Guest blogger Rachael Shillitoe is a PhD student at Worcester University. Her research ‘Collective Worship: Foregrounding the Child’s Perspective’ is part of the wider Leverhulme Trust funded project, ‘Faith on the Air’.
Every day it seems, a new article or report emerges which questions the subject of religion and young people, and increasingly such attention focuses on the role of religion in schools. Matters of identity, practice, belief and faith are a constant source of media attention and a battleground for politicians and their political agendas. Such debates intensify when this involves religion and state education. Teeming with fears of indoctrination, questions over suitability and appropriateness of religion in schools; the increasing calls to protect children from radicalisation are a daily part of our media diet. But when reading such articles, how many times do we hear from the students themselves? With arguments and debates mainly based on “expert” perspectives and political agendas, are we really getting the whole picture or is there something drastically missing from such conversations?
When I started researching collective worship in schools, I was surprised by the lack of literature that demonstrated children and young people’s opinion on the subject. The voice of the child in research (perhaps especially in the study of religion) has for a long time been missing and at best marginalised. Now, this isn’t to say that the perspectives of adults are inherently wrong or inconsequential, but surely in order to have a well-rounded argument and proper insight into religion in schools (or religion and young people more generally), we need to listen to the very people we are talking about?
We need to take the opinions and thoughts of children and young people seriously and not rely on long held adult-orientated assumptions of what religion means to young people. These assumptions can sometimes be simplistic and neglect the nuanced and complex realities of young people’s everyday lives. Such accounts also run the risk of seeing children as purely vulnerable and passive subjects, rather than agents who have the capacity and ability to create their own meaning and affect change. Foregrounding the perspectives of children and young people forces us to push and change our ideas about religion in public life and re-evaluate the methods we use to study this topic.
Before starting my PhD, my career was mostly within youth work /social action sector. I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young people on a variety of projects for the betterment of their community and wider society, and experienced first-hand the positive changes and action that young people are capable of when given the support and genuine opportunity to do so. The young people I worked with developed and implemented their own social action projects that made a positive difference to their communities. Such projects were youth-led which meant that from the very start, young people were given decision making power and provided with the resources which enabled them to develop and deliver innovative projects. A number of young people’s projects focused on issues relating to religion and community cohesion. Such projects resulted in a whole host of creative and dynamic activities, from community events to photography exhibitions. The impact was tangible; these projects enabled members of the community to come together. They were accessible, fun, engaging and allowed for increased participation on a big scale.
Working with young people on such projects not only resulted in positive and impactful projects, but also enabled them to develop the necessary skills and competencies required to continue to make a difference. I think that it is vital we engage with children and young people on such matters and provide them with the platform and tools to create social change. This way we can help to ensure that any changes or developments which affect young people are meaningful and put them first.
Increasing steps are being taken to make space and provide opportunities for young people to be heard. For example, in February I had the opportunity to attend RE for Real: A consultation on what works and what needs to change, organised by Westminster Faith Debates. This debate sought to explore the place and role of RE in schools and the various strengths and aims of the subject while considering the areas for development and change. A vital aspect of this event was the inclusion of young people who shared their thoughts and experiences of RE in school, as well as offering their ideas for the future; such as the importance of debates and discussions within RE. Research is also making positive steps in this direction. Within academia, there are some innovative and insightful research projects being undertaken. Much of this work is demonstrating the need to challenge assumptions as well as the need to understand the experiences of children and young people in the broader and often more complex context of their everyday lives.
Recently Nicola Madge, Peter Hemming, Kevin Stenson et al. explored the development of religious and non-religious identities among young people in Britain. This team of researchers utilised innovative methods which throughout the project ensured that the voices of the young people involved were heard. Uniquely, this study also pays attention to the importance and relevance of non-beliefs and how identities are negotiated and managed within a pluralistic and multi-cultural society. The findings of the Youth on Religion project, demonstrated the importance of personal agency and that the development or negotiation of non/religious identity is formed through a highly complex and nuanced interface between young people’s biological, physical and cognitive development, as well as their experiences of religious and non-religious beliefs and practices in a variety of settings and contexts. The study also notes the importance of liberal individualism, personal choice, rights, and tolerance for young people. Although the overall findings show a predominately positive picture of young people’s negotiation of faith and non-faith identity, the authors call for more attention to be paid to the experiences and opinions of young people.
Sociologist Grace Davie in the forward to ‘Youth on Religion’ stated that young people are ‘social scientists in their own right: their perceptions sharp and their comments interesting’. I couldn’t agree more. With religion in schools gaining increasing interest, it is crucial that we engage with and are listening to the views and opinions of children and young people, while ensuring that they have a genuine platform and opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions on such matters. After all, who can tell us more about religion and young people, than the young people themselves?
In his autobiographical account of growing-up Muslim in the USA, the interfaith activist Eboo Patelreframes 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 Breakfastlast 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
How should Christians relate to Muslims? Are they a problem, unwelcome, a threat? Recently there has been a lot of interest in, and disapproval of halal slaughter. We also learnt that the broadcast of the call to prayer in Channel 4’s Ramadan Seasonlast year received more complaints than anything else aired by the broadcaster. Meanwhile Britain First – a “patriotic political party and street defence organisation” – has been entering mosques with their shoes on, giving Bibles to worshippers, and a Presbyterian pastor has denounced Islam from the pulpit. Internationally, we have heard worse things of women being killed and another being sentenced to death.
I admit to being particularly attuned to it, but Muslims are rarely out of the media. Sometimes I am asked, ‘How should Christians relate to Muslims?’ Many have already made up their minds. In some ways the question is new, but it is also very old. We don’t have far to look to find a ‘Saracen’s Head’ pub (Saracen = Muslim) or organisations called ‘Crusaders’. Historical tension and animosity between Christians and Muslims is woven into our culture. In the present, we encounter many negative stories and impressions of Muslims in the media, whether it is, so called, ‘Islamist terrorists’ or a Muslim ‘Trojan Horse’ takeover of schools.
Many people have a negative perception of Muslims because of media coverage, so that if you ask them who Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram are they say Muslim, rather than terrorist. Channel 4 sought to challenge the negativity with its Ramadan Season but was then accused of “imposing Islam”, or not giving an honest picture.
For the Christian perhaps, there are more important theological or religious questions about Islam: how can we relate positively to a faith which explicitly denies the central tenets of Christianity? How do we navigate these difficult questions, especially where minds are already made up?
There are clues in our past, both Christian and Islamic. One ancient story is that of St Francis of Assisi who, in the middle of war, when a city was being seized, went out to the Caliph’s camp and engaged in dialogue with the leader of the Muslim army (this was in the days when both Christianity – Christendom – and Islam were geopolitical entities). Francis entered, held deep discussions and left in peace. He did not persuade his dialogue partners, but there was mutual respect and listening (just as Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman that no one else would have spoken to).
At another time of great difficulty, when believers were being persecuted for their faith, they were sent to another country, where a fair-minded religious ruler would keep them safe. This is the story of Muhammad sending his followers from Mecca to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. Another example of dialogue is when a Christian delegation came to meet with Muhammad and discuss their divisive differences in beliefs about Jesus. When it was time for the Christians to say their prayers they prepared to leave, but Muhammad encouraged them to pray in his mosque.
Peaceful encounters between our two faiths go back to the earliest days of Islam, there is no reason why they should not continue today. But such opportunities can be derailed by our difficult history. There is much talk of ‘truth’ when interaction between people of different faiths is being contemplated. Should ‘truth’ be a barrier for us, keeping others out so that we cannot even be the witnesses that Jesus asked us to be, or to adopt an attitude of searching? – as the Puritan John Robinson said, ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word’.
As people of truth we should not be swayed by perceptions but seek to discover the reality, just as the Apostle Paul sought to be ‘all things to all people’ (1 Cor. 9.22) in order to communicate with his society. In my own experience many people, including Christians, take issue with the idea of ‘all things to all people’ as mealy-mouthed, ‘political-correctness gone mad’. Perhaps because the words have drifted loose from their context of passionate, robust, honest and committed engagement. In fact, we may not realise, Paul is actually role-modelling how the Christian should ‘do’ inter faith encounter and dialogue.
Inevitably, in my own work I am often speaking up for Islam, bringing to bear what I have learnt, or more often, and more likely, what I have experienced. Some would say that this is the point at which inter faith work has gone too far, and I might agree if that was all that happened (yet without forgetting Jesus’ simple but challenging words, ‘Do unto others …’). Because the reality is that Muslims are also speaking up for Christians, supporting, for example, David Cameron’s comments about Britain being a Christian country, or speaking up on behalf of Christians suffering at the hands of mobs and unjust rulers in Muslim-majority countries. Or on hearing a Muslim colleague (who was educated by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in India) quote those important and well known words from Micah 6.8, ‘this is what the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk humbly with your God’. Again the prophetic wisdom, speaking to someone in another tradition, gives a blueprint for inter faith (or any other) encounter – being balanced, developing committed and trusting relationships and not being too proud in this world, as if we have nothing to learn from anyone else.
But perhaps, ultimately, our principles – dogma and theology – will get in the way and make it clear that inter faith does not fit with the Gospel. Yet, one of my colleagues Dr Andrew Smith, formerly of Scripture Union, now the Bishop of Birmingham’s inter faith advisor, found that as a school worker in Birmingham the only way to talk about Christianity was in a dialogical way. The way of dialogue involves listening as much as (or more than) talking, taking account of where the other is and giving them space for their own witness. These principles became local guidelines for sharing faith, and eventually developed into the Christian Muslim Forum’s Ethical Witness Guidelines.
All of this does mean that for some of us, it is our calling to follow the way of Francis and Paul, to take the bold step of encountering the other deeply; just as Jesus did, when others were turning away and saying, ‘No, that’s too far for me’. It is only in the deep encounter that we can begin to have some insight into the other’s beliefs, values and to walk with God.
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 amidstrecent 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.