Preventing 'violent extremism': Creating safe spaces for negotiating differenceon 9 July 2015
By Sarah Marsden
Fewer than 450 people have been convicted of terrorism related offences in the UK between 2001 and December 2014. Notwithstanding the recent increase in arrests in relation to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, that is a very small number. Among the challenges such a low base rate poses is the difficulty of determining from who might be ‘at risk’ of involvement in terrorism. Attempts to identify a ‘terrorist profile’ have fallen foul of the complex and diverse nature of militants and their journeys. Similarly, efforts to identify ‘root causes’ of terrorism suffer from over predicting the possibility of violence. If issues like foreign policy, social injustice, socio-economic disadvantage, and discrimination have a causal role in terrorism, given the number of people subject to them, we would expect to see far more violence than we do. That is not to say such issues are not important, but perhaps that they are better understood as preconditions for violence rather than a simplistic set of causal factors. Finally, assuming that ‘radicalisation’ is primarily concerned with attitudes (as opposed to actual violence, which is typically characterised as ‘terrorism’), efforts to predict who may use violence on the basis of expressed attitudes run up against psychological studies that demonstrate the relationship between attitudes and behaviour is complex, and that attitudes can be a somewhat inconsistent predictor of what people will actually do.
Together, this makes it problematic to demand that a range of statutory agents, including teachers, try and identify those they consider vulnerable to engagement in, not just extremism, but non-violent extremism – as the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act does. Not only because it’s very difficult to identify them, but because asking educators to do so poses risks. To the relationship of trust between teacher and student, and through the politicization and securitization of educational settings which, many argue, should be protected spaces where young people can explore ideas, and themselves, in a safe environment. Such policies are also potentially counterproductive, having a chilling effect on the willingness of students and teachers to debate difficult questions.
So where does that leave us? To move forward, it seems necessary to reclaim the project of engaging with problematic attitudes from the security framework into which it is increasingly being drawn and reaffirm the commitment to one of education’s central roles: to develop critical, informed, compassionate citizens able to engage constructively with those difficult questions that political violence is, at heart, concerned with: how to negotiate difference; how to ‘do’ politics in an increasingly pluralistic society; what to do about injustice; and what counts as ‘extreme’ or ‘moderate’, and why.
Two questions seem important in debates over how to engage with such difficult questions. Firstly, what should the space, where questions about politics, extremism, and terrorism are engaged with, look like? And second: on what basis should we negotiate difference? Current government policy is to promote ‘fundamental British values’, in the words of Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary: “because they act as a bulwark against extremism [and] because it is the right thing to do.” Some scholars, including Lynn Davies, suggest that a secular foundation rooted in a human rights framework is the best approach, while others argue concentrating on moral development is an important element of preventing extremism.
In my own research on efforts to support the reintegration of those who’ve been involved in radical settings, I’ve seen the positive effects of working to widen and deepen the object of young people’s critical thinking. Alongside this, it’s important to acknowledge the relevance of emotion in relation to extremism. As Heidi Ross has suggested, terrorism contains a paradox, combining “deep passion and commitment with indiscriminate (and sometimes impersonal) violence”. It therefore seems important to cultivate caring thinking; that type of thinking that pays attention to our fundamental relatedness, the importance of emotion, and of responding to one another with empathy and sensitivity.
Such work demands ‘safe spaces’ in which to have risky conversations. Whether that’s a soldier explaining to deeply suspicious young men what being in the armed forces means to him: that it’s a career, one that gives him purpose, and that he didn’t join up to kill Muslims. Or a former-militant explaining that conflict is frequently traumatic, and the people prosecuting them, often corrupt. Or a mentor repeatedly committing to provide support and guidance to a young person, regardless of how much they might disagree.
There’s rarely an easy resolution to those conversations, they’re often difficult, risky, and messy, confronting and negotiating difference rather than tolerating it, as so much policy advocates. They elicit strong emotions, emotions directed not only at the subject of discussion, but ones that develop between people struggling to understand how others see the world. These sorts of interactions are helpful when they begin from the particular experience and interaction of individuals, reasoning from particulars, rather than on the basis of abstract concepts such as fundamental British values or human rights. Such conversations therefore demand a ‘safe setting’; one where challenging issues can be debated without fear of sanction, and where there’s a demonstrable commitment to the individual that’s perhaps best understood in the context of an ethics of care.
Finally, these exchanges should prompt critical thinking in relation to the often simplistic solutions to complex issues young people encounter, for example on the Internet. Having said that, young people sympathetic to ‘radical’ ideas aren’t necessarily ideologically ‘brainwashed’, they have political agency, it’s rather that the scope of critical thinking is limited, confined to their opponent’s behaviour. The task of educators is to expand the object and direction of that thinking, to include the arguments of those to whom they’re sympathetic.
What seems important, therefore, is to foster both critical and caring thinking, in the context of safe, if difficult, spaces where difference is confronted and negotiated compassionately. Instead of trying to impose answers about difficult issues on young people, we should perhaps begin instead by asking them the questions. If we don’t, there’s a risk that what is acceptable is imposed rather than debated and constructed – that notions of ‘extremism’ or ‘moderation’ are defined for political purposes, rather than in relation to a shared social project of which young people feel a part.
Sarah Marsden is Lecturer in Terrorism Studies in the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, at the University of St Andrews.
Image: Marc Wathieu CC BY-NC-ND