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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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An Unlikely Story: How the Media Reveals Christianity’s Relevance

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Of recent religious stories, the one generating the biggest splash across my Twitter feed was a scathing take on the BBC TV comedy Rev. Writing in the Guardian James Mumford describes the show as ‘pernicious’, undermining the church and a, ‘failure of representation’. Needless to say, numerous followers of this popular show jumped to its defence both online and via the Guardian’s Letters page. Prize for the wittiest tweet goes to cartoonist Dave Walker who wrote, ‘Saying Rev damages the church is like saying Fawlty Towers undermined hotels.’

Although less prevalent (at least amongst the Tweeps I follow) there was some agreement with Mumford’s criticism of Rev. P.M. Philips for example, tweeted, ‘in all its brilliance, [Rev] offers the same views of clergy that is the stock view of the beeb/media’. Mumford’s accusations follow swift on the heels of Tim Stanley who lambasted Rev for being too nice, and offering an inaccurate representation of Christianity. The ‘too nice’ argument incongruously arises in sharp contrast amidst recent criticisms of American TV shows which depicted Christian characters as viciously judgemental, argumentative and even murderous.

A supportive comment under Stanley’s piece suggests, ‘The show [Rev] is created by the luvvies in the media, so it doesn’t have a lot to do with real Christianity.’ The secular media, according to this line of thought, is unable to adequately portray “real” religion, for they know so little about it. Yet this begs the question of the media’s clear attraction to religion, faith and belief. Time and again these secular “luvvies” turn to religion and religious themes to provide a space for compelling narrative, drama and comedy.

Across the Atlantic, Time magazine recently ran the story, ‘God is Dead. Except at the Box Office’ depicting an increasingly secularising American audience which increasingly produces and consumes films with religious content. Such a phenomenon might be described by my William Temple Foundation colleague Chris Baker as yet another paradox of the post-secular age: the more that institutionalised religion appears to be in decline, the more people appear to talk about it.

I recently reviewed the book Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred by Knott, Poole and Taira (the review will appear in the next edition of Crucible journal) in which the authors suggest that religion and religious themes receive greater media attention than some religious groups presume. They suggest that for people of faith, ‘it is not so much the absence of coverage that should be of concern as the wrong kind of coverage’. For Mumford and Stanley, the ‘pernicious’ Rev clearly falls under the ‘wrong kind’ category; an unsuitable portrait of the Church of England, and Christianity in general.

Another current example of religiosity presented in the media, comes in the form of the film Calvary, an extraordinarily dark comedy which follows a curious week in the life of rural Irish priest Farther James. This time the media “luvvies” take on the Irish Catholic Church and paint a grim depiction of child abuse, ‘bad priests’ and morally loose congregants openly lambasting the church’s increasing irrelevance. Yet Father James is cast as the (albeit flawed) hero throughout, drenched in humility and, as described by director John Michael McDonagh, a ‘genuinely good’ person. The film may be a secular take on the sacred but it leaves the viewer struck by relevant and important questions of death, sin, virtue and forgiveness as it intersects themes of God and godlessness, goodness, sorrow and pain – often in surprising ways.

But for all its merits, Calvary is very clearly a highly dramatized work of fiction. And according to the authors of Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred, so often missing from media representations of religion are, ‘the everyday practices, beliefs and lives of ‘ordinary’ religious people.’ The eponymous Rev Adam Smallbone strikes me as a pretty ordinary religious person. In fact, he is a bit of a loser really, often coveting other people’s success and regularly saying and doing the wrong thing. But perhaps it is this ‘everyday’ representation which holds such appeal. With 1.7m viewers tuning in each week, as tweeter Keith Hitchman points out, this is almost the same number as those who regularly attend church so, ‘Perhaps Rev is how people want Christians to be?’.

Whilst it may be possible to argue that examples such as Rev and Calvary undermine religious institutions (certainly they both take pot-shots at church hierarchy, hypocrisy and institutional corruption) it’s much harder to suggest that they undermine religion or Christianity per se. Rev’s Adam Smallbone and Calvary’s Father James both offer portraits of church leaders who are far from perfect, who fall and fail like the rest of us, yet guided by God, they keep going and aim to do better. Representations of the flawed clergyman for some, might support the claim that the media colludes with the very worst stereotypes of the church. Yet people are watching, debating, and reflecting on Rev in droves – as my Twitter feed testifies. Religious and secular audiences alike are finding these imperfect clerical characters, these candid public representations of Christianity, to be both compelling and relevant. As such, these portraits of very human, clearly flawed, contemporary Christians perpetuated by the secular media, might indicate opportunities for the continuing role of the church in this complex post-secular society, rather than suggesting its undermining and demise.

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

Read more blog posts:

”Never mind what Jesus Would Do: Progressive Atheism & the Big Society” by Chris Baker

“Blurred Encounters in a ‘Messy Church'” by Greg Smith


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