Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:50 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:50 | SYDNEY

Radicalisation: Look at the network, not the school

29 June 2009 14:51

Jim Della-Giacoma is the South East Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group.

Some Islamic schools have a magnetic quality for radicals in South East Asia, but this does not mean that all such institutions, teachers, and students are the problem. The relationship between the place and the people is often misunderstood.

Schools are places where young men, at the most reflective and passionate time in their lives, congregate in large numbers. Like any high school or university in the West, this makes them good conductors for the flow of radical currents pulsing through these societies.

Two recent International Crisis Group reports from Indonesia and Thailand have shown links between educational institutions and radicals. In the Indonesian regional city of Palembang, for example, radicals met in Jemaah Islamiyah schools to plot, but most were neither students nor teachers. A misplaced sense of duty or loyalty oaths meant that school administrators felt the radicals could not be turned away, even though the school’s director was opposed to violence.

In southern Thailand, recruiters infiltrate schools to seek out students with potential as insurgents before singling them out for special extracurricular attention that shepherds them along the path to fighting in the insurgency. Crowded classrooms and dormitories provide good cover for covert activities that most of those who teach, live, or learn there probably never know of or fully comprehend.

It would be foolish for any government response to this challenge to focus on closing schools or punishing teachers. Further, efforts to revise texts, or change curricula, while possibly beneficial for their overall education, won’t affect recruitment because the problem lies elsewhere. Crackdowns will not insulate the society; only send these highly charged elements along different paths of least resistance.

Understanding schools as a place where social networks converge and gaining insights into how these networks function is more important. Some may be uncomfortable with the highlighting of such links, but the connection between a small subset of educational institutions and radicals is beyond doubt. The challenge is to spotlight the problem without stigmatizing the whole system.

In Thailand, those who start out on the road to violence often begin their journey in the classroom of modernised Islamic schools. In Indonesia, extremists seek refuge in a few dozen sympathetic pesantren and use them as communication hubs. It is the network, not the school that is the threat. Governments should remember this nuance when considering policies and responses.

Photo by Flickr user HKmPUA, used under a Creative Commons license.