When combatting extremism, schools are the long game

Jul 23, 2015

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment 

     Propaganda works.

     Consider Mohammad Abdulazeez, the young man who shot and killed five service members in Chattanooga, Tennessee last week.

     According to FBI reports, Abdulazeez was inspired to "martyrdom" through listening to the hate-filled sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the al Qaeda recruiter killed by an American drone strike in 2011.

     Or consider Dylann Roof, the suspect in the murder of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina earlier this summer.

     From what we know at this stage in the investigation, Roof was influenced by the online racist ideology of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group that vilifies African Americans.

     Of course, propaganda alone didn't cause either shooter to pull the trigger. Drug abuse and mental illness were likely factors in both cases.

     But propaganda — extremist, hateful, twisted ideology — clearly played a critical role in the lead-up to these demented acts of violence.

     In the age of the Internet and social media, it is disturbingly easy for purveyors of hate to capture the minds of vulnerable, alienated young people in the United States and across the world.

     Numbers are hard to come by. But earlier this year, the National Counterterrorism Center estimated that some 3,400 people from the U.S. and other Western countries were fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

     Closer to home, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that in 2014 there were over 700 active hate groups in the U.S., more than half of them white supremacist. Since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, there have been more than 100 terrorist plots and racially motivated rampages in America by the extreme right, usually white supremacists.

     Sadly, it often takes a tragedy to create public awareness of the dangers of extremism in America. Even then, government responses range from the symbolic (taking down the Confederate flag) to modest changes in procedure (proposals to arm service members at National Guard facilities).

     But fewer flags and more guns will do little to halt the spread of hate and the recruitment of young people to the rapidly growing network of extremist groups in the United States.

     For the long game, the best answer to websites that preach hate and violence are schools that teach the principles of democratic freedom, social justice, and understanding of different faiths and cultures.

     Fortunately, resources are available to help schools combat extremism through education. SPLC, for example, has developed a "Teaching Tolerance" program that provides — free of charge — a comprehensive anti-bias curriculum to help teachers counter the bigotry and extremism that young people are exposed to on the Internet and elsewhere in our society (www.splcenter.org).

     Another effective resource is Face to Faith, a free schools program sponsored by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (disclosure: I serve as U.S. advisor to this initiative).

     Through videoconferencing and a secure online community, F2F gives students of many faiths and cultures across the world a safe space to learn about one another through direct contact. (www.facetofaithonline.org)

     To date, Face to Faith has connected more than 120,000 students from 20 countries in respectful and civil dialogue about global issues of shared concern.

     Last month, Voice of America broadcast a story about a F2F videoconference that linked students in a predominately Muslim school in Indonesia with a religiously diverse class of students in a Fairfax County, Virginia public school.

     In an honest and open exchange, students discussed a wide range of topics — from what it is like to be a Muslim in America to the problems of sectarian violence in Indonesia. Through direct engagement, students practiced civil dialogue, dispelled stereotypes and built bridges of understanding across religious, cultural and other differences. (www.voanews.com/content/high-school-videochats-bridge-religious-cultural-divides/2855995.html)

     Programs like Teaching Tolerance and Face to Faith are not add-ons or luxuries — they are essential to the mission of schools.

     At a time of growing religious extremism, deep racial divides, and widespread ignorance about "the other," every school has a civic and moral obligation to counter messages of hate by educating for a more just, tolerant and free society.

     Propaganda works — but only in a vacuum.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center. E-mail: chaynes@newseum.orgWeb: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Twitter: @hayneschaynes.