By Sughra Ahmed
LONDON: Following the riots in several cities in the UK, some media reports focused on young British Muslims. They are mainly third generation immigrants growing up in a country that is often disillusioned when it comes to understanding its youth, viewing them as problematic and tiresome. However, we rarely hear from young British Muslims themselves and the more nuanced ways in which they view their identities.
According to UK census data, the average Muslim is 28 years old (which is 13 years below the national average), roughly half are below the age of 25 and one third is 16 or younger. We are used to hearing about young Muslims in the context of radicalization, but their lives are far more complex and in fact quite removed from debates about extremism.
There is an untold story of intergenerational challenges, community leadership and alienation from institutions in wider society. So what are we not hearing? Where is it that young people are turning to address their own interests and needs? How are those needs being met?
According to the research reports from the Policy Research Center, young Muslims feel strongly that society does not see them as they see themselves: as modern young people who are dealing with 21st century challenges. They stress that we should not regard them as living contradictions between their religious and national identities. One respondent said, “People challenge British Muslims, [saying that] that you’re either British or Muslim; why can’t we be both?”
Self-identification for young Muslims is not just about negotiating the world of politics and organized religion. There is a strong sense of localized identity in young adults, whose grandparents may have migrated, but who themselves have rooted lives. Scottish Muslims are expressly Scottish and proud. But this is also partly connected to acceptance. For example, a young Muslim Scot felt properly Scottish for the first time when confronted by football fans on a train who asked him about supporting Scotland. He responded, “Of course I do.” The questioner warmly responded, “I’ll buy you a flag, because you’re Scottish too.”
Identities are always in continuous negotiations, sometimes subconsciously, as they respond to discourses, experiences and pressures that seem to hound the complex lives of young people. Young British Muslims describe their modern life as surrounded by communication gaps, particularly when it comes to generational splits within their own communities. Several young women speak of having felt compelled to find out about Islam for themselves, but, in living out their new religious confidence, find the expectations of their parents’ generation difficult terrain.
Others, from both sexes, admit to being faced with two starkly different lives — one life inside and one outside the home — as a way to negotiate the inter-generational challenges. On the one hand they are encouraged to manifest signs of respect towards the family and/or the community by refraining from asking too many challenging questions and learning to accept how things have always been. Yet beyond these communities British Muslim youth are often negotiating their way around the world they inhabit by asking, learning, questioning and at times feeling the need to push boundaries.
Although young people feel that their voices are not getting across to society, they clearly have a strong sense of patriotism and want to improve their lives as well as the lives of others. From helping Britain’s homeless through Fasting not Feasting, a project designed to promote sharing food, and helping in the coordinated clean ups across England after the riots; to involvement in the preparation for the 2012 Olympics in Britain, we can see and hear, if we try, young British Muslims inspiring others to take pride in making Britain a better place for everyone.
How can the rest of us enable them to improve their lives and, in turn, their future? We simply need to get past the stereotypes, the identity politics, the fear of the “other”, and see them for who they are: as heirs of the future of their country and of our future.
Sughra Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Policy Research Centre, that has produced ”Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims” (2009) and other fieldwork that has brought together the views held by British Muslims of over 15 ethnicities from across England, Scotland and Wales. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).