Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Monday, 1 August 2005 14:12 UK

What do young Muslims think?

Raza Jaffrey: Muslim youth helpline
What does British Muslim youth really think? In the first of a series, the BBC speaks to people with genuine contact with younger generations of Muslims in the UK.

Muslim Youth Helpline is a national telephone and e-mail counselling service which, along with its sister project Muslimyouth.net, sets out to help young people.

Founded in 2001, it has received funding from both the Home Office and Comic Relief and has been recognised for ground-breaking work in reaching out to young people seeking to balance their faith and life in modern Britain.

The volunteers who man the phone lines are all under 25 years old, the aim being to provide those seeking help with a voice at the other end who will genuinely understand the potential social pressures of growing up a Muslim in modern Britain.

The sister website, Muslimyouth.net, which will soon celebrate its first birthday, seeks to take many of the issues raised on the phones and provide a forum for debate and support on the web.

So what does Muslim Youth Helpline get to hear? A third of its calls are about relationships, another third relating to depression or suicidal thoughts. Only 5% relate to religion itself.

Marginalisation

Raza Jaffrey, chairman of the organisation, says young Muslims can be marginalised by a host of factors.

When we are talking about the wider concerns among youth, the government does not listen to these people as young Muslims
Raza Jaffrey
The helpline's own research suggests key reasons include racism, educational failings, the political debate linking Muslim identity to extremism, mistrust of non-Muslim institutions, distance from mainstream British life and traditions and, perhaps crucially, a failure of older Muslim generations to recognise "identity crisis" among the young.

"In terms of calls that we have had, people seem to feel that this is going to be turned into something suggesting that all young Muslims are like this, rather than this being about a group of extremists who took the path they did.

"In some respects, there is bound to be a bit of a backlash, although much of that depends on whether the reporting is fair. So far the government and community leaders have done a good job in making sure that people are clear that what has happened is wrong."

Raza says that in the days after the 7 July bombing - and as it became clearer who was behind it - young Muslims in London felt the atmosphere change. But there was also a sense of frustration.

"When we are talking about the wider concerns among youth, the government does not listen to these people as young Muslims," he says.

"The government says for instance that Iraq has nothing to do with what has happened. You ask any young Muslim and they will tell you that Iraq and the war has a role in what they think. And when it comes to ending the war, many young Muslims cannot see any change coming.

"So, for the past two or three years we have seen a situation where people have become very frustrated because the government is not listening to what they have been saying - and that's why some young Muslims feel alienated."

New leaders

Raza says that a new generation of Muslim leaders have a key role to play in articulating the voice of Muslim youth. But this also means that the government has to ensure it is speaking to the right people, rather than people it regards as community leaders.

UK politicians and Muslim representatives at Downing St
PM meeting: Government talking to right people?
"Now that we have got some more Muslim MPs we may see some change. But we need to address the generational gap.

"The government needs to recognise the new younger MPs, and the people who really do have power among young Muslims. It needs to help these people to promote their ideas."

Whitehall appears to recognise this - although how far the commitment goes is difficult to judge.

One leaked document lists thinkers who policy-makers think are influential. But, on the other hand, many community observers believed Prime Minister Tony Blair invited the wrong people to Downing Street following the bombings to talk about what to do. In the coming weeks, Home Office ministers will hold a series of meetings with Muslim communities around the country.

But, says Raza, the media also have a role to play in this dialogue. Like many Muslims, he has been extremely critical of the Sun which attacked leading Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan in the week after the bombing, accusing him of supporting suicide bombings.

Professor Ramadan has denied it - and insists that he is the wrong target at a sensitive time. People like Raza Jaffrey agree, saying the press' treatment of Prof Ramadan was "totally irresponsible".

"Young Muslims really look up to him," he says. "He has a huge following. Of course, among your average run-of-the-mill 18-year-olds, they may not know who he is. But what's important is what he says about living as a Muslim in the West."

Reporter: Dominic Casciani



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