Could the same lessons also help counter Islamist radicalisation? It is an option worth examining. Violent extremism in the name of Islam is a real threat – in the UK and worldwide. But how do we combat it?
The UK government’s strategy focuses on vetting, censorship, bans and surveillance; all of which menace our hard-won human rights and civil liberties.
Undermining freedom in the name of defending freedom is self-defeating. It is what the extremists want. Their goal is to force us to diminish the freedoms they hate.
Conservative ministers seem to be playing into their hands, with a raft of new clampdowns that prioritise security over liberty. These include banning even non-violent Islamist radicals from TV, radio and universities.
The government also plans to enact powers to close down premises that host extremists and to require TV programmes to be pre-vetted for extremist content before they are broadcast.
Already, there is a new statutory duty on local authorities – and education, prison and health bodies – to prevent the spread of extremism. These institutions are expected to report people who they suspect have been radicalised.
Whenever this authoritarian slide is challenged, we are told by ministers that protection from terrorism requires strong state powers, limitations on privacy and the willingness of citizens to surrender some freedoms in order to safeguard others.
At one level they are right. With proper safeguards, some additional police and security service powers may be needed to protect the most important freedom of all – the right to life. No one should live in fear of being blown up on a train or gunned-down in a shopping centre.
But as well as the threat to civil liberties, a repressive approach to combating Islamist terror has limitations. It is mostly an attempt to prevent extremists committing criminal acts after they’ve become radicalised. What’s badly lacking is any coherent government strategy to prevent people being radicalised in the first place.
The struggle against Islamist terrorism is first and foremost a battle against extremist ideology. It is Islamist ideas that lead to murderous actions, so the most effective way to stop terrorism is to refute the extremist ideas that nurture it – before people progress to the stage of terror attack recruitment, planning, preparation and execution.
What’s lacking from the government is any serious attempt to undermine Islamist ideology and to prevent it taking hold in the first place. There is no strategy to ‘inoculate’ young people against its malevolent influence and to prevent them being seduced by its sinister appeal.
If people are already steeped in extremist ideas, weaning them away from radicalisation is difficult. Many of those now wedded to faith fanaticism may be a lost cause. Our best hope is to put in place a programme of action to ensure that future generations don’t follow the Islamist path.
This is where education has a potentially major role to play. If schools can successfully inculcate liberal, humanitarian values, pupils will be much less likely to later succumb to Islamist propaganda.
Some schools have had considerable success already in promoting awareness and acceptance of Britain’s diverse multicultural communities. They’ve helped secure better understanding by young people of equality issues around race, gender, disability, religion and belief, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.
By promoting equality and diversity they have diminished prejudice and bullying; creating a more inclusive and cohesive school environment where extremist ideas are likely to have less appeal.
But the efforts and results are patchy. For every school that’s on the right track there are many others lagging well behind. There is no requirement for schools to address these issues. And that’s the problem. With pressure to focus on exam subjects and to do well in the school league tables, equality and diversity lessons often get a low priority.
That’s why I’d like to see them made a mandatory requirement in every school – and an exam subject too. Without exams, it is doubtful that they’ll be taken seriously.
Equality and diversity lessons need to start from the first year of primary level and continue each year throughout a young person’s school life.
They should promote understanding and acceptance of Britain’s – and the world’s – many different peoples and communities. Together with the notion of our common humanity and the right of everyone to receive respect and equal treatment, these lessons should educate young people to accept that the right to be different is a fundamental human right, providing this difference doesn’t infringe the rights of others.
These values directly counter the Islamist narrative. If young people embrace them, the chances they will succumb to extremist ideas will diminish greatly.
Teaching equality and diversity is a win-win. It can play an important role in promoting social harmony, cohesion and solidarity; and by so doing undermine prejudice, discrimination, bullying, hate crime – and extremism.
It’s obvious. If the government is serious about tackling Islamist radicalisation, why the delay in ensuring that every school champions equality and diversity? What is the Education Secretary waiting for? Over to you Nicky Morgan.