Young Muslims, I have often thought, are the key to the future of multiculturalism in Britain. The trouble is that no one really listens to them. This is certainly not due to lack of media interest; rather, no one really understands their language and no one else is tuned in to what they have to say. Since the July 2005 bombings, they have become surrounded by talk of terrorism, radicalisation and conflict. It seems every young Muslim is intrinsically unpatriotic and out to subvert good old Britannia.
Given that the British Muslim population is predominantly young, this is a serious neglect. When we consider that 20 per cent of all Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed, that one in three leaves school with no qualifications, and that almost one-fifth suffer from poor health, we can see why so many feel abandoned. The future cannot be bright unless we address these urgent issues of the present.
To be fair, a few organisations have. The Citizen Organising Foundation (COF), which has built a formal alliance of mosques, churches, students and unions from its base in London, is perhaps the most courageous and effective. It has proved that young Muslims are eager to get involved in self-help initiatives - all they want is a little help to shape these for themselves. The Guardian's Muslim Youth Forum demonstrates that they are eager to talk and air their frustrations. Now the newspaper is extending the forum by launching a weblog of rolling comment on Guardian Unlimited. Young Muslims from all backgrounds are asked to post contributions regularly, on any subject. No doubt, it will give a much-needed voice to the voiceless.
Yet such initiatives are largely conspicuous by their absence. Moreover, the few that do exist are starved of funds and press coverage. As Neil Jameson of the COF notes, "It is almost as if journalists and policy-makers are terrified of finding something positive about young Muslims - something that works - and having to support it." It is much easier, and probably more productive from the perspective of the Daily Mail-reading public, to describe Muslim youths as a homogeneous mass. All the easier to paint the whole lot in the colours of darkness.
Perhaps this is also why an encouraging new report has been totally ignored. Published this month by Peace Direct, a grass-roots organisation, Young Muslims Speak suggests that Muslim youths know what their problems are and how to solve them. The first thing they want is recognition. They want to be seen, says the report, as a diverse group with different wants and needs. They want the media to be fair, and feel frustrated by the way they are portrayed. The media should be "more proactive and build relationships with the community and not just with 'community leaders'", they argue. They want journalists to appreciate the complexity of Muslims as a group, and politicians to address unemployment, education and inner-city poverty.
Peace Direct adopted a novel method to listen to the youngsters. The standard format of a workshop was supplemented with a very specific tool of dialogue developed in Kenya and Palestine. Known as the "Johari Window", this technique uses the Islamic notion of nafs, or self. More specifically, nafs is a Sufic term used in mystical circles for self-analysis, to overcome the ego and discover the potential and possibilities for self-transformation. In conflict situations, the idea of nafs is used to explore how ego can easily lead to a rise in violence. When people feel threatened, they attribute all bad things to "others" and all that is good to themselves. The resulting lack of understanding makes the situation worse. Nafs serves as an instrument to break this cycle and see the self in its true form.
What all this means is that these young people were being addressed in their own (Islamic) language and, in return, they were able to feel that what they had to say was understood and appreciated.
The end product of the consultation contains one profound finding: young Muslims feel marginalised not just from contemporary Britain, but also from British history. To be an integral part of any country, you need to ground your identity in its cultural heritage. Belonging and heritage go hand in hand. If British history is seen only in terms of monarchs and empire, the popular fare on television, then young Muslims have no heritage, in effect, and cannot really belong.
The truth is that Muslims have a long history in Britain. The first Muslim community in London was established around 1627. The first mosque was built in Woking in 1889. Communities of indigenous converts have existed for centuries in places such as Liverpool. And, as both friend and foe, Islam has played an important role in shaping Britain since the first Renaissance in the 12th century. Young Muslims want to see this heritage given its rightful due. By relating to it, they will be able to feel that they are where they truly belong.
To build an inclusive multicultural future, we need to see our past as inclusive. Indeed, our past is just as multicultural as our present. Young Muslims want this past to be brought into sharper focus. We need to see British history as multiple histories, they seem to be saying. Given a voice, these youths can certainly teach us a thing or two about ourselves.