Prevention Work in Schools: The Kids Are All Right

Bildschirmfoto 2018-02-17 um 21.39.34Experiences of discrimination and marginalisation are widespread among young Muslims in Germany. Mistrust and exclusion create a climate in which radicalisation becomes possible. Jochen Müller (ufuq.de) stresses the importance of addressing these issues in education.

‘No, I’m not Charlie!’ wrote a 15-year-old student with an Arab background, when her teacher asked the class to write an essay about the attack on Paris and the ‘Islamic State’ (IS). ‘But I am the destroyed Gaza, the slaughtered Syria, the starving Africa, the divided Kurdistan, […] the occupied Afghanistan, the oppressed Egypt, the bombed Libya, the besieged refugee camps in Yarmouk and Daraa, the forgotten Guantanamo.’ With this, the student referred back to a text written by Frankfurt rapper SadiQ, which was circulating on the Internet and spontaneously gained thousands of likes from young people.

Bildschirmfoto 2015-07-03 um 09.28.58Jochen Müller is an Islamic scholar and co-founder and co-head of ufuq.de.

Such positions initially have nothing to do with Salafism or the IS. In most cases, they do not express sympathy with the attackers in Paris. On the contrary, they are an expression of protest and display a sense of non-belonging. ‘Millions of people demonstrate their shock and outrage for the murdered cartoonists, but nobody here is talking about our dead.’ This is the reproach that many young people share in the globalised classrooms of Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Essen, as well as in Paris, Marseilles, and Toulon. Of course, such provocative attitudes of young people are challenging – and it is mainly Salafists who know how to use these sorts of opinions for their own gain. The indignation with which many teachers respond to such opinions, or the media outrage against young adults who refused to observe the minutes of silence for the victims of the shooting, may be understandable. Nonetheless, they do obscure the opportunities for education and prevention that are opening up here. However, one step at a time.

What makes Salafism attractive to young people? This question has been asked time and again in recent months. First, it should be noted that the vast majority of young German Muslims are rather embarrassed by preachers like Pierre Vogel. Furthermore, amongst the few Salafists who believe that they have to ‘defend’ Islam in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan by force, there are also many converts of German origin. This serves as the first indication that it is not ‘Islam’ that drives young people to radicalisation. Their biographies show that experiences of alienation, powerlessness, lack of perspective and neglect make Salafist offers of community, direction and simple interpretations of the world seem attractive. Incidentally, other extremist strains also make such offers.

‘The Germans will never accept me’

Complicated, contradictory and burdensome family histories often play a central role in the process of radicalisation. This is especially true for the small group of people willing to use violence, who are offered an outlet for their frustration and anger by the religiously motivated radical ideology. On top of this, they are also offered the chance to feel powerful, superior and on the ‘right side’ in their lives.

In addition, experiences of discrimination and non-belonging play a role for almost all young people with migration backgrounds. ‘The Germans,’ it is said, for example, ‘will still ask me in a hundred years, where I’m from, just because I have black hair.’ Young people are particularly sensitive to what the barometer of public opinion has long documented: the majority of Germans regard Islam and Muslims with scepticism or hostility, up until the point of exhibiting blatant racism. Media and politics also often seem to suggest that these young people should renounce Islam if they want to ‘belong,’ because their religion is allegedly incompatible with democracy, basic rights or the ‘Christlich-Abendländische Leitkultur’ (‘Christian-Occidental core culture’). Salafists not only provide these young people with a platform and outlet for their experiences of discrimination and injustice, but also give them the feeling of being recognised and welcomed because of their religion. They are given a sense of belonging.

It is precisely these German-born third and fourth generation adolescents who are much more aware than their parents and grandparents that Germany is their home. This means that they are even more sensitive to experiences where they do not feel accepted for who they are and for what is important to them. This often leads to youngsters referencing back to their own identity in an exaggerated way (‘Isso bei uns’) or to various forms of self-ethnicisation. If young people proclaim loudly and provocatively in school, not to be ‘German,’ but ‘Turkish,’ ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim,’ or if they declare that the Sharia (which they often have no idea about) is more important than the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, they are quickly denounced for expressions of segregation and for withdrawing into ‘parallel societies’ or even Islamism. However, here there is a basic misunderstanding.

In fact, the opposite is often the case. When adolescents emphasise ‘their’ culture or religion, this usually reflects their desire to be included in and recognised as a part of society, along with their own particular characteristics. Behind their statements of, ‘hello, here we are’ or ‘we are also a part of the German people’ – as the rapper Alpa Gun formulated in his popular piece ‘Ausländer’ (‘foreigner’) – lies the legitimate request to honour the promise of the ‘immigration society.’ The fact that this demand is sometimes exaggerated, or aggressively and offensively stated (‘pork eater,’ ‘German slut’), can be very difficult for teachers. However, understanding can be achieved when less attention is paid to the superficial provocation and, instead, the hidden desire for integration is concentrated upon.

Parents and grandparents often can’t cope

In the search for allegiance and attention in the wake of 9/11, a whole generation of young people with Muslim migration backgrounds have discovered Islam as the lowest common denominator. This shared experience has been identified even though, or perhaps, exactly due to the fact that Muslims are under general suspicion – most recently after the attacks in New York. Religiosity often plays a minor role; instead Islam is the integral part of the self-image of a minority, which, in their view, must be defended.

The search of young, more or less religious German ‘Muslims’ is initially emancipatory and inclusive (though not in all their manifestations) because they aim to be recognised as equal parts of the multicultural society. However, it becomes problematic when young people get no answers to their questions or responses that are ideologically influenced. Parents and grandparents often can’t cope: for example, when their understanding of religion is trapped in the traditions of their regions of origin. Additionally, the local imam is usually not the best person to talk to; he is often unfamiliar with Facebook or the shopping centres where teenagers spend a lot of their free time.

This is where the Salafists, who are omnipresent on the Internet, come into play. They explain to young people, in German, what is right and what is wrong and what they should and shouldn’t do in order to be a ‘good Muslim.’ Such simple answers are attractive to a great deal of people. Many youngsters do not even realize that the Salafist ideology is devaluing ways of thinking and living which deviate from the their rigid understanding of Islam. This is how far in advance of their radicalisation the ideologisation of youth begins.

So, if the 15-year-old student continues, ‘No, I’m not Charlie. I am the 1.5 million dead Muslims who have been killed by the bloody hand of the Western powers in recent years,’ then she is still some way from becoming a Salafist. We should avoid hasty conclusions. But she does formulate a widespread belief on which Salafism can effortlessly build. Resentment based on their own experiences of discrimination (and those of other Muslims, primarily their parents) feeds into a sweeping image of the enemy. ‘The West,’ they claim, has always been fighting ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims.’ This is exactly where the Salafists position their key message: ‘As a Muslim, you will never belong. Come to us. Here you can defend yourself. Together we are strong!’ This thinking can, in individual cases (but always in conjunction with other motives!), give legitimacy to violence and terror.

So what is to be done? First of all, a much clearer distinction has to be made between deradicalisation and prevention. Currently, when speaking about prevention, deradicalisation is mostly meant. Deradicalisation aims to reach out to young people who are already ideologised and potentially radicalised. Experience from extreme right-wing extremism shows that exit processes can take years. As a rule, measures for deradicalisation are initiated when the young people are already radicalised. This takes place in close cooperation with security authorities. Programmes and initiatives for prevention, on the other hand, have been far too rare. Acute threat scenarios and images of the terror of IS have made too-prominent an appearance. This imbalance should be corrected. The ‘prevention networks’ that are currently emerging in various federal states offer the opportunity for this.

German and Muslim should not have to be a contradiction

Prevention is citizenship education. Well before possible ideologisation and radicalisation processes can begin, preventive work focuses proactively on ‘normal’ young people in schools and youth facilities. In relation to Salafism, however, citizenship education takes place in a specific context. Young people with migration backgrounds, in particular, need space in which they can speak freely about questions of origin, affiliation, identity, culture and religion – otherwise there is a risk that others may appear and offer easy answers. Young people need to be sensitised and empowered in order to question simplified images of religion, the world and the enemy. Religious offerings are also important for this. The message that Islam and democracy (or Sharia and fundamental rights) are not contradictory but of course compatible with each other is particularly important for young people. All too often adolescents are led to believe that they have to decide, instead of having the message conveyed that they can be both ‘Muslim’ and ‘democratic’ just as they can be ‘Turkish,’ ‘Arabic’ or ‘Bosnian’, and ‘German.’ In doing so, universal values must be focused on ​​that are, of course, also at home in Islam: justice, social responsibility, tolerance and peace. In this way, Salafism could be seen here as an opportunity to reassert common values ​​of coexistence.

Personal experiences must be recognised

Furthermore, prevention work also targets non-Muslim teachers and educators who work in globalised classrooms and often know little about the life environments of young people. In addition to relevant knowledge, a climate of recognition is a prerequisite for preventive work: ‘The kids are all right’, should be the basic attitude, regardless of all issues, conflicts and scepticism. For this we also have to examine and change our language usage, both in the classroom but also in politics and the media. Young people are very sensitive to exclusionary discourses of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Clear signals of belonging are of great importance for successful communication and integration. They are also the basis for critical interventions to question, disrupt and counteract problematic attitudes and positions. Experience also shows us that those who want to discuss Islamism must not be silent about Islamophobia. It is with these real life experiences that prevention work can and should begin.

For youngsters, abstract concepts, such as the Grundgesetz (the German constitution) or democracy are not necessarily the measure of all things. On the contrary, ‘How do we want to live?’ is the basic question closer to the every day lives of youngsters within their own environment, and one that can help them develop their own positions. Here, their experiences and feelings should be focused on and recognised. On the one hand, the stance of the 15-year-old pupil on the Paris attacks clearly demonstrates the danger of ideologisation. At the same time, however, it offers a starting point for education and prevention. If the indignation expressed about injustices, and the empathy shown with victims of war and violence is positively acknowledged, then this can become the starting point for a conversation. This can foster a discussion about the personal experiences of young people in dealing with injustice and violence and how things could possibly be better: at school, in the neighbourhood, in Germany and the world. Then, not only will prevention work be successful but a plural and just, multi-ethnic society will become a reality, too.