Practical advice for schools and colleges to address the "Punish A Muslim" letter

April 3rd has been nominated by a tiny hate-filled band of people as ‘Punish a Muslim’ day.  An unknown far right hate group is sending out letters suggesting a scale of points awarded for various acts of hate and destruction against British Muslims.  This has inevitably triggered counter action and demonstrations by those protesting against Islamophobia. 

Denying female agency

There is a terrible dilemma in surfacing the religious/ethnic background of both ISIS perpetrators and the grooming gangs in Rotherham and Telford, without playing into the hands of hate groups. Clearly, in both violent extremism and organized sexual violence, it is a tiny minority involved.    Yet it doesn’t matter how often the statistics are repeated, the spread to all Muslims and to all Islam as a religion is invoked by hate groups, and preyed upon by those who want to divide us.

Yet people don’t say Punish a Christian because of the abuse of young boys by Church of England or Catholic priests.  It’s horrendous, but we know it’s not the bulk of Christian clergy, let alone Christians nationwide.  Is such conduct normalized through religion or in spite of religion? This will vary.  Perpetrators decriminalise their own actions, but we need to continue to portray perpetrators as outside the norm, as extreme, if we are not stir up mass suspicion or condemnation.

About Prof Lynn Davies

Lynn Davies is Emeritus Professor of International Education at the University of Birmingham, UK and Co-Director of the ConnectFutures.   She has worked extensively in the area of education and conflict, and for the last 15 years specifically in education, extremism and security.

She has acted as a senior consultant on areas of counter-extremism for a number of international agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, GIZ, OSCE and Club de Madrid, as well as the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network.

In 2014 she was given the Sir Brian Urquhart award for service to the U.N and its goals by a UK citizen.

LinkedIn @Prof Lynn Davies

Labelling Muslims as perpetrators

There is a terrible dilemma in surfacing the religious/ethnic background of both ISIS perpetrators and the grooming gangs in Rotherham and Telford, without playing into the hands of hate groups. Clearly, in both violent extremism and organized sexual violence, it is a tiny minority involved.    Yet it doesn’t matter how often the statistics are repeated, the spread to all Muslims and to all Islam as a religion is invoked by hate groups, and preyed upon by those who want to divide us.

Yet people don’t say Punish a Christian because of the abuse of young boys by Church of England or Catholic priests.  It’s horrendous, but we know it’s not the bulk of Christian clergy, let alone Christians nationwide.  Is such conduct normalized through religion or in spite of religion? This will vary.  Perpetrators decriminalise their own actions, but we need to continue to portray perpetrators as outside the norm, as extreme, if we are not stir up mass suspicion or condemnation.

Admittedly one has to acknowledge realities.  One of the placards in a recent counter-demonstration read ‘Sexual violence has no race or religion’.  This is nonsense.  The rape of Yazidi women and girls, the rape of Rohingya women and girls, the capture and abuse of the girls by Boko Haram:  all these have a fundamental racial/religious basis.  Closer to home, survivors of Rotherham reveal how perpetrators repeatedly called them “white trash” and worse because they purportedly violated norms of purity, virginity, modesty and obedience.  Just as those who went to fight in Syria did so because they were told it was their duty, these men used the excuse of having a duty to find and abuse white girls. The same twisted logic applies to both

Is race or religion significant in the discussion?

Organized sexual violence is nearly always about race and/or religion, as there has to be some justification found for the dehumanization of females – they are not just women, but have shown themselves to be sub-human by violating some norm. Throughout history, categories of people have been designated as not worth respect or even living in order to justify their treatment.

Ella Hill wrote in her recent Independent article:

I witnessed the ways young men are groomed to become perpetrators by older grooming gang members. It’s very similar to the tactics used in grooming for terrorism, with love-bombing, emotive language (“brother”, “cuz”, “blud”), and promises of wealth and fame, then humiliation, controlling with guilt and shame, training with weapons, and instilling hate and fear of outsiders.

At the national level, there is an argument therefore that organized sexual violence ought to be dealt with under counter-terror, rather than – or as well as – under child abuse or paedophilia or domestic violence.  The same features of status, money, masculinity and excessive demonstrations of religious zeal appear.    It’s all about cults, and hence experts in extremism and de-radicalisation ought to deal with it.  So an interesting discussion would be whether Prevent should be extended to sexual extremism.  The use of terror straddles both groups.

Our response: Education: Immediate responses to Punish A Muslim Day

At the educational level, there are the immediate and then the longer term approaches for dealing with extremist occurrences such as #PunishAMuslimDay. While there are considerable fears about getting things wrong or the temptation to ignore the issue we believe such conversations can prove to be a healthy outlet for building critical thinking skills. Talking with teachers, we have found them suggesting the following:

  • Schools, colleges and communities using the opportunity to have a conversation with young people about hate crime and its impact, through assemblies and classroom discussions. This could include exploring why these letters are being sent and what the author may set out to achieve.
  • Exploring the consequences and the power of social media where the regional Muslim recipients of these letters (including MPs) have shared details, which highlighted the appalling nature of the day but at the same time meant the sender(s) of the letter receiving additional publicity and causing fear
  • Empower your students (secondary/college) to be able to distinguish the arguments being made to define what is right and wrong and how they would counter this in a discussion. Staff may encounter some students who may even agree with the message and may need to address this.
  • A discussion with both peers and adults so that young people have an outlet to talk about fear, rumour and fake news and the importance of having open questions so that a safe space can be created
  • Ensuring students and teachers remain vigilant on the day
  • Reminding students to go to staff if they feel worried and want to have a chat
  • Take the opportunity to ensure that school safety procedures are up to date and staff are reminded of protocols they may need to follow
  • It’s important to ensure that the message is age appropriate by staff when addressing this topic with younger students and older age children
Long term answers

Longer term responses should be embedded in the overall safeguarding strategy, so that the various approaches that are already in place – say within PHSE, history, social studies or religious education – can be called upon, and students reminded of these.  Across all types of extremism these include:  raising awareness of how people get drawn into gangs/cults/movements, and the tactics of radicalisers and sexual predators;  through Holocaust or apartheid education, raising awareness of how sections of people became dehumanized;  building individual resilience to on-line and off-line messaging;  tackling the normalization of violence;  and tackling masculinity and distortions of masculinity.

A rights based approach is applicable and valuable for both areas:  the equal right to respect, to dignity, to freedom from harm, to life itself.  According to international conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we don’t have the right to punish – even if bits of the Bible or Quran do sanction beating.  We do not have a duty to hate, still less to act on such hatred.

Caitlin Spencer in her gruelling book Please Let Me Go – subtitled ‘the horrific true story of a girl’s life in the hands of traffickers – relates how she didn’t tell her friends or parents, feeling ashamed of how stupid she had been to get drawn into a cycle of multiple rapes over years, and fearing the threats that were made to her and her family.  By the time she was badly hurt and tried to tell the police and medical staff of the extent of her abuse (and the abuse of others) she was simply not believed.   She deeply regrets not telling her friends who might have been able to save her.  There’s something here about encouraging young people to look out for each other, to be aware of warning signs.

And finally…

In the Punish a Muslim letter, the call is to ‘do something’, with rewards for various Islamophobic actions.  Ironically, it says ‘don’t be a sheep and follow orders’ – while ordering people to commit acts of harm.  The key task of education has to be the constant, constant stress on independent, critical thinking.  It’s also about considering whether revenge and punishment are sustainable actions:  as Ella Hill pointed out, violent counter attacks by far left or far right won’t improve anything.  In fact, from her experience, rising anti-Muslim hate will probably make groomers stronger in their convictions, and drive ordinary young Muslim men towards fundamentalism, grooming gangs and terrorism.

So let’s make April 3rd a day of respect, non-violence and looking out for each other – let’s make it what should be a normal day.

 

Check for more details  of our resources, workshops (staff and students) and videos on www.connectfutures.org

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