Radicalisation isn’t just a threat facing our young people, it’s one threatening to disrupt our Western culture as we know it. But what if the answer to radicalisation isn’t to run away from deep, life-changing narratives, but to embrace them and offer an alternative?
It was Tuesday 17th February 2015. It was the half-term holiday. Three British teenage schoolgirls from East London left their homes before 8am, giving their respective families plausible reasons for why they would be out for the day. Instead, they met and travelled to Gatwick Airport to board a Turkish Airlines flight for Istanbul. Commander Richard Walton, of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism unit, described the three as ‘normal girls’ and ‘straight-A students’. In time, however, each was to contact their parents to say they were living in Syria, with no plans to return home. Instead, police believed that they were training with ISIS for ‘special missions’.
What we know is that this story is just the tip of a large iceberg. In October 2014, Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, revealed that an average of five Britons travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS every week. But, we have an even bigger issue to face: how many more young people are there, who choose not to leave, but to stay and to plot? As Hogan-Howe concluded, the ‘drumbeat of terrorism’ in the UK’ is growing ‘faster and more intense’.
It is also true that, although Islamic extremism presents our contemporary world with a unique threat, radicalisation is much more than an Islamic problem. It is a human problem, fuelled by the fact that so many young people – from the growing numbers of girls as well as boys enticed by the lure of gangs, knives and guns to those seduced by the sinister world of jihadist terrorism – do not feel that they have a place or voice in mainstream society. Extremism, of any variety, finds no more fertile soil than among young people who harbour a sense of injustice, and believe they are unheard. It slowly takes root in the seemingly unanswered search for voice, identity and hope, which inevitably leads to frustration, resentment and anger.
The problem is that our present counter-terrorism and anti-gang solutions just don’t make this connection. As a result, they fail to get to the heart of things. Instead of tackling the roots (or fundamentals!) of the issue, they attempt to deal with the symptoms of its growth. Ironically, they are just not radical enough.
Let’s get radical
Rather than simply attempting to build a defence against the threat of radicalisation through anti-radicalisation strategies – such as that prescribed by the Government’s ‘Prevent’ initiative for UK schools and universities – it is time for each church and every youth worker to begin to prioritise how we might imbue a deeper, and more powerful, sense of purpose, identity, meaning and belonging into the lives of vulnerable young people in our communities.
‘Prevent’ is a security strategy – nothing more, nothing less. As a friend of mine put it, ‘“Prevent” is like playing “spot the terrorist”’. It’s reactive rather than proactive. But, it also suffers from a deeper problem; in the end it’s all about the learned behaviours and responses of staff in schools and elsewhere, rather than anything to do with the moral and spiritual formation of young people.
If you want to change society, then you have to offer people a more powerful story: a more compelling narrative than the one that they currently serve. Everyone needs a narrative worth living by, one that explains to us who we are, supplies us with a sense of meaning and purpose and offers us hope for the future. Without a captivating overarching story – a sense of who we are and where we fit – we are lost.
Recently, I sat chatting, over a cup of coffee, with a senior representative of the British establishment. We talked for a little while about his life. He’d enjoyed the privilege of being educated at one of Britain’s most prestigious public schools and then one of its oldest and finest universities. Now, in his mid-40s, he holds an extremely influential position professionally. He’d come to see me to discuss a new initiative, for which he had been made responsible: developing a national scheme for mentoring young people into excellence.
During our conversation he lamented the number of highly paid, ‘professionally successful’ people he meets in the course of his work who, in his view, are simply drifting, sleepwalking, through life. In response, I told him about the meeting I’d attended, in a smart hotel, where I watched a well-known, well-educated public figure slumped, all evening, in a corner by the bar, on his own, drowning in one gin after another. Alone, abandoned and isolated, with a reputation for being socially challenging, he sat there with no one, and nowhere, to go. His struggle wasn’t that he didn’t have the right educational qualifications from the right establishments. It was well known that he had the lot. His problem was that his IQ was not matched by his EQ or his SQ – he was intelligent, but emotionally and spiritually illiterate.
The primary question, I suggested, for any mentoring course for young people (or for people of any age group) is not about what you do with your life (as important as that question is), but rather, something much deeper: who do you become while you are doing it? It’s a question of your character rather than your career.
My visitor looked shocked. He paused before hesitantly explaining that throughout his education and subsequent career he’d never been asked that question. He’d had countless career advice sessions where he’d been asked about his professional ambitions as well as aspirations around salary and lifestyle. But, he said, not once had he ever been confronted with life’s primary question: what kind of person do you want to become?
Nature abhors a vacuum. So, rather than making our overall battle one to ‘prevent’ radicalisation, our priority should be to ‘encourage’ or ‘inspire’ it. I believe that the primary answer to the problem of radicalisation is, in fact, radicalisation: radicalisation into a positive and compelling narrative that is worth living by. It sounds shocking, but it is only the ownership of a bold and healthy, life-affirming, story that can create the resilience which will guard against a warped and destructive one. If we are going to overcome the escalating threat of destructive radicalisation, we need to find a narrative – or group of related narratives – strong enough, compelling enough, infectious enough, deep enough, rooted enough, indeed radical enough, to turn the tide.
‘Find a purpose: the means will follow’ the saying goes. Or, to put it in the words of Catholic writer, Richard Rohr, ‘When you get your, “Who am I?” question right, all of your, “What should I do?” questions tend to take care of themselves.’ From Mother Teresa to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi to Emmeline Pankhurst and endless others, the world relies on radicals to confront oppression and usher in life transforming change.
I was radicalised at the age of 14. Through my attendance at a youth club at South Norwood Baptist Church in South London, my life was transformed. I felt as though I was lifted out of the pettiness that had consumed so much of my energy to that point, and into a different dimension. As a result, I’ve slowly come to understand life in a particular way, which has brought shape, meaning and hope to my journey thus far. My small, flawed, personal, micro-story was given a bigger, global, even cosmic context as it was caught up into God’s big story.
My life was changed by the powerful combination of the investment of time by young adults who I looked up to, and their living out of the example and teaching of the greatest radical of all: Jesus. I was inspired.
What kind of counter-narrative do we need to build a counter-extremist strategy that is powerful enough to bring real peace to our streets as well as to our wider world? In our ‘dis-integrated’ Western culture, life has become compartmentalised and spirituality is generally regarded as something ‘a little aside’ or even ‘optional’ from the rest of life. As a result, we are painfully inarticulate when it comes to our ability to express or explore our moral and spiritual development.
In his book Education’s end, Professor Anthony Kronman, the former Dean of Yale University, argues that the two most important questions in life are ‘who am I?’ and ‘what is living for?’ Education has to be more than a preparation for a career. It must also explore the art of living – the spiritual question of how we ought to live our lives. But, he claims, this issue about what makes life worth living has been largely abandoned in our mad rush to gain ‘qualifications’.
Writing from the context of American university education, Kronman contrasts our own times with an earlier era, when the question of the meaning of life was right at the very centre of the curriculum. He suggests that teachers, who in generations past once felt a special responsibility to guide their students in exploring the question of what living is for, have lost confidence in their authority to do so. But more than that, he reflects, they have lost sight of the question itself in the blinding fog of political correctness that now dominates their disciplines.
Kronman, who is not religious, believes that what we desperately need now is what we once had: an approach to education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to have instant, ‘pre-packaged’ answers to them all. ‘The fundamentalists have the wrong answer’, he writes, ‘but they’ve got the right questions. We need to learn to ask them again.’
We neglect these social, emotional, spiritual and moral questions, not only to our individual cost, but also to that of our communities and of society itself. ‘When we ignore life’s biggest questions’, Kronman concludes, ‘we all pay the price.’
Inspire is a peacemaking initiative, launched by Oasis, for schools, youth groups and children’s work across the UK and beyond. Designed to tackle the dangers associated with gangs and extremism, it creates a natural way for churches and community youth workers to engage with their local schools around an issue of national importance. Inspire will support children and young people in finding a positive narrative for their lives: a sense of worth, direction and belonging which will enable them to live fulfilling, peaceful lives immune to the lure of gangs, violence, extremism and terror.
Inspire will enable children and young people to develop core skills around active listening, conflict resolution, negotiation, tolerance and community building. Inspire is designed to add value to the educational curriculum, as well as to support this through extra-curricular activities that have peacemaking at their core. It will enable young people to develop core skills around active listening, negotiation and dialogue, conflict resolution, community building and social responsibility, as well as a respect for and celebration of diversity of religion and culture. Inspire is creating a whole set of resources for churches as well as primary and secondary schools built around sport, art, music and community engagement. Inspire culminates in Peace 2018, a series of simultaneous events of remembrance and hope, which will take place across the UK on Friday 9th November 2018 in town and community halls, cathedrals and churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, as well as war memorials. To be part of INSPIRE email email@example.com or visit oasisuk.org/inspire
Steve Chalke founded the Oasis Trust in 1985, which he still leads and which pioneers educational, healthcare, housing and other community initiatives in the UK and elsewhere around the world. Steve also serves as the senior minister of Oasis Church, Waterloo, in central London. He holds an MBE as well as an honorary doctorate from Staffordshire University, both awarded for his work in social inclusion and justice.