Extremism isn’t the only struggle of our generation

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David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham, in which he announced his plans on how to tackle extremism, motivates me to bring some aspects of the work that I have been doing with young Muslims for the last eight years into the equation. It is important to understand the real challenges facing this generation.

The minority of Muslims, who have travelled to fight in Syria, do not represent the views of the majority of Muslims in the UK. Firstly David Cameron needs to acknowledge and speak to the millions of Muslims living in the UK who have stood out strongly against extremist ideology, despite taking the brunt of an Islamophobic backlash against extremism and international terrorism.

The dominant factors that cause young people to turn to extreme ideologies do not come from Islamic ideology but from political and economic circumstances which are in effect disenfranchising young people. Yes Dave, the struggle is real; the majority of Muslims don’t come from privileged backgrounds. Social and racial inequality affects their lives. The question is how to create more opportunities for young people so that they can feel able to contribute positively to the wider society.

Don’t forget that Muslims are human beings with emotions.  Constantly under attack, portrayed by the media as sexual predators, violent attackers, terrorists and killers in the name of sectarian supremacy, double standards impact on emotions. Many young Muslims, who may be close to their faith and who may or may not practice, identify with the basic tenets of their faith, honouring them, and give respect to religious figures like the prophet Muhammed (PBUH). The constant degradation of their faith and the prophet, in the name of free speech, whether by cartoonists or journalists with sensationalised stories, is frustrating and fuels anger. They begin to question, why is our peaceful and respectful religion under attack by the media? Why is there an obsession with Islamic principles and the history of Islam, when it is being portrayed negatively? The question is now: how do we encourage the media to accept Muslims in the UK as an integral part of society?  The fact is Muslims are here to stay. Responsible journalism can help change this negative attitude towards Muslims.

Emotions become more intense when young people see images of mass violence and suffering in countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Humanity calls out to them as it calls out to everyone. For them it is unbearably hard to see people suffering across the world. They want to make the world a better place, to help reduce suffering, to eradicate disease and poverty: a world free of weaponry that kills more innocent people and children than the criminals they are targeting. The problem is that those in charge do not learn from history. They make the same mistakes, over and over again.

Now we are witnessing the rapid rise of far-Right political movements such as the English Defence League, UKIP, Golden Dawn and PEGIDA, which was established in eastern Germany and has arrived in the North of England. The increase in anti-Muslim hate creates a feeling of fear and vulnerability. This threatens the basic right to feel safe in the place of home. Being anxious to walk anywhere for fear of being verbally or physically abused exacerbates this sense of insecurity.  Women usually end up bearing the brunt of such abuse.  These far-Right groups discourage emotional well-being and sap the resilience of many Muslims. More needs to be done to promote understanding, goodwill and compassion between all communities.

Challenging young people on so many different levels has the impact of threatening their already fragile identity. An important question for a number of years has been: what is identity? Where do young people really fit in when it comes to the matter of identity? When identity is being questioned on so many fronts, young people feel even more vulnerable. Many become defiant because they are proud of who they are and what they believe in. A small minority channel their frustrations by taking an aggressive stand against the state.

David Cameron’s speech stokes fear with the effect that young people are losing trust in their government. Rejection by society and hostile questioning from all sides encourages a tendency to identify with ideas that are unacceptable and criminal which can appeal to a small group of individuals.

The Government should concentrate on building trust with young Muslims. Make them part of the democratic process and encourage pluralism rather than imposing ‘liberal British values’. Such coercion makes young people question how they fit into British society. It removes them further away from what Cameron’s anti-extremist strategy wants to achieve.

Young people need to be part of a meaningful democratic process and engagement. Young people should be able to voice their concerns around issues they feel passionately about such as foreign policy. Currently the discourse surrounding foreign policy does not allow young people to express themselves freely, because young people fear that their views will be seen as challenging ‘British values’ and they are then labelled ‘extremists’. Young people should be encouraged to contribute to policy-making, not in a tokenistic way but through true grassroots engagement.

Jawaab is trying to help young people channel their frustrations in positive ways, by identifying social or political issues that are affecting them such as racial discrimination, unemployment and Islamophobia.  Young people should be taught the skills to tackle these matters at a local level. Leadership skills will help them feel confident in speaking with media and at events on a local level, so they can empower themselves and their communities, and engage with democratic processes in safety. The voice of these young people need to be heard.

How can we empower the next generation of young people who don’t come from privileged backgrounds? For young people to own a part of Britain and British values. With which they can identify and which relate to them, their identity and their way of life? We need to listen to young people and how they are feeling. We need to engage with them and provide them with platforms where they can express themselves openly and safely, without feeling they are under hostile surveillance.

Rizwan Hussain

Image: George Rex