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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

UK extremists must be denied the space to spread hatred. We must respond to their threat with 'muscular liberalism'

Those who encourage hate, prejudice and sow discord must be identified and held accountable, writes Mubaraz Ahmed

Umar Ahmed Haque. Metropolitan Police / Reuters
Umar Ahmed Haque. Metropolitan Police / Reuters

Britain’s courts are no strangers to ISIL fanboys, wannabes and self-styled soldiers. On paper, Umar Haque – who was found recently guilty of committing a string of terrorism offences – is a traditional "soldier of the caliphate". Yet there were some deeply troubling details that make Haque stand out from the extremist crowd. Unlike others, he was a school teacher, teaching Islamic studies, who abused that authority to try to radicalise more than 100 students.

Separately, this week, we’ve discovered that there’s an excess of 350 suspected unregistered schools operating in the UK. Some being exploited by religious extremists who are using that lack of official oversight to teach children with extremist texts.

In some instances, children are being taught that beating women for "bad behaviour" is lawful and that women are raped because they aren't covered. It is abhorrent to think that this is happening in Britain today. Conservatism and tradition are no excuse for misogyny and homophobia.

Britain's longstanding secular, liberal values cannot be allowed to be abused in this way. Our response must encapsulate a spirit of "muscular liberalism". Where there are communities operating in isolation, characterised by prejudice and bigotry, we should be teaching students to navigate difference and to break down not build barriers that divide us.

Keeping young people safe is as much about their physical welfare as it is about their mental and educational wellbeing. Those using their authority or access to young people to encourage hate, prejudice and sow discord must be identified and held accountable for their actions.

In Britain, we have witnessed this schism. The nation has divided along different axis. Between young and old; metropolitan and outside the cities; better off and worse off; and increasingly along the lines of race and religion with rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on the one hand and heightened far-right and Islamist extremism on the other. This has in part been driven by a failure to talk about difference. And as the Louise Casey review showed, this failure opens up the space for the far-right and Islamists to exploit. Both are determined to show that we have more that divides us than unites us.

Reinforcing that sentiment – as Britain becomes more divided, more polarised and less cohesive, there are children growing up in the country who aren’t exposed to any culture other than their own. Many are being actively taught divisive, discriminatory values that run counter to those of our society. Without exposure to others, misunderstandings are almost inevitable. But fear and hatred can also become commonplace. A hatred that is rooted in a failure to engage and understand the other.

For its part, the Tony Blair Institute is working to close this gap across the globe, facilitating conversations between students around the world to discuss challenging issues such as human rights, racism and extremism with their peers. Societies need outward facing, culturally astute, and inclusive citizens to thrive in the increasingly interconnected world. Developing open-minded future leaders is contingent upon building skills that navigate difference, dialogue and diversity.

Where there are communities operating in isolation, where prejudice and bigotry are becoming more widespread and mainstream, we must do all we can to counter that. If children are being taught that people of a particular faith or race are evil, inevitably this prejudice fertilises the soil for extremism to grow. To counter this in Britain’s schools, we need to encourage students to navigate difference, breaking down the barriers which divide us.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change