At the age of 16, following years of racist taunts from neighbouring kids and unwanted – and unwarranted – attention from the police, Maajid Nawaz decided to become an “Islamist”. It gave him, he says in his upcoming autobiography Radical, an assertive new identity that brought him respect amongst the gangs of Southend, UK, where he grew up. It also led him to the radical group Hizb al-Tahrir, to thirteen years of life committed to the cause, imprisonment in Egypt, and, eventually, a life beyond fundamentalism. Now he leads the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, advises government ministers on tackling extremist Islam and works to reverse radicalisation by taking on arguments and countering them.
The fact that Nawaz’s story began at school is a salutary reminder not only of how deeply prejudice is rooted, but of the consequences that it can have down the line. That our attitudes are set in childhood has long been known, and many teachers have observed kids of diverse backgrounds playing together at the age of five, only to see the same children jeering at each other across the playground at the age of 12. In a post 9/11 era, with stereotypes about “violent jihadists” stuck in the minds of many, intolerance is apparent everywhere, and schools are no exception. The end result is that Muslims today are increasingly experiencing discrimination that ranges from lost opportunities in education, housing, health and jobs, to name-calling and physical attacks.
No country can function well when such cracks appear, and governments are keen to act. Laws exist everywhere in Europe to ensure that citizens enjoy equal rights and freedom from discrimination, but attitudes are harder to change. Whilst public awareness campaigns have some effect, it is far more effective to build open-minded and respectful attitudes from primary school onwards. That is the reason why the Council of Europe, along with the OSCE and UNESCO last week launched a set of guidelines designed to help teachers – indeed anyone involved in education policy – to find ways to combat anti-Muslim behaviour in the classroom.
The Guidelines – available in five languages – are the fruit of a process of consultation across the whole of Europe and tap expertise from schools, youth organisations, politicians and academia. The aim is to give educators – both at primary and secondary level and in non-formal education – a blueprint for action in the classroom, starting from the assumption that teachers, no matter what their background, will be ready to share basic human rights values with their pupils. They include tips ranging from how to create inclusive discussions, to strategies for worst-case scenarios, mopping up violent incidents in their immediate aftermath and preventing further conflict in the future. Attitude changing lessons are suggested, such as delving into Islamic history and philosophy and exploring its scientific and cultural heritage. The guidelines also encourage partnership with the wider community; engaging in online discussion groups, or asking local religious leaders to talk about the beliefs and practices of Islam.
Maajid Nawaz’s story shows the strength of sharing at school age. Teenagers carry forward their parents’ prejudice and those on the receiving end are either victimised or radicalised. Teaching tolerance is not just about promoting “democracy” or “diversity”: it is also the most effective shield against extremism and violence.