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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
What happens if you are Muslim and gay?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

An article from Muslimyouth.net talking about gay Muslims
Taking risks: But essential, say the editors
"Oh my God, Gay Muslims". If a good headline catches the attention of an audience, then the editors of Muslimyouth.net have read the rule book.

This week sees the launch of a major website aimed at a section of British society that increasing numbers of people have an opinion on - but from whom we hear very little: Young British Muslims.

Britain's first support and guidance service for this group is now live. It sets out to not only to shake up attitudes within its own communities - but also bang loudly on the door of government.

The launch of the site could not be more timely. The media remains focused on the threat of terrorism and Muslim themselves have feel targeted.

Islamophobia and racist attacks are thought to rising while long-standing problems of unemployment and low educational achievement persist in many Muslim communities.

Within Whitehall, mandarins are thinking hard about what to do about young British Muslims and have drawn up a strategy (reportedly codenamed "Contest") to win hearts and minds.

'Think differently'

While much of the media and political debate focuses on British Muslim identity, the people behind Muslimyouth.net see things differently.

We need to bridge the cultural gaps between the older generations and the younger who may think differently
Layli Uddin, Muslimyouth.net
They say its high time authority listened to the younger generation if they want to understand what needs to be done.

The conviction comes from having launched Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH) three years ago as a dedicated counselling service. It recently expanded to a seven-day operation, with counsellors listening to the depressed, confused, suicidal or just plain worried late into the night.

But shaking things up a bit is what Muslimyouth.net says it plans to do, says one of the founders, Layli Uddin.

So for its launch the site includes articles on gay Muslims and drug users talking about drug misuse.

The first major campaign will see the service send out gifts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to the estimated 750 Muslims in young offender institutions.

And amid all this, the voluntary team of young professionals and students are seeking to encourage national debate among its audience on the more prosaic crucial elements of growing up: education, jobs, relationships, identity and citizenship.

"We want to be a bridge between people," says Ms Uddin. "So with the prisoners campaign, we want to help Muslim society connect the alienated with the outside world.

"Homosexuality is a very challenging topic for Muslims. The question we posed ourselves was at what point do we publish a picture of Muslim men holding hands? This is a difficult issue for many and we are not setting out to aggravate the wider community."

In that particular instance, the editors believed it was not right to publish such a picture - but they believed it was appropriate to discuss the issue. That way, they hoped, they would reach out to a wide audience to discuss the issue openly, without offending those who find such issues anathema.

"We need to bridge the cultural gaps between the older generations and the younger who may think differently," adds Layli Uddin."

With that in mind, the site will not delete swearing, slang or text message language in contributors' articles because, says Ms Uddin, "that may be the experience of the audience we want to reach". It will not pronounce on what is haram (forbidden) in Islam, and what is not.

But what it will seek to do is be a platform for expression where young Muslims can air their views, knowing they are safe to say what they feel.

At the same time, Muslimyouth.net won't endorse any particular position, recognising that it has a responsiblity not to misrepresent the views of most of Muslim Britain.

The website has the support of one of Britain's most influential Imams, but is not in the business of giving out sermons itsel. However, it recognises if contributors use strong language, it may cause a stir: In one article on drugs, an author has used the phrase "It's not God being a bitch, it's God being serious".

Government engagement

But what of wider social attitudes towards Muslims? Does the site see its role in combating confusion, prejudice or stereotype?

WHAT DO MUSLIM YOUTH CONTACT MYH ABOUT?
Employment: 27%
Sex: 23%
Depression: 15%
Addiction: 12%
Relationships: 6%
Abuse: 4%
Homelessness: 2%
Other: 11%
Imran Saithna, campaigns editor for the site, says it's high time Whitehall came to young Muslims too.

"If David Blunkett or whoever does not come to talk to me about what we want or need, how will he know?" he says. "How can government presume to know? It's no good producing papers on the future of Muslims if we are not spoken to directly."

The Home Office itself has a dedicated team working on community cohesion and equality. Part of its work over the next year will be introducing the new law on religious discrimination, a reform long demanded by Muslims.

But government's own analysis of segregated communities concedes there are "no quick fixes" and there needs to be a long-term commitment to create equality and full social inclusion.

Community-based projects will ultimately be key to this work. But Muslim communities themselves must also open up and engage, says Mustafa Suleyman, chairman of Muslim Youth Helpline.

"There are many barriers still to be overcome and many issues that even today, remain totally unchallenged," he says.

"It is only with the support and involvement of the Muslim community as well as government departments that MYH will be able to continue to reach out.

"To those agencies and organisations, but most of all our own community, we say, stand with us, side by side and share in our ambition. Work with us to safeguard the future of our community."


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