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Education has failed these British jihadists

29 August 2014


From the Revd Dr Nigel Scotland

Sir, - It needs to be recognised that one underlying reason that so many young British men have gone to join the jihadist cause in Syria and Iraq is the education or lack of it that they receive in this country.

Most young people understand well enough the differences between science and philosophy, wisdom and law, poetry and history. Yet, when it comes to religious education, they are taught to revere and respect sacred scripture in an uncritical way that often causes them to lose the capacity to distinguish between its differing literary genres.

In consequence, such sacred texts gradually become invested with a divine status, with the concomitant that jihadist, paradisal, and other poetic texts come to be interpreted with a blunt literalness. This process is further reinforced by the fact that much religious education in secondary schools is largely uncritical teaching about religion, usually in the form of a Cook's tour of the world's great faiths, focusing on founders, food, and festivals. There is often little in the way of opportunity to consider the rightness or otherwise of religious beliefs, or the chance to assess critically the consequences that issue from holding them.

It often happens, about the time when young people leave school, that they begin to find themselves in a state that some sociologists have termed "normlessness", meaning that they are unable to cope with the social, political, and general uncertainties of life. Inevitably, some young Muslims among their number who find themselves desperately in need of a framework with which to counteract these feelings and make sense of their existence will turn to the only ideals and values that they have known, drawn from fundamentalist understandings of the Qur'an which have been learned in the main by rote at a mosque or madrasah, or from a social-media site.

Clearly, it is vital that our education system, and specifically the teaching of religion in our secondary schools, ensures that all young people in this country not only respect and honour sacred scriptures, but are also taught to contextualise and interpret them in ways that are just, compassionate, and respectful of all human life. In consequence, they will, it is to be hoped, recognise that no deity worthy of the name would require men or women to live or act in any other ways.

It is vital that they, and indeed all people of faith, understand that texts that advocate advancing a religious cause by means of violence, bloodshed, loss of life, and the denial of human rights can only ever at best be understood as human misconceptions of the divine.

Only in this way, at the level of the education given to every child and young person in the nation's schools, can the Government's recently expressed intention that all UK citizens must learn the British values of tolerance and acceptance of others begin to become a reality.

Trinity College
Bristol BS9 1JP

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