Creating New Spaces for Muslim Youth in the UK

By Marium Sattar

While sitting across from me in a café near the British Museum in London, a British Iraqi friend recently told me, “I’ve lived here all my life but I don’t feel British.” Her words surprised me, but echoed the sentiments of other second generation British youth I have met. Many young people of immigrant backgrounds do not feel like they are truly a part of the UK and struggle to reconcile the identities they received from their parents with those they encounter at work or school. Jawaab, a new grassroots organisation, is giving young British Pakistanis the tools to integrate the two by providing them with safe spaces for dialogue.

Statistics show that the age profile of British Muslims is significantly younger than the overall population, which means addressing cultural issues and those of national identity among Muslim youth in the UK is essential. A 2001 census found that one third of Muslims were under the age of 16, in comparison with one fifth of the population as a whole. In addition, three quarters of British Muslims are from Asian ethnicities, 46 per cent of which are Pakistani.

Rizwan Hussain is the founder of Jawaab (which means “response” in Urdu. While interviewing young Muslims about why they feel proud to be British for a video campaign, Hussain, 26, found many of their answers to be superficial. “Some people talked about things they liked about the country, such as the rain or fish and chips, but there was nothing clear about why they’re proud to be British.”

Through multimedia platforms, such as Jawaab’s latest photography campaign The Blind Truth, young people were asked to share their concerns about the state of British Pakistanis.

Youth are encouraged to discuss the values they receive from their parents and the values they glean from work or school through these projects. Having a place where they can express themselves and explore taboo topics such as inequality between men and women or other cultural conflicts in the British Pakistani community allows young people to look for solutions to address these issues and become comfortable with their own British Pakistani identity. Jawaab provides a space that is safe for youth through social media, multimedia and events. More young people need safe spaces where they can feel comfortable socialising and engaging in dialogue. These spaces are usually supervised in order to facilitate discussion and extra-curricular activities, and ensure that everyone’s views are tolerated.

In another one of Jawaab’s videos, Hussain addresses the problematic generational gap between British Pakistanis by asking the first generation their opinion of the younger generation. He believes the generational gap is a cause of conflict because the older generation that arrived in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s often did so to find work. Many of them did not envision settling in the UK permanently nor did they consider how they – or their children – might integrate into British society. In contrast, their children grew up in the UK, went to British schools and may have different cultural values or mores. This reality has led to tension for young people – who often feel closer to the UK rather than their parents’ country of origin – and means youth live with conflicting identities.

Integration, currently a widely debated topic in the UK, is often tackled by politicians instead of community members. In 2007, for example, the Labour government launched the Prevent programme, one of the few nationwide initiatives to fund organisations working with young Muslims, including Pakistani youth. Prevent was created in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London to tackle extremism and promote integration and has since shifted its focus solely to tackling extremism.

However, Muslim youth in the UK are increasingly in need of support from grassroots organisations from their own communities, and from their peers and parents. In order to empower young Muslims to embrace their citizenship, they must be given the right platforms and safe spaces to do so.

In looking for another model of integration, it might be helpful to look across the pond. In the UK, the majority of mosques serve as social centres for elders in the community whereas in the United States, many mosques are community centres where youth can discuss their challenges with older peers or young imams that they can easily relate to. If communities create such intimate and supportive spaces, youth will be better able to understand the multiple sides of their identity and can more easily feel a part of British society as a whole.

Marium Sattar is a multimedia and print journalist, and a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School in New York City.

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