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What Going to School with Jihadi John Taught Me About Radicalization

White, middle class teachers aren't the right people to quell extremism.
March 17, 2015, 12:21pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Quintin Kynaston Community Academy in London's St. John's Wood neighborhood has often produced figures that typify media representations and public perceptions of the city's poor, troubled youth. In the 1980s it was Madness's Suggs (their hit Baggy Trousers is about Quintin Kynaston), in the 2000s it was N-Dubz's Tulisa Contostavlos, and now in the 2010s it is Mohammed Emwazi—"Jihadi John"—the executioner and morbid star of several ISIS beheading videos.

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Before "Jihadi John" was revealed as Emwazi, an alumni of the school, I'd jokingly said to a friend, "I bet he went to QK." If any school could produce a "Jihadi John," it'd be ours, and we all knew it. My reaction to reading Emwazi had indeed gone to Quintin Kynaston was a specific type of shock—not of disbelief, but that an intuition had been right.

Emwazi is not the only Quintin Kynaston alumni to make the journey from London schoolboy to international Jihadi. As of writing this, two other ex-students have been identified as having gone abroad to fight. Mohammed Sakr went to fight for al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Choukri Ellekhlifi went to fight in Syria. Both are now dead.

Emwazi's "unmasking" came hot on the heels of the flight of three London schoolgirls to Syria. This phenomena of, as we see it, children biting the hand that feeds, is now practically an existential question; what is it to be British? What is it about growing up in this country that leaves some vowing to destroy it?

These are questions that have dominated my thoughts since Emwasi's identity was revealed, as I was to learn that I had in fact gone to primary and secondary school with him. At one point we were neighbors.

Further information came out and the rest of our connections were revealed to me. Nothing in this has put me more ill at ease than envisioning Emwazi in my Year Six class, playing with the same classroom board-games I'd played with, sitting one desk away from my own.

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The night the story broke, a friend messaged me in shock, telling me that he'd realized that we knew him personally. My friend and I would skip lessons in the same loose group to play soccer.

This forgotten fact made me realize that Emwazi, who I had seen around primary school, secondary school, my own home, who I'd played soccer with, had been so inconsequential that I didn't even recognize him. He wasn't gregarious or charismatic, but nor was he a loner or an outsider—words applied to killers to justify why we didn't see it coming. He simply wasn't someone you'd remember.

What isn't inconsequential, however, are the experiences which led him and two others from Quintin Kynaston down a path where thoughts of fighting for ISIS or al-Shabaab ended up being acted upon.

Quintin Kynaston is based in the exclusive St. John's Wood, but draws its students from incredibly deprived areas of London. Many of its students are from immigrant families, many are impoverished. In 2006, Tony Blair used Quintin Kynaston as the venue from which to announce the timetable for his resignation. As a "flagship" academy school, it was supposed to be emblematic of his "education, education, education" agenda. It was a guinea pig for a top-down reform, with a new structure that aped the private sector, was management heavy, and open to corporate sponsorship.

Then there were the demographics—the large number of Kosovan Muslim students would have been thankful for Blair's interventionist policy. The thought of Blair being pictured with one of the few groups of Muslim kids who would be happy to see him would have been well calculated. By announcing his resignation there, he could not have sent a clearer signal about what he wanted his legacy to be.

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However, that announcement didn't go to plan. Outside the school, students stuck around against the orders of staff. Half-coaxed by activists, half of their own volition, they chanted "Blair the murderer," "Blair out." The area was smothered with pictures of a blood-soaked Blair. It was the school in microcosm; lauded but unpredictable, and at times uncontrollable.

The reforms improved grades and league-table positions, but it didn't deal with the wider issues. Since his identity was revealed, Emwazi was described by teachers as "hardworking." He got the grades to get to university, but all that proves is that academic success is not an indicator of moral character, nor of being safe from radicalization.

I remember a student calling a teacher a "Jew," and the teacher replied that it was the student who was the "Jew."

Staff often found themselves with students they had zero authority over. I've read articles where it is "revealed" that Emwazi used "Jew" as a slur and went on anti-Semitic rants. This would be no revelation to anyone who went to the school. "Jew" was a standard insult. There was normally no conviction to this—it was teenage rebellion no different really to the "edgy" comments made in any other school. At Quintin Kynaston, however, these comments often went unchecked.

Pro-9/11 statements were also commonplace and teachers, often not from the local community, did not have the intellectual resources to tackle this rhetoric because it was totally outside of their experience. Many ignored it, some tried to curry favor by joining in. I remember a student calling a teacher a "Jew," and the teacher replied that it was the student who was the "Jew." Another teacher, totally at a loss at how to control the class, talked about 9/11 conspiracies, how it was an inside job—yes, "Sheikh Osama" had nothing to do with it.

In an interview, Quintin Kynaston's ex-headteacher has said no children were thought to be at risk. A student from my year made a brief appearance in a BBC Panorama documentary on radicalization in 2005. That's one child at risk, surely. What is being protected here—reputations or students?

The only thing to look for at that age is alienation—no student at the age of 15 is going to have a fervent and concrete Islamist ideology to spot. An ISIS patch sewn on to their backpack, a "radical" hairstyle, a passion for edgy Islamist bands. If that's what they're looking for—some caricature of what a "problem child" looks like—they'll never find it.

The knee-jerk reaction to blame Muslims for fundamentalist children is proven presumptuous by the fact that both of Lee Rigby's killers were converts—not brought up as Muslims. This reaction could only come from people with no connection to these communities.

That's a problem that goes right down to the teachers. We understand the white foster parents of a black child will not be fully equipped to deal with issues of identity. Likewise, we understand the need for female teachers so that girls can have female role models—it goes without saying. We understand that the black experience in the UK cannot be experienced by white teachers, and thus black teachers are needed. And so on, and so the last Labour government rolled out programs to fast-track ex-City workers into teaching—another stab at bringing the private sector mentality to schooling—and the current coalition government has sought to fast-track ex-soldiers. Neither group is ideal for tackling radicalization in schools.

Why are Muslim women, black men, white working-class women not fast-tracked into teaching? These people all too often find themselves as teaching support staff, while people from less appropriate backgrounds and with less genuine connection to the children are trusted to teach. It's another example of the subtle but ubiquitous class privilege and institutionalized racism that pervades British society.

Whatever we want from society, we need to recognize that it will come from schools. If we can't control what socialization goes on in schools, students will continue to become radicalized. Teachers have to show marginalized groups that they have a place in British society—one that doesn't involve being a specter hanging over it. This will hinge on whether British society is prepared to make room for these groups—when teaching is still a predominantly white, middle-class profession, it's debatable whether it has even tried.