British Television has changed immeasurably over the last few years. The slow trickle of different coloured faces popping up in our daily soaps and dramas have come about so gradually that they are now more of a norm than a novelty.
But these past several weeks, in particular, have opened a new direction of TV making. We’ve been dominated by documentaries such as Proud and Prejudiced, My Hometown Fanatics, and most recently, Make Bradford British, all showcasing the true reality of Cameron’s ‘failing multiculturalism’.
This multitude of new shows centre on a familiar theme: opposing cultures battling it out in a civil war of words, fighting for their right to be heard in our democratic society. Unsurprisingly, this uprising is dominated by two particularly hot-headed parties: Islamic fundamentalists, the most prominent of which being the banned Al-Muhajiroun; and English traditionalists, primarily the English Defence League.
The media has become a vocal outlet for these destructive forces, and with varying consequences. Ever since media intervention on the subject, terrorism has become a dirty word in modern times. Its mere mention has the ability to provoke mass hysteria on ordinary, vulnerable minds.
In particular, its supposedly close relationship with Islamic preaching has had an adverse effect on young Muslims growing up in Britain. Tensions between their personal experiences and the divergent projected image of Islam they see on their screens have become paramount. Needless to say, the image of Islam is not the only thing to suffer as a result of this attention.
“As so-called ‘moderates’ of our faith, I feel as though we have forgone our presence in the media,” claims Ibrahim Hussein, a 23 yr old Muslim from the Midlands. “Only the extreme vocal minority are chosen to portray false messages and misguided views about Islam. And nearly all of these are condemned by the silent majority. It’s been made even worse by all of these documentaries and so-called reports that we keep seeing.”
Muslims only count for 3% of the British population, but with the amount of coverage they receive, you would assume it was a lot more. Alarmingly, Islamic fundamental groups count for a minute fraction of the UK’s population yet they are considered to be at the forefront of the media, as claimants of a true representation of Islam.
“The general public is inclined to believe what they see and this is often not the truth,” says Ibrahim. “Those who really know Islam or even Muslims, know that the image presented by the media is wrong. Islam is about love and peace. However, all we see is the crazy Arab guy who is out of touch with the world, who can’t relate, rather than the young Muslim who is a model citizen, and has raised thousands for causes all over the world!”
Life for any young person growing up has its hardships. But the added weight for an ordinary young British Muslim of finding the right balance of faith and goodwill in their personal lives is a pretty tricky business. After all, how extreme is too extreme?
The threat then, of these intrusive fanatical protests of groups like Al-Muhajiroun are not only felt by non-Muslims but by ordinary Muslims as well. There is a very real danger that the actions of these fanatic groups may be mimicked by easily influenced Muslim youths, who are still unsure about the depths of their own faith. And the same can be said for the leaders of the EDL preying on the innocent minds of the English. The media are playing a dangerous game of vocalizing terrorist activities to individuals who perhaps don’t know any better.
Perhaps we need to put the actual prominence of these extremist groups into perspective. Let’s take a look at some numbers: Britain plays house to over 1,500 known mosques that cater for up to 2.9 million Muslims and 55,000 churches that accommodate over 42 million Christians.
As is expected, both churches and mosques are subdivided into differing sects of Christianity and Islam. For instance, Christianity comprises Catholics, Quakers and Mormon groups as well as many others. Islam can most simply be broken into two groups of followers: Sunnis and Shi’as. Both groups vary from each other in many aspects. Sunnis however, make the majority and it is they who I will focus on.
In Britain, the Muslim population is also segregated in terms of ethnic groups, with the Pakistani community comprising as the largest. In addition, there are Maghrebis, Turks, Bangladeshis, Indians, Nigerians, Somalis, and White Europeans. With a good number of mosques all around the country, it is safe to say that all of these ethnic cultures have a clear place in their communities. However, they also lay open to further divisions, whereby groups and individuals of the wider ethnic community fall away and form sub-sects that follow their own systems of belief. It is here, in the minority, rather than the ethnic majority, that individuals can find themselves prone to more extremist ideals.
“Unfortunately, there are too many groups to count,” explains Ibrahim. “Even after researching the more popular sects, I keep discovering more. As I told my friend, ‘every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to be Sheik Tom, Dick and Harry these days’. It honestly seems that anyone with a basic level of knowledge and the ability to make a YouTube video can gain a following and start their own sect.”
Of course, ethnicity is not strictly a divider for Muslim groups and mosques, but there is a tendency for Imams and religious founders to reflect the practices that they are most accustomed to – that which they grew up learning in their homelands. The subgroups, therefore, represent an altered, revised version of these traditions, sometimes merging with the more stricter practices of other ethnic groups, for instance, the Taliban of Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. Traditionally, many young Muslims are inclined to follow the practices and Imam’s of their parents, however, with the addition of these newer minorities, there is now a lot more choice, depending on how strict young individuals want to be.
As a result, it can be quite difficult to choose where to worship. As Ibrahim explains, “On face value, all mosques look the same, but the message they preach can be drastically different from each other. Before I actually researched some of these differences, I never realized they existed. But now I feel I am better informed even to the extent that I am wary of some mosques and do tend to avoid them. Another big issue is that a lot of mosques pray in different ways, and if you’re the odd one out in a congregation, it can lead to a lot of stares and judgment. I remember I was once told that I was praying incorrectly during Salah time and because of that I wasn’t welcome. It shocked me and I found it very un-Islamic.”
It appears then, that while some of the more traditional groups seem to be heavily insular and closed off to fresh faces, the new extreme minorities are instead dedicated to enlisting as many new members as possible, whatever their background. And this is evident by the amount of attention and coverage they seek both in the media and on the streets. In their eyes, no publicity is bad publicity. It is this disparity of the old and new where inclinations to move to more extreme ideals may develop. Peer pressure is definitely a major problem for young Muslims, especially when faced with the loud and proud opinions of extremists.
“The pressure to follow certain groups has definitely been an issue for me recently,” says Ibrahim. “One of my closest friends has completely immersed himself with one group. It has led him changing his dress sense, his personality and even his sense of humour as a result. He’s almost become a propaganda machine or recruitment service for the group. Due to this, I have been ‘lovingly’ coerced into attending a few events and listening to what they have to say. Although I agree with some of their views, I don’t think it’s a good fit for me. But maybe because of the peer pressure, I might have to go to a few more events and gatherings.”
Peer pressure can always lead to individuals being forced out of their comfort zone and be made to do things that they may not necessarily be accustomed to. But why is this the case? Why do people have a tendency to go and prove themselves to be something they are not in the first place? Particularly when it comes to things like faith and religion, we wonder why young Muslims feel the need to trespass onto such dangerous terrain where the chances of falling into extremist groups are so high. I mean, why bother if you end up stripping away all your personality and becoming more of a product of image rather than a being of heart?
The answer to these questions, however, isn’t actually all that difficult either: for the likes of myself or other young Muslims, faith is something that is inherently important to our inner being.
As Ibrahim explains, “I genuinely feel that life is short and it’s hard for me to imagine that we die and are left to rot in the earth. The concept of a deity or God resonates with me and often provides a sense of comfort. I believe my religion gives me a sense of direction in my life. It is my moral compass and I couldn’t imagine my life without it.”
This is perhaps a remarkable finding, especially when you consider how increasingly unpopular religion is becoming in modern day Britain, with a hefty 20% of the population showing no religious allegiance whatsoever.
But there are a significant number of young British Muslims, and in fact, individuals of all faiths who desire to regularly practice their beliefs. Personally, although I am not by any stretch of the imagination a hugely religious individual, I still do feel that faith is a massive part of me. It is inherently entrenched within my persona and it defines who I am. I can understand then, why individuals would openly sacrifice some personal traits in order to supposedly ‘better’ themselves into individuals of greater faith.
But I like to think that true faith enhances spirit, not dims it. The problems of following strict protocols and practices are that sometimes the true essence of faith is lost, and all that remains is a mechanized wheel that simply jars against its neighbouring cogs.
The problem lies in finding the right balance between faith and the self. It is simply a trial and error process for most people, and sometimes it can help to know what you absolutely do not want in order to fully realise what you do.
In the case of British Muslims, it is pretty much a life lesson that has to be learned. And it is unfortunately made slightly more complicated when you consider how unpopular Islam is depicted by the media.
This does, however, lead us onto my final point, and perhaps the most significant. What does it mean to be a ‘British Muslim’?
I have repeatedly used the term throughout this article, but I have left it predominantly undefined. It is a label that is common in everyday society. And as to be expected it holds numerous loaded connotations, both good and bad. On the outside, the term itself seems to be contradictory: can Britishness and Islam truly coincide harmoniously?
“I believe 100% that I am British,” insists Ibrahim. “I was born here, and most likely will spend the rest of my life here. Bar a few weeks holiday every couple of years, I feel my only connection with my so-called homeland [Pakistan] is my parents.
“Growing up here, I realize how lucky I am, and I am proud of England even though I know some people are not. Little things such as supporting England in the World Cup, or complaining about the weather are also common in my British Asian friendship group just like any other. I believe that you can be a British Muslim quite easily, educating others about your religion instead of highlighting differences. Trying not to push views into a society where it does not fit will be key to the future.
“Problems such as the growing membership of groups like the EDL are due to the lack of knowledge in communities and it is up to us Muslims to extend out towards the public and show that a peaceful relationship can be reached for everyone’s best interest. I feel this responsibility lies on our so-called Muslim leaders who need to see what is happening and react according to Islamic ways and push the truth out.”
There are a lot of problems facing Muslims and their relationship with other communities within Britain. Sometimes it is not as simple as educating the ignorant minded. There are a lot of stereotypes and generalisations that need to be overcome before similarities can outshine differences.
What is evident, however, is that the media are playing into the hands of Britain’s extremist groups. Publicly vocalizing fanatic ideals is just another form of scaring vulnerable minds into submission. It has been a common technique used by dictators and oppressors since time immemorial.
Let’s hope the media can realise this in time. As for young British Muslims, finding harmony within an increasingly intolerant society might be more than wishful thinking.