unsafe Gods: Security, Secularism and Schooling (IOE Trentham 2013) and is co-editor of a recent book on Gender, Religion and Education.


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