IN THE light of the turmoil in Syria that is attracting British Muslim teenagers to fight as terrorists, no one would disagree that we need to put in place programmes that will safeguard these young people, as well as the wider community.
Students can become targets for unsavoury characters and radical activists when they are isolated. Such concerns have propelled our government to devise strategies to address the dangers of leaving vulnerable individuals ignored and isolated.
But how we approach this is the key. Take, for instance, the mandatory Prevent training that FE lecturers undergo. It’s an initiative imposed by the government to curb potential radicalisation of young people in colleges.
On the surface, it seems relatively innocuous. However, many lecturers have endured badly thought-out sessions. They have been asked to identify and monitor students who are vulnerable and/or are behaving suspiciously.
Ostensibly, colleges have been asked, either implicitly or explicitly, to act as surveillance tools for the government. They have been asked to instil British values in students and identify and refer those who are a danger.
Lecturers have been given a set of principles that they are told are unique to us as an island nation, such as the respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression, tolerance of others and otherness, belief in a democratic process and so forth. Now I don’t doubt that these are values that many British people uphold. But I am equally certain that these values are not exclusive to our country. These are, in fact, universal values that most people believe in.
My fear is that in teaching such a set of values, we might be undermining the very people that we’re supposed to be reaching out to. If colleges do really want to tackle radicalisation and engage students in constructive discussions, then it’s important that we allow young people to speak freely.
We need to give them the opportunity to define the semantics of “radicalisation” and “allegiance” and to redefine their cultural status and their relationship with country, religion and national identity. This might mean hearing views that are unpalatable with our preconceived notions or allowing some perspectives that may challenge our own.
A platform for debate
I propose that colleges set up discussion forums that will allow students to express their concerns about what it means to be Muslim and living in Britain. They might be linked to the ethos of debating societies, whereby one could play the devil’s advocate – asking questions and challenging views.
But the main aim would be to help Muslim students discuss critical and pertinent issues in the context of cultural pluralism. These issues might relate to cultural practices that are inconsistent with secularism or democracy. Discussions might revolve around topics such as gender roles, the nature of marriages or the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
It is a way of broadening students’ knowledge and their perspectives of topical issues through a structured framework. I believe that it is far better to have discussions such as these in an educational environment because outside of these perimeters, a different, unchallenged set of views are being circulated.
Effectively, these discussion forums would be informal meeting groups, supervised by experienced staff in order to facilitate an honest, frank dialogue without the fear of judgement, criticism, reprisal or intimidation. Ultimately, such forums will encourage free speech and expression, while at the same time helping to allay governmental concerns about the radicalisation of young people in FE and in our society.
A number of educationalists and cultural critics have argued that existing discussions about British values rely too much on generalities; that well-meaning programmes such as Prevent might prove ineffective. Educational initiatives like these need to be in a context that is engaging and relevant.
Listening is key
Most of all, we need to hear other views and not merely impose our own. We need to allow our Muslim students to discuss their own concepts and definitions of nationality and cultural identity; what it means to live in Britain, and the impact of Islamophobia, racism, and religion. We need to give a sense of ownership of such forums to the students.
I have been told by a number of staff that they find discussions about subjects such as nationality, religion and cultural identity a tad uncomfortable. But experienced, confident lecturers should welcome the opportunity of operating in a challenging teaching environment.
A number of Muslim students would like to engage in discussions about topical issues. They want to do this in an informed, critical and respectful manner. However, some students feel inhibited, either because of the current antagonistic atmosphere in the UK or because of their own cultural reservations, which may hinder them from speaking freely. Of course, these inhibition might equally apply to our non-Muslim students.
I believe that it is our professional duty, as educators, to facilitate a conducive, friendly and safe environment for topical discussions for our Muslim students.
It is only when we allow students to speak freely that we involve them and ourselves in a democratic process.
Roshan Doug is a researcher in education at the University of Birmingham, and a consultant working at an FE college in the West Midlands @RoshanDoug