BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Birmingham school principal Kamal Hanif recently gave a group of parents a presentation about how extremists use social media to recruit young people. When he mentioned Facebook, some of the parents, mainly Muslim mothers, raised their hands to show they had never heard of the site.
For extremists, he told them, that ignorance is a weapon. “If you’re not speaking to your child and being very open with them, they’ve got no-one to go to.”
Hanif is in a good position to know. A decade ago, he became the first Muslim head of a high school in Birmingham. Over that time, Britain’s second largest city has generated the UK’s first al Qaeda convict and a hacker who was allegedly part of the Islamic State group which killed American journalist James Foley.
Under Hanif, Waverley School has been commended by inspectors for keeping young people safe, even though it sits in a deprived community that was ranked one of the “most vulnerable to violent extremism” in the city by police in 2013. Last year, Hanif was called in to help reform other local schools after an alleged plot by hardline Islamists to take them over from within.
As teachers in Britain return to school this month, they have a new legal obligation to keep an eye out for potential extremists. Hanif has been touring the country to share his experiences. His story shows how the new law could help, but could also prove counter-productive.
The UK government estimates at least 700 people have traveled to support or fight for jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Polls show fear of Muslims is on the rise. In a speech in July, Prime Minister David Cameron said the country had to confront “a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain – and who feel little or no attachment to other people here.”
Under the new law, schools must have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” Critics of the policy, who include students, teachers, academics, civil liberties groups and members of parliament, say it unfairly targets Muslims and will aggravate the sense of alienation of 2.7 million Britons. “There has sadly, over the last six years, been a policy of disengagement from British Muslim communities,” said Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim and a former chairman of Cameron’s Conservative Party. “Successive governments have seen more and more individuals and organizations as being beyond the pale and therefore not to be engaged with.”
Rob Ferguson, a teacher at Newham Sixth Form College in east London, worries that the law is leading to paranoia. A friend of his, whom he declined to identify, was told his son was “talking too much about Palestine.” “It’s a real example of the climate,” Ferguson said, “a sort of self-policing on the one hand, a fear of open discussion on the other.”
Hanif shares these concerns, saying the law seems to single out Muslims. “It’s almost as though it’s the race equality debate coming back again,” said the clean-shaven 44-year-old in his cluttered first-floor office, teaching awards on the windowsill behind him.
Nonetheless, he says that if schools take the right approach, the new law can help. “It’s how the school deals with it,” he said. “If the approach is to ‘spot the signs’ ... it’s not going to work.”
Hanif’s landowner family served in the British military and migrated from Kashmir to the Birmingham suburb of Bordesley Green in the 1950s. He was a student at the school he now heads.
He thinks adults should keep an eye on children and teenagers. At the seminar for parents, he enlisted students to show why. One put up a slide listing around 25 apps that strangers can use to contact children discreetly.
Hanif then outlined the grooming techniques radicals use. First, he said, recruiters present images of success. Then they offer sympathy and friendship to soothe an individual’s sense of isolation, rejection or disgust with society. Some send gifts. Others appeal to a sense of personal duty – so targets feel obliged to defend victims like the children of Syria, or to return favors.
A key stage, Hanif said, is to “share a secret” and encourage the person to cut themselves off from friends and family.
Parent Fayaz Ali said the meeting was eye-opening. “I think I’m going to watch a bit more what (my children) do,” she said. “It’s actually made quite clear how their vulnerabilities are worked on.”
But surveillance has its limitations. A group of headscarved teenage girls said they stay up late using apps including Snapchat, Twitter, WhatsApp, BBM, Tumblr, Vine and Instagram. If anyone tried to track or oversee them, they said, they would find a way to keep their privacy.
Under the new law, teachers must refer any case they are concerned about to the government’s deradicalisation program, which includes police and is known as Channel. Nationwide, nearly 600 under-18s were referred last year.
In the decade Hanif has run Waverley, he said, he has referred just two cases to the scheme. One involved a child who had undiscovered mental problems, and was taken into care. The other - a pupil who wrote a deliberately provocative essay about terrorism in a religious education exam – was not followed up after authorities agreed the child was not seriously at risk.
Hanif says two steps are more effective than policing children: First, giving students and their families exposure to the views and beliefs of others, and second, ensuring they have confidence and skills to stay safe online.
The first step sounds simpler than it is, especially in cities like Birmingham, which writer Kenan Malik has described as a patchwork of “ethnically defined fiefdoms.” Hanif was shopping in the Bull Ring mall a few years ago when extreme far-right groups charged through, sending him and his children running for cover.
When Hanif became head at Waverley, he said, he had struggles with staff. He had to convince them he would not impose an Islamist agenda, and to show them that the local community was not as insular as some felt. “It was quite a difficult scenario to come into,” he said.
His solution was to make diversity a school motto. Now Waverley – which at the last intake had 1,217 applications for 180 places - employs 46 nationalities, introduces beliefs including Paganism and Rastafarianism, and has gay rights posters in the corridors. The school holds “Diversity Days” to teach about different cultures and has set up links with France. Hanif, who observes Ramadan, plays Santa for the younger children.
Pupil Dhanish Shaukat, 15, who has cerebral palsy, said Hanif had helped him beat bullies by picturing his own future. The head told him the people who were bothering him now would mean little to him in a few years. When he thought that way, he said, the bullies lost their power.
In social media, the head compensates for adult limitations by encouraging pupils to share their know-how in discussion groups. Teachers help them analyze grooming techniques used both by anti-Muslim groups and Islamists.
But outside Waverley’s tall black gates, the message of diversity and resilience is a harder sell. One staff member who lives in a nearby town says he often dodges anti-Islam protests on his commute from work. And recently, fundamentalist Islam has started to have a direct impact on the school.
In 2014 an affair known as “Trojan Horse” made headlines when an anonymous letter claimed an Islamist conspiracy was afoot in some schools. The city’s education commissioner has since said some were following practices like those the letter described.
According to media reports, these included compulsory Arabic from age four, segregated physical education, no discussion of sexual orientation, no Christmas, and no French lessons because that country has banned full-face veils in public. School leaders were allegedly threatened and intimidated.
For a few months afterwards, Hanif helped oversee some of the affected schools. Inspectors say improvements have been slow. At Waverley, Hanif blames the crisis for difficulties recruiting staff.
Colin Diamond, interim director for education at the city council, said Birmingham’s recruitment pattern is no different to the national picture - which has shortages in some subjects. The city is launching a network of headteachers, more than 300 of whom have signed up, which means no school will ever be isolated in the way they were under Trojan Horse, he added.
Now Hanif is also coming under pressure from outside. An anonymous blog which says the Trojan Horse scandal was a hoax has started to publish attacks on him, saying his support for the government’s anti-extremist policies is anti-Muslim.
Diamond said the blog has attacked other school leaders and government officials, including himself. “It is regrettable that the authors of this blog choose to hide behind anonymity,” he said. “I would challenge them to come out and talk in public.”
Edited by Simon Robinson