Deradicalisation; it’s not about what you do, it’s about who you are

Mohammed Elshimi (University of Exeter) : Identity, Citizenship, and Security: What is Deradicalisation? (PART 1)*

(Notes from BRAIS conference, University of Edinburgh 10-11 April 2014, Panel 3: Identity and Integration In Muslim-Minority Societies)

This is the most controversial presentation in the entire conference, bar none, and the most pertinent to our theme of identity formation as well as the extremely subtle issue 0f the teacher as a benevolent guide or evil manipulator that I have touched upon when discussing the “discovery” element in the Healing Fractures workshop.

The extremist student-centered learning Ghost Teacher** doctrine made possible through Cooperative Learning is all well and good when teaching grammar or maths or drilling scientific concepts or historical dates. It is an entirely different matter when discovering the meaning  of things and events – especially when discovering the meaning of life, death and the interstice of personal identity and politics in between.

The  Healing Fractures workshop attempted to outline the possibilities for teachers staging guided discovery to  pupils in Primary and Secondary schools.

But in the case of Mr Elshimis talk, the guide is the British government and the pupils are adult citizens.

Deradicalisation; it’s not about what you do, it’s about who you are

Mohammed Elshimi, a phd student at the University of Exeter, opened his presentation by positing “deradicalisation” as a conceptual framework which is confusing, problematic and in fact not about radicalisation, but about identity and citizenship.

It is a political response to homegrown terrorism after the London bombings which famously prompted Blair to say, “The rules have changed.” Indeed: Deradicalisation relates to changes in the security environment, narratives and theories in the academic world and responses in the political world; i.e the war on terror and the associated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which were then followed by more terrorist attacks.

And while Europe and the UK has historically dealt with terrorism in the form of separatist movements in Spain and Chechnya, and locally the IRA,  radicalisation is a completely novel concept and did not exist prior to the 2005 bombings, precisely because they were not carried out by Saudi foreigners, but British citizens.

What makes the concept of radicalisation so radically (…well) different to all previous takes on terrorism is that it deals with the weltanscaung; meaning it does not relate to criminal actions, as much as it relates to ideas – and dare we lift the curtain a bit and say criminal ideas?

During the 90s and 00s countries such as Algeria had worked with “terrorist rehabilitation” programmes in prisons, but in the UK the target of rehabilitation was not inmates, but rather ordinary citizens on the street who had not (yet) committed any crime. Reflecting concepts borrowed from medical science, the PREVENT strategy basically posited that prevention is better than treatment – or might we say “an apple a day keeps the SWAT team at bay.”

Governmental Prophethood; the birth of moderate Islam 

Basically, various think tanks and Home Office entertained the notion that you cannot change their actions if you cannot change their ideas, giving rise to the concept of counter subversion: to subtly construct from scratch a new narrative about Islam, and therefore a new reality of Islam, called moderate.

In the dichotomy thus created, all adherents to any other understanding of Islam – or anyone questioning the dichotomy itself – were potentially radical supporters of terrorism. But since the term is not defined, the boundaries get blurred; Is it you view on women? Or your views on democracy? Or your views on foreign policy? Or is it your views on violence? Being ‘radical’ was is not just about terrorism, it was about all these other things that somehow left all Muslims vulnerable to the violence bit of the equation.

This left communities, organizations and individuals scrambling to be seen as fitting into the moderate category. And not only that, but scrambling to point the finger at other groups and individuals, mouthing the words “I am moderate, he is not!” in the highly competitive bid for of (limited) government funding.

The most incredible aspect presented by Elshimi was that many of the participants in the various programmes did not actually know what the term “moderate Islam” even meant. In the words of one community activist, “I don’t know what it means. I’d be surprised if anyone knows what it means.” It is a completely artificial construct, a brilliant example of generating new realities via perception management.

Even academics were at a loss: “For me I think, deradicalisation is about empowerment…. what you are trying to do I guess … well, it’s a good question. I am just going to say empowerment, because you can get into difficult territory otherwise.”

The slide below indicates some of the “conceptual confusion” uncovered by Elshimi during his research: security ceontext, counter-subversion, integration, identity, Western foreign policy and youth empowerment.

In the following post on Elshimi’s talk, we’ll discuss the negative consequences of government induced reality and identity and the absolute importance of providing individuals and communities with tools to produce authentic realities and identities which I point towards in my own presentation.

My point is that having grievances with other communities, local and global businesses or  government policies do not generate violence. Violent movements, from UKIP to the Salafis, are generated by the experience of being somehow at first disenfranchised, then framed and manipulated.

The video clip on Derek the Nazi used in the workshop is an example of such grievances – and the BRAIS conference was packed with examples from Muslims in Britain with their own burning issues.

Finding valid identity is relevant for everyone. Schools must provide the vocabulary, the philosophical insight, the thinking and rhetorical skills to ensure an inclusive debate; an open mind able to make informed decisions on where to draw it’s boundaries and standing on a stable platform, as described in the Religious Education page.

This all the more important as the tendency towards uncontrollable, unmanageable multi-node networks will mean that, in spite of all well-intentioned top-down management, more and more people – and groups of people – will be left to their own devices. So those devices better work.

Here are some hints on the second half of Elshimis presentation: thought crime, 2+2=5 and 4 legs good, 2 legs bad.


* Disclaimer: These posts reflect my own (narrow) understanding and focus and makes no claim to objectivity or accuracy.

** see The Teacher is a Ghost Lesson plan on teaching functional language virtually without speaking


















































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Transcript of “The Student- Centred Classroom & The Self-Centred Student…”

PDF of now available for safe download or online viewing. (Contains original material not included in the recording available at Listen to the recording instead).

The Student-Centred Classroom
& the Self-Centred Student
– challenges and opportunities of Cooperative Learning
for Muslim learners

by Jakob Werdelin

Paper presented at the British Research Association of Islamic Studies’ inaugural conference Edinburgh University, 11 April 2014.

Of interest to educators, community builders and researchers with and interest in Muslim minority schools, RE, P4C, the role of government and business in identity formation…


lille pdf


Summing up, we propose fusing the latest of potentially “poisonous” western radical didactics with our our heritage of rational questioning which forms the basis of Kalam to use guided discovery to uncover ontological and epistemological questions. Give students, Muslims and non-Muslims, a real stake in their identity formation (…)

And very interestingly, Muslims will thereby in fact bring the English back to their own heritage of the Trivium. The Muslims have a true contribution to make here, working alongside people such as Martin Robinson, the author of the recent book “Trivium 21c: Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past” which is already pointing the way.


21C skills partnership

 Business partners in the Partnership for 21 Century Skills. Do they look familiar?

(From the OECD’s 21st Century Skills: How can you prepare students for the new Global Economy? referred to in the text)




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Christian-centred, atheism-centred… or just Student-Centred? Making RE relevant at all

Matthew Vince (University of Exeter): Expressing Islam within a Christian centric education system : Lessons from a young British Muslim RE teacher (PART 1)

(Notes from BRAIS conference, University of Edinburgh 10-11 April 2014, Panel 3: Islam in UK Institutions/Organisations and Everyday Muslim Religious Lives)

Executive summary*

According to Matthew Vince, who is doing his PGCE at Exeter University, current RE is aimed more at political aims of community cohesion than subject knowledge. On top of that he cited the 2010 Warwick report that suggests that Christianity is presented as the default religion of this country. As a consequence, the representation of Islam in the current state administered RE is vulnerable to perpetuating negative stereotypes of Islam and other religions and that Muslim RE teachers find they must “navigate between negative conflicting spheres at times.”

His study concludes that the current curriculum is set primarily on knowledge and not the attainment of understanding Islam, which, according to Vince, is found only in living Islam and the assimilation of Islamic teaching (which I would note is true of all religions taught) – as many of us remember, living is something very difficult to achieve if the teacher is the centre of the classroom explaining away.

The above leads to questions such as: Is the role of RE teaching the subject or rather pushing the political agenda of community cohesion? And given that the stated goal in the National Curriculum is knowledge not understanding, is the status quo of the National Curriculum correct? Or should teachers give pupils the knowledge, then allow them (who are of all religious denominations) to make their own decisions on personal beliefs? And is it the remit of a RE teacher to push understanding or purely the attainment of knowledge?



Enquiry: what’s in the middle?

In the following, I’ll discuss how some of these issues may find a common solution in guided discovery exercises akin to what was recently presented to a disparate group of educators at the Healing Fractures workshop in Norwich.

RE: perception management & policies

Pertinent to our overall theme, Matthew Vince opened his presentation by bluntly stating that the RE curriculum represents the current British political agenda of  community cohesion.  The true import of this statement can only be understood by reflecting on Mohammed Elshimi’s talk the day before on the negative consequences of state-induced identity formation, to which I have alluded in a previous post.

While the need for any ruling body to keep peace within the realm is as old as governance itself, be it kingdoms or democracies, be it by carrot or by stick, the statement itself somehow has a solemn ring to it. This admission that our government is using schooling to organize people’s thinking and perception, not only of the world, history an politics, but the very perception pupils have of themselves, including their own unique cultural, religious and ethnic identities seemed especially eerie, given that in the morning session, Dr. Godazger had outlined the way the Iranian curriculum had been changed since the revolution for the very same purposes.

So referring to our red thread of identity formation, a real question is whether the state’s decision to work on the minds of the future to meet  immediate political  goals of today, using the education system of yesterday, is the way to go for multicultural, trans global democracy in the 21st century? According to Elshimi’s research, it is not – as we shall see in the following post (Get notified).

Subject or community cohesion agenda?

Going back to Matthew’s presentation, our first question is should the RE curriculum adhere to the political agendas of the day or rather should the goal be the attainment of knowledge of the subject in depth?

Again, when it comes to cooperative learning, it’s the same as free thinking vs. facts or subjects vs. social skill: we must ask if it’s either/or? Because if the goal of Her Majesty’s government is peaceful coexistence within the realm and an experience of national unity and cohesion, then the only viable option is knowledge of the subject in depth, not just related Islam, but all religions taught. And subject “in depth” would not only mean the facts pertaining to the when, where and what of each, but much rather “How does this relate to me?”

The answer is that making religion and Religious Education relevant to children in a full-on atheist society – and in a school where the preceding science lesson makes a mockery of the spirit and the following history books are crammed full of religious massacres and greedy popes – can only be done via discovery exercises which gives children space to investigate from the perspective of their own relation to spirituality, and work outward from there. Quoting Ibrahhim Lawson’s in the previous post: “ …all great truths must first be constantly renewed by bringing them into the place where they emerge into being for the first time, that is, in response to a deeply felt sense of questioning. “

By providing and furnishing this space, the individual historical and content-related issues of religion would find an relevant context specific to each learner. This would not only assist retention for those tests we all love, but create the transferrable higher level thinking which are the backbone of much vaunted 21st century skills.

Note that the 2013 “Realising Potential” Ofsted report on RE, scathing as it is, notes that:

“…teaching often fails to challenge and extend pupils’ ability to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief.”
and talking about the structured approach to cooperative learning employed in the workshop

“Where RE worked well, teachers gave pupils carefully structured opportunities to find out for themselves, make their own connections and draw their own conclusions.”

For RE teachers presenting Cooperative Learning to their reluctant Headteachers, this should really form an addendum to the posts Convincing your Head to think about Cooperative Learning & Convincing your Head to think about Cooperative Learning #2.

To be continued… (Get notified).

21c skills referred to in talk now up


* Disclaimer: These posts reflect my own (narrow) understanding and focus and makes no claim to objectivity or accuracy.


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BRAIS breakdown: Index of upcoming posts

Thanks for the huge number of hits on the preceding article. The following is a list of some of the other sessions I attended at the BRAIS conference and hope to be able to present here. Not all will get their own post, but all contain pertinent points which are worth exploring. Comments or wishes are most welcome.

Also coming up is the transcript of my own talk “The Student-Centred Classroom & the Self-Centred Student” to be made available here and on and the MFAS homepage.

Get notification about new posts on twitter.

Posts in the pipeline

(Titles do not necessarily appear in order of publication)

Matthew Vince (University of Exeter) Expressing Islam within a Christian-centric education system: lessons from a young British Muslim RE teacher

on identity) identity formation, and the future role of religious education- and of  the crucial role of Cooperative Learning in that role.


Mohammed Elshimi (University of Exeter) Identity, Citizenship, and Security: What is Deradicalisation?

on authentic VS. inauthentic identity formation as discussed in my talk and on the negative fallout of insisting on not giving individuals tools with which to assess identities on offer -and where the organized social constructivism of Cooperative Learning fits in.


Panel 3


Shamim Miah (University of Huddersfield) Muslims, Asabiyya and the Question of Integration

on community cohesion, extending cooperation outside the confines of the classroom through authentic identity formation.


Tania Saeed (University of Oxford) Beyond the ‘vulnerable’: Islamic societies and Muslim student activism in English universities
Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor (University of Derby) Young Muslims, Islam and Modern Britain – Hyphenated British-Muslim Identities

on using guided discovery to help students against stereotyping, racism and phobias through transcultural workshops in institutions of education.


Asmaa Soliman (University College London) Young Muslims in Germany and their Visibility in New Media – Emerging Counterpublics
Des Delaney (Dublin City University) Perceptions of Mis/Recognition: The Experience of Sunni Muslims in Dublin, Ireland
Nasar Meer (University of Northumbria) Semantics, scales and solidarities in the study of Islamophobia in Europe
Masoumeh Velayati (Al-Maktoum College, Dundee) Formation of Religious Identity among Muslim Women in the UK
Anna Piela (Leeds Trinity University) For the love of God: British niqabis’ religious and social identities
Mark Gould (Haverford College, Philadelphia) Double Consciousness: Full Inclusion for the Muslim American!  

on providing students with shields and weapons in the battle of the meaning of words – and the consequence of a lack thereof.


Farid Panjwani (Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education, Institute of Education, London) Faith schools and religious diversity: The case of Muslim schools
Nader Al-Refai (Yarmouk University, Jordan) Reforming Islamic Education in Britain: A Study of Six Muslim Secondary Schools

on the role of Cooperative Learning in Muslim schools in the UK.



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P4C? No, P4U!

Notes from BRAIS conference, University of Edinburgh 10-11 April 2014 Panel 5: Education: Theory and Method:

Ibrahim Lawson (Institute of Eduction, London): Questioning builds a way: Heidegger, Islam and education

In my own presentation I point out the connection between the two preceding talks and my theme of schools teaching tools for authentic identity formation through the organised social constructivism of Cooperative Learning.

I want to begin this series of BRAIS posts here, as this talk is best likened to a nuclear submarine roving the dark ocean depths, with all other presentations -  for all their merit -  being mere air balloons above those deceivingly calm waters, blown hither and dither by the winds of postmodern self-referencing.


This is not mere poetic license. Ibrahim Lawson brings a unique set of experiences and skills to the table:  He has read  philosophy and linguistics at University of East Anglia, did his PGCE at Cambridge, has MA’s in Action Research and Theology and has spent 10 years in state school system as RE teacher and head of department. His experiences include serving as Ethnic Minority Provision adviser, Ofsted inspector, SACRE member, he has set up and headed several schools in the UK and abroad and is member of AMS Shura Council.

All this to say his presentation is not idle philosophy, but the reflections of a man who has years of experience combining theoretical and practical levels of education and philosophy trying to see beyond the hall of mirrors which has paralyzed education to the point of the current debacle.

So while the following discussion may superficially seem aimed at confusing teachers in Religious Education and Philosophy for Children (P4C) even more than Ofsted, or even a call to a return to grammar school, it actually deals with the science of existence itself.

The Spirit of in Education

First of all this quote from Heidegger on the consequence of neglecting the spirit, which most of us could easily apply to the current educational ethos of utilitarian intelligence:

“…taking third place to physical health and character, and as a tool of cultural performance, spirit becomes part of a set of ‘holiday ornaments’ to hide the assault on intelligence and culture.

Following this, Lawson writes off any attempt at trying to fascinate children with  philosophy as a subject:

“Spirit is neither empty cleverness nor the irresponsible play of wit, not the boundless work of dismemberment carried on by the practical intelligence; much less is it world-reason; no, spirit is a fundamental, knowing resolve towards the essence of being.”

What is required is the form of discovery Lawson and I attempted to stage in the recent Norwich workshop. He continues on the difference between offering solutions and posing questions:

“…in what way the question of being, or reality if you prefer, is settled is of secondary importance though, since all great truths must first be constantly renewed by bringing them into the place where they emerge into being for the first time, that is, in response to a deeply felt sense of questioning, the piety of thought. Second-hand truths may be useful, but they are not what make us who we are. This is something many school pupils feel very deeply.”

It is the re-activation of this deep resolve, the will to live, to discover, to be, that should be the point of education, education here in the other form of the verb which means to “lead out” – of the banal identification markers on telly, if nothing else.


However, what seems like a hippie fantasy in fact ties in with hard knowledge of grammatical and rhetorical rules, what we might call “teaching language properly”:

“In the barren and spiritless doctrine of the schools, [the mechanical dissection of language has left the] formal concepts and terms of grammar totally uncomprehended and incomprehensible shells. Consequently, whatever is taught in school will sink into the same barrenness unless we succeed in rebuilding the school’s spiritual world from within and from out of the ground, i.e. in giving the school a spiritual, not a scientific atmosphere.”

This is highly pertinent, as, throughout the conference, all discussion on identity and disenfranchisement pointed towards the reduction of language to meaningless sounds as the root cause; an example I pointed out in a previous post, freedom means legally preventing women from choosing to cover her face.

Teachers with experience in challenged communities will recognize the connection between lack of language and lack of thinking skills. Look no further than 1984 to see the end of this slide: With schools no longer providing basic knowledge of rhetoric, words are up for grabs, and with them, reality. Witness the amazing opposing statements on the recent strikes, where the antagonists might as well be talking about completely different topics – in different languages. There is simply no bridge.

Lawson closes with the need for the academic community to step out of the box:

“And here the first step must be a revolution in the prevailing relation to language. But to this end we must revolutionise the teachers, and for this in turn the university must transform itself and learn to understand its task instead of puffing itself up with irrelevancies. These reflections form the basis for a new approach to the understanding of philosophy in relation to Islam and Islamic education as tarbiyah, the bringing up of the child into the flourishing of the essence of being human.”

The Quest inherent in “Question”

The relation to my own themes are clear – going back to the title of Lawson’s talk, “Questioning builds a way” I posit Cooperative Learning as a tool to provide guided inquiry exercises into the nature of existence. Not as a mental exercise, squashed between maths and English, but as a profound, assisted process of self-discovery which is no longer, and can no longer, be afforded by priests and shamans, and yet must be afforded, in both senses of the word.

Schools (or anyone else, for that matter) can no longer present a set of “truths” that learners will buy into. We, as educators, ourselves need to inquire and rediscover ontological and epistomological … questions? Again quoting Lawson:

“The real debate has been lost, the real question buried in centuries of intellectual and cultural sedimentation, to the point where we don’t even know how to ask it, even if we manage to become vaguely aware of the need to do so. The sense of living inside some kind of vast misconception is I suspect, not unfamiliar to many of us.”

Philosophy for Children? No. Philosophy for you.

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The Student-Centred Classroom & the Self-Centred Student

Audio recording of the BRAIS talk at Edinburgh University now available.

This presentation at the British Research Association for Islamic Studies presents some of the challenges and opportunities posed by Student-Centred Learning related to epistemology and identity for Muslim minority schools in the UK as well as any teacher interested in RE and P4C.





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Holyrood or bust!

With 15 minutes to pack in ethnic minority educational solutions to all society’s ills, it felt like an audition.

An intense two days in Edinburgh for the BRAIS conference saw a heady mix of ethnographers, anthropologists, RE teachers, social scientists, philosophers and every phD under the sun presenting a wide range of research within the framework of “Islamic studies.”

Holyrood 3

This included two separate sessions on education, Practice and Theory & Method in the Holyrood Room where I just managed to read out The Student-Centred Classroom or the Self-Centred Student – challenges and opportunities of Cooperative Learning for Muslim learners” under the sinister gaze of a timekeeper armed with cards in aggressive colours. I’ll see if I can get the recording up on later.

While I do intend to honour my commitment to debrief participants of the recent Healing Fractures workshop, I want to note the overlap between this type of classroom discovery made available through managed classroom social constructivism and a recurring theme at the BRAIS conference: the way identity under post-modernism was overtly and covertly tied to epistemology across subjects and research areas. This was more than a red thread – it was the thin red line in the “battle of meaning”, to quote Anna Piela of Leeds Trinity University.

One of the most interesting, and sinister, talks in this regard was Mohammed Elshimi’s Identity, Citizenship, and Security: What is Deradicalisation? which pulled the carpet under the post 9-11 top-down attempts at imposing a dichotomy of Muslim identity (radical-liberal) which leave people feeling threatened, dis-enfranchised and alienated – in an attempt to provide security.

I would like over the coming weeks to break down my notes from this and other interesting sessions and weave them into some of the ideas surrounding the Healing Fractures workshop which map out a way to put identity formation into the curriculum and into the hands of students outside the narrow scope afforded by pre-defined notions of citizenship and/or consumerism, referred to in my presentation.

One of the most telling examples of the gap between people’s personal rationale and the “perception managed” public definitions in which they are enframed, were the quotes from Ms. Tania Saeed’s research on women in the UK wearing the full face-veil, such as: “I feel more empowered, I feel far more confident” and “It’s like a rebirth.”

None of the women in the survey perceived what they were doing as a political statement, but rather as a highly personal journey – as inconceivable and incredible as that may sound to the rest of the world.

But on the battlefield of meaning, just south of the English Channel, legally barring a woman from covering her face is constructed as setting her free.

Time to arm the peasants, Lev Vygotsky.


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