Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Three Reasons Why Teachers Are Not Watchdogs for Violent Extremism

Three Reasons Why Teachers Are Not Watchdogs for Violent Extremism

The exclusive use of hard power will not win the battle, said Irina Bokova (Director General of UNESCO) during one of her recent lectures, emphasizing the importance of the use of soft power - such as education - in the struggle against violent extremism.

In recent years, an increasing amount of attention has been allocated to non-traditional tools in the challenge of preventing violent extremism. The role of education in preventing violent extremism has been repeatedly emphasized by authorities from a local to international level. For example, in the National Counterterrorism Strategy 2016-2020 by the Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism refers to educational institutes as entities with the knowledge and expertise to detect alarming behavior in an early stage, and act accordingly to prevent students from being new recruits of violent extremism movements. One must be careful expecting teachers to perform these tasks, as this may transform teachers into watchdogs for violent extremism, which is undesirable for at least three reasons.

A kid needs to be able to trust its teacher

In the transition of becoming an adult, youngsters may show temporary attitudes or behaviors that might be considered radical. Of course we expect a child’s parents to be of guidance in this transition. However, given their role of transferring knowledge and the amount of time teachers spend with these children, we expect them to play a role as well. Mutual trust between child and teacher is the key ingredient to succeed in this role. Without trust, a child will never be receptive to a teacher’s influence. This position of trust will be compromised, if teachers are imposed with a secondary and conflicting security role which urges them to identify children vulnerable to radicalization.

Extremism is not easy to recognize

Expecting teachers to detect alarming behavior, especially in its early stage, may be too much to ask. Extremism is very complex and can take a variety of forms. There is not one pattern that leads to extremism or one set of signs which lead to vulnerability for extremism. Moreover, it´s not clear how radical ideas translate into violent actions. According to John Horgan "The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research. "[First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don't necessarily hold radical beliefs."

Things can go terribly wrong

In some countries, such as the UK, teachers have a duty to identify children who are vulnerable to radicalisation. According to Davies, criticism arose after some cases of misunderstanding and overreaction, and stigmatisation of the Muslim community. In the UK, in November 2016, a teacher reported a seven year old Muslim boy to the police after mistaken a small piece of brass for a bullet. Another heavily publicized incident was that of the “Clock Boy”. In September 2015, Ahmed Mohamed brought his self-made clock to school, to impress his teacher, who subsequently notified the police as he thought the clock to be a bomb. Ahmed was arrested and deported by the police under the allegation of building a ‘fake bomb’.  

Nonetheless, when anyone performs actual unlawful behaviour under a teacher’s supervision, they should act accordingly. But, the strength of the role of education in preventing violent extremism is in the soft approach, in which teachers openly question values, engage in conversations on difficult and complex topics, and in which critical thinking and exchanging the variety of ideas and views is encouraged. Turning teachers into watchdogs for violent extremism will strongly undermine these important advantages.

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