Education, Extremism and Criticality was organised by the Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education (CREME) at the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with the British Education Research Association and Middlesex University.
It was held just days ahead of the new Conservative government pledging further legislation to tackle extremist ideologies that it believes are undermining “British values”.
Opening the event, Farid Panjwani, director of CREME, argued that “extremism is not simply a pedagogical problem”, to be met by “new teaching techniques or curricular revisions”, but something which required a deep commitment to “criticality”.
Instead of promoting something known as “moderate Islam”, we needed “a critical engagement with a wide range of interpretations, helping students recognise that the Will of God, even for those who believe in it, is only available through the prism of human agency, interpretation and reception”.
In his keynote address, Humayun Ansari, professor of history of Islam and culture at Royal Holloway, University of London, deplored the way that schools and universities have been “turned into major arenas wherein counter-extremism strategies could be deployed”.
Despite a stress on “the inculcation of British values”, said to include freedom of speech, “government pressure on educational institutions to censor academic freedoms has increased”.
The recently cancelled University of Southampton conference on International Law and the State of Israel was just one striking example of where this climate could lead.
The British state’s concerns about “‘extremism’ within educational environments and the consequent need to address it”, continued Professor Ansari, were “very much predicated on how it understands ‘extremism’”.
Rather than shutting down discussion, educational institutions should be places where “all ideals and values [could] be challenged unequivocally…there should be little reason to object to debating the contentious idea of ‘extremism’ in a free and uninhibited fashion”.
Other speakers explored “the virtues and vices of tolerance”, the need to develop a philosophy of “Islamic critical realism”, the “Boko-Haramization” of street children in Nigeria – and how to dissuade young people from taking up the cause of Islamic State as an expression of their “complete rejection of the norms and values of neoliberal education”.