Each time I turn on the news and see another Islamist terrorist attack being reported, I worry for my students. Not for their physical safety but for their sense of identity and belonging as British schoolchildren. Like many schools in east London, the majority of my students are Muslim. The school is home to many different cultures and religions, and students unconsciously demonstrate a level of tolerance that rivals any adult organisation I know of. Yet this is put at risk because of the intolerant values held by some parts of society and spread by certain elements of the media.
With the rise of Islamic State over the past few years, the word terrorism has become almost synonymous with Islam for some people. And this has presented a real existential problem for a number of our students. On the one hand they identify as being British – they were born here, as were their parents; they have British passports; they speak English as their first language; they read Harry Potter; they watch superhero movies and play football on the weekends.
On the other hand, they identify as being Muslim – they attend mosque on a Friday; they go to Islamic school in the evenings; they can recite verses of the Qur’an; they wear headscarves; and they visit the prayer room during lunchtime. They live happily in balance with these two identities, until the next terrorist attack. And suddenly, yet again, they see part of their identity thrust negatively into the media spotlight.
It’s confusing for them. Teenagers have, historically, always struggled to find their place in society, to carve out an identity for themselves. They crave the feeling of belonging. So what happens when they see their religion being hijacked by terrorists and represented in a way that is unrecognisable to them? It’s up to us, as educators, to help them feel confident in their identity and their sense of belonging.
What does that look like in reality? In my school, we are taught how to have direct and challenging conversations with students – Muslim and non-Muslim – on the religious and political aspects of terrorist attacks.