Sunday, November 1, 2015

Quotable: Jonathan Russell on “demythologizing extremism”

Saturday, October 31st 2015
“False narratives are poisonous to developing minds, and the one propagated by Islamist extremists is especially deadly. Charismatic ISIL recruiters exploit perceived grievances and feelings of alienation among vulnerable children, convincing them that life under ‘The Caliphate’ is full of heroic purpose. This story, plainly untrue to anyone familiar with ISIL’s crimes, can be alluring to impressionable teenagers already receptive to ‘Us vs. Them’ dichotomies.”  Jonathan Russell of the Quilliam Foundation this opened his September 17, 2015, article, “Demythologising extremism: Teachers are ideally placed to counter extremist narratives before they fully take hold of pupils,” on the Foundation’s website. 

Radicalisation is a genuine social ill, and one as contrary to liberal values and human rights as racism, bullying, homophobia, and sexual grooming. To instruct a schoolchild in extremism may not provoke the same sense of instant, visceral horror as the latter, but the danger it poses is just as pronounced,” he continued.

Russell reviewed the appeals made to English secondary school students by jihadist recruiters, the responsibilities of teachers under the United Kingdom’s Counter Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, and the Qulliam Foundations’ work to help teachers discern “signs of radicalization” -- whether students are leaning toward leaving home to join ISIS.  He also provided a link to a new video produced by the Foundation.

The ISIL recruiter’s process is not dissimilar to that of modern sexual grooming: initial contact is very often made via social media, the conversation transitions to a private instant messaging service, and over time, the victim is coaxed into doing something they otherwise would not. Recruiters will use funny cartoons illustrating the jihadist mind-set and the perceived injustices committed by Western governments; they’ll make videos about the honour of martyrdom; they’ll use every shiny digital bauble at their disposal to entice prospective converts. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it does sometimes work. * * * * *

In-classroom software might allow you to block dangerous domains, but where particularly vulnerable children are concerned, this frequently won’t be enough. Firstly, any moderately savvy pupil will, after being blocked once or twice, simply change their tactics. All it takes is a Google search on how to circumnavigate network blocks and they’ll have access to the information they want. Secondly, you won’t always know when a pupil is engaged in this kind of behaviour: to the untrained eye, much extremist vocabulary fits seamlessly alongside standard, often incomprehensible teenage jargon. “YODO”, for example, stands for “You Only Die Once”; “jihobbyist” indicates tentative support for jihadist goals without being a member of any particular extremist organisation. * * * * *

The life of an ISIL soldier or bride is romanticised by Islamists and framed as part of a higher moral crusade. The narrative they peddle to children is of heroic fighters waging a just war against an evil oppressor: of glory in victory, and reconciliation with Allah in defeat. If something negative appears in Western news, it’s either a gross distortion – and therefore exactly what you’d expect from ‘the kuffar media’ – or justifiable in the context of ‘Western imperialism’.  By the time reality sinks in for the convert, it will be too late.

Dismantling this false narrative should be a priority for educators of at-risk pupils. Preventing them from accessing extremist material at school is one thing, but if they then seek it out at home or elsewhere then precious little has been accomplished. When a pupil has viewed this material, the sensible approach is not to limit their computer privileges or pass it on to the authorities, but to have an honest conversation about why they find extremist mythology so attractive – and to set about deconstructing it with appropriate support.

. . . the narrative peddled by extremist recruiters is convenient, and neglects to mention that the inalienable rights we have in the UK – to freely speak our minds, practice our religions, and cohabit with whoever we please – are expressly rejected by ISIL. The best way to effectively safeguard schoolchildren is to give them a general understanding of good, universal human rights. The UK may be a far cry from political or cultural perfection, whatever that may be, but here you can be simultaneously British, Muslim, gay, and Pakistani and still live a productive, happy life.

We recently produced #NotAnotherBrother, a short film designed to reinforce these positive values – and combat this propaganda head-on. Ironically, for all their professed hatred of Western culture, ISIS videos take more than a few cues from Hollywood. There’s the soundtrack, carefully calibrated to build suspense and anxiety – even as you know what’s coming. It’s also worth thinking about the legitimately high-quality cinematography: an imposing figure in a balaclava framed against a vast, beautiful desert; rows of prisoners marching on a beach towards a sadly certain fate. The production values are excellent; one suspects their recruiters might not have had such success with a self-shot smartphone effort.

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