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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Preventing radicalisation in school

The prevent strategy and religion in Christian schools

I recently completed my training in Prevent strategies through the National College of Policing. There I found a deep and balanced concern for young people who can be misled and radicalized in their loyalties to the detriment of their basic humanity. The prevent policy rightly identifies some of the underlying issues that dispose young people to radicalization:

  1. 1. A poor sense of identity

  2. 2. A lack of meaning in life

  3. 3. A weak sense of belonging

  4. 4. A feeling of low status

  5. 5. An unusual desire for change

  6. 6. A desperation for excitement and risk

  7. 7. Family involvement in extremism

  8. 8. A desire to control others

  9. 9. Problems with mental health

  10. 10. A feeling of being under threat[i]

The list is worth reflecting on since the first six items might apply to any adolescent, at least for a time. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to radicalization because they are searching for belonging, for an ideal and for personal meaning in their lives. The failure of our own culture, and of religion, to fill some of these needs is a factor leading to young people to engage in radical activity. Encouraging healthy religion is one way to prevent radicalization in young people. Healthy religion can build resilience to extremism by providing a sense of dignity to human life, providing a pathway to meaning, building self-esteem, celebrating community and creating opportunities to engage in practical action for change. One thing that Christian leaders need to emphasise is that there is a positive side to the word radical. Gandhi was a radical, Oscar Romero and Jesus were both radical activists. These, and many others, sought to change their communities from within and did so radically but did so within the framework of a traditional moral code. That Christian moral code is still the foundation of what the prevent strategy calls British values in its documentation. These values listed by OFSTED[ii] include:

  • · Democracy

  • · The rule of law

  • · Individual liberty

· Mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs

These are clearly important values and their slow emergence in British history gives them a cultural logic on which most people now agree. When they are breached by individuals or governments there is a general understanding that damage has been done to the community and sanctions must follow. What seems to be missing from the list is a sense of community, which provides the belonging that protects against radicalization. An over-emphasis on the individual can lead to the marginalization of groups and individuals who may then be drawn to simplistic groupings focused on anarchic change fueled by anger. The government have recognized this gap in British life by trying to promote social cohesion especially through the school system. In an interview in November 2016 Sir Michael Wilshaw, the leader of OFSTED said:

  • "Schools, it turns out, are great forces for social cohesion. Yet nobody talks about it."[iii]

The main problem for the government is that they cannot touch the deeper motives for British values or community cohesion without engaging in specific spiritual language that can integrate belief, action, community, self-esteem and a sense of meaning. The pragmatic dialogue about values lacks the energy that spirituality brings to motivation and to community. Therefore, it has to remain the responsibility of spiritual leaders to promote the deeper motivations that healthy spirituality and religion can create. The leaders concerned are not just the religious leaders of different traditions but also the leaders of schools, youth groups, parish teams and leaders of groups for social change. If these leaders can develop an awareness of healthy spirituality they can help to build resilience in young people against the influence of destructive behaviour. It is one of the purposes of healthy religion to support the spiritual dimension of human experience in society. Therefore, the rise of radicalized youth is as much a symptom of religion’s failure as it is of political decisions made in government offices both near and far.

For that reason, I want to make a brief survey of what healthy religion might look like. I want to address these remarks to all religious leaders in every tradition as an attempt to map out some of the symptoms of a healthy church, mosque, synagogue, gurdwara and temple. These are my own reflections and they are offered simply to provoke reflection, especially for leaders in education. The hope is that leaders will develop a deeper instinct for what is healthy in religious practices and what needs to be re-focused. The reflection may also be helpful to local clergy who have to monitor some extreme forms of piety among their membership. I will break the brief listing into three areas: The personal dimension, The relational dimension and the creedal dimension. Much of the insight in this description arises from Salesian spirituality and its ability to engage with a humanistic perspective embedded in its early development through St Francis de Sales.

The personal dimension of healthy spirituality and religion

1. Begins with life and leads back towards fullness of life and is not too other worldly.

2. Increases awareness of personal gifts and frailty increasing a sense of compassion.

3. Creates a sense of living in a flow of a presence at the heart of life.

4. A commitment to do no harm through anger, self-interest or negligence.

5. Motivated by faithfulness to an inner integrity rather than external rules.

6. Increases inner resilience and moral character.

7. Leads to an ongoing transformation often expressed as a journey.

8. Establishes a personal balance between interiority and engagement in life.

9. Builds up a basic optimism about life

The relational dimension of healthy spirituality and religion

1. Increases the capacity for self-sacrifice on behalf of others.

2. Recognises the dignity of each person regardless of status or creed.

3. Develops a sacred compassion for the poor and needy.

4. Helps to build interdependent people rather than self-contained people.

5. Increases the capacity to celebrate life in the present moment.

6. Forms groups that are inclusive and welcoming rather than secretive circles.

7. Draws energy from the mystery of God as connecting all of life: all people and creation

The creedal dimension of healthy spirituality and religion

1. Based within one primary tradition rather than borrowing from many.

2. Open to exploration about how core beliefs of a chosen tradition might be lived.

3. Supports the best aspects of any religious tradition whilst being rooted in one.

4. Remains within a tradition and learns from it whilst challenging its need to grow.

5. Recognizing the limits of knowledge as people face the mystery of meaning.

6. Avoiding rigidity, exclusivity and certainty in expressions of piety.

7. Not imposing verbal assent to belief against the will of individuals or groups.

These listings are intended to provoke thinking across religious traditions but it does not imply that all religions are the same. Each religion is trying to be faithful to a unique foundational experience of the numinous and to integrate that experience with life through ritual and practice. Because culture keeps moving forward, the way that life and belief integrate must also change so that eternal truths are accessible to contemporary minds and hearts. Unhealthy religion usually emerges when a religion or a spirituality becomes rigid and fossilized and begins to impose belief and practice at the expense of the integrity of its members. This is especially visible in religions where any dissent is silenced. In trying to spot unhealthy religion narrowness of view is a key symptom. Pope Francis, in his address to the church in Philadelphia in 2015 said,

  • “To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not “part of our group”, who are not “like us”, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to faith; it is a perversion of faith!”[iv]

The word perversion is a challenging one to use to describe the narrowness that can afflict any religion. Such narrowness ultimately rests on an insecurity that relies too much on manipulating God rather than trusting God. In schools and youth groups as well as in adult worshiping communities so much damage is done by a narrowness that closes itself to the elusive and yet simple message of most religions.

Narrowness is a particularly fertile ground for radicalization. Such narrowness can appear in young people in various unhealthy ways. It can be seen in a reluctance talk about personal belief or to talk in a way that demeans the beliefs of others. It can be seen in a reluctance in a young person to mix with people of other religious traditions who might be seen as contaminating them. Very often it is not a specific religion that is a problem but the personal set of beliefs a young person may have adopted that is damaging. As leaders among the young we should be aware of beliefs such as “God is often angry with me” “My faith is the only right faith,” “I will go to hell if I do not do everything right,” “I must make others believe what I believe.” These are possible signs of an unhealthy and narrow spirituality that can lead to intolerance and perhaps radicalization.

Many more young people are likely to be apathetic about religious practice and tolerant of others’ beliefs. They will have been touched by the privatization of spirituality that reduces it from a real belief into a kind of life-style choice which can be put on or cast off like a coat according to the climate of the time. These young people are unlikely to be radicalized but they are also unlikely to believe radically in anything. They too are spiritually unhealthy because their flexible beliefs are less likely to direct their actions or impact on the world around them. The transformative element of healthy religion has been lost for them along with the community dimension.

Schools need help to manage both the extreme religious narrowness and the diffused personal spirituality of young people. In contrast to the above statements of young people, a school building a healthy spirituality should be hearing: “I believe in a loving God” “I want to do good for others” “I want to learn to love myself and others” “I think all religions should be respected.”

These are the healthy statements that need to be encouraged and reinforced through the reflections of a school on its mission statement. Above all they should be embedded by practical action and good modelling by staff and pupils. Loving kindness, respect for wrong doers, appreciation of help given to others, examples of prayer being used and the celebration of religious ideals all help to create a culture where spirituality and religion are healthy and radicalization is less likely to gain a foothold.

All of the above has been expressed in terms that could apply to any religious tradition. That was intentional since we need to recognize the common ground on which each unique religious tradition stands. I would now like to examine the Christian dimension of some of these issues with reference to the Gospel tradition. The first thing to say in Christian terms is that God has identified with humanity completely and God is close to each person. Therefore, each person has a great and sacred dignity because they are seen as sons or daughters of God. This identification of human dignity and the presence of God is the bedrock of catholic social teaching. Therefore, every school project to raise funds, to link with the developing world and to create community are rich with healthy spirituality and religion. These actions point to the solidarity between all human beings as images of God whatever their race or religion. Somehow, we all share the same spirit and are mysteriously inter-connected in what the catholic church calls the dogma of the communion of saints. In the Christian funeral service one prayer expresses that bond in this way:

  • “All the ties of friendship and affection which knit us together in life do not unravel with death”[v]

This is the broader understanding of a healthy religion at work in a Christian Ritual. It is inclusive and connected. It builds community and heals loss. It reaches back through time and into the future. It helps people see their lives as whole, meaningful and safe within a mystery beyond words.

Each ritual of the Christian tradition, the celebration of Eucharist or communion, the experience of reconciliation and the celebrations of birth, marriage and death all point to a personal drama in people’s lives that is recognized within a community of meaning. In those rituals people rediscover themselves in relation to the mystery of God and in relationship with each other. They are no longer alone. In that solidarity, they gain strength to change the world together. The power of a Christian community comes precisely from that gathering of people around the mysteries of the life of Jesus. In the light of that life they find a light for their own.

Jesus was never a narrow thinker. He worked across many boundaries and was scandalously inclusive of women, prostitutes, sinners and foreigners. He challenged exclusivity and narrowness in a way that contributed to his condemnation. But he also crossed another boundary for which he was accused of blasphemy: he called God his Father and suggested he was on intimate terms with God. He went to the cross in part because he refused to deny that link and because he believed that link was stronger than death. Here Jesus brings together the commitment to a religious tradition and a deep personal belief in his sonship of God. He was able to hold these together because he was immersed in his own tradition and was able to read it in a new way for his time. At the same time, he never imposed his beliefs but only attacked the insincerity of religious leaders. Jesus never left his Jewish religion, he used it to clarify his mind and communicate his message. He held together spirituality and religion in a healthy balance. He also refused to be drawn into the many extremist groups that were active in Israel in his time.

As leaders in Christian education we need to follow that pattern so that we can express the dignity of each individual, protect their spiritual integrity and ensure that they do not drift into superficial living. On the other hand, as leaders, we also need to promote and critique the religious tradition in which we stand, as Jesus did before us. If we can do that we will be serving the needs of our community, the spiritual needs of young people and we will be supporting the prevent policy of the government as to contain radicalization of vulnerable youth. As regards radicalization it would be good to remember that Don Bosco kept politics at a distance from young people and kept his focus on preventing them from being radicalized into the many militia groups that grew up as Italy emerged as a nation. When asked what his politics were Don Bosco invariably replied, “My politics are the politics of the Our Father.” A wise and healthy spiritual answer.

[i] Drawn from the National College of Policing Training module available here:

[ii] See OFSTED web guidance at:

[iii] See BBC news at:

[iv] Homily of Pope Francis B. Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia Sunday, 27 September 2015

[v] Order of Christian Funerals Committal Rites Chapman 1990 p51 A

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