By TERI SCHULTZ, with BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – With Belgium under intense scrutiny for producing some of the perpetrators of the November 13 attacks in Paris, authorities are searching for methods to keep youths from becoming so disaffected they cultivate murderous plans. Two experts recently offered their suggestions for achieving that: a Belgian educator changing the way she talks about “values” so that all her students can better relate to the wider world, and a US Muslim woman who is actively exposing extremists in her own community.
Both recounted their experiences during a 1 December event here jointly hosted by the European Institute of Peace, the U.S Mission to the EU and the Counter Extremism Project (CEP).
Karin Heremans, co-chair of the working group on education within the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) and principal of Antwerp’s Royal Atheneum School, dates her first experience with the issue of radicalisation back to 9/11, when she’d been at her school job for just 10 days. She wanted to hold a moment of silence at the school for the US victims but found some students unwilling to participate out of the school’s composition of 60 nationalities. “There were a lot of tensions and it was not possible,” she said, adding that the only way to handle the situation was to “expand it and hold it for all victims of extremism all over the world”.
Fifteen years later – in the wake of the 13 November attacks in Paris – Heremans observed that the same divergent views prevailed among the students regarding a commemoration for the victims. “Since 2001 we always [have to] go to the middle and try to connect with every student,” she said. “It’s very important. It’s the foundation of my school.”
She noted that RAN has come up with an informal “manifesto” to be shared among schools across the EU to help them deal with the challenges, “which are far bigger” than anyone imagined. Stressing that the RAN plan targets right-wing as well as Islamist radicalisation, she said some of the recommendations challenge educators to “dare to communicate” about the threat.
According to Heremans, the current wave of radicalisation is evident again in schools, as it was after 9/11, and again in 2009 when Sharia4Belgium, a now-outlawed Islamist group, began targeting school kids for recruitment.
Her best advice as an antidote is to have those “difficult conversations” with students, other educators, government and other parties. At her school in Antwerp, this has meant a permanent adjustment of views and vocabulary. “We are trying to live together and learn together,” Heremans said. “We talk about ‘common values’, not ‘European values’.”
Fellow speaker Zainab Al-Suwaij agreed that radicalisation can usually be detected. . “It doesn’t just pop up just like that,” she said. “There are signs.”
Prompted by the 9/11 attacks, the Iraqi-born al-Suwaij left her teaching position at Yale to form the American Islamic Congress (AIC) to promote tolerance and fight radical Islam.
The AIC aims to uproot the “systematic ideological radical teaching” that Al-Suwaij says is infesting Muslim communities on many different levels. “Our responsibility as individuals and as an organisation is to raise awareness of that, and if we see or witness any kind of radical preaching.”
As a university student, al-Suwaij heard first-hand at an event in a US mosque the call by an imam for women to be beaten and for Jews to be killed. She went to the FBI, which had the imam deported. She said this kind of hate speech goes unchallenged all over the U.S. and the rest of the world, and that “if you teach these kind of things to youths and children, what kind of society do you expect?”
One of AIC’s programmes involved vetting the curriculum of a Saudi-run school in Washington DC. “The amount of hatred that was in there was beyond imagination,” she said, shaking her head. “We confronted the [Saudi] ambassador and they said they were going to change it. They removed some materials from the curriculum, but the teachers are still repeating the same messages over and over and over.”
AIC has started a student-led initiative called “Project Nur” on 70 college campuses, reaching 12,000 students, with messages of inter-faith understanding, in an effort to try to prevent radicalisation from taking hold.
While the counter-radical efforts of educators and groups such as RAN are important, their resources are far out-gunned by those of the country that has funded the more radical Wahhabists and their hate-filled messaging: Saudi Arabia.
If Muslim-Christian relations are on a knife-edge across the non-Muslim world, then a good chunk of the blame can be laid at Riyadh’s feet. It is not just jihadist terrorists that should be surveilled, but Saudi Arabia itself.
Scholars and policy insiders have known this for years but sounded far too few bells with policymakers. The world has finally woken up to the danger, however, and governments across the globe are now putting pressure on the country to take responsibility for its poisonous legacy to the world. Unfortunately, that pressure needs to be unrelenting for decades to come.