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How do we teach children about modern day issues such as fear of immigrants and terrorism?

By Marie Parker-Jenkins

New arrivals from the Syrian War have placed the footlight on key issues of immigration and identity. For many, identity is multi-faceted but religion can be a key factor. After fleeing war-torn countries, people may wish to unite around their religious community – particularly if the reason for leaving is connected to freedom from religious persecution. This has been the experience of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the recent Middle East conflict.

Reaching In, Reaching Out discusses how parents are attracted by the opportunity for their children to attend a religious school which reflects the values of the home. Dating back to the 19th Century, there has traditionally been state-funded support for Christian schools in the country – later extended to those established by Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. In such institutions there tends to be more consensus about religious instruction, pupil uniform and school curriculum, which serves as a uniting force.

Added to this, the experience of hostility and discrimination from the wider society can reinforce a decision for people to reach in, as the religious school community is seen as a safe haven from racism. Some institutions may be seen as ‘fortress schools’ in terms of needing a high level of security from this external hostility. Although religious communities have different capacities in terms of financial and social capital to mobilize, crucially they aim to provide a secure environment for their pupils. Only from a position of security is a faith school likely to feel comfortable in reaching out to the external community.

Developing mutual respect and tolerance have been strained recently, in part due to the ongoing fear of terrorism. In the UK, Germany and elsewhere there are calls for more national unity as a reaction to these events. Multiculturalism has been judged to have failed and to have encouraged tolerance of the intolerant.

The move to the political right

Far Right politics show a backlash to the recent flow of migrants entering Europe and a fear of immigrants. In the USA, Donald Trump has capitalized on this, expressing what others may be too fearful to say in a ‘politically correct’ society. So dislike of gays, Muslims, women, disabled and Black communities have all featured in his political statements. Such discourse is said to help legitimize violence, a suggested motive in the death of MP Jo Cox prior to the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, which was significantly influenced by issues of immigration and prejudice, how should we move forward?

We are now confronted by the ‘Prevent’ strategy, designed to stop people become or support terrorists, and the promotion of fundamental ‘British Values in Schools’ as part of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. These policies have replaced the community cohesion and ‘Big Society’ agenda. While the early initiatives focused on all communities, the Prevent and BVS strategies seem to be targeting immigrants and Muslim children in particular, along with a shifting emphasis from learning to live together to preventing and combatting radicalization.

From the Bataclan to the burkini

This sense of unease is felt elsewhere. France particularly has been caught up in debates of immigration, racism and the extent of tolerance towards those who are different. Under French law (1905), the separation of state and religion has led to the development of a secular state which has influence over all aspects of life including choice of dress by religious groups.

If a French House of Fashion introduced beach wear akin to a wetsuit to protect against the elements, it is not likely to be seen as a symbol of terrorism. Yet the use of the burkini or full-cover swimwear has recently led to this allegation, raising issues of gender and choice of dress in the public domain. Ordering Muslim women to take off their clothes at French beaches demonstrates increasing fear, particularly since the Charlie Hebdo shooting and Bataclan attack. People are understandably concerned about national security, but the misguided attempt to ban the burkini was not the way forward.

Unwillingness to integrate in a new society and a desire to have facial covering is perceived as failing to interact and being divisive. This is played out in the media on a daily basis. Muslim women who choose to wear the ‘hijab’ head covering, the ‘niqab’ veil or full gown ‘burqa’ are perceived by some sections of the media as symbolizing terrorism in our midst.

So what is the role of schools in this culture of fear?

Schools are the space where children and young people learn about others; they are not neutral places. Religious school communities claim they do not preach intolerance and that violence and terrorism is antithetical to their beliefs. Yet faith schools and particularly those based on Islamic principles have been singled out as allegedly preaching intolerance.

What should be the position and role of religious schools? Some advocate their abolition, citing them as responsible for the present state of affairs. That is unlikely to happen, not just as a result of a potential backlash from the 11 state-funded Muslim schools in the country, but from Christian and other religious communities which operate nearly six and a half thousand schools.

There is a shift from welcoming minority groups and religious communities to viewing them with suspicion. One of the things we know about young people attracted to terror groups is the lack of belonging. Bridging the gulf between people is through embedded and sophisticated forms of engagement as part of the way forward.

There is responsibility on all sides. Faith schools aim to provide children with a roadmap for their lives but they should not have a license to deny their pupils access to knowledge and appropriate links to the wider society. All schools regardless of their religious character need to make efforts to connect with and engage on behalf of their pupils.  There are a range of possibilities as shown in the book: not for pupils to be in competition, like at sports events, but in cooperation, to work with and learn from each other.

In our lifetime this has never been more vital as we help support young people’s fear of others, played out in the media – and at times expressed in the schoolyard.

Importantly, fear should be dealt with by talk, opening up age-appropriate dialogue and providing opportunities to learn positively about people outside your own religious or non-religious group.

Marie Parker-Jenkins is Professor of Education in the Department of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Limerick, researching issues of social justice with particular reference to ‘race’ and ethnicity. Before having an academic career in the UK, she lectured in Bermuda, Canada and Australia where she obtained practical knowledge of children from culturally diverse backgrounds. She is the author of over 100 publications including books, reports, conference and journal articles. Her research has included study of the expansion of religious schools, particularly those based on an Islamic ethos; and in her consultancy capacity, she has provided workshops on such subjects as citizenship, community and social identity. She has taught in five universities before coming to Limerick, and her current research is concerned with responding to diversity within the Irish context.

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