On 17 February 2015, three teenage girls – Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and Amira Abase, 15 (pictured) – equipped with handbags and wearing make-up, casually wandered into Gatwick airport. They had, allegedly, taken jewellery from their families to buy some air tickets. They were flying out to Turkey and intended to go on to Syria.
It was only a few weeks earlier that the girls had been posing for selfies and having a laugh with their mates. But now their intention was clear: to join the so-called Islamic State (IS), along with the 550 other women from Western Europe who have chosen to do the same thing.
Before their departure, the girls were students at Bethnal Green Academy, a school investigated last year as part of a counter-extremism operation. In March 2015, a judge in London confiscated the passports of a further five girls from the same school, as they had expressed a desire to go to Syria.
Young people from Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester have made that journey. These young exiles are travelling thousands of miles to join a medieval death cult – the same one that beheads and blows up innocent civilians. It’s almost inconceivable that British-born and British-educated teenagers could consider joining this organisation. But it’s true, and in some cases their families and communities are turning a blind eye to their radicalisation.
These young people have chosen to join IS and, perhaps in the future, actively participate in murderous acts. They represent a fraction of the estimated 8.5 million people who strongly support Islamic State – a small percentage of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but a staggeringly frightening figure nonetheless. Fortunately, most will never gain access to weapons or the training to use them. But the number of attacks is growing. In the past month, there have been 136 in 25 different countries, with 1,122 deaths as a result.
The government launched its Prevent strategy last year, forcing teachers to actively instil British values in all their students, while also encouraging them to report any child whom they feel is under threat.
There is no doubt that education can play a massive role in preventing the spread of this conservative strand of Islam. But, if whole communities have not integrated, then the likelihood that this message will get across and will be sufficiently reinforced seems unlikely. When children are being brainwashed in illegal madrassas, preached at by hate-filled imams and subtly encouraged to isolate themselves by cunning parents, then what chance does the average NQT have of changing that pattern by rolling through a PowerPoint on British values?
There are a couple of things that need to happen before any meaningful change can take place. The first is that freedom of speech, especially in schools, needs to be as uncensored and unabated as it can possibly be, to allow for a rich and intellectual debate about the fundamental nature of Islam to take place. This simply isn’t happening at the moment, and the problem was highlighted at the NUT conference last weekend when members said that the Prevent policy was “shutting down open debate in schools”.
Freedom of speech is ending where conversations about Islam begin. Teachers and students walk on eggshells in matters associated with it, worried that one opinion misheard or misrepresented could lead to an immediate disciplinary or even sacking. “Safe spaces” and the use of the term “hate speech” has subdued the inquisitive. Islam, as a concept and as a religion, has become somewhat untouchable.
While it has become routine to discuss paedophile priests and Bible-bashing fundamentalists who dismiss the theory of evolution with relative abandonment, any mention or discussion of the scriptural basis behind Islamic attitudes to freedom, gender or equality has become exceptional. And why? Why aren't we dissecting, criticising and analysing Islam with the same alacrity as any other religion or belief system?
Spirit of Charlie Hebdo
The spirit of Charlie Hebdo really shouldn't stop in the offices of the French magazine. It should permeate through every school and educational institution. Challenge authority, satirise anyone and everything, freely criticise and castigate with intellectual zeal.
Political correctness is subduing intellectual expression and debate. The side effect is that the only ones with zero regard for it – most often extreme figures on the Right and Left – get centre stage for their views, meaning that the moderates daren’t speak out for fear of being bundled in with them. If people want to shut Donald Trump down, that will only happen when it is understood and accepted that it isn’t racist to express grave concerns about the nature of Islam in a measured and appropriate way (the mixing up of race and religion has been another dumb trend).
If students want to ask questions about the Prophet Mohammad’s 13 wives and, most tellingly, the nine-year-old one, then they should be entitled to, whether in a classroom, school hall or corridor. If students want to ask about whether Mohammad’s 61 campaigns of war and the punishments he dished out along the way characterise Islam, they should feel entitled to do so. Their teacher should encourage students to search for answers, honestly and openly.
Islam is currently off limits. It needs to be put firmly back on. If it is the religion of peace, as its proponents argue, then the obligation that some of its followers feel to wage a holy war needs to be addressed and explained. “It’s the ideology. Something is taking these people and turning them into jihadists. If we don’t have this debate, then everything else is just rhetoric,” said Haras Rafiq in conversation with another warrior for unadulterated discussion, Douglas Murray, last week.
Even if freedom of speech reigns, I can’t help but feel that the real solution to this problem has to come from within Islam itself. Within Muslim communities, reformers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer of Heretic: why Islam needs a reformation now, are speaking about the hijacking of Islam, but also about how some Islamic ideals in their current form might not be compatible with Western values. Within the UK, the Quilliam organisation also makes progressive noises. Both hark back to the golden age of Islam, between the 8th and 13th centuries, when Islamic cultures flourished economically, socially and culturally. Above all, critical thinking reigned.
These voices need to heard. Nowadays, ultra-conservative strands of Islam and even some fairly moderate ones struggle to sit within European law. Can Islam fully integrate into Western society without some kind of dramatic reformation? Millions of Muslims are fleeing war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq for Europe, but strangely bypassing Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The freedoms in Western societies are inherently attractive to those in the Middle East, but many struggle to accept and adopt the values that go with those freedoms.
One thing’s for certain: schools and teachers can contribute to the promotion of British values. But the answer to what will probably become one of the most pressing questions of this century lies far beyond the realms of British educators and their education system.