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Teachers can play key role against hatred, radicalization

The Montreal Gazette by Adeela Arshad-Ayaz, M. Ayaz Naseem and Michelle Savard 04 July 2018

“Why do Canadians hate Muslims?”

Rima is a nine-year-old refugee from Iraq. She had overheard her parents talking about a young Muslim woman who was on public transit when a stranger asked, “Why are you wearing a hijab?” and then spat on her and told her to “go home.”

Joseph then raises his hand and asks, “Why would that guy in Quebec City kill people in a mosque?”

You are their Grade 4 teacher and you thought you would open up a discussion about fear and racism. How will you answer these questions?

You could start by explaining that since 9/11, many Canadians have come to associate Muslims with terrorism. You could explain that this is not fair; it amounts to Islamophobia, a “prejudice against or hatred of Islam and Muslims.” You could give examples of negative stereotyping and discrimination that Muslims face on a daily basis. You could have a discussion about the alarming rise of hate speech in Canada, how it can affect perceptions of groups, and the impact that this kind of hatred can have on a person. You could also talk about the 38 per cent of Canadians who don’t believe that Islamophobia is an issue. And then you could relate the tragic story of Alexandre Bissonnette.

In school, Bissonnette suffered through years of bullying and marginalization. He was described as “awkward” and an “online troll” by his friends. At 28, on Jan. 29, 2017, he entered a mosque and killed six Muslims shortly after their evening prayer. Gilles Chamberland, a psychiatrist who met with Bissonnette, testified at a sentencing hearing that the attack “was motivated by racism.” Sylvain Faucher, another psychiatrist who testified, said Bissonnette was looking for a target, and chose Muslims because of the times we live in.

Bissonnette had a propensity to consume extremist content on the internet. Educators can teach students how to identify and interpret messages in the media and in their communities that serve to foster fear and Islamophobia.

Educators can also play a role in preventing the radicalization of youth — be it by the likes of ISIS or far-right extremists — by addressing the factors that leave youth vulnerable to racism, hatred and bullying.

The current approach to countering radicalization and terrorism is focused on a security discourse and tends to foster suspicion about specific groups. This focus on security has served to intercept and apprehend terrorists, but does little to prevent the radicalization process from taking root and creating new threats. In fact, radicalization appears to be bolstered by such things as media reports about threats to Canada posed by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. These contribute both to a fear of Muslims and to the alienation Muslims experience as a result of feeling targeted.

As academics within Department of Education at Concordia University, we believe it is essential to build the capacity of educators in this area. We have created an inclusive space where conversations can take place about such topics as the relationship between marginalization and radicalization, and the role teachers, institutes and communities can play to prevent and counter radicalization.

Concordia University has hosted a series of international symposiums on Teaching about Extremism Terror and Trauma since 2015. This conference brings together academics, teachers, research institutes, community organizations, and NGOs ─ encouraging discussions with an aim to have an impact on both policy and pedagogy.

Now in its fourth edition, this year’s conference (July 9 to 11), will engage educators and communities to address the issues behind Rima and Joseph’s questions and as mediators to prevent and counter prejudice, hatred and radicalization.

Adeela Arshad-Ayaz is interim principal of the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability and associate professor in the Department of Education at Concordia University. M. Ayaz Naseem is a professor in the Department of Education at Concordia. Michelle Savard is a PhD candidate and Public Scholar at Concordia.