The ‘war on terror’ has put British Muslims under the spotlight as never before. But the post 9/11 debates amongst Muslims on faith, identity and integration are rarely heard in the mainstream media. We invited 100 young Muslims to discuss the main issues shaping their lives – and their futures.
The idea was a bold gamble but within minutes, the calm murmur of eight simultaneous conversations on different themes in a hall in London last week indicated that it was, in some way, paying off: young British Muslims were talking and we were listening.
We weren’t sure of the questions, we certainly didn’t expect easy answers, but we had two objectives. We wanted to catch a glimpse – to eavesdrop – on how a set of issues are being debated within a new generation of British Muslims, and then, through our reporting, we wanted a non-Muslim readership to hear voices rarely heard. So the Guardian played honest broker, inviting as wide a range of young Muslims with a potential to shape their community’s future as we could reach.
The 103 British Muslims who joined us last week could be described as amongst the success stories of two decades of integration: from mostly humble backgrounds, they have got to university, or are working in jobs as diverse as accountants, pharmacists, social workers, journalists, civil servants, lawyers, nurses and entrepreneurs. Alongside their academic and career achievements, they have drawn from their faith a powerful social conscience; the majority of our participants devote a considerable amount of their time to volunteering in community organisations and political campaigns.
This is a pivotal generation; they have the skills and education which many of their parents lacked to make their experience heard. And that experience will increasingly be one which will have international resonance: the two civilisations of Islam and the west are not abstract concepts to them, but the influences they daily negotiate in their own lives. How they vote, how they dress, how they pray, whom they befriend and whom they marry; all are influenced by the accommodation they find between the two, at a time when internationally, the two are being set in violent opposition.
They open a new chapter in Britain’s complex history of race and multiculturalism: how we negotiate a faith-based political identity. On this, there are no inspirations we can borrow from abroad as we did a generation ago with the US’s civil rights movement. This phase of how to accommodate diversity and equality within a western democracy is a chapter which has to be written in Europe, as one of the five invited panellists, the Swiss-born philosopher Tariq Ramadan, made clear in the final plenary of our debate.
As the conversations got under way, two features of this gathering were immediately striking. The first was its diversity: the astonishing range of background, from west Africa to the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh, from Morocco to Turkish Cyprus, and English converts. Just as striking – though its significance much harder to read – was the variety in how women dressed; from the carefully pinned hijab to the long hair and the braided extensions, from long skirts to jeans.
The second feature was the appetite for debate. It needed no prompting, rather the reverse: the difficulty was in ensuring that everyone had their say. The unmistakable impression is that this is a generation which relishes the heavy responsibility they bear. Some perceive the international resonances of what they are developing – others do not. What they are all acutely aware of is its implications within Britain; it is the quest for justice for a marginalised, misrepresented, impoverished, and increasingly beleaguered community that spurs them on.
Our participants are well aware that they are the products of a polarised generation. For every person in the room that evening, there are thousands of other young Muslims who are trapped in low skilled jobs or are unemployed. We now know (the statistics have only begun to reflect a breakdown according to faith) that 36% of British Muslims are leaving school with no qualifications, while a fifth of 16- to 24-year-old Muslims in Britain are unemployed. Forty per cent of British Muslims are in low skill jobs and nearly 70% of Bangladeshi and Pakistani children live in poverty. A British Muslim generation is coming of age – a third of the community is under 15 – with the experience of deprivation.
That poverty haunted the debate, and what cropped up on many of the tables was a sense of frustration at what participants perceive as the failures of their own community. Sometimes harshly self-critical, they talked of low educational expectations, a lack of ambition and, most importantly, a failure to pull together to improve their lot; unfavourable comparisons were drawn with Jewish and Indian minorities.
Insecure, lacking self-confidence, haunted by failure and by personal experiences of deprivation, racism and, since 9/11, oppressive anti-terrorist measures and increasing Islamophobia: these are some of the elements which give such compelling force to the common identity this generation finds in being Muslim and the increasing confidence with which they assert it as a political identity.
While “we are Muslims” may offer a place of belonging in an inhospitable country, it is a place riven with conflict. Because defining what it is to be a Muslim is a near impossible task, reverberating around the entire Muslim world; the question of what is the true faith is convulsing the faithful everywhere.
The participants wrestled with the definition of the “keystone issues” on which to unite: Palestine, Iraq and “Muslim values” came one reply. Of all the debates, the one attempting to define Muslim values – whether there could be a “British Islam” – was the most circular, repeatedly snagging on the issue of whether Islam can adapt, or is unchanging in all times and places. The intensity of the struggle within Islam internationally bears heavily on this generation in Britain.
As if all of this were not already complicated enough, this generation is being called to explain their faith to a secular society which has long since lost all interest in God, angels, prophets and holy books. What does it mean to “put God first in everything”, as one participant described British Muslims’ distinctive contribution to British society? Frequently, issues that the vast majority of Muslims have little interest in debating, such as homosexuality and abortion ( such is the consensus, there is nothing to debate) or the role of women (why do they keep asking us about this? they complain) are settled by faith – which only deepens incomprehension among non-Muslims. From there, it’s a short step to outright hostility. You could put a devout Muslim and a devout Christian together and, while they might not agree, they could understand much of what the other had to say, but to the broad swath of the secular British, the gulf of incomprehension is gaping – and the onus is all upon the faithful to explain themselves.
This pivotal generation is already defying many of the experts. They are not conforming to the theories of secularisation common for 20 years; they are perhaps even more devout than their parents, and are certainly more assertive of their faith and its requirements. According to our poll, half of British Muslims pray five times a day every day, while 80% pray at least once a day; even allowing for some religious guilt inflating the figures, the evidence is of a level of religious practice which is higher than any other community in the UK. The poll showed that they want public accommodation of their faith – time to pray where they work and sharia courts in Britain for civil cases (as long as the penalties do not contravene criminal law). They are not showing much sign of conforming to earlier patterns of migration and cultural assimilation, while the “war on terror” is radicalising them into a wide range of political activity – from human rights campaigning to radical jihadism.
Who knows how this chapter will take shape; as one participant said, we have the title – British Muslims – but beyond, there are only blank pages.