In 2013 the EDL set fire to an Islamic Centre in Barnet. Later that year I found myself teaching a child who had attended classes at the centre. “They burnt it down because the English don’t want Muslims here,” he told me one day in the middle of a maths lesson. We talked about what he meant and I explained who the EDL were and how they are a tiny group that are in no way representative of all British people. I reminded him that most of his teachers are British and they all wanted him here and that the wonderful thing about living in Britain is it so diverse.
That conversation was the first time I understood how uncomfortable some Muslims are made to feel living in Britain at the moment. Equally it is an example of how fear can build prejudice “English people don’t want Muslims here” stems from the same ignorance and fear as, “well – how many of these migrants are terrorists?”
I’m a writing this on Saturday morning whilst details of the events in Paris pour in. At this point there is nothing new to say about what’s happened. It was cruel, horrific and tragic. I don’t know what the response should be or how we resolve this. So instead my thoughts have turned to Monday: when 30 6-year-olds walk through my classroom door. How much will they have heard? What will their parents have explained? Will they have spoken to them about it at all?
It’s my assembly first thing so I think I’ll take the opportunity to talk bout tolerance rather than focus entirely on Paris. I wonder how many of them will ask me about it. I am a huge believer in you should always try and answer children’s questions no matter how uncomfortable they are. (That said, I did draw the line at “how can you have sex with three people at once?”) So I will talk the children about what has happened in Paris if they bring it up.
- I’ll be clear on the difference between Muslims and ISIS
For my class this is very straightforward: Muslims are their friends, families, neighbours, teachers and ISIS are evil people doing horrible things. The two are very separate because the Muslim community they live in is peace loving, friendly and supportive. I won’t need to explain to (most) of them that most Muslims are not terrorists and these acts are condemned by the Muslim community. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January I told my class: “there is a group of people that want people to believe the same things as them. They want it so much they will actually kill people who believe different things. Most people don’t think like this.”
2. I’ll try and explain how unlikely these things are to happen
This one is tricky because my children have very small world and quite limited experiences but I need to make it clear how rare these events are. I don’t want them living in fear of an attack. When I learnt about WW2 in Primary school I became convinced there was going to be another huge war and I would have to be evacuated. When people live in fear terrorism wins.
3. I’ll focus on how lucky we are to have such a diverse and tolerant community
Out of my 29 children – 21 are Muslim, 5 are Hindu, 1 Jewish and 1 Christian and 1 has “no religion”. The children I teach that are from Muslim families are incredibly proud of their religion and love nothing more than educating me on their beliefs and practises and teaching me Arabic. Most of them go to school for 6 hours a day and then do 2 hours of Mosque school in the evening. They find my lack of knowledge bemusing and tease me about it. I in return teach them about other belief systems and help them understand that as they grow up they will meet people that believe very different things to them and that is ok. I will remind them this is why we spend so much time talking about resolving conflict and tolerating others – they are the values we want them to have as adults.
4. I’ll remind them of the support they have around them
Something I often find myself saying to parents is: as an adult when you see something you have experiences and points of reference to draw on to help you to piece together the picture. Children are still developing those and this means they aren’t always sure what they have seen. This is why it is so important we keep talking to them and unpacking ideas for them. I will remind them of all the people that care about them and work hard to keep them safe.
It’s not easy to explain something I don’t fully understand myself but if we don’t at least try we risk leaving children scared and uninformed which, sadly, often manifests as hate.