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25 July 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Beyond blame and shame: what we must do now

Terror and the UK: Young Muslims have been totally marginalised by their "community leaders". Nothin

By Ziauddin Sardar

”What are we going to do?” This is the question Muslims are asking in hastily arranged meetings and conferences throughout Britain. There is a strong indication that Muslims are going beyond self-justificatory and self-satisfied Islamic rhetoric to recognising the problems of the reality of Muslim life in Britain. Beyond the obvious answers – “we must fight to ensure that Britain changes its foreign policy” – there are some surprisingly practical suggestions.

The emerging consensus is well articulated by Dr Iftikhar Malik, professor of history at Bath Spa University College. “It is time,” he says, “to go beyond the blame-and-shame game and develop an accountable culture that brings our frustrated and alienated youth in from the cold.” An entire class of angry youth, working as well as middle class, has emerged from among Britain’s Muslims. “So far,” Malik also says, “nobody is talking about younger women. They are just as angry as young men.”

We need to learn to listen to our young men and women and pay attention to their grievances.

A great deal of attention is focused on the lack of accountability in the Muslim community. There is a widespread perception that imams, mosque leaders and spokespeople for Muslim organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Association of Britain, are unrepresentative and unelected. “Around 70 per cent of the Muslim population in Britain is between 14 and 34. Yet the average age of the so-called leaders that Tony Blair met after the London bombs is well over 50,” says the novelist and playwright Suhayl Saadi. This unrepresentative and unaccountable culture needs to be “challenged, subverted and debunked. We need to expose the pornographies of our imams and preachers, tear off the petty emperors’ robes, and get down on the Muslim street to seed sane and rational ideas of liberation which combat nihilistic exclusion and psychotic exclusivism,” he says.

The conventional Muslim leaderships, both of mosques and community organisations, have totally marginalised young people. Indeed, suggests Muddassar Ahmed, founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), our leaders fear young people. They cannot relate to them, and feel threatened. “It’s only when young people feel they can voice their frustrations about the community within the community that a large part of their anger will dissipate,” Ahmed says.

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Our mosques are largely tribal, and controlled by old men on the dole with no understanding of the changing world around them, says Asim Siddiqui of City Circle. Young people are often banned from discussing controversial issues at the mosque – not just issues of British foreign policy but also such urgent matters as the increasing drug addiction among young Muslims, or the belief of a number of Muslim social scientists that most single mothers in London are Muslim. The unwelcoming and suffocating atmosphere within mosques forces young people towards extremist organisations which are more welcoming. The situation is made worse by some mosques and Islamic centres in Britain being controlled by groups that supported and participated in the “Afghan jihad”. These groups actively seek disenfranchised young people for initiation in jihadi ideology.

What this means is that the management and administration of mosques needs better regulatory oversight. As a matter of urgency, says Ahmed, the government should insist that all mosque trusts and committees reorganise themselves and bring young people into their management and administrative structures. At least half the membership of each committee should consist of young people and women. But this in itself is not good enough. In the long term, we need an independent body, supported by the government, with a specific mandate to ensure that mosques are run democratically, their trustees and leaders are made accountable, and women and the young are represented adequately. At present, mosques in Britain are regulated by the Charity Commission, which is good, but not geared to the specific functions of a mosque. “Mosques are public places,” says Ehsan Masood, a journalist, “yet they have been allowed to mushroom with very little external help.” There aren’t many other countries in which mosques are left to manage themselves.

The syllabuses of madrasas – traditional Islamic schools, often attached to a mosque – also need attention from an Ofsted-type body. “Tens of thousands of kids spend two hours every evening rote-learning the Koran,” Masood points out. “But the Koran needs to be taught to children in its historical context; rote learning of Arabic letters often leads to closed minds that are ripe for exploitation by the extremists.”

Imams have received a heavy battering over the past two weeks. There seems to be unanimous agreement that imams imported from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East, who do not speak English and know little about British culture, are a particular problem. “We need to end the cruel practice of employing under- educated, underpaid and overworked imported imams,” says Ahmed. As a matter of urgency, suggests Malik, existing imams should be required to go through crash courses in English, politics, history and sociology. In the long run we need home-grown facilities for training suitable imams.

Two other Muslim institutions also need to change – faith schools and charities. Muslim faith schools, while doing an admirable job, often engender the mentality of exclusiveness in their pupils. “I fear,” says AbdoolKarim Vakil, chair of the Muslim Institute’s Brainstorming Symposium, “that they are not producing rounded individuals who can relate to broader British culture.” The only way for such schools to promote healthy multiculturalism is if they have a large non-Muslim intake. Vakil suggests that it should be mandatory for Muslim schools to accept at least 20 per cent of their pupils from other faith groups.

Muslim charities need to modify their funding priorities. With the past decade has come the emergence of numerous Muslim charities. Many of these, such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, are very successful at raising money. On the whole they are well managed, dynamic institutions. They exclusively support foreign projects, however. “But charity begins at home,” says Siddiqui of City Circle, “and our successful charities also need to pay attention to the plight of the Muslim community.” They should specifically target local causes and provide much-needed support for them. “I would suggest that at least half of the charitable funds should be allocated to causes in Britain, such as youth projects, as well as arts and theatre, and supporting students taking up careers in journalism or seeking to become imams,” says Siddiqui.

There are a number of other areas where individual or collective action is needed. The middle class needs to address the issue of educational standards among Muslims with a real passion. Concerned Muslims should be mentoring underachieving individuals and participating in the raising of educational standards by greater involvement in the educational process – for example, by joining school governing boards; by encouraging and helping underachieving youths find suitable vocational training programmes; and by emphasising the value of education in Islam.

“Anyone distributing extremist literature needs to be dealt with swiftly by the community,” says Masood. “If the Tory party won’t tolerate the BNP outside its party headquarters, Muslims should have no hesitation in expelling unreconstructed extremists handing out inflammatory literature outside our mosques.”

We also need to make a start on repairing the gap between parents and children in Asian Muslim communities. There is often little emotional intimacy between the generations, with the result that parents don’t know what their children are thinking, feeling and doing. “Young Muslims have to negotiate their lives in a totally different context to their parents,” says Dr Rabia Malik, a family therapist and academic. This makes it difficult for them to develop a relationship with their parents, whose traditional habits and lifestyles they often despise. The parents themselves are very conscious of their status and see admitting failure as a shame. “Most Muslim parents,” says Malik, “are in denial about the activities of their children. They have wrapped themselves with a mythology that everything is hunky-dory.”

The first step to bridging this emotional divide is for young people to talk among themselves about living in two different contexts. “We need to create spaces within our community where young people, male and female, can meet freely to talk about their problems,” says Malik. This is where most of their frustrations could be aired. And, somehow, we need to communicate to the parents that there is nothing shameful about talking honestly about their problems. Ultimately, the Muslim community will be respected only if it is honest to itself and pursues a culture of excellence. “We must learn to see ourselves as we really are, as well as learn to help ourselves,” says Siddiqui.

In truth, none of these debates or proposed solutions is new. They are not the product of 7 July, but have been raised for several years. Yet the atrocities in London offer a window of opportunity to translate debate into action. We must recognise one significant fact, however. Many of these thoughts preparatory to policy changes and programmes of action will demand creative new links with government agencies. And that makes Iraq a factor both in the creation of the problem and in engineering a solution. Muslims must be able to negotiate change and retain their rightful democratic freedom to oppose UK government policy on Iraq; free to connect the dots of their concern. Greater democracy, accountability and transparency within the Muslim community are their demands. They demand no less of their elected government.

Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim is published by Granta (£8.99, paperback)

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