Challenging "us versus them"
A series of programmes which aim to address and counteract radical thought in British youth is now being adapted for use across Europe.
“Our courses don’t so much ‘engineer’ a change as to remove obstacles to young people being able to think about the social world according to a wider array of their own values.” — Dr Sara Savage
The on-going financial crisis, the rise of right-wing populist and anti-immigration political parties, and continuing sectarian conflicts across the world, all multiply the tensions associated with globalisation. Under increasingly difficult conditions, people with widely differing viewpoints are compelled to rub shoulders - often uncomfortably - with each other. What many groups experience is the feeling that their values and their identity are under threat, whether that threat is real or perceived.
Our values are a primary motivating force, underpinning the way we think, behave and relate to the wider world. When we feel that our values or identity are under threat, we go into cognitive constriction, failing to see or even consider opposing points of view. This way of thinking becomes quite self-limiting, potentially leading to a clash with those who disagree, and can affect any group or belief system.
An original programme to address the tensions of worldview clash has been designed for young British Muslims by Dr Sara Savage and Dr Jose Liht, members of the Psychology and Religion Research Group in the University’s Faculty of Divinity. The programme, entitled Being Muslim Being British (BMBB), uses multimedia and role-play activities, giving participants the tools they need to see some worth in opposing viewpoints while remaining true to their own values. This shift in perception is the groundwork needed for people to work out mutually beneficial solutions to address complex social problems. The aim is to promote social cohesion while respecting difference by promoting participants’ Integrative Complexity (IC) – the ability to see value in differing viewpoints around a given issue, and to perceive a wider framework that can make sense of difference.
The course serves as a primary prevention to build resilience in Muslim youth against the pull of radical groups and radical discourse that has been so prevalent online. The team have thoroughly tested seven pilot programmes around the country and are currently working with the Ealing Borough Council in London to roll out BMBB in schools.
Individuals have different lenses on the social world: some see the world in black and white, and some see it in shades of grey. There are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of thinking, and most individuals are able to adapt their level of IC as different situations may require.
“We are not promoting high IC as a universal ideal, because there are times to be very clear, to cut down alternatives and make a decision,” says Dr Savage. “Our approach makes people aware of fluctuations in IC levels in response to stress, and to be able to raise IC when the context calls for that.”
When parties with opposing viewpoints on a contentious issue both experience a drop in IC, conflict is likely to occur - people often see no other option than to go head to head. However, when people are able to see some validity in differing points of view, they are able to interact with those who have opposing viewpoints without feeling threatened or losing their commitment to their own values.
Radical ideas are quite widespread: even so, Dr Savage says of the BMBB participants, “These are not problem people: they are lovely, warm, intelligent young people. But when they are constantly exposed to a discourse that says you can’t be both British and Muslim, and it uses ‘wedge’ issues to polarise them, it’s easy to get stuck in that black and white way of thinking.”
“Our courses don’t so much ‘engineer’ a change as to remove obstacles to young people being able to think about the social world according to a wider array of their own values. By creating a safe context with the needed resources, the obstacles disappear and people are free to think for themselves.”
The overall experience shows that the approach prmotoes more complex ways of thinking which value both Muslim and British heritages. Dr Ryan Williams’ research on the BMBB pilots shows that higher IC becomes socially validated and valued within the participating peer groups.
“BMBB is about enabling young people to flourish. We present a dilemma and give them the resources to try out various solutions for themselves – we never steer them toward a certain solution,” says Dr Savage.
Using a well-established coding framework to pre and post test every pilot group, participants in BMBB showed a significant increase in IC in their group discussions and projects by the end of the course.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric propagates the idea that Islam has a cognitive constricting effect, but participants in the BMBB programme discover that the opposite is true: their faith is a resource that can help them raise their level of IC.
In addition to the BMBB programme, Dr Savage and colleague Anjum Khan are in the process of adapting BMBB for use in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Spain, which will address the way right-wing extremism interacts with Islamic extremism. As well, Dr Eolene Boyd-MacMillan and Dr Savage have received funding from the Scottish government for a programme to address sectarian issues between Catholic and Protestant groups in Scotland - all of which are programmes running through Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation group.
The BMBB programme is funded by the European Commission. Dr Williams’ research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust.
Photo credit: Whitechapel Market, by Danny McL via Flickr Creative Commons