A few days after the appalling attacks in Paris last month, France’s education minister Najat Vallaud-Bellkacem tweeted a message to teachers wishing them luck in the classroom: “I am thinking of our teachers who need to be strong in front of their pupils. We are with them,” she said. She also backed a two-page leaflet aimed at primary school children to help explain the terrorist attacks. It featured cartoons (such as an Eiffel Tower shedding a tear) and reassuring messages that they shouldn’t be scared.
While this was no doubt helpful for younger pupils, what about the teenagers – for whom soothing, simplistic explanations won’t wash? After all, the perpetrators and jihadi supporters, often European-bred and educated, are a part of their generation. Younes Abaaoud, said to be the youngest European jihadist fighting with Islamic State in Syria, is the 13-year-old brother of Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected organiser of Isis’ Paris attacks.
Teachers face difficult times, with pupils often challenging mainstream narratives. My fear is that teachers will be tempted to adapt to the increasing passive support for jihadi identity politics evident among pupils.
When French President Hollande decreed that all schools should hold a minute’s silence for the victims of the Paris attacks, some French teachers were concerned, recalling what happened following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Some Muslim students, who objected to the cartoonists’ caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, refused to keep the silence. One teacher recalled a student saying “I’m not Charlie; I think the terrorists did the right thing”. The teacher’s response was telling: “Children have the right to say silly things, to even say offensive things.”
We need to stop making excuses and confront these beliefs. I’m not suggesting running to the Prevent officer, or banning unpalatable views. Yet too often these opinions are indulged, ignored, excused, and even sympathised with.
While such challenges may be more pronounced in the Parisian banlieues or Belgian Molenbeek district, it’s increasingly clear that there are those in the UK who sympathise with Islamism. They might not have been waving the black flag of the Caliphate, but I’ve met too many sixth-formers who have confidently argued that Zionist conspiracy was behind 9/11; that Sharia law is superior to the rule of law (argued to me by a group of 15-year-olds in a debate on the Magna Carta); and that European lives are seen as privileged over Arab lives, “So why should I mourn Westerners’ deaths?”
The problem is the way that some in education think we should handle this pervasive questioning of Western European values. Sadly, a toxic mix of multiculturalist relativism and student voice orthodoxies can dictate that we should listen carefully to and even respect such views, rather than boldly challenging them.
There is a danger that we are so mired in showing sensitivity to diverse cultural practices that we back off nervously from arguing for democratic humanist values. After all, nobody wants to be accused of being Eurocentric – or worse, Islamophobic.
Many Muslims despair at such spinelessness. Last month, Labour’s London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan criticised the left’s espousal of multiculturalism in a damning speech. He accused the political elite of allowing “conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked”. On Moral Maze, the BBC Radio 4 programme on which I’m a panelist, it was Imam Dr Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, who raged most forcefully against Westerners who are soft on the perverted brand of Islamist cultural practices, from the burka to Muslim-only schools.
And to those educationists who argue that we need to be especially sensitive to Muslim pupils lest we create a backlash of Jihadi Janets and Johns; I can’t imagine anything more insulting. If we pussyfooted around all pupils in that way, school discipline would collapse.
The majority of teachers want to help their pupils understand the modern world. But in a culture that avoids offending diverse faith groups or exercising judgement by asserting that one set of beliefs are superior to another, this can take some wrong-headed turns.
Even seemingly more objective and erudite approaches can be unhelpful. One social studies teacher described how he scrapped his planned lesson post-Paris and instead taught a primer on the history and politics of the Middle East and North Africa, saying, “I want them to have a clear picture of the complexity.” Admirable, but surely misleading to locate the cause of the Isis Paris attacks “over there”. After all, research from before the Paris attacks suggested that support for Isis was higher in Western Europe than in much of the Arab world, with one extraordinary survey suggesting that support in France could have been as high as 16 per cent. To put that in international context, a similar poll found just 3 per cent of Egyptians expressed a positive opinion of Isis, while under 1 per cent of Lebanese respondents showed any support.
Another teacher said that she had decided to prioritise pupils’ understanding of Western foreign policy. But again, this misses a core aspect of radical Islamist ideology. They are consciously involved in a brutal culture war against Enlightenment values and the sins of the modern way of life – whether that’s nightclubs, drinking, rock’n’roll or more broadly freedom, choice, licence.
Rather than teaching Middle East studies, perhaps teachers would be better off running a course in French history. Rebellious youth with a taste for adventure? Give ’em the French Revolution. Let teachers introduce pupils to the champions of liberté to provide them with a cause worth fighting for, as a fortification in today’s battle of ideas.
Let’s encourage philosophical conversation that can inspire. Introduce your year 11s to the philosophes – a group that championed personal liberties and went against every social norm of their day. Tell them about Diderot, editor of the Encyclopédie, which attempted to aggregate all human knowledge into one place long before Wikipedia. To have a sense of what Western civilisation means, give them a taste of the aspirations for freedom expressed by radical writers such as Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
I expect that many of you will disagree. As I write this, I’m being inundated with outraged abuse on Facebook and Twitter for sharing my ideas. My Western liberal opponents, many of whom are educationalists, are deluging my inbox with a litany of Enlightenment and modern evils (colonialism, racism, Hitler, misogyny, materialism) that make Isis propaganda sound mealy-mouthed. I am as much an apostate to secular relativists as religious extremists, for daring to stand on the shoulders of Western Civilisation’s humanist giants. It is this very moral vacuum in the West that the backward, barbaric Isis exploits.
All the more reason to mobilise our historic moral and intellectual resources to take on not only the nihilist influence of today’s terrorists but their apologists in Western society, whose own ambivalence about Western values can add to the estrangement of our young. Teachers are key to winning this battle.
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, and a former FE lecturer @Fox_Claire