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Dangers of using schools to address extremism

Andrew Zammit |  13 October 2015

As the government prepares to address the involvement of schoolchildren in violent extremism, a controversial program in the UK shows a dangerous path that Australia must avoid.

Anti-radicalisation bookletIn September Sydney's Daily Telegraph ran the headline 'Schoolyard Terror Blitz', reporting that 'schoolteachers will be given access to radicalisation information awareness kits explaining how to identify students at risk and what they should do to intervene as concerns grow about the rise of teen terrorists'.

The government's actual plans are not clear. In May 2015 the then federal education minister Chris Pyne appeared to disavow any idea of having teachers spot potential terrorists, and the language of justice minister Michael Keenan's media releases is more restrained than what his office appeared to announce through the Telegraph.

Nonetheless, the prospect of encouraging teachers to try to spot early warning signs of terrorism is extremely worrying.

Events like the Numan Haider incident, and the fact that some Australian schoolchildren (such as Abdullah Elmir and Jake Bilardi) have joined the 'Islamic State', likely prompted the concern about teenage involvement in terrorism. The recent murder of a civilian police member by a 15-year-old boy in an apparent terror incident may spur increased efforts to involve schools in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

CVE is a broad term that refers to non-coercive measures aimed at reducing the chances of people becoming involved in terrorism. CVE is an important element of counterterrorism, and is rightfully part of Australia's response to the heightened threat resulting from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

However, CVE remains an experimental area and can risk causing harm, particularly if programs are broadly-targeted, treating whole sections of the population as potential terrorists.

The UK shows the dangerous direction Australia could head in. From mid-2015, UK schoolteachers have had a legal obligation to spot children considered vulnerable to radicalisation. The UK government has repeatedly stated that its measures are not intended to stifle debate on controversial topics or create an atmosphere of fear, but how it works in practice is a different story.

There have been reports of children being referred to an early-intervention program called Channel for simply using terms like 'alhamdulillah' and 'allahu akbar', of a 12-year child being referred to police for expressing the view that the government hates Muslims, of a 14-year old boy being questioned by child safety officers for using the phrase 'eco-terrorism' in a discussion on environmental activism, and of a 15-year-old boy being questioned by police for handing out a leaflet calling for a boycott of Israel.

These outcomes are unsurprising. The policy puts 'untenable pressure on teachers to recognise something in its early stages that others have found it almost impossible to identify or predict'.

This leads to blunt approaches, such as UK schools installing software that flags if students search for terms believed to indicate jihadist ('caliphate', 'jihadi bride', 'YODO', 'John Cantlie') or far-right ('pogrom', 'Storm Front') radicalisation. 

No compelling case has been made that counter-terrorism benefits will result from this. The director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation points out that Channel has not been opened to independent scrutiny.

These sorts of broadly-targeted CVE programs risk being counterproductive in several ways. The resulting stigmatisation and atmosphere of fear could feed extremist narratives. The false leads generated by teacher guesswork could divert attention from the small number of genuine threats. The distrust bred could inhibit cooperation in the cases where it is really needed.

A further danger is what has been called the 'D.A.R.E. effect'. This refers to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which began in the United States in the 1980s to warn schoolchildren about the dangers of drugs. Later research indicated that the program may have actually heightened students' curiosity about drugs, increasing use.

Our government will not necessarily go as far as the UK, but it's an important risk to be aware of. Australian counterterrorism policy thinking has often held the UK as a positive example to follow (as happened with control orders in 2005 and citizenship-stripping most recently).

If the government is convinced CVE engagement with schools is necessary, some less radical approaches, based on encouraging critical thinking among students rather than suspicion by teachers, are being trialled in some Canadian and Danish schools.

The Turnbull government is reportedly debating the way ahead in the wake of the Parramatta shooting, and its current plans are unclear. What is clear is that Australia should not follow the UK approach. Large numbers would be stigmatised and treated as potential terrorists for innocent activity; it would risk descending into racial and religious profiling; the counterterrorism benefits would be doubtful, and the outcome could be the opposite of what's intended.

Andrew ZammitAndrew Zammit is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and formerly a researcher at Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre. He had some involvement with the booklet at the centre of the controversial schools announcement.


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Submitted comments

The most direct way to counter radicalisation seems to be to restrict the pressures that alienate people from integration into social and community life. The fundamental pressure seems to come from the implications of most religions that they have found the sole and exclusive path up God's Mountain, and that all others are 'wrong', because of their cultural and traditional ways of expressing their basic beliefs. A secondary pressure comes from the formation of ignorant and intolerant groups who focus on the short-comings of 'others', and refuse to recognise the rights and virtues of those 'others'. Happily there seems to be a growing number of individuals who are able to embrace the inspirations of more than one religion.

Robert Liddy 14 October 2015

Handy advice, Andrew. What strikes me about the fear riven attempts to prevent radicalization is though no one knows exactly what to do. We do not want to initiate processes which fuel the fires of revolt and provide ammunition to the unscrupulous to say, "See that is what they are like. Look at how they want to take your freedom". You don't win hearts and minds with special forces uniforms and legislation to suit. Adolescents on their journey to adulthood go against conventional mores as part of their development; that's where they are at. So that is the nature of the target group. We seem busy trying to demagnetize the pull towards radicalism while refraining from presenting the attraction of the inspiration and idealism exemplified by many Australians in our short history. OK there are not too many attractive statesmen in the current governance top paddock but there have been and are in all kinds of other fields. Though rebellious adolescents are also idealistic. I think it is time we dug into our homegrown store of attractive, truly inspiring people as leaders with values and lives worth following.

Michael D. Breen 14 October 2015

Your last paragraph puts it well. The process of growth during adolescence is very complex (and stressful). Simplistic measures (such as guidelines to recognise radicalisation) will do more harm than good. I agree that providing the knowledge and encouraging critical thinking is the wiser choice. It bears fruit in the long term.

Donald D 14 October 2015

What is 'encouraging critical thinking' when the basis for political action is an opinion based on premises that cannot be empirically verified? Does it mean the State censoring some part of religious belief from the educational processes of its young? How does it know that jihad never means violent political action so that the goal of 'critical thinking' must be to lead a Muslim child in a public school to this conclusion? The same way that it knows that St Paul is wrong when the Bible reports him as teaching that 'sodomites' do not enter the kingdom of heaven, so that 'critically thinking' Christian school children should be led to the conclusion that that part of the infallible Bible is, somewhat contradictorily, a regrettable anachronism? The State's interest in social peace cannot tell it what a religion should say. The religion itself should tell the public what it believes. If the historical development of a religion has led to more than one school of belief upon a particular point, eg., the meanings of jihad, the religion will just have to own up to the public that it has a multiplicity of religiously legitimate beliefs on a difficult point.

Roy Chen Yee 14 October 2015

Talk about 'using schools', indicates that our political leaders either have a narrow view of what schools are already doing or they are prepared to burden schools with extra tasks beyond their purpose and competence. The views expressed in Mr Zammit's article deserve a wider circulation especially among those studying the sociology of education. The process of education considered sociologically is the formal transmission of culture, with the elements of preservation, dissemination and innovation. Three of the basic elements that need to be preserved are Morality, Literacy and Numeracy. I fear basic moral education runs a poor third in the current educational system aimed predominantly at meeting the needs of the economy. I find it heartening that Australia's first saint was an educator, Mother Mary Mackillop. I hope her influence lives on, at least in catholic schools throughout Australia. We need people of her faith and courage to provide the sort of home grown leaders Mr Breen writes about.

Uncle Pat 15 October 2015

How about teaching students how to recognise propaganda? The 'critical thinking' route seems far more sensible than using teachers to identify potential problem students.

Karen 16 October 2015

I am very wary of any one-size-fits-all 'anti-radicalisation', supposedly all-encompassing, unproven 'programs' introduced from the top down, because, as you and other knowledgeable commentators say, they could prove dreadfully counter-productive. The vast majority of Australian Muslims seem not to support ISIS and we need to be very careful not to alienate them. Why? Because, as Sheikh Wesam Charkawi said on a recent Q & A session, they are desperately attempting to keep their children from being incorrectly targeted by school and police authorities. These authorities need more assistance at grass roots level rather than headline grabbing grand strategies. This is a time we need to draw Australians together, not create a 'them and us' situation where the minority is under constant, mainly totally unnecessary, surveillance to see if they are 'loyal' with the underlying assumption they aren't. There are plenty of people like Professor Anne Aly and Sheikh Charkawi, the latter a school chaplain, who know the situation on the ground and who can be brought on board, not for photo opportunities, but for useful input. I do not discount the need for surveillance of known terror supporters but isolated - horrific as they are - instances of violence need not turn us into a surveillance state.

Edward Fido 17 October 2015

The disappointing aspect of recent announcements of how $47Million will be spent is the identify and refer to support measures which Andrew notes isolates and emphasises differences. It would be more fruitful if Critical thinking and Media Analysis units of study/discussion in which everyone participates could be paired with history and cultural connections to highlight the good on both sides. The various groups who are talked at would be in a position to contribute positively to crafting these and it would create a balance between similarities and differences. There are many groups in Australian society that aren't necessarily comfortable with the dominant media portrayal of values which is often what has been a source of alienation while the new balance in perspective could foster a sense of working together for the betterment of society in the right way.

Gordana Martinovich 04 November 2015

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