Fighting radicalisation and polarisation through new school approach
In this interview, Karin Heremans, a pioneer in Belgium’s education system, presents a three-pronged policy approach to side-lining extremism.
Not long before the Paris attacks in 2015, Karin Heremans, an educator and school principal in the Belgian city of Antwerp, was approached by one of her Muslim students saying he was bent on dying for Allah.
“I tried to talk and connect to him,” she says, “but his goal and mind had already been set.”
Within days the young boy had set off for Syria, recruited by Daesh forces. Weeks later, recalls Ms Heremans, “his goal had been achieved. He had been killed.”
Belgium had an acute Islamist militancy problem well before news surfaced that several of those who killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015 had grown up in Brussels and possibly plotted the operation there.
But since then, nearly 100 teachers and other educators from EU Member States have published a manifesto containing 24 recommendations for preventing radicalisation leading to violent extremism.
In the same spirit, RAN decided to launch an Education Working Group (RAN EDU), inviting school professionals from across the continent to participate.
Since then, Ms Heremans has mobilised efforts, becoming a key adviser for the Flemish education system as of 2016.
“We started with a focus on prevention but as the Brussels attacks took place, we were quickly put into crisis mode because it became obvious that there were several problems with Daesh grooming of students at different schools,” she says.
A three-pronged anti-radicalisation policy formulated by Ms Heremans for the Flemish state makes provisions for teachers to connect with students of all races and religions; it then affords them a “counter-narrative” and, next, “an alternative” option.
“It is extremely important to build a connection and relationship between people and to have them feel well within the school environment because Daesh focuses exactly on those who are alienated, rejected and unwanted in order to create its force,” Ms Heremans says. “They portray society as bad and one of discrimination, feeding on the victimisation of vulnerable youth.”
Still, she explains, connection alone is not enough.
To counter extremist Islamist narratives, the Flemish Government launched a network of Islam experts who support teachers and schools with lectures and tailor made interventions.
Through a string of programmes, including BOUNCE, the Flemish government has invested also large sums of EU funds for establishing resilience for teachers and the Belgian youth.
For the GO! Flemish education system we trained key figures in each school , and we supported principals by developing a prevention strategy linked to the GO! policy and baseline ‘Learning together, living together’.
“It’s a preventive way that supports teachers,” says Ms Heremans. “In my school, for example, we are developing several learning strategies for teachers. But it is up to each school to pave its way on its own along our baseline of living and learning together.”
In establishing counter-narratives, educators have also been trained to introduce new material and methodology in classroom teaching.
“In studying the Koran, for example, we opt to provide a historic and cultural reading,” says Ms Heremans. “We also focus on the more problematic verses of the Koran – passages that are upheld strongly by Daesh in its recruitment – countering them with a more accurate and factual reading of the script.”
Finally, by helping provide students with alternatives, radicalisation and polarisation are significantly side-lined.
“They are given a role, mission and goal in their lives here in Belgium,” Ms Heremans says. “They don’t have to seek it elsewhere, joining Daesh and fighting in Syria.”
“That’s why we are working with role models,” adds Ms Heremans. “We invite them to school and ask them to explain how they made choices in their life and became who they are knowing that life is not always easy. Our youngsters need heroes here in our countries to mirror themselves, not in the life after.“
Karin Heremans’ working life is oriented towards education and culture. Since November 2015, Karin has been the leader of RAN EDU Working Group. She has also written two books , Tip of the veil, and My Little Jihad shared values for Europe, as well as several articles about integration and a chapter titled ‘Education in times of despair’ in Lure of IS by Patrik Loobuyck.
Holding difficult conversations: the classroom
Watch our video about how teachers can tackle difficult conversations about radicalisation and extremism in the classroom. What should teachers say? What should they not say? What techniques may help? What do practitioners from the RAN network recommend?
This interview was prepared by Anthee Carassava. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the RAN Centre of Excellence, the European Commission, any other institution, or participants of the RAN.
Expert Interview with Karin Heremans (PDF version, 106KB) | (also available in French and German)