Lynn Davies: Unsafe Gods

Jan 16, 2014 by

UNSAFE GODSAn Interview with Lynn Davies: Unsafe Gods

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Lynn, first of all, tell us a bit about yourself, your education and experience.

I’m Emeritus Professor of International Education at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom (UK). After spells teaching in schools in Mauritius and Malaysia as well as UK, most of my career has been in teacher education – with an international focus. I’ve been involved in research on democracy and equity in education in different parts of Africa, Asia and Europe, but for the last decade or so the focus has been on education and conflict, and on educating against extremism.

This has included work on education for peace and social cohesion in Sri Lanka, on Islamophobia, and on mentoring those at risk of violent extremism. I’ve been very interested in the potential of a rights-based education in challenging conflict and fundamentalism. Current work in Afghanistan on gender equity is also confirming for me the centrality of gender rights to underpin a non-violent regime.

2) Now, what is your basic message behind “Unsafe Gods”?

The basic message is that religion is a risky business and that a secular political system is the best hope for security. Conflict is worse when there is a religious base to it, as identities become hardened, there can be no exchange or compromise position over belief, and both/all parties think God is on their side. Once religion gets the upper hand in political decision-making, the prospect of equity for all faiths or none recedes. Schools are key places for learning to live in a non-violent, secular polity.

3)  What do you see as the “security” issues in the schools in Great Britain, and around the world?

I see two linked areas. Schools as safe places to be – physical and mentally – and schools as promoters of local and national security. Around the world, ensuring safe schools may mean protection against forces such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, who want to destroy them; it may also mean physical protection against tsunamis or earthquakes.

But building schools for security means an education that protects against learning to be violent and learning to be an extremist. In Great Britain, the latter has generated some innovative programmes under the government ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ strategy, using hard-hitting drama, role play, video, film and debate to explore the reasons why people are drawn into to extremist groups and how they can be challenged.

A secure school is paradoxically one that one that takes risks, that is not afraid to tackle religious extremism and challenge religious dogma. It does not ring-fence religion as somehow exempt from critique.

For me, a safe school too is one where children learn about their rights – to dignity and to freedom from harm as well as the right to learn. This is central to tackling issues of bullying and now cyber bullying. Work on UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools here in UK has shown dramatically that a rights-based culture in a school means children respecting each other’s rights, and teachers also respecting their students’ rights to freedom from humiliation. It’s a peaceful and adult environment.

4) Unfortunately in the United States, some children/and adolescents have brought guns to school and some adults have entered schools and killed many pupils, personnel and teachers.  Is this a gun problem, a security problem, a failure of the mental health system?

I think not the latter, as however good a mental health system you have, there will always be lone wolves, the disturbed rogues who slip under various nets and who have their own logics of action which do not fit our image of mental health. Overall, I would see it primarily as a ‘gun problem’, but in the sense that acceptance of guns signifies a wider culture of violence. I think we have to get used to increased security of schools – this is happening in UK too, with security cameras, or door codes.

But I don’t think we should get used to the normalisation of violence, the thinking that the only way to solve problems is with more violence from those in power. You see this in different parts of the world – proposals to arm teachers with guns in South Africa, for example. Already, young people in cities here are saying they don’t feel safe on the streets unless they have a gun or a knife; but some successful work with gangs has tried to prevent this escalation and show how possession of a knife means greater likelihood of being attacked. Schools have to keep on and on in their advocacy and practice of non-violent solutions to problems, and not give up.

5) Lynn, could you provide your definition of secularism, so that we are all on the same page in terms of this discussion?

I use the term ‘dynamic secularism’, with dynamic borrowed from complexity theory to indicate a secularism that is not static but enables a society to progress and evolve. This secularism accepts that people need religion, and accommodates faith, rather than attempting to ban it from the public space.

However, it does uphold the separation of church and state, so that the workings of government, judiciary, police etc are not governed by supernatural beliefs. Rather than provide a definition, can I list the features of dynamic secularism?

  • A diversity of religious and other beliefs and life style choices is seen as productive
  • Religious belief, membership or identity is not elevated or privileged above any other ethical system, cultural grouping or political movement. Religious organisations are subject to the same laws as anyone else. Tolerance to religious practice has to be within the framework of rights.
  • There is freedom to hold a belief and to leave it, and to reject all religions
  • There is freedom of religious expression, as long as this does not harm others
  • There is freedom to challenge or satirise a religion, as any other worldview, subject to the same (but not more) laws and constraints around hate speech or racism.
  • There should be no discrimination on religious grounds
  • Religious schooling is permitted, but not funded by the state. There are no tax exemptions for religious organisations as such.
  • Religious associations can lobby and be consulted; but there is no official representation in the machinery of governance. Religions compete in the marketplace with other vested interests.

Dynamic secularism for schooling means avoiding religious segregation, discouraging a narrow faith-based curriculum, and teaching young people skills of critique of all worldviews, including religious ones. A secular democracy needs maximum open debate and dialogue, and schools can teach such skills and habits.

6) How well trained should teachers be in terms of dealing with perhaps mentally ill people who enter the schools for nefarious purposes?

I don’t think it would be feasible to include in teacher training some sort of training such as specialist police officers have to deal with hostage takers etc. It would not be possible to identify or generalise about what sort of approach to use when a ‘mentally ill’ person turned up. It’s more important that a school has a proper safety plan, so that if there is an emergency – fire, bomb, flood, intruder – people know the system and what their particular role is. There might be a time when a teacher was able to persuade an extremist not to act, but I don’t think you could role play in advance what to say. General skills of talking to community representatives doesn’t do any harm though – teachers and religious leaders in Afghanistan have learned skills of negotiating with the Taliban to keep girls’ schools open. Community engagement and advocacy should be part of a teacher’s repertoire anyway. It might help.

7) We all know of the fact that Beatle George Harrison, in spite of all security measures was attacked and nearly killed in his home by some deranged individual. Is this a failure of the mental health system in Britain, or the police system or the judicial system or all of the above?

I do think it’s not helpful to talk of a ‘failure’ of a system in this instance. As said above, predicting the lone wolves, or what an individual deranged person will do, is notoriously difficult, tempting though it is to try to find someone or some organisation to blame.

Where we see failures is where people are known to the police or social services but no action is taken – as in the cases we have here of child sexual grooming, or of female genital mutilation. We see failures happening when officials are afraid to act because of some misinterpretation of existing laws or guidelines – particularly with regard to religion or ethnicity, where they are afraid of being accused of racism or religious prejudice. It’s much more important that we have the laws in place and these are used consistently.

8) Why are “Security, Secularism and Schooling” referred to as “UNSAFE GODS “?

Actually although that’s the subtitle, it’s not that these are the actual or only unsafe gods.

What the book tries to do is show how both religion and secularism can be unsafe, but that religion presents the greater threat. It is complicit in much conflict across the world – as we see in current Sunni-Shia divides in the Middle East, as well as historic tensions between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, Buddhist/Hindu in Sri Lanka, Orthodox/Muslim In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Christian/Muslim in Nigeria and DRC – the list is endless.

Certain versions of secularism can also be unsafe – as in the hard versions of Communist Russia, or France, where attempts to outlaw or privatise religion altogether actually leads to more tensions. I try to show how accommodating religion but not letting it get the upper hand, not elevating it to a special place exempt from critique is the best hope we have of mitigating conflict. Religions should compete in the marketplace with all other ethical worldviews.

The God of Schooling is also problematic, as schooling itself can contribute to conflict, when it is segregated, or when the curriculum preaches hatred of others, as we saw in Rwanda, or when it indirectly stereotypes ‘others’ , as we see all over the world. Certain sorts of security can also be unsafe – which goes back to excessive gun use mentioned above, but also the militarisation of aid to developing countries. Has our military presence in Afghanistan made that country or indeed the world a safer place?

What I do at the end of the book is list all the Unsafe Gods and then contrast these with complex ways of operating which help security. These include rigid, locked in ways of thinking compared to flexible, adaptive ones; top down authority as opposed to current horizontal ways of networking; seriousness and taking offence compared to healthy satire and turning ridicule to one’s advantage, and so on. I haven’t time to explain them all here, but I hope that this gives a flavour.

9) Should schools have clear weapons and drug and alcohol rules and regulations and if so, who should be enforcing these rules and regulations?

Yes, of course there should be clear rules! No point in unclear rules….But I know what you mean. The zero tolerance idea. But in response to the second part of the question, they do need to be ‘enforced’ and understood by all in the school community.

Going back to rights respecting schools, what we find is if students draw up their own rules and codes of conduct for behaviour (including the behaviour of teachers), based on fundamental rights, then there is a better chance of them being understood, and students reminding each other of them. Many (most?) students actually want schools to be safe places, and many don’t want to be pressured into using drugs. It’s a relief for them to have a zero ban on substances. What is good to consult students on is the consequences of infringement – immediate expulsion? Isolation? Warnings? Three strikes and you’re out? I could not possibly say, but it is useful to make whatever penalties there are consistently applied.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

People sometimes query why I have jokes in my books. They either love it or hate it. I would like to explain that it’s my conviction of the power of satire, of gentle and positive mockery. It’s essential that we do this with politicians, that we have constant vigilance on their pomposity and hypocrisy. The freedom we have in the West for cartoonists, or satirical magazines, or TV political spoofs, is a fundamental part of democracy and progress. And religious jokes should be an equally essential part of the armoury of democracy.

11) Where can interested readers get a copy of the book ?

Lynn Davies’ book Unsafe Gods: Security, secularism and schooling, IOE Press, ISBN 978-1-85856-525-5 is available to order in North America from Stylus Publishing and in the UK from IOE Press

“ important book that is filled with crucial theoretical insights and very real examples that can help us find our way in these troubled times. It gives us hope for a better future.” Professor Michael W. Apple, Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison

IOE Press is a university press that aims to meet the needs of UK and international practitioners, students, and scholars while complementing the Institute of Education’s mission to pursue excellence in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specializes in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”.

The IOE was recognized by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive UK universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching.

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