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Radical young thinkers needed to expose ISIS lies

Radical ideas are not always dangerous. They can be the trigger for positive and lasting social change. Some experts say that radical thinking may even be a key defence against violent extremist ideology, and we need to start young by teaching students how to think critically, and giving them a space to express ideas for change in a safe and constructive learning environment.

Safe spaces to encourage debate 

Remy Low, a former high school teacher and now teaching fellow at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, believes we need to teach young people how to achieve social change, without hurting people in the process.

“Lots of people want a drastic change in society, especially in the face of economic inequalities, racism, sexism and heterosexism, military interventionism, etc. I certainly do! So it’s important to have spaces where we can voice this and learn about how to act on it without resorting to violence,” he told The Point Magazine.

Low, whose research examines contemporary educational policies and practices, believes that schools have a vital role to play in facilitating safe spaces for young people to speak freely on controversial issues.

“I think that schools can be important spaces where students and teachers can learn to be critical of all forms of violence. In the classroom – I speak here only as someone with a specific training as a high school social science teacher – this could take the form of student-led projects where they take a contemporary issue that they are concerned about (e.g. terrorism, domestic violence, economic inequality) and, with the support of teachers, critically examine the causes and consequences of it. They could present their work to others in class and invite a discussion or debate about what can be done. Students may even initiate campaigns in school and beyond that seek to address these issues. In this way, students can feel that what they do matters (because it does!), that they have the skills to unpack big issues, that they can disagree with others and try to convince them, and that they can work with others to oppose injustices. Teachers too can learn a lot from students in such classrooms – I certainly did.”

Low said it was important for teachers to keep an open mind and genuinely engage with what young people are thinking and talking about.

“In addition, schools and teachers can also establish positive relationships with the students and communities they work with so that they are aware of what matters to the people they work with. There are many schools that do this very well, and there are many teachers that do great work with their students in ways that my limited imagination cannot even conceive of. As I see it, my job is to support those schools and teachers to keep these spaces of engagement and learning open because these play a key role in countering violence of all sorts,” he said.

Where ISIS is particularly cunning is in the story that they tell: that all the suffering and oppression faced by Muslims around the world is part of a global conspiracy, and that they are the solution to it."

– Remy Low

Combating a perverted sense of social justice 

Low has analysed ISIS propaganda, and his research shows how ISIS tries to exploit and pervert a sense of social justice among young Muslims. He believes young people need to learn how to critically analyse ISIS messages and have a better understanding of the diversity of Muslim experiences around the world.

“There is no “natural” connection between what ISIS says and does on the one hand, and the great diversity of Muslims around the world on the other. What ISIS is attempting to do is make Muslims in their particular image, teaching them how to be and what to do according to their peculiar interpretations of Islam. This is not a new discovery. Muslims from around the world have been saying this from the very beginning. Where ISIS is particularly cunning is in the story that they tell: that all the suffering and oppression faced by Muslims around the world is part of a global conspiracy, and that they are the solution to it. What makes this lie so compelling, I think, is that it feeds on a half-truth that is hard to deny – that is, many Muslims around the world, including here in Australia, do experience hardships and persecution.”

The story ISIS is telling must be understood and critically unpacked, Low said.

“My sense is that if we do that, we’ll realise that they get a lot of their fuel from the anger at injustices faced by Muslims. I want to say that this anger is legitimate, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that people who express it are identifying with ISIS. As I’ve mentioned, I think what schools can do is to have classrooms where anger at injustices can be heard, and where teachers can work with students to explore ways of critically analysing the issues, of hearing different perspectives, and of acting for the betterment of the world. This is the basis of what is called “critical pedagogy” – that education should be about awakening people to the possibilities for social change,” he said.

Low said that the media is placing schools under a lot of stress over the issue of violent extremism, and this may be counterproductive to creating safe learning environments for young people.

 “I do think how we answer the question about what schools are supposed to be right now is tied up with what we think society should look like. So the stakes are high. Adding to the pressure on schools is the way the media reports on cases of suspected “radicalisation” in schools. We don’t need a PhD in media or cultural studies to discern the sensationalism that fuels such reports. What is particularly unhelpful is the way schools are named in these reports, which often also includes an obligatory picture of the school sign. It’s also not unusual for reporters to camp outside of these schools and solicit interviews from parents, students, and community members. This places a lot of stress on these schools, their staff and students, and the communities that these schools serve.”

Remy Low Remy Low

Radical, without the violence 

Low believes that anger expressed by young people should not be shut down.

“I worry that the spaces for critical engagement may be shut down because any expression of, say, anger about how Muslim people are treated and solidarity with the suffering of Muslim people worldwide is met with suspicion or panic. At worst, this creates a situation where young people either have to more-or-less accept the way things are, or they are marked out as a potential “security risk”. This mirrors the simplistic view that groups like ISIS promote: that the world is divided into an “us” and “them”.”

Being “radical” can be good thing, Low said, as long it does not involve violence.

“To be “radical” in a political sense is to want a change in the way society is fundamentally ordered. Lots of people want this, and for many good reasons that I’ve mentioned above. I don’t think this necessarily means that they are on a road to committing acts of violence, so to promote the idea that there is a causal link between becoming radical and violent extremism may not be helpful. An approach to countering violent extremism might be to actually make a clear distinction between becoming radical – or “radicalisation”, if you will – and violence. Indeed, challenging what is assumed to be the societal norm is necessary for a healthy democracy.”

“The women’s movement, the gay liberation movement, the struggle for Aboriginal sovereignty, are all good examples of challenges to the status quo that have called societal norms into question. So, in short, perhaps a better approach is not so much deradicalisation as radicalisation without resorting to violence,” he said.

The Point

Radical ideas are not always dangerous. They can be the trigger for positive and lasting social change.


Featured image:Daniele Marlenek


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