Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Scary Truth About Student Radicalization: It Can Happen Here

A survivor of the Bosnian genocide explains how children can become hate-filled adults
By Amra Sabic-El-Rayess — March 04, 2021 5 min read
A Hooded teenager standing in a misty forest filled with spiderwebs

In October, I wrote an essay warning America about the escalating violence of white supremacy. I argued that the rise of the far-right narrative in this country mirrors Serbia’s Islamophobia in the 1980s, which, by early 1992, incited the genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Many commented directly or on social media that my expectation of violent extremism in this country was exaggerated and could never happen here. “We know better,” they argued. “Our institutions can withstand the hatred that overwhelms lesser nations.” But even the leaders of our federal agencies have now admitted that they had failed to predict how hatred could compel thousands of ordinary Americans to storm the Capitol.

As a child in the former Yugoslavia—a socialist federation formed after World War II and consisting of six independent states, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia—I watched popular uprisings in other countries around the world on TV and saw citizens storm their capitols. A political commentator would regularly reassure us that such chaos could never occur in Yugoslavia because our own brand of social cohesion—“brotherhood and unity”—made our nation exceptional. “Brotherhood and unity” was displayed in our schools, our stores, and on our streets, reminding us that this was the only way to maintain peace in an ethnically diverse country.

Just like the United States witnessed the rise of Donald Trump in recent years, by the mid-1980s, the former Yugoslavia, too, had a rising demagogue with authoritarian tendencies: Slobodan Milošević. By the late 1980s, Milošević had taken control of the media, military, politics, and education. His aspiration to create Greater Serbia included killing non-Serbs in neighboring states and then annexing their ethnically cleansed territories to Serbia. This led to genocide. Both the army and everyday citizens eagerly persecuted, imprisoned, raped, and killed Bosnian Muslims. I was one of those Muslims, but I was lucky enough to survive nearly four years of the Serb military siege, constant bombing, and threats of rape. Since leaving Bosnia in 1996 as a genocide survivor, I have built a career around searching for answers to the questions: How can racial and ethnic hatred blind and compel ordinary people to engage in violence? How do children grow into hate-filled adults?

When young people do not have a sense of belonging at home or in school, they may seek radical alternatives.

My research suggests that the answer is in radicalizing education where extremist narratives minimize the relevance of teachers. These narratives are deliberately constructed outside classrooms to appeal to disenfranchised youths who harbor grievances. Formal classrooms are replaced with teachings curated by informal mentors, influencers, and recruiters who project blame for individual and societal problems onto a targeted group that ultimately becomes the object of hate.

I have studied how the idea of radicalization evolved historically and found that education always plays a role. A door to radicalization is first opened when educators and schools don’t provide students with opportunities to engage in tough conversations or constructively address their grievances. And these failures to connect with students in the formal education system push them to look for validation elsewhere. When young people do not have a sense of belonging at home or in school, they may seek radical alternatives. They often meet extremist recruiters, in person or online, who teach them radicalized ideas by constructing a victimhood narrative and isolating these vulnerable students from the viewpoints of others.

U.S. policymakers have generally been quick to react militarily to extremism around the world. However, they have largely failed to consider how education in the United States—particularly in grades K-12—can be an important avenue to prevent and counter radicalization. Consequently, our schools and teachers are not equipped to address the rise in domestic radicalization.

Trump took lessons on propaganda from what has worked. He argued that America is under threat from Muslims and used that fearmongering to institute policies like the Muslim ban. The former president singled out Mexicans as rapists and journalists as the “enemy of the people,” a phrase dear to dictators like Stalin and Mao. Adolf Hitler’s victimhood tale educated Nazi youths into believing that Jews threatened Germany’s purity. Milošević, too, relentlessly positioned Serbs as the victims in the former Yugoslavia.

This victimhood narrative need not correlate to reality. Instead, leaders like Hitler, Milošević, and Trump deployed unconventional education strategies to mold mindsets, radicalize masses, and get the population to buy into their narrative. In the 1980s, Milošević took control of TV and radio and eventually fictionalized narratives of Muslims attacking Serbs. Serbia’s media soon referred to Muslims like me as “mujahideen” and “terrorists,” the same way Trump followers demonize their opponents. Trump had social media at his disposal, and his engagement with it was critical in radicalizing the disenfranchised young people here.

The global pandemic, online learning, and social unrest have made K-12 students in America particularly vulnerable to the victimhood narrative. White supremacy and the targeting of the “othered” requires that K-12 education offers safe spaces for these vulnerable students. They will need a genuine embrace as they seek to self-empower. And if schools do not offer those opportunities, far-right groups will.

See Also

Teran Tease, 5, watches at Oaklawn Cemetery during a test excavation in the search for possible mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on July 21, 2020.
Teran Tease, 5, watches at Oaklawn Cemetery during a test excavation in the search for possible mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on July 21, 2020.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP

Ironically, we need to learn from the radicalization playbook and use its tools to achieve different results in schools. One way is to shift from the testing mania that preceded this pandemic to more personalized learning. Students need meaningful, one-on-one connections as they navigate the post-COVID-19 world. Students also benefit from intentional teaching, where they are exposed to diverse narratives and viewpoints and the messy work of negotiating conflicts and compromises.

To do this effectively, classrooms should incorporate diverse lived experiences into our math, literature, history, and science lessons. We need curricula filled with stories inspiring critical thinking, collective empathy, and resilience to counter the narratives of demonization, victimization, and supremacy. This includes listening to student grievances and providing after-school programming and mental-health services for support.

We cannot undo the damage inflicted on American youths by the pandemics of COVID-19, racism, and radicalization. But we can make sure that we act on one of their most important lessons: We must reimagine education to meet our children’s deepest needs and restore the primacy of teachers and schools as society’s greatest assets. I am hopeful that having a professor and educator as our first lady means that we, the educators, will get the help we need to heal our country’s children and its future.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Scary Truth About Student Radicalization: It Can Happen Here


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