Set scepticism against extremism

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Ed Balls' article, "My blueprint for schools to fight terrorism" (TES, May 30) rightly points out how extremists "paint the world as black and white"
Ed Balls' article, "My blueprint for schools to fight terrorism" (TES, May 30) rightly points out how extremists "paint the world as black and white". But the answer to this is not more bland multiculturalism and "learning about different cultures and faiths", which both homogenises cultures and religions and underscores them as "other". Instead, the need is for critical evaluation within cultures and faiths, and an awareness of their internal contradictions and ambiguities. Only by instilling critical doubt can extremism and fundamentalism be tackled.

In my recent book Educating Against Extremism, I look at how and why extremists leave such movements. What triggers this is the realisation of alternative versions of "truth". Exit does not necessarily mean renouncing their religion, but embracing a far more nuanced and sceptical version. So if "Imams (are to be) asked into schools" (TES, May 30, above) - or indeed any religious leader - the question is whether they are prepared to discuss the more violent parts of their sacred texts, those that justify killing enemies and beating wives.

The way to protect against extremism is not for religious (or secular, or political) leaders simply to tell young people what they should do. This is authoritarianism, and fosters blind obedience. Instead, religious leaders and teachers need to acknowledge the doctrinal errors and atrocities committed by their religion - for example, the Inquisition, or supporting slavery, or hatred of non-believers.

The trick is to instil the ever-present possibility that our leaders have got it wrong. The other protection against extremism is, of course, satire - the ability to take a joke.

Schools need to teach the deconstruction of messages and slogans, and to explore the power of satire and cartoons to debunk grandiosity. The answer to extremism is not moderation - you can't do genocide in moderation - but a highly informed idealism. Extremism's major enemy is also a lightness of touch.

Professor Lynn Davies, Centre for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham.

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