Backlash risks rise of adolescent bravado

21st September 2001 at 01:00
IT WAS only a matter of time before the backlash began. Egged on by American newspaper editorials that read like war cries, extremists have fired shots at a mosque in Texas, smeared pig's blood over the entrance to another in San Francisco and hurled bricks through the window of a Muslim bookshop. On this side of the pond, a Muslim woman was punched while shopping in Milton Keynes and mosques have been put on alert for possible attacks.

If this goes to show that when America sneezes we catch a cold, it also underscores the need to guard against scapegoating and collectively punishing a whole community, especially the most vulnerable. The prospect of schools bearing the brunt of indiscriminate reprisals is real enough; it has already forced the flagship Muslim school, Islamia, to shut its gates for two days.

Internally, Islamia's near-total Muslim roll should offer some protection against the worst of the fallout. But it is in the mixed state comprehensives, which are home to the bulk of Muslim schoolchildren, that any repercussions will be most keenly felt.

Buoyant from its strong showing in the general election, the far right has seized on the attacks as an opportunity to sow more mischief and misunderstanding. British National party leader Nick Griffin made an unsuccessful request to the BBC to withdraw the remaining Learning Zone programmes on Islam.

Even without this calculated association of Islam, the religion of peace, with the twisted hijacker-bombers who invoke its name, the disaster might be a major tension-raiser as children bring the politics of the home into the classroom.

In Muslim homes, last Tuesday's events will have been viewed with just as much horror and abhorrence as elsewhere. But that will be accompanied by a feeling that, in the most terrible way, the chickens of United States foreign policy have come home to roost, that US civilians are reaping the harvest of the seeds sown by their government's undeclared war against Muslims in the Middle East.

Not that any of this will provide a secret sense of satisfaction. Rather, trying to explain the finer points of international politics to teachers and fellow pupils could easily be misconstrued. In a climate still thick with fury and disgust, the main danger for Muslim pupils is that explanation will be mistaken for justification at worst, insensitivity at best.

That's assuming, of course, that they are able to articulate such ethical issues at all. Moral distinctions - between the human bomber who is martyred blowing up a busload of Israeli soldiers and a hijacker who uses the passengers of an airliner as ammunition - are for adults.

However, for this Nintendo generation, it is possible that the atrocity is merely an extension of their violent computer games.

The image of an airliner ploughing into a skyscraper carried a sense of unreality. The attack left no camera-ready bodies, no blood, no chilling cries, no sound at all that could convey its horror. When even adults are finding it hard to separate CNN from Hollywood, what can we expect from children?

These are troubled times for Muslim youngsters. The summer of discontent has shown up a massive gulf between working- class Muslims in the north and their white non-Muslim peers.

In the chatroom on the TES website, some teachers have voiced concerns about violence should adolescent bravado get out of hand, especially if, as is feared, the US leads an indiscriminate retaliation. Short of role models and as everyday victims of discrimination and demonisation, some older Muslim boys will no doubt see in prime suspect Osama bin Laden, and the suicide bombers, the romantic image of the rebel underdog.

Last Tuesday's events may well have changed the educational landscape forever, too. We may look back on September 11, 2001, as the day that introduced international politics into the classroom. It underlines that in this globalised era our multicultural schools can no longer shield themselves from international events.

Let's hope that they are all as even-handed as the school in south London where my friend is deputy head of the sixth-form. Last Friday, as the country held a three-minute silence for the victims, sixth-formers here were also allowed to hold a separate vigil for the Palestinians.

Faisal Bodi is a journalist and commentator Faith schools - the solution or the problem? Have your say at www.tes.co.uk

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