In schools, radical thought is not always a bad thing

by Brett Henebery23 Jul 2015

As a teacher, how do you spot an extremist in your school? Is it what they believe? Is it how passionate they are about that belief? Is such a thing even possible to spot?

The Australian Multicultural Foundation (AMF) has been rolling out its Community Awareness Training Manual (CATM) to help communities answer these questions.

The manual is aimed at increasing awareness of the anti-social behaviours that can lead to criminal activity, something that has been on schools’ radars over the past year, especially following reports of extremist groups recruiting students.

However, Hass Dellal, who is the AMF’s executive director, said another key component of the program is to dispel the public misconceptions and misinformation about radicalisation that have warped the debate.

Some teachers and students may have difficulty understanding what actually constitutes radicalisation, leaving it open to speculation and bias.

“It is important to break down myths and misconceptions. Having a radical thought in itself isn’t a bad thing. It may mean you want to see big changes to society and may think there are things wrong with how things are now,” Dellal told The Educator.

“Some of our greatest leaders had radical ideas. It helps to develop innovation and creativity. Radical thinking only becomes a threat when individuals or groups engage in violence.”

It is for this reason that the AMF is working with communities to help bridge the knowledge and understanding gap around this issue.

“The key focus for the AMF program is prevention through early intervention for a range of anti-social behaviours that may affect young people going down the wrong path,” Dellal said, adding the current program will be designed like any other prevention program currently being delivered in schools.

“The current program supports community, family, friends, community organisations and service providers in being able to identify early warning signs of behaviours and changes in behaviours which could mean that a young person is vulnerable or at risk.”

Some worry that the discussion around how to help students recognise the anti-social behaviour of others – as well as their own – risks becoming entwined with the issue of extremist groups recruiting students. 

While the two issues are fundamentally separate, a challenge remains around how to distinguish the difference between behaviour that is completely harmless and potentially harmful.

The constant in this scenario is individual perception.

“The AMF is exploring with the education sector ways of redesigning and adapting sections of the CATM as an educational awareness tool,” said Dellal

“The so-called ‘jihadi watch strategies’, as adopted in some countries, are risky and doomed for failure.”

The importance of a nuanced debate on this issue is not lost on counter-radicalisation expert, Dr Clark Jones of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

Jones, a specialist in criminology, radicalisation and counter-terrorism told The Educator that the language being used by the Abbott Government regarding student radicalisation is only throwing fuel onto an already raging fire.

“I think we’ve gone overboard, Jones said, pointing to the Prime Minister’s comments that Islamic State was “out to get us”.

“There are a lot of things the Prime Minister has done that has over-securitised terrorism and made the threat sound a lot worse than it actually really is.”

Sharing this view, Federal Communications Minister, Malcom Turnbull, has called for cooler heads to prevail, telling the Sydney Institute that Islamic State was not “Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan or Stalin’s Russia”.

“Its leaders dream that they, like the Arab armies of the seventh and eighth century, will sweep across the Middle East into Europe itself,” said Turnbull, adding that alarmist commentary only gave credence to the terrorist organisation’s delusions.
 
In an article published yesterday, Katy Sian, a research fellow at the University of Manchester, wrote that the guidelines for identifying extremism are so vague “they risk making the most banal behaviour part of a wider global extremist conspiracy”.

“From my experience, most lecturers have not received training on how to spot an extremist – and I’m not convinced that such training is possible,” Sian wrote. 
 

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