Comment by Sughra Ahmed:
Young Muslims speak up
As I quizzed young British Muslims, I found that what they want to say and what society hears are two different things.
They appeared a little apprehensive at first, shuffling and wondering, as if a new teacher had walked in for the term. But no sooner had pleasantries been exchanged, despite placing my voice recorder in the centre, postures began to change. We were now a group of plugged-in minds and eager voices, with lots to say.
This was one focus group of many for a major new study I conducted of Britain's Muslim youth Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims
, published by the Policy Research Centre
today, which explores some of the key concerns and challenges facing Britain's young Muslims. That's quite a task given the facts: according to 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. Moreover, intense public, media and policy interest, mainly from the perspective of security, has meant that print rollers have been in constant revolution, reporting on the young (angry and male) British Muslim. Why then a nationwide trek to discover what everyone must surely know?
Much may be written about young Muslims, but when you scratch away at the surface, it isn't usually the voices of young people
themselves, but others speaking about them – or for them. And young Muslims know it all too well.
Women are also largely forgotten in most research ventures on young Muslims, which typically dwell on inner-city concentrations that have already begun to suffer from "research fatigue". It's an easier route but by accessing male voices from a single spot to speak for young people across Britain, research projects can inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes (for example, less than 5% of British Muslims live in Bradford).
We are used to hearing about young Muslims in the context of radicalisation, but their lives are far more complex and in fact quite removed from debates around extremism. There is an untold story of intergenerational challenges, community leadership and alienation from institutions in wider society.
Seen and Not Heard is the result of 18 months of listening and analysis that brings together the views – thoughts, aspirations and frustrations – held by British Muslims of over 15 ethnicities, from across England, Scotland and Wales. It provides a channel for female and male voices, on how young Muslims feel they are perceived and how others talk about them. So what are we not hearing?
Young Muslims feel strongly that "we", which can be taken to mean you, me and the rest, do not see them as they see themselves: as basically modern young people. Almost in chorus, they stress that we should not regard them as living contradictions between their religious and national identities; they can find such questions annoying: "People challenge British Muslims that you're either British or Muslim; why can't we be both?", or, responding to a question of identity, "Why am I being asked such obvious questions?"
Self-identification for young Muslims is not just about negotiating the big mad world of politics, or even organised religion
for that matter. There is a strong sense of localised identity in young adults, whose grandparents may have migrated, but who find themselves living rooted lives. Scottish participants were expressly Scottish and proud. But this was also partly connected to acceptance – a young Muslim Scot felt properly Scottish for the first time when confronted by football fans on a train and asked about supporting Scotland. He responded "Of course I do" and the questioner warmly responded, "I'll buy you a flag, because you're Scottish too."
These identities (note the plural) are in a sort of whirling negotiation, sometimes subconsciously, as they respond to discourses, experiences and pressures that seem to hound the complex lives of young people. The young people described their modern life as surrounded by communication gaps, particularly when it came to generational splits within their own communities.
Several young women spoke of having felt compelled to find out about Islam
for themselves, but, in living out their new religious confidence, found the expectations of their parents' generation difficult terrain. Others, from both sexes, admitted to being faced with two starkly different lives – one life inside and one outside the home – as a way to negotiate the intergenerational challenges.
It's a complex tapestry, and although they feel that their voices are not getting across to society, what's clear is that young people have a strong sense of patriotism and really want to do things to make their lives better. Did we hear that?
Sughra Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Policy Research Centre.