Speaking for themselves

<strong>Young, British and Muslim </strong>

Philip Lewis <em>Continuum, 192pp, £12.99</em>

There are moments when, by some strange osmosis, everyone wants answers to the same question. For the past few years, that question has been: why do young, British-born Muslims become radicalised to the point where some become suicide bombers?

Philip Lewis would insist, and rightly, that he has not written a book about al-Qaeda or, for that matter, radicalisation. That more specialised task, incidentally, is performed admirably by Marc Sageman's new book, Leaderless Jihad. But what Lewis has done, with skill and understanding, is to set out the context in which we can begin to understand what it means to be "young, British and Muslim". The rest is up to us.

In the wake of the Rushdie affair of the late 1980s, Lewis's first book, Islamic Britain (1994), became the indispensable guide. Taking Bradford, where he lives and works, as his central case study, he provided a calm, clear and dispassionate account of how a significant Muslim minority - one that has grown in half a century from 21,000 to 1.6 million - has put down roots in this country and he anatomised some of the issues this has put on our national agenda. Since then, partly in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks and the more recent Madrid and London bombings, and partly because young Muslims have become the focus of such attention, the need for informed analysis has become even more urgent.

Lewis says the aim of his new book is neither to demonise nor to sentimentalise Muslims. Given the highly polarised nature of the current debate (think of the Muhammad cartoons affair), that is not easy. He tries to meet the challenge by making full use of a wide range of academic research, while letting young Muslims speak for themselves - through interviews, through novels, through their contributions to television and radio, and through blogs and websites.

What comes across is a vivid picture of young Muslims' struggles to navigate the sometimes conflicting currents of school and work, family and mosque. The overall picture is grim (the statistics for educational underachievement and unemployment are by now well known) and Lewis fleshes out the consequences in stunted lives and what he terms a "communications crisis" across the generations. The communities he describes are still shaped by the cultural practices of rural Kashmir, from where so many of the first-generation immigrants originally came. Now, increasingly, young Muslim men and women no longer accept the authoritarian patriarchy that earlier generations took for granted.

This is producing a range of very different effects - resistance to the more coercive forms of arranged marriage, a greater acceptance of the English language and Britishness, and, at the same time, a search by many young Muslims for a form of Islam very different from that of their parents. Lewis profiles the new breed of savvy professionals associated with groups such as City Circle, the Muslim Youth Helpline and the magazine Q-News, which are seeking to shape a consciously British Islam and are opening up debate about hitherto taboo subjects. At the same time, in a chapter on extremism, he helps explain the appeal of radical, isolationist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.

I have two reservations. Although it is natural for western liberals to empathise more readily with young Muslims than with their fusty elders, I found myself feeling just a twinge of sympathy for the much-maligned first generation. To be sure, their main failing is to have held on to the reins of communal power for too long, thereby disenfranchising women and the young. But not to give due weight to the hardships and dislocations and clashes of culture they faced, transplanted from south Asia to the dark, satanic mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire, is to neglect an important dimension of the story. (To be fair, Lewis's earlier book devotes more space to the period of settlement.) First-generation Muslims were for the most part ill-equipped for the challenges they faced, not least in bringing up a new generation to cope with the novel pleasures and pains of a secular western society.

Finally, one might ask whether Lewis touches rather too lightly on the foreign policy dimension that has been so hotly debated of late, especially since the disastrous intervention in Iraq. Perhaps he feels this has been dealt with exhaustively elsewhere. Or perhaps he has made a conscious choice to focus on the need for Muslim self-criticism and the all-too-apparent dangers of a culture of victimhood: blaming the west is certainly an easy way out. But, in the process, he arguably downplays the fact that indignation over foreign policy is not the preserve of the radical few. It is precisely because such grievances are widely shared that the battle for Muslim hearts and minds is being lost.

Roger Hardy writes about the Middle East and reports on Islamic issues for BBC World Service

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty