Finding peace: Grief, solidarity and resolve. Responses to radicalisation.

Monday night’s bombing in Manchester was such an outrage.  It’s hard to process.  There are so many emotions to deal with.  For all those affected, there’s the personal grief; the heart-breaking disaster of losing a child or a parent, a colleague.  However hard we try to empathise from afar, we can’t get close to the pain people will be suffering.  The loss of each individual is an appalling life-changing event for their families and friends.  It will take them years; bereavement lasts a lifetime.  I’ve written previously,  (Dealing with grief) about the way schools and colleges can be sanctuaries for those who have lost loved ones – I feel deeply for all those who are going through this now.  Fortunately, schools are at their best when they serve their function as focal points for their community.  I know they’ll be doing a brilliant job.

Tragedy brings people together – it’s a good instinct we have.   At a City level in Manchester, that instinct was palpable on Tuesday.  The recital of his poem ‘This Is The Place’ by Tony Walsh was simply magnificent. I keep watching it:

It’s also natural to be angry.  To be disgusted.  To want something to be done.  And this is when we’re putting everything on the line; our instincts for solidarity under pressure from our need for justice and security.  Allison Pearson is calling for internment – locking people up in case they commit crimes; Katy Hopkins is inciting racial hatred calling for a ‘final solution’; the infowars people are stoking the flames of  blanket Islamophobia, whilst always claiming the high moral ground.  There are soldiers on the streets.  We’re in dangerous waters.

The problem is that so many of these people seem to have no idea how modern British muslims and muslim communities operate.  Farage-level ideas of British citizenship and national identity are still widespread.  The ‘us vs them’ rhetoric emanating from some quarters is incredible; simply no sense that most muslims in Britain are as British as they are; are as disconnected from terrorism as they are; have as little chance of knowing or recognising a jihadi as them.  We have a duty to stand against this – especially when we have so many vulnerable children in our care within schools; kids who are already subject to the everyday racism of regular life.

However, one of the difficulties that we face is that, in our desire to secure community cohesion and protect children from racism, we risk falling into a trap of skirting around a debate about Islamist terrorism.  I think it’s a mistake to try to neutralise and generalise what is a specific issue; I don’t think it helps to cite the shocking murder of Jo Cox and many other hate crimes by extremists as if they are all part of the same problem. I don’t think they are.  But it’s complicated.   In 2015, after the three girls left East London to head for Syria, I wrote about the Prevent strategy and the need for caution: Preventing Radicalisation: Let’s not clutch at straws.   The truth is we that we really don’t understand enough about radicalisation to start assuming we have answers. To-date, it’s arguable that school level Prevent strategies may have done as much harm as good through alienation rather than preventing radicalisation – simply because we’re guessing.

That blog was inspired by reading this article in the Guardian by philosopher Julian Baggini – Radicalisation is not brain-washing.  Here is an excerpt:

The idea that people freely choose to do terrible things is one that we find hard to accept. Even those who deny that anyone has free will generally accept that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary actions, and fighting jihad does not fall into the latter camp.

The problem is not a lack of free will but a more prosaic impaired decision-making. What should really frighten us about this is that the errors jihadis make are all simply versions of much more common ones.

To understand this, we need to start by accepting that even the criminally insane do things for reasons. In the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who believed God was calling him to kill prostitutes, those reasons are clearly the product of a deluded mind. But usually there is at least something plausible in the reasons people have to do wicked things.

For jihadis, the narrative is that Islam is the true faith and that it is threatened by a hostile, kafir world. Given that millions throughout history have died to defend their religions, we cannot dismiss those who do the same now as simply deranged. What’s more, living in a country with a lot of anti-Islamic feeling, there is plenty of positive reinforcement for their feelings of persecution.

Recently, I’ve been interested to hear the views of former-extremist Maajid Nawaz. It’s worth hearing what he says:

That idea about low expectations is powerful; as is the call for secularism.  He is saying that the people in communities most likely to get close to young radicalised Islamists – those who might be plotting the next atrocity – need a framework to support their message – and that this is undermined by a failure to acknowledge or even discuss associations with Islam.

This makes life very complicated for schools. How do we support what Nawaz is saying –  if what he says is right – whilst also keeping a strong anti-racist stance where we continue to celebrate our religious and cultural diversity; where British people of all faith backgrounds are regarded as equally valued members of British society?  When intelligent adults openly (and deliberately?) continue to lump all muslims together in their rhetoric, fail to grasp the subtlety and complexity around Islamist radicalisation within a community of ordinary peace-loving people (with an equivalent range of religious positions, convictions and conversions to atheism as any other faith-culture) – it’s going to be hard to get that right in our message to children.

I’ll repeat my recommendations from an earlier blog. Perhaps all we can do is this:

  • To teach RE – or Philosophy and Ethics – and, through the curriculum, discuss  religious radicalisation openly
  • To promote global citizenship explicitly – the idea that all people interconnected with mutual responsibility for each other
  • To promote secularism within which faith groups are given space to express their identity, without any one group dominating.
  • To celebrate diversity as a key element of British culture, going beyond tolerance to acceptance and inclusion across a range of issues – feeding into the curriculum, assemblies, and community events.
  • Personally, I’d also advocate a liberal line on internet access.  It doesn’t seem likely to me that limiting access could have any impact on preventing radicalisation.
  • Above all, simply to focus on delivering the highest possible educational standards, rich in cultural capital from a global perspective.

And, right now, we absolutely have to focus on solidarity with those who are grieving.  We are one nation; all of us. 8716c3ce0463d61.jpg


  1. Seems like we could do the students a service as well to inform them of other possible reasons as to why jihadi exists. I know schools understandably shy away from politics, but maybe it’s time for schools to engage in educating people about foreign policy. Maybe then when generations of students are informed sufficiently to understand why there is a resentment of Westerners in some places around the world, there will be more chance that those generations would impose pressure on said foreign policy. It’s the only way that the politicians will consider any alternative.


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