30 Mar 2017
School deradicalisation programs should include study of different religions
The NSW government has identified 19 schools with students "at risk" of being exposed to violent extremist influences. In an attempt to prevent these vulnerable young people from being targeted, in-school counter radicalisation programs have been implemented.
A central part of these programs should be the comprehensive study of different religions to help students distinguish between religion and ideology. Students should be provided with knowledge about respectful encounters with religion. In addition to helping shield young people from the web of violent extremism, it would also foster a sense of inclusion in the schools and their broader community.
This crucial teaching is not currently happening.
For it to be implemented effectively, we would need appropriate training for teachers to ensure they have a solid understanding of different religions. Many teachers do not have sufficient education to instruct on the world's major religions. Few universities in Australia now have studies in religion programs, let alone religious studies as part of teaching programs.
Some would argue teaching religion in schools simply isn't appropriate. Yet the important historical separation of church and state concerns matters of governance: the church should not run the state, and the state should not run the church. These are important lessons for young citizens.
There are some legitimate concerns regarding the implementation of the counter radicalisation programs too. For one, it must be recognised that merely having these programs tends to stigmatise a school. Suggesting they are subject to violent extremism may be at odds with the community's self-perception. School teachers may be reluctant to stigmatise their students and risk compromising their relationships with them. This may be one reason some schools have been reluctant to be involved.
There is also a grey area where a student hasn't yet committed a violent act but a teacher may recognise something is wrong. It may be problematic if their only avenue is to approach police when a teacher may wish to help the student reconnect with their community and foster a sense of belonging.
It must be recognised schools play a crucial role in developing our young people and fostering their sense of inclusion in the Australian community - a key bulwark against radicalisation. Our teachers, not governments, are in the best position to notice behavioural changes in students and enhance the effectiveness of counter radicalisation messaging.
Observable behaviour may not always be indicative of radicalisation, but issues such as drugs, gangs or inter-generational conflict often are. Many pathways to radicalisation begin with vulnerabilities brought on by a traumatising event where the student develops a need for identity that's fulfilled by an extremist narrative.
Yet a few hours of training is not going to make a teacher attuned to all the puzzle pieces that provide a foundation for motivating violent extremism. Without sufficient knowledge, well-meaning efforts may produce adverse consequences.
Where a student's behaviour indicates they're beyond the capabilities of a school's support system, teachers will need to be able to refer cases to trained professionals for intervention. Schools already do this in cases of drug and alcohol abuse or mental health issues.
Typically schools take it as their core mission to teach critical thinking: learning to think clearly is one of the reasons for educating students in the first place.
Apart from introducing studies on comparative religion in our schools, we shouldn't ignore the benefits of teaching critical thinking in school counter radicalisation programs. Extremists see things in black and white. If students are able to think in a more complex way, they'll be better able to reject radical messages.
Originally published: The Sydney Morning Herald. 30 March 2017.
Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the ANU's National Security College and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.