Thursday 7 January 2016, Claire Fox

The battle in the classroom

Teachers should be prepared to take on the reactionary ideas of youthful jihadi apologists.

A few days after the appalling attacks in Paris last November, France’s education minister, Najat Vallaud-Bellacem, 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 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 teenagers, for whom soothing, simplistic explanations won’t wash? What should teachers - in France, but also here in the UK - say to a generation whose peers where not only killed in Paris, but when the perpetrators and jihadi supporters, so often European-bred and educated, are a part of their generation? Younes Abaaoud, said to be youngest European jihadist fighting with ISIS in Syria, is the 13-year-old brother of Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected organiser of ISIS’s Paris attacks.

Firstly, can we cut out the cultural cringe? We need to be honest and admit that these are difficult times when mainstream narratives are often challenged by pupils. My fear is that teachers will be tempted to adapt to the increasing passive support for jihadi identity politics evident amongst pupils. When the French president, François Hollande, decreed that all schools should hold a minute’s silence for the victims, some French teachers were concerned at the imposition, recalling what happened following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Some, particularly 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.’ But I think we need to stop making excuses and turning away from such views, and instead confront them. I am not suggesting running to the Prevent officer, or banning unpalatable views. Yet too often these opinions are indulged, embarrassedly ignored and swept under the carpet, excused, and even sometimes sympathised with.

While undoubtedly such challenges may be more pronounced in the Parisian banlieues or Belgian Molenbeeck district (where teachers report avoiding teaching the Holocaust as it is too contentious), it is increasingly clear that there are those in the UK who sympathise with Islamism. While not waving the black flags of the Caliphate, I have met far too many sixth-formers who have confidently argued conspiracy theories in relation to 9/11 (a Zionist plot), 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 privileged over Arab lives, ‘so why should I mourn Westerners deaths?’

The problem is the way some in education believe 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. ‘So you favour a Caliphate; that’s an interesting idea; any other views?’ 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. Who wants to be accused of being Eurocentric, after all? Or even worse, maybe we will be labelled Islamophobic if we tell the 16-year-old lad, who has never lived outside Haringey, he is talking apologist rubbish when he asserts: ‘Now you know what it’s like to be on receiving end. It’s a taste of your own medicine.’

Of course, many Muslims themselves despair at such spineless cowering. In November, Labour’s London mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, delivered a damning speech criticising the left’s espousal of multiculturalism, accusing the political elite of ‘burying their heads in the sand’ over radicalisation (‘a cancer eating at the heart of our society, all the time’) and of allowing ’conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked’. On the Moral Maze, the Radio 4 programme on which I’m a panellist, it was Imam Dr Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, who most forcefully raged against and denounced those Westerners who are soft on the perverted brand of Islamist cultural practices (‘poisonous baggage’), from the burqa to Muslim-only schools. And to those educationists who argue that we need to be specially sensitive to Muslim pupils, show due respect for the Koran, watch what we say about Allah and so on, or we may create a backlash of Jihadi Janet and Johns: I can’t imagine anything more insulting. Is this a special breed of student who we need to be especially nice to and not criticise in case they become a murderous monster? If we pussyfooted around all pupils in that way, school discipline would be effectively destroyed.

The large majority of teachers are well intentioned and want to try and 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. This can manifest itself in tip-toeing around pupils’ sensitivities, combined with the weird educational idea propagated by some on the progressive fringe that assumes pupils won’t geddit unless they play-act empathy and make the story about ‘me, me, me’.

Even seemingly more objective and erudite approaches can be unhelpful too. 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, whereas 16 per cent of French Muslims reportedly say they have a positive opinion of ISIS, spiking at 27 per cent for those who are aged 18-24, just three per cent of Egyptians expressed a positive opinion of ISIS, and under one per cent of Lebanese respondents showed any support for them. Another teacher explained 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 night-clubs, drinking, rock and roll or more broadly freedom, choice, licence. 

So maybe rather than teaching Middle East studies, teachers would be better off running a course in French history. Rebellious youth with a taste for adventure? Give ‘em the French Revolution. Every generation needs a sense of purpose. 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 turn classrooms into modern-day coffee shops and salons, encouraging intellectual and philosophical conversation that can inspire. So if your Year 11s are attracted to non-traditional thinkers? Meet the philosophes, a group that championed personal liberties, and went against every social norm of their day. A familiarity with Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau might be just the antidote pupils need to the banal clichés of freedom-hating jihadists. Tell them about Diderot, editor of the Encyclopédie, which attempted to aggregate all human knowledge into one place, long before Wikipedia or the internet was dreamt of. For some real empathy, and a real sense of humans as active agents, get them to read Candide, Le Rouge et le Noir, Madame Bovary and Germinal. To have a sense of what Western civilization means, give them a taste of the aspirations for freedom expressed by radical writers such as Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir.

I expect many of you will disagree and I will be inundated with outraged abuse on Facebook and Twitter for sharing these ideas. My Western liberal opponents, many of whom are educationalists, have been deluging my in box 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 which backward, barbaric ISIS exploits. All the more reason to mobilise out historic moral and intellectual resources to face down not only the nihilist influence of today’s terrorists but their apologists in Western society, whose own ambivalence about Western values can all too easily add to the estrangement of today’s young. Teachers are key to winning this battle.

A version of this article was published by TES on 22 December 2015.


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