On the anniversary of the tragic and senseless attack in Finsbury Park, it’s important to think about how we deal with the threat of extremism. The challenge posed to us isn’t just how to deal with a few bad apples. It isn’t merely about what action we take against people who seek to exploit our young people and do us harm. It’s a battle of ideas, with its roots deep in much wider questions: about how we govern society, how we treat each other, and what our future should look like.
Extremist violence thrives in polarised, untrusting societies, where disempowered and divided citizens can be manipulated, and when fear and anger become attractive products. It is deeply connected to wider social problems, and it thrives on the worst of what our society can be. Conversely, extremism fails in the face of a strong, empowered and trusting society. It just isn’t attractive where a positive alternative vision of the future can be found, and when informed citizens can see through the black and white perspectives of extremists.
That’s why the struggle against extremism will ultimately not be won or lost by the police, or the intelligence services, but in our communities, in our shared spaces and in our classrooms. If we want to lay the foundations for a future free from extremism, our most powerful asset is our young people.
That means empowering young people, in the purest sense of the term; giving them the skills, the knowledge, the confidence and the opportunities they need to identify us vs them thinking and hateful narratives, to spot manipulation and to understand the flaws that run through the false promises of extremist groups and movements.
In our education programmes, ISD seeks to do exactly that. We work with young people to explore hate and extremism, to learn about their persuasive methods and how to spot them, and to give young people the tools they need to promote their positive visions for their community.
In our Extreme Dialogue project, now delivered in partnership with the Peace Foundation across the UK and supported by the government’s Building a Stronger Britain Together programme, we use lessons built around short filmed interviews with former extremists, as well as victims and survivors of extremism, to explore these issues in secondary schools. Through the experiences of people like Billy McCurrie, a former victim of extremism and Ulster Volunteer Force fighter, young people can learn what motivates extremists, where extremism leads, and how it cannot deliver on its promises. Through a dialogue led by the young people, the sessions focus on critical thinking, media literacy and emotional intelligence.
Through our digital citizenship programmes, such as our partnership with Google, Be Internet Citizens, we take the conversation online. Be Internet Citizens seeks to give young teenagers the confidence they need to make their voices heard online, helps them to identify fake news, manipulation and hate speech online, and teaches them how to deal with it.
To secure a tolerance, pluralistic, positive future for the UK, we need skilled, informed and empowered young people today. That has to start with education against extremism, in our schools and communities, and that is where our focus has to be.