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Stigmatisation of Young Muslims Plays into the Hands of Terrorists

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In his autobiographical account of growing-up Muslim in the USA, the interfaith activist Eboo Patel reframes W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the ‘colour line’ stating, ‘I believe that the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line,’ with religious totalitarianism on one side, and religious pluralism on the opposite. Patel continues, ‘The outcome of the question of the faith line depends on which side young people choose… All of these [young] people are standing on the faith line. Whose message are they hearing?’ With around half the Muslim community in Britain under twenty five, the attitudes and opinions of the younger generations plays a significant role in shaping the identity, development and social position of the wider British Muslim community. But what kind of messages are being heard by young British Muslims?

In his definitive historical account of Muslims in Britain, The Infidel Within, Humayun Ansari suggests that, ‘Muslim identity in Britain is being constructed very much against a background of negative perceptions about who and what Muslims are’. Young British Muslims, most of whom were teenagers at 9/11, have experienced their formative years surrounded by a discourse of “radicalisation”, “extremism” and “integration”. They have grown-up within communities subject to increased public scrutiny and suspicion; or as researcher Laura Zahra McDonald puts it, ‘the cross-societal perception of Islam as dangerous, in relation to both belief and identity.’

Rifa’at Lenzin argued that, ‘There is a Muslim identity before and another after September 11.’ Conversations with numerous young British and American Muslims during research I conducted last year confirmed this notion. As one female interviewee who grew-up not far from New York and was fifteen at the time of the terrorist attack explained,

It was really a shift, I think, in terms of how people looked at me and interacted with me and, I mean, there were a lot of hate crimes that happened after 9/11 and a lot of mistreatment of Muslims. And I was really taught to put my head down and not talk about the fact that I was Muslim. And I almost carried a really heavy heart for a long time, and a lot of shame with being Muslim because I felt I was associated with terrorists.

In another interview I was moved to hear how the participant and her friends often preface the things they do and say with the phrase ‘I’m Muslim, but it’s OK.’ A joke, but not really a joke; this prefacing is something closer to a sad self-conscious need to apologise for belonging to a group so mistrusted by society.

Whilst one reaction to the scrutiny and criticism of an important aspect of a young person’s emerging identity might be to feel ashamed, another natural reaction is to become defensive. As an interviewee who was eleven at 9/11 stated, ‘We almost grew up in a position to be defending our religion. So not just trying to understand our religion, or like, practice it, but to understand it so we could defend it.’ She went on to say:

I think a lot of people’s spiritual journeys are driven by the confusion and angst and like, sense of not belonging for young Muslims. And I think that actually hasn’t played out yet. I think there’s going to be a generation of Muslims who are really messed up because the climate they grew up in was one of reacting to this mess of stereotypes.

This ‘mess of stereotypes’ articulated by my interviewee, which may have diminished slightly in the years since 9/11, recently returned with abandon. And it is vital to consider how the cultural milieu which portrays young Muslims, without nuance, as potential jihadists, will negatively affect the emerging identities of these young adults, as well as their understanding of their place within British society. All of the young people I interviewed have been involved in community-building interfaith work of various forms. For many of them, this work is a positive response to the negative public and political discourse which surrounds their religion. Through interfaith work they have a platform to represent a different side of Islam, to rewrite their own stories. But adopting this kind of attitude takes a strong sense of self-worth and self-belief, often difficult for young people. One of my interviewees explained, ‘9/11 happened when I was in Year 7…once the media started to highlight this disparity in society, the lack of integration… you start to question where do you fit into that dichotomy. Are you part of the British Muslim community, are you part of the wider British society?’ Eboo Patel, quoted at the start of this post, went on to found one of the USA’s most successful interfaith organisations, IFYC, yet he writes, ‘I see flashes of the ingredients that prepared the ground for [7/7 bomber] Hasib Hussain’s suicide mission in my own life.’ For Patel, this included, ‘A gut-wrenching feeling of being excluded from mainstream society.’

The government has been quick to suggest the confiscation of passports and a ban on the return of British nationals who have travelled to places like Syria. There has also been the usual claims that Muslim leaders are neither condoning groups like “Islamic State” loudly enough, nor doing enough to prevent young Muslims becoming “radicalised”. It is pertinent to remember that half of British Muslims are under the age of twenty-five, so the traditional leaders or community gate-keepers therefore, may not be those whom the government needs to engage. As my friend Usman Nawaz suggested on BBC Breakfast last month, the government needs to open up dialogue with young British Muslims. It is essential to speak to such British citizens with care and concern, to attempt to understand their grievances and the potential attraction of jihadist groups.

Let’s be clear, it is absolutely right to utterly condemn terrorist acts of all kinds and to protect our country from violent threats. And it is also clear that the Muslim community has a lot of work to do in protecting its young people from extremist agendas. But this cannot be the responsibility of the Muslim community alone. The rise of so-called ‘Jihadi Johns’ cannot be explained away by pointing towards dissident Muslim voices and nothing else; British jihadists are not formed in a vacuum. Let’s be honest enough to address voices in both our political and media debates which homogenise and stigmatise Islam and young Muslims. And let us consider the effects such voices have on the young people who hear them.

Charlotte Dando is Assistant Director – Communications & Development at William Temple Foundation

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Eat, Pray, Learn: The Many Roles of Mosques in Britain

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A guest post written by Abdul-Azim Ahmed, editor of On Religion magazine,  a current affairs publication with a focus on theology and religion. Abdul-Azim is a PhD candidate researching British mosques at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. 

I arrived just before sunset on a Monday evening at my local mosque, Dar ul-Isra. The mosque, a former church hall, is packed with people. On the bottom floor, volunteers in matching T-shirts frantically set out food to be eaten by worshippers for the iftaar. It’s the holy month of Ramadan, and Muslims are fasting from about 3am until 9.30pm, and many will come to the mosque to break their fasts and share a meal with others.

I stand in the foyer and remove my shoes. In the corner of the foyer is a large red bucket filled with tinned food. It’s a collection for the Huggard Homeless Centre nearby. As I make my way to the main hall, I’m greeted by the sound of dozens of Muslims reciting the Quran in the final minutes before sunset. I look around the large hall and find the group I came here to meet, a delegation from PeaceFeast, a charity that aims to build links between communities by sharing food. I sit with them until the call to prayer is given. I break my fast, and then join a congregation of about a hundred and fifty in performing one of the five daily prayers of Islam.

This isn’t an extraordinary day in the mosque. In many ways, it is business as usual. This snapshot of the daily life of a mosque is a million miles away from the images we are treated to in some corners of the media. Daily Mail articles about “mega mosques” and radical preachers are examples of the torrent of negative press British mosques receive. Perhaps unsurprisingly then they have become the targets for hate crime. Tell MAMA, the UK-based charitable organisation measuring anti-Muslim assaults, recorded over a dozen attacks on mosque in the past year, the most serious of which is the case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian PhD student who murdered an elderly Muslim pensioner and then detonated three bombs in mosques in the Midlands.

Yet away from the negativity, mosques are incredible places of hope. Some accuse them of being spaces of segregation, where Muslims isolate themselves from wider-society. This accusation is naïve at best. To the contrary, mosques play an important role in allowing Muslim communities, often disengaged from mainstream politics, to engage in civic life. From one-off surgeries with local councillors, to Friday sermons on the importance of voting, the mosque is often a gateway into a wider political world. By holding interfaith and community events, mosques also allow for meaningful relationships to be built between peoples of all faiths and non-religious people, in a way that otherwise would not be possible. Those who criticise large mosques in British cities as symbols that Muslims do not want to integrate fail to appreciate that by establishing a mosque in Britain, British Muslims have made a powerful statement that here is home.

Mosques are also places of charity. A survey by The Times found Muslims are one of Britain’s most charitable communities. Much of this charity takes place in mosques, with aid organisations such as Islamic Relief raising millions through collections and fundraisers at mosques across the country. Charity of course starts at home, and alongside international organisations such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, local charitable projects can also be found. These include collections for the homeless and tinned food drives.

It is not uncommon to hear the refrain “a mosque is a community centre” amongst Muslims. This often highlights the vision that a mosque should be a part of the local neighbourhood, not apart from it. As such, it is possible to find many activities you would expect at a community centre being held at mosques. These include Scouts groups, fitness classes, GCSE and A-Level tuition, and CV-writing workshops. Naturally, these are of interest not only to Muslims but to non-Muslims alike, and I’ve seen mosques where their services and activities are utilised by a wider cross-section of society.

Not all mosques of course hold the projects I mentioned above. It is sometimes easy to forget that the word mosque might refer to everything from tiny terraced homes used for worship to purpose-built landmarks with built-in restaurants and gyms. Further, there is still much work to be done on providing greater access for women, in training and recruiting Muslim Imams and religious professionals who can lead a new generation of mosques, and facing up to the dangerous Islamophobia in Britain that often leads to attacks of mosques.

Yet when we consider how much mosques have developed in the past fifty years alone, one can be certain that mosques will play a central role in the future of Britain.

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