Leap of faith

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 1 July 2014 in Feature

Is Islamic radicalisation a threat to Scotland’s education system and what is the role of religion in school?

The appearance of a young man from Aberdeen imploring young Muslims to join “the fight for Allah” shocked Scottish society.

The video gave Islamic radicalisation a Scottish accent, sweeping away any notion that the problem of Islamic radicalisation was mainly an English one. The media reacted quickly and politicians across the political spectrum were quick to urge caution.

In PMQs Kevin Stewart, the SNP member for Aberdeen Central, said: “The appearance in an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – ISIS – recruitment video of a young man who was raised in Aberdeen has shocked our Muslim community and all the people of the city. Does the First Minister agree that one individual’s actions should not reflect on an entire community? Will he join me in calling on all Aberdonians to continue to live together as good neighbours, in peace and solidarity?”

Alex Salmond replied, agreeing ‘whole-heartedly’ with Stewart’s statement.

“One purpose of extremism is to seek to divide communities. We have been and continue to be constantly vigilant about radicalisation. Police Scotland has been active in monitoring that but also in engaging with and building strong relationships with the Muslim community.”

He continued: “As Kevin Stewart said, the actions of any individual should not and must not be seen as reflecting in any way mainstream opinion in any community of Scotland. We know from experience how well the country can react to such challenges. The integrated community response to the attack on Glasgow airport in 2007 showed Scotland at its very best. I believe that all fair-minded people in Aberdeen and across the country will support our zero-tolerance approach to any attempt to demonise or encourage hate crime against the Muslim community or any other minority group in Scotland.”

Salmond’s reaction is revealing – any politician discussing the issue walks a tightrope between taking any threat seriously and being careful to avoid creating hysterical headlines.

Speaking to Holyrood, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Liam McArthur said: “I think it should certainly remove any complacency that Scotland is somehow immune from the problem of a radicalised youth and I think we absolutely need to be part of the discussions that are happening across the UK about how we deal with that potential threat. At the same time, I think it would not necessarily be helpful to overplay the threat either – we need to guard against any risk that this then encourages a reaction against the Muslim community in Scotland – that would be highly unfortunate. So yes, there is a risk there, we can’t stand apart from it and say it is nothing to do with us – because that is clearly not the case – but we also need to set it in context and one of the best ways, I would say, of reducing the likelihood of these cases arising is in investing more time, effort and resources in ensuring that relationships between various communities in Scotland are as positive as they can be.”

The video – and the media’s reaction – came shortly after the Birmingham‘Trojan Horse’ scandal – revolving around allegations that radical Islamic groups had attempted to infiltrate Birmingham schools.

The school inspectors’ head, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said "a culture of fear and intimidation has taken grip" in a cluster of schools, while the report stated that head teachers had been "marginalised or forced out of their jobs".

David Cameron reacted by suggesting that there could be snap inspections of schools, while UK Education Secretary Michael Gove said that children must be made aware of "the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs."

He said: “We already require independent schools, academies and free schools to respect British values. Now we will consult on strengthening this standard further, so that all schools actively promote British values."

Critics leapt on the comments, accusing the Government of stirring up division and reinforcing negative stereotypes. Gary McLelland, Education Policy Officer for the Humanist Society Scotland, questions what Gove meant by his statement.

“Michael Gove’s reaction to the Birmingham schools incident, whilst understandable, wasn’t the right one. It’s still unclear exactly what Michael Gove and other UK Government ministers mean by ‘British values’. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, provoked a backlash from prominent humanists and academics for suggesting that Britain is still a ‘Christian country’. Is this what Mr Gove hopes to promote through the education system?”

He continued: “If the Birmingham incident has shown us anything, it is that when one ideology (religious or otherwise) is given unfair prominence and unquestioning deference in the education system, the results are stark. Educational establishments are first and foremost a place of learning, or academic endeavour, for being challenged and encouraged to question and think for yourself. Educational establishments do not exist to promote ethnic or cultural identities.

“Of course, as a humanist organisation we support the idea of an integrated education system, one in which children are not separated according to the religious identity of those children. What a wonderful opportunity we have to bring all children together, to learn and work together. The truth is that there is no such thing as ‘British values’, but human values; the values of fairness, equality, democracy and solidarity with each other. It’s important to be mindful that children entering primary school in Scotland in August are likely to still be active in the workforce in 2070! It is impossible to forecast what kind of world these children will be living in, but we can be sure that science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be integral to that global economy. This is where our children’s future lies, not in the misguided and insular notion that Britain has a monopoly on ethical values.”

McArthur too questioned what Gove meant by the idea of a British identity. He said: “I have always struggled with the notion of a British identity in the same way that I struggle with the notion of a Scottish one. I come from a part of the country with very strong Norse roots that sees itself as very different to other parts of the Highlands, let alone other parts of central belt Scotland. I think it is illustrative of the problems that you create when you start to talk about a single identity. Absolutely, there are principles in terms of the rule of law and tolerance and all the rest of it that need to be reinforced in schools and through wider work in communities across the UK but I think there is a danger in oversimplifying the extent to which people will feel a single identity. I think most people will have multiple identities, or very complex identities, and there is a risk that that reaction, if we are not careful, ends up exacerbating the problem in the sense of otherness and difference rather than making the situation better.”

The feeling expressed by McArthur and McLelland is pretty widely held across Scotland and it is highly unlikely that the Scottish Government will take the same sort of approach as Gove – or employ the same rhetoric.

McLelland says: “In Scotland there have been, to my knowledge, only two attempts to establish Islamic schools in Scotland. In 2003, in Glasgow, there was a controversial takeover bid by some Muslim parents of a Roman Catholic primary school. It must be said that this takeover bid did not succeed, and that was largely due to the response of a vast number of Muslim parents in Glasgow who took a proactive stance against the move, concerned that such a takeover bid would foster negative relations against Glaswegian Muslims.”

But even if there is a consensus that either demonising a whole community for the action of an individual or attempting to force some sort of blurred concept of identity onto to the young would not help, Scotland still has its own challenges in determining the right place for religion in education.

And while the education system is devolved, the issue of national security is not, meaning that Holyrood and Westminster will need to find common ground in their approach to the ISIS recruitment video.

As McArthur puts it: “The threat posed by radicalisation is not just a UK threat, it is an international threat and therefore it needs to be part of a collaborative effort and given the responsibility for wider issues of foreign affairs, immigration and all the rest of it. I suspect that there are links that need to be made at a UK level. Obviously this is an issue that has been brought home forcefully in a Welsh context, given the context that some of those who have been radicalised lived in Cardiff. So I think the notion that this is something that solely happens in Birmingham or in large cities in England has been undermined and that therefore a collaborative effort is required.”

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