Countering extremism in British classrooms
London - The film opens with a shot of a man watching the 9/11 attacks on a screen. He speaks: “I watched people jumping out of those windows to avoid being burned alive. Not one moment did I think these people have families… It was payback. It was retribution. It was fair dues. That’s how it felt.”
The camera focuses on the bespectacled face of Adam Deen. A former member of the banned Islamist extremist movement al- Muhajiroun, Deen renounced extremism and joined the Quilliam Foundation, which specialises in counter-extremism. He is appearing in a video for Extreme Dialogue, a programme launched in Britain in July that will be shown in classrooms throughout the country as part of a campaign to battle extremism.
The short film ends with Deen kneeling in prayer. He has renounced extremism and speaks of a more genuine Islam. “My relationship with my faith is very much how I was before I was radicalised,” he said. “What Islam is about is connecting with God so you can be a better human being. I’m still proud to be a Muslim. The type of Islam that I live now is one that is authentic, grounded on mercy, compassion and justice.”
At a time when Europe is witnessing a rising number of lone-wolf attacks from home-grown terrorists and Britain’s terror threat level is “severe”, there has been an increased focus on heading off radicalisation before it can start; teaching young, vulnerable people enough so that they are not caught up with extremism and helping those trapped on an extremist path to disembark.
The need is found in the fact that 3,995 people — an average of 11 per day — were referred to the government’s flagship counter-extremism scheme Channel in 2015. Britain enforced the Prevent Duty in March 2015 that made it mandatory for schools to monitor students and inform the government if it believed that any student was under threat of radicalisation.
Erin Saltman, a counter-extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the increase in people referred to Channel was important for a number of reasons. “One is that there’s a huge amount of awareness around radicalisation that just didn’t exist before. It’s now a buzzword whereas five years ago it wouldn’t have been,” she said in a March 2016 article in the Guardian newspaper.
“The other is an increase in fear. We are seeing an increase in fearful rhetoric around radicalisation, particularly when we see foreign terrorist fighters and females in unprecedented numbers joining the Islamic State.”
Although this programme was designed specifically to tackle Islamic extremism and specifically the threat represented by the Islamic State (ISIS), far fewer Muslims than originally thought were referred to Channel.
The West Midlands, which includes cities and towns such as Birmingham and Coventry with large Muslim communities, was the only region to provide a detailed breakdown of its figures. Out of the 788 people referred to Channel in the West Midlands, 293 — 37% — were Muslims.
This is something that is borne out by the Extreme Dialogue programme, which aims to “reduce the appeal of extremism among young people and offer a positive alternative to the increasing amounts of extremist material and propaganda available on the internet and social media”.
Other films in the programme feature Billy McCurrie, a convicted terrorist who joined the Ulster Volunteer Force after his father was killed by the Irish Republican Army, and Daniel Gallant, a former white supremacist.
Of the 788 people referred to Channel in the West Midlands in 2015, 68 were aged 9 or younger, 193 were aged 10-14 and 235 were 15-19.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of children being referred to Channel for dubious reasons, including growing a beard or wearing a hijab. Extreme Dialogue aims to take a lighter approach, opening a dialogue among students about the dangers of radicalisation in an atmosphere where fear of being reported to Channel is on the rise.
“The real problem is that a lot of signifiers are things that would be considered normal teenage behaviour, like changes in dress, changes in ability to want to talk to teachers or parents,” Saltman said in the Guardian article.
“Teachers are fearful and want to safeguard students but they’re not being given very clear guidelines or training. What this will now do is shut down dialogue, rather than open up discourse and transparency within a classroom.”