GUESTVIEW: Young British Muslims are speaking, but who’s listening?
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Sughra Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Policy Research Centre, which is based at the Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire and specialises in research, policy advice and training on issues related to British Muslims.
By Sughra Ahmed
It may seem well and good to think children should be seen and not heard – there’s nothing wrong with a touch of Victorian, especially true during a good movie! But what if the censored are not young children at all? What if they are flashpoints in our conversations on not so trivial subjects, you know, things like national security, integration and democracy. And what if, instead of listening, we systematically speak on their behalf, saying what they are thinking and how they fit into the whole social and political spectrum.
(Photo: Woman at “Muslims Against Terrorism” rally in London, 11 Sept 2007/Toby Melville)
Enter young British Muslims, but please sit down over there in one group, and mind you don’t speak – we have interpreters for that: a choice of representative institutions, community spokespersons, experts on what young people think, and media sound bytes. Yes, much is said and written about young Muslims, not only in black ink but leapfrogging from blog to blog and showing no signs of tiring. Rarely though, is it the young voices themselves. Commentators of many persuasions seem keen to tell us how and what a silent majority from British Muslims think. If it’s not the majority then certainly a large proportion .
Let’s take a look at the basics: nearly half of British Muslims are under 25 and overwhelmingly British born, about a third are 16 or under. Half are women (I feel a need to state the obvious) and most are not in northern former mill towns (less than 5% of British Muslims actually live in ‘popular imagination’ Bradford).
We are used to hearing about young Muslims in the context of radicalisation of Muslim opinion, but their lives are far more complex. There is an untold story of intergenerational challenges, the role of community leadership and its short comings as well as alienation from institutions of wider society. But the picture is not all bad – young people feel a strong sense of national pride and really want to do things to make their lives better.
These were some of the considerations surrounding my report released today called Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims, published by the Policy Research Centre. Here’s the Reuters news story on it — “Young British Muslims angry with police and media.” Interestingly 45% of the young people I spoke with were female; hearing their thoughts, feelings and aspirations was enlightening. Young women are often sidelined from mainstream debates both within Muslim organisations and wider British society. Hearing their audible views and concerns alongside and with their male counterparts reflects the invaluable contribution they have to make – they had a lot on their minds.
The voices of young British Muslims – and especially those of women – are increasingly valuable when we speak of intergenerational challenges within Muslim communities. These are exacerbated by the different cultural environments and influences in which generations have grown up. Some young Muslims, from both sexes, tend to face two different worlds in their lives – one inside and one outside the home – as a way to negotiate the intergenerational gap that evidently is due to a communication divide on the basis of language, but also ideas of modern life and ways as well as cultural taboos.
Young Muslims often see such taboos in terms of what they can or cannot speak to their parents about, how concepts such as respecting your elders is a key influence in how they engage with older people and interestingly the way they operate in their social circles outside the home. These illustrate some of the difficult challenges young British Muslim are negotiating on a daily basis. These challenges are even greater for young women as the traditional norms restrain them from making choices for themselves and their own lives in relation to education, social activities and who they spend time with.
Then we have the role of religion in their lives. Young British Muslims often feel perturbed at suggestions of friction or even conflict between their religion and their national identity. Instead, young people argue there is a sense of synergy between their faith and their British (or in some cases Scottish and Welsh) identities. The role of faith for many young people is a peripheral aspect of who they are. Over time, as they grow into ‘older young people’ it becomes an aspect some focus on more, all the while in the context of growing up as young Brits.
(Photo: Central mosque in Birmingham, 31 Jan 2007/Darren Staples)
If we are to make effective social connections, we need to invest in young people and their development, for example through the creation of more mentoring schemes, development of leadership and work to facilitate role models. Voluntary sector organisations can reach a sizeable number of young women. Whilst the space they provide and mix of projects they run is admirable, they would benefit from specialised youth skills training and long-term investment to let young people speak for themselves. Surely it is the voice of young British Muslims that will enable the rest of us to better engage the very audience we seek to understand – let them tell us with their own voices and let us listen!