SYDNEY — Last week the Australian government sparked public furor over a campaign to help teachers identify signs of the radicalization process in the classroom with a prepared pamphlet.
The 32-page document, known as the “radicalization awareness information kit,” provides warning signs to indicate whether a young person is on a path to violent extremism. The pamphlet paints outlandish examples of radicalized youth who range in character, including a student named Karen who was “involved in the alternative music scene, student politics and left-wing activism.” Local media lambasted the government for conflating activism with violent extremism, blurring the line between national security threats and political expression.
While the illustrations were exceptionally misguided, the greater concern lies with creating a simplified checklist to identify young people as potential terrorists. As the Guardian rightly pointed out, doling out a canned guideline of behaviors to identify extremism not only engenders intolerance, it creates a culture of profiling—akin to the one that led to the arrest in Texas of a 14-year-old Muslim student who wanted to impress his teachers with a homemade clock that was mistaken for a bomb. A similar program in the U.K. led to an at-risk radicalization list to include a three-year-old as a potential future extremist.
“We wanted to explain to teachers who are really on the frontline of this—because we know that schoolchildren are being radicalized—to look out for certain signs that would lead them to be concerned about somebody,” Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Terrorism Michael Keenan told the ABC. “And if they are concerned about somebody moving down the dark path of radicalization, moving down the path of violence, then they’ll know what they can do about it.”
The urgency to prevent violent extremism is particularly great in Australia, where it’s believed around 120 residents (and counting) have traveled abroad to fight in Syria and Iraq with ISIS and similar groups. Australia, as well as the U.S. and other Western countries, are grasping at straws for a viable solution to stymie the spread violent extremism. Last year, a gunman killed two hostages in a Sydney café.
An inquest into gunman Man Haron Monis’s life revealed an Iranian-born cleric who was bailed on several occasions for 43 charges of sexual assault and being an accessory in the murder of his ex-wife. While Monis was a far cry from an impressionable, young Australian who might be influenced by ISIS propaganda, the revelations nonetheless gave credence to anti-Islam sentiment already on the rise. Extremist groups like Reclaim Australia continued to popularize racist ideas, triggering anti-Islam protests and violent clashes across the country.
Gary Bouma, a professor involved with the initiative, reportedly distanced himself from the report upon learning it was distributed to teachers. Bouma tells The Daily Beast he did not “distance himself” from the research, but was merely concerned that teachers would not be provided with training to complement the booklet. Bouma says he’s been assured that teachers will receive the proper training to use the manuals, but what type of training would that entail?
“There’s a difference between people who get involved in what you would call incidental violence as a result of a political protest,” Victoria University professor Michele Grossman told the Guardian, referring to the case study linking a student’s penchant for left-wing activism to extremism. “To me, that’s not what we mean when we talk about facing and tackling the very serious issues around violent extremism.”
Before creating a manual to identify radicalization signs, teachers, community leaders, and parents must learn how to build social cohesion and allow young people to be a part of finding a solution, rather than isolate them and potentially drive them into the arms of extremists. For example, anti-radicalization program People Against Violent Extremism is hosting a three-day event this weekend called MyHack, which invites young Australians to create online solutions to counter ISIS propaganda.
“It’s going to draw attention away from some of the really valuable things that are included in the awareness kit that should be up for discussion and debate,” Grossman added.
Racism is already a problem in Australia, so providing a tool for teachers to target students based on vague behaviors or a proclivity for experimentation risks creating a culture of surveillance rather than cultivating an environment of exploration and learning—which is exactly what should be happening in the classroom.