“Extremism” in schools and religious freedom

The NSW Government is rightly concerned about reports from Epping High School, in Sydney, that a student at a “prayer group” meeting at the school was preaching Islamic State ideology to fellow students. It seems that an “audit” is being conducted of “prayer groups” generally to see if others are involved in spreading “extremist” ideology.

While there is no doubt some good reason to be concerned here, there are a number of potential problems flowing from this situation for religious freedom. One of the first issues to be cleared up is this: what is “extremist”? The press report linked above notes, thankfully, that some attempt is being made to give it a confined meaning:

[D]eputy police commissioner Catherine Burn… explained that police defined extremism as “willingness to use violence or support the use of violence by others to promote a political, ideological or religious goal”.

This seems like a reasonable approach. While students, like their parents, should be able to enjoy religious freedom to meet for prayer and discussion in their lunchtimes, it is clear that the limits of religious freedom are reached when this freedom is used for the purposes of generating violence. (I discussed religious freedom in Australia generally in a previous post, and there I noted that one of the earliest Australian decisions on the topic, the Jehovah’s Witness case from 1943, gave strong support to religious freedom as a value, but noted that it had to give way when questions of national security were at stake.)

However, it would be easy to slide from a justified concern about the preaching of religiously motivated violence, into a more “expansive” definition of “extremism” which really would challenge religious freedom in unjustified ways. We can see this danger emerging already in an article in the Newcastle Herald, “Preaching in playground: DET ‘ignored’ repeated warnings” (July 28, 2015). There a lobbyist previously associated with attacks on Special Religious Education in schools (see my previous posts here and here for reports of former attacks on SRE) jumps on the “extremism” bandwagon to claim that his previous “warnings” on the topic should have been heeded. But those warnings, so far as the article claims, seem mainly to have been about “religious groups trying to convert students in public schools”, not about the preaching of violence. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that the student in Epping was speaking to non-Muslims; one would imagine his words were directed to other Muslim students.

But the difference between the two is elided in an article which seeks to tar any religious group which presents its teachings seriously, as being “extremist”. And, of course:

you can’t cherry pick which religions with extremist views you allow in, and which ones you don’t.

Well, with respect, you can distinguish between different “religious” groups, and have to, precisely on the grounds of what they teach. Some religious views are “extremist” and others are not. This means, of course, that schools are quite justified to generally monitor the content of what is being taught in school religious groups, so long as this is not done in such a heavy-handed way as to stifle all expressions of religious faith by students. And it will be perfectly rational to be more careful with religious groups where high-profile representatives of the religion concerned have been known to make clear public pronouncements about inflicting physical violence on non-believers.

Unfortunately the developing issues here in NSW reflect to a large extent developments on a far more serious scale in the United Kingdom. There, in a scandal in 2014 that engulfed a number of government-run schools which came to be known as the “Trojan Horse” incident:

An investigation ordered by the government.. found a “sustained, coordinated agenda to impose segregationist attitudes and practices of a hardline, politicised strain of Sunni Islam” on children in a number of Birmingham schools.

The investigation of this incident, of course, led to a Government determination not to allow hard-line Islamic views to dominate in government schools. Unfortunately, it seems that the lazy “all religions are the same” attitude of some bureaucrats has led to proposals to severely restrict all religious groups, not just those advocating religious violence, from presenting their views in schools. Indeed, in more recent times the UK Government has proposed a system of “Extremism Disruption Orders” which are seen as raising important challenges to freedom of speech and religious freedom. In an attempt to deal with the very real threats of religiously inspired violence, the danger of sweeping up religious views generally, especially those which do not conform to the current “sexual orthodoxy”, is a very real one. In an important article, Extremism and Censorship, the Gatestone Insitute notes that the definition of “extremism” that the UK Government seems to have adopted is:

vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

What, then, are “fundamental British values”? Again this is unclear, but one commentator has noted:

Those engaged in passionate debates — such as Christians objecting to gay marriage — could find themselves slapped down. Monarchists or communists could be swept up for peacefully expressing their political views.

Indeed, the Christian Concern group in the UK reports that recent comments of the Education Minister there seem to suggest that

the Christian teaching about marriage and sexual ethics would now be labelled as an “extremist view that needs to be monitored and punished.”

In short, we need to be discerning about the sort of views which are targeted when we start using the label “extremist”. The Gatestone Institute, in the post linked above, notes that governments will need to be discerning in deciding which religious groups receive funding and support, and which don’t. It will be necessary to “cherry-pick”- to listen to the views that are being presented by different groups, and where viewpoints are to be opposed, to only do so in the most serious cases of physical violence against others being advocated and supported. Differences of opinion on other matters, on sexuality, on abortion, on forms of government, on asylum seekers and climate change, need to be tolerated and debates allowed to continue. There will be no substitute for careful and thoughtful work with religious groups and their leaders, and on occasions the drawing of clear lines. But suppression of religious freedom can only be justified by the most serious forms of direct harm, and should never be engaged in merely to avoid “offence” or “annoyance”.


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