Educating Against Extremism

Author(s) Lynn Davies
Publisher Trentham Books Ltd
Published 2008
Pages 206
Price £16.99
ISBN 9781858564265
Reviewed by Mr Malcolm Barry
Learning from Experience Trust
Review published 8 September 2008

If she is not yet a National Treasure, Gillian Klein, publisher extraordinaire and proprietor of Trentham Books, has only to wait patiently. She certainly should already be so regarded by those in the field of Education (although these remarks apply mostly to the field of initial education: Klein has, sadly, made few forays into post-compulsory education).

With this volume, she has done it again; well produced, excellently readable in terms of type-face and, most important, vital in terms of subject matter, I would recommend this book to all who have to deal with schooling and, indeed, those who prepare others for work in this difficult arena.

Klein chooses her authors well: nowhere more so than with this pithy, learned and practical guide, authority and friend. Davies has a track record in studies of inter-cultural and conflictual education: here she brings her experience together with writings on the subject and its associated literature.

And she is not afraid of nailing her colours to the mast. We know, from the Oxford theologian, Richard Swinburne, that, while God regrets our suffering, “some people badly need to be ill for their own sake” [or] “to provide important choices for others. Only in that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the sort of people they are to be”. This suggests that “we need not waste money on medical research” and that (also Swinburne) the Holocaust gave Jews “a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble”: leave aside what the divine had to say about Hiroshima. Davies quotes this and is clear in her view of such beliefs.

The point here is that extremism, as Davies defines it, is not confined to militant Islam: it is just as practised near the Christian ivory towers of Oxford as in the minarets of Bradford and, she suggests, can be a characteristic of all religions when fundamentalism loses touch with rationalism.

So, this is a book that had this reader cheering from the armchair. There are six chapters. They move, interestingly, from theory to practice, with a judicious balance along the way. Davies considers the nature of extremism (some nice definitions here) and identity and radicalisation. Probably inevitably, her focus is on Muslim examples but I was impressed, throughout the book, by how she related her themes to analogies with sectarian Christianity.

She considers the question of faith schools and has the temerity to refer to “segregation” and “the myth of equal value” in a chapter heading. For those of us who think the state and, indeed, religion, has no business in inculcating a belief system with the aim and the manner of the Jesuits, this is a good read. The fourth chapter deals with the questions of “justice, revenge and honour” and has many pertinent things to say about all these concepts, culturally (alas, often religiously) defined.

Perhaps the most important is her fifth chapter, where she discusses free speech, offence humour and satire. ”Most important” because her book is interspersed with jokes. These are in boxes and, apparently, her husband, otherwise approving of the text, suggested she excise them. Fortunately, she retained them, thereby making the point that humour and, indeed, satire, is the main weapon against tyranny, whether political or intellectual.

Her sixth chapter is an attempt to construct a model, at once both theoretically sound and of practical assistance, which will mitigate extremism. Here there is a careful appeal to theory and traditions. These traditions include the political: what exactly does “counter-terror mean in thought and in practice; what can Socrates say to today’s classroom, what is the point of democracy (Davies sees a lot in the latter)? They also include the religious – one of the most important jihads (a term she reminds us does not have the overload of popular understanding) is, in fact, ijtihad. This is the Islamic tradition of independent reasoning – critical thinking it might be expressed.

This is important. Davies is a respectful but not uncritical reader of Dawkins but Christopher Hitchens and his God is not Great does not get a reference. In the latter, Hitchens points out that the purveyors of hate use media and techniques developed by others, techniques that they are expressly forbidden or unable to develop for themselves. But where would we be without the scientific and enquiring tradition of the Islamic world and its predecessors: the Dark Ages were a European phenomenon.

This is not to plead an uncritical relativism but rather to salute a book with integrity, consistency, a balance between abstract thought and guide to practice. Much food for thought and food of the most nourishing variety.