Tolerance, not terror: Preventing radicalisation (Part 2)

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In the second of her three-part series, Karen Sullivan continues her focus on the reasons behind young radicalisation and the potential role of schools in tackling this

In my last article, we looked at the growing problem of radicalisation in young people, and some of the causes of that growth (Tolerance, not terror, SecEd, November 2017: ).

Since then, an interesting article appeared in the national media. A British-born “jihadi bride” who married America’s most senior member of ISIS, claims that racism caused her to join the terror group. She is quoted as saying: “I faced a lot of racism. I was looking for a way to retaliate, and I wanted honour again.”

This is a common denominator in many cases of radicalisation and, of course, it has become increasingly self-perpetuating, as violence draws lines between faiths and xenophobia is enhanced. With every new terrorist attack, racism grows, thus feeding more young people to the radicalisers, the “sharks”, who prey on their vulnerability and feelings of despair, alienation and, of course, anger.

It is not “liberal” or wrong to take steps to point out the differences between hate and extremism, and the core beliefs of (in this case) the predominantly peaceful religion of Islam, and as educators, it is not just our role, but our duty to protect those who have been wrongly accused. All schools should have strong anti-racism policies, however, we must all go one step further and invite debate and actively teach young people tolerance.

Part of this is encouraging an understanding of different cultures and religions, to support informed conversations.
American organisation Teaching Tolerance focuses on teaching tolerance. In a feature on Islamophobia, it notes that 55 per cent of Muslim students surveyed reported experiencing some form of bullying related to their religious identity. They also found that individuals perceived to be Muslim – including Sikhs, Hindus and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent who are not Muslim – are often targets for abuse as well.

They take the case of Montgomery County Public School District in Maryland, who have comprehensively fought to address Islamophobia. Chris Murray, a social studies teacher at Walter Johnson High School, explained: “We look at Islam from three different perspectives: history, violent extremism and Islamophobia.”

The history of Islam acts as the introduction, he explains, helping students get a handle on vocabulary and context. The course then pivots to violent extremism – who and where such groups are, their motivations, and how they compare to extremists in other major religions, including Christianity.

Finally, students examine how the public’s view of Islam is shaped by popular media. They learn to identify the agendas of the “Islamophobia industry”: commentators, politicians and media outlets that profit by stoking fears about Muslims.

Their efforts also include an online system where students can report incidents anonymously, and these reports are rigorously followed up by teachers, who communicate the issues with the student body and actively seek solutions. In a nutshell, they have found that “religious literacy” has created a level of respect and tolerance. This is the type of thing we should all be aiming to achieve in our schools.

People who feel alienated are drawn to the idea of belonging – to a gang or, in this case, a “movement”, which provides them with a collective purpose and a shared kinship. If steps are not taken to create opportunities for young people to find this in a “safe” environment, they will find it elsewhere.

As the old DCSF guidance Gangs and Group Offending: Guidance for schools points out, “gangs may mobilise in response to conflict or events”, which deepens the potential for radicalisation in the current climate.

An obvious answer is to provide what UNESCO (in Stopping Violence in Schools: A guide for teachers) calls “a human rights-based approach to education”, which involves respecting human rights and which “supports the social and emotional development of children by ensuring their human dignity and fundamental freedoms, which are necessary for students to reach their full potential”.

They suggest including human rights and peace education in the school curriculum, and teaching students about their human rights as well as the rights of their “peers, teachers, family members and members of their community”. Similarly, we can aim to create “socially inclusive schooling”, which, according to White (1996) involves schools making an effort to enhance the experience of young people through giving effect to different types of positive social connection, including creating youth peer groups and space for particular kinds of friendship networks.

Gordon (2000) suggests that “schools have a positive role to play in providing positive pro-social alternatives to the choices that many young people make of participating in an illegitimate rather than legitimate group”.

Providing resources to support this through clubs, cultural and sporting events, and social groups, can help to create a positive group mentality. Moreover, working to produce “team spirit” among the pupils can be effective in creating a sense of belonging – a school song, a strong sense of community, a role in the community, student councils and opportunities to oversee some areas of school administration and strategy, student-driven projects and student-run clubs, competition with other schools, and more.

Most of all, there should be a genuine spirit of encouragement from the top down, with staff, administration and students all showing respect and maintaining a positive and collective “we can do it” mentality. All students should feel that they “belong” to both the school and all activities during and after school hours, and both students and staff should be alert to students who appear isolated or lonely.

While all this might seem trite, it’s worth looking at your own school to assess whether the spirit and the opportunities – the sense of inclusion, of belonging, of acceptance and tolerance – are really there. And if they are not, find ways to employ them as the first step in preventing just some of the factors that make students vulnerable to radicalisation.

In my next article (due to publish on December 7) we’ll look at signs that a student is being (or has been) radicalised, and what to do about it.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to



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