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Last Updated: Friday, 23 September 2005, 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK
Young Muslims confront key issues
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

students in college library
Young Muslims face issues of faith, culture and nationality
What is it like to be a young British Muslim?

How do you achieve greater integration in the climate of suspicion and fear after both 9/11 and the London bombings?

These were the questions at the heart of a pioneering conference in Leicester this week attended by over 100 Muslim sixth formers and college students, aged 16 to 19.

I spent the day there. It made fascinating listening.

It highlighted some real barriers to integration, some surprising attitudes, and a real willingness by young Muslims to try to engage with issues of religious and cultural identity.

Football support

They made an arresting sight. Many wore traditional caps, headscarves and flowing robes. There were plenty of beards amongst the young men.

Incongruously, they met at the Walkers Stadium, the home of Leicester City Football Club.

Welcoming them, the chief executive of the club asked how many of them were football fans. Only a small minority indicated they were.

Hardly any had been to a match at the ground, even though they all came from fairly nearby, either Leicester itself, Coventry or Birmingham.

This was a sharp reminder of the cultural divide that can exist.

The Muslim community in Leicester is large and well-established. The football club is well supported in the city. But local Muslim students do not join their fellow white and black students on the terraces.

The workshops on terrorism proved lively
Of course, despite the setting, football was not the focus of the conference. The students broke up in to workshops to discuss: "media and stereotyping", "culture and identity", racism, gender, education, and politics.

Difficult issues were confronted head on. The students were reminded of the words of the London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan, who had broadcast his defiant video message in his strong Yorkshire accent.

What were they to make of this devout, previously law-abiding classroom assistant, who sounded so British, but who brought death and destruction to London?

Did they consider him to be a good or a bad Muslim? Was there anything in his religion to justify his actions?

The workshops on terrorism proved lively. No-one thought the bombings were either right or effective.

There was a lot of talk about the sufferings of Muslims around the world, especially in Palestine.

There was certainly sympathy and understanding of Palestinian terrorism. Comments included "they turn to terrorism when no-one else listens to them" and "the only thing they have is terrorism".


Yet the raw energy of the discussion was not about the bombers but - perhaps surprisingly in this context - about the media.

No-one quite blamed the media for the summer's terrorism (although some came close to it) but they were incensed at the way they felt Muslims had been portrayed since the London bombings.

To them, it was self-evident that Islam was a peaceful, non-violent religion, founded on respect for others, so they found the tag "Muslim terrorism" to be offensive.

They felt all media coverage (and they made no exceptions or distinctions between types of newspaper or electronic media) portrayed Muslims negatively.

They felt they were being forced to defend their community when they had done nothing wrong.

The consensus view was that there should be more restrictions on the freedom of the media.

Political engagement

More realistically, they also recognised that Muslims had to be more active in trying to influence the media and the public debate.

Similar views were expressed about politics. They felt as alienated from political discussion as they did from the media.

Although most young audiences would have shared their cynicism towards political processes, they seemed more disillusioned than most, saying "the government doesn't listen and they make false promises".

Again, while the extent of their mistrust and suspicion was surprisingly strong - and seemed to occupy them far more than trying to understand why a few British Muslims had engaged in bombing fellow citizens - there was an acknowledgement that it was incumbent on them to get involved in the political process.

Was it their religious beliefs or their cultural identity that made them feel different?
These were young, bright, articulate British Muslims, all still involved in full-time education. I would say they were more polite, self-disciplined, and courteous than most similar groups of 16 to 19-year-olds.

But their religion made them feel apart from the British mainstream. The media and politics made them feel like outsiders.

But was it their religious beliefs or their cultural identity that made them feel different?

One of the most interesting sessions was on "culture and identity". The discussion was wide-ranging and it is impossible to give a full and accurate account of it.

Yet the impression I gained was that it was their religious identity which really mattered to them, not their ethnic or cultural identity.

Parental attitudes

There was a lot of criticism of their elders, who were accused of following cultural customs rather than religious rules.

They felt many of their parents insisted they wear the skull-cap or headscarf for cultural, not religious reasons.

Perhaps surprisingly, they felt they were caught between two contrasting messages from their parents.

On the one hand they were being reminded what the custom was "back in Pakistan" and, on the other, they were under pressure to succeed in, and conform to, British society.

So there were the fathers who were "proud to boast that their son is a doctor" but who would not be so keen if their son wanted to devote himself to the mosque.

Or there was the auntie who, at a wedding, hissed "take your hijab off or they'll all think we're a really strict family".

This tension between the secular and the religious was summed up by one boy who said: "From the age of nine we're taught that doing well in school is the way to get success and then we go to the mosque and we're told something else. So we get confused and in the end go to do what is easiest."

Cricket test

As for conforming to British culture, they were not resistant but unclear what it involved. As one put it, eating curries is now seen as a part of white British culture, so why do we need to eat fish and chips?

Another said that if British culture meant visiting museums, galleries and old houses then he liked that and had no problem with it.

Not surprisingly, they found the "British Muslims" label rather unhelpful. They felt they each belonged to several cultures: youth culture, British-Asian, Pakistani, Indian.

Norman Tebbit's cricket test - whether people from ethnic minorities support the England team or players from their family's country of origin - would have meant little to them.

"Why do we need so many labels?" they asked.

The one thing they agreed on was that their religious identity was paramount. One summed it up this way: "You should always have Islam at the top of your list, then comes Pakistani, or British or whatever."

They clearly welcomed this chance to correct what they see as misleading, stereotypical images of their religion
Like other young people, they were not always willing to do as their parents told them but their reasoning was different.

Generally they seemed to find their parents less devout than themselves. So "if your parents tell you to do something that is within Islam, you can do it, but if it is against Islam, you cannot".

Overall then, a conference like this does not provide easy answers. Yet what was notable was that, for the first time, young British-born Muslims were being asked for their views.

This was a Home Office-funded event and the young people were promised their views would be passed on to local and national government leaders.

They clearly welcomed this chance to correct what they see as misleading, stereotypical images of their religion.

Most encouraging of all was their desire to integrate with British society, to play a great role in public debate - providing they could retain their faith identity and follow the tenets of the Koran.

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