Imagine a conversation between two European young people, one a Muslim and one who is not.
‘You Muslims are mad, you can’t accept that we have a different way of life, you go around killing people, even kill yourselves in suicide bombings’.
‘Hold on, which Muslims are you talking about? Anyway, Muslims have lived in Europe for generations, there are French Muslims, German Muslims, British Muslims’
‘Yeah, but they don’t want to be French, German or British’
‘Look, the real problem is those on the far right who think they have a monopoly on what it means to be French, German or British and it excludes any kind of Muslim’.
It is easy to see how such conversations could escalate and some educators might want to avoid simplistic arguments. Yet this article argues that it is precisely these conversations about extremism that must be promoted, albeit with skill and professionalism, and that youth workers are key in enabling conversations. A much bigger problem than the dangers of conversations getting out of hand is the paucity of any communication between young people about extremism; conversations avoid topics that might lead to conflict.
Conversations about extremism are mainly happening separately within Muslim and other communities
Conversations about extremism are mainly happening separately within Muslim and other communities, or even with oneself as a form of internal dialogue. As a Muslim convert of some 8 years, I know that I have very few conversations with others about extremism and I live in a largely non-Muslim community. Partly, I am ashamed to admit, I avoid the conversations because I fear having to deal with prejudice and ignorance, but then others seem also, for whatever reason, to avoid these conversations. This leaves the narrative about extremism to the extremists on both sides, and about whom the media are only too keen to report the views and activity.
This does not stop my mind, nor I suspect the minds of many other Muslims, coming back to difficult questions. It is a small minority of Muslims who see violence against those who have different views as justified, but who defines modern Islam? Muslims see the Qur’an, and other holy texts, as the main sources of knowledge but scholarly differences provide space for alternative narratives: scholars offer a view of Islam that challenges conservative views on many controversial topics including the role of women, and homosexuality.
For the media across Europe, it is what is newsworthy, often within a hostile editorial framework, which dominates the narrative on Islam and challenges the trust of some young Muslims.
However, it is newsworthy when Muslims kill journalists, as at Charlie Hebdo, and that ISIS is trying to set up a new caliphate to impose their highly distorted view of Islam. But is my commitment to my faith just weak and ‘wishy-washy’ because I see living in Britain, with all its faults, as quite compatible with my faith?
Most difficult of all is how my wife and I explain to our children, whom we are bringing up as Muslims, why some people commit atrocities in the name of Islam. As yet they are too young and so are blissfully unaware that the God of Islam is more complicated to follow than wanting us to be good, but merciful when we are not.
Combining underlying economic and social inequalities with differences within and between religions and cultures offers a fertile basis for conflict.
Some Muslims feel alienated from the societies where they live. Combining underlying economic and social inequalities with differences within and between religions and cultures offers a fertile basis for conflict. The issue of integration is complex. In part the inevitable result of relatively poor migrants finding it more practical to live near each other in poorer parts of towns and cities.
Communities have grown up reflecting the religious and cultural preferences of migrants. All the debates about the pros and cons of multi-culturalism cannot deny the reality that multi-cultural patterns of living are reflected all across Europe. Problems arise when the boundaries of sub-cultures, whether of class or religion, become increasingly defined with little opportunity for breach.
In a city such as Birmingham, which promotes itself as multi-cultural, with a 22% Muslim population (UK Census 2011), the areas where Muslims live are well known. The more difficult question is whether many Muslims choose to stay in these areas because they do not want to integrate, so preserving a separate culture, or whether they increasingly think that they will not be welcome in other areas. Whatever the reasons, it remains true that the most contact that others have with Muslims is probably with taxi drivers and in restaurants and take-away food shops. It might be expected that young people attending schools (about 50% Muslim in Birmingham) would have a much greater chance of contact and conversation but it is the rare school in Birmingham that has a balanced multi-cultural mix.
It is important that youth workers are aware of such structural factors influencing and constraining contact between Muslims and others, but they can do little to change those factors except through political activism. What youth workers can do more directly is promote conversations about extremism between young people. The professionalism of youth workers will be the main basis for deciding when and how it is best to promote conversations in this difficult area. However, it is almost certainly not by directly raising issues of extremism, as has often been done by the ‘Respect’ agenda in the UK (a Government initiative). Youth Workers I have spoken to suggest that not only was their credibility in danger of being undermined in the eyes of Muslim young people by taking the money from government but it also led to defensive forms of discussions which may have reinforced existing divided attitudes. The ‘Respect’ agenda occurred in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and many Muslim young people used this as a way of rejecting any concept of British democracy that included such British military involvement.
Conversations need to start with the key issues of relevance to young people. In the UK, a Muslim youth help line based in London identified relationships, mental health, offending and rehabilitation as key issues alongside religion; issues also common to other young people. Whilst this suggests conversations can be promoted, can the topic of extremism be discussed in a productive way? Youth workers have often recognised the value of indirect ways of intervention. Young people have to feel safe and have a basic level of trust before meaningful conversations can occur. When I worked on Youth and Community university courses I felt such conversations could only happen between Muslims and others after separate groups had had some space and time on their own to develop and explore their positions. These positions were not about extremism per se but about what it meant to be a Muslim and a youth worker, or a Christian and a youth worker, or neither. Key topics such as the promotion of democracy, combating discrimination, or being authentic to themselves, were discussed in separate groups alongside sessions where groups were fully integrated.
The majority of youth work is locally based so limiting diversity; but European funding of youth worker mobility and youth exchanges offers the promise of learning and change. Even then it is not suggested that extremism should be central to any agenda but given enough time and space it is likely the topic can be discussed in a constructive way. A potentially positive development that could break down some of the fear and resentment that hinders real conversation is the current crisis over migration from the Middle East and parts of Africa. The anti-Muslim sentiment that underpinned the considerable resistance to respond positively to the unfolding humanitarian crisis was stated openly in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia, whilst other governments, such as the British, have been less open in expressing their rationale in refusing entry to most migrants. It is with some incredulity that many Britons watch Germans welcoming refugees, applauding them as they arrive and giving presents of bedding, toys, and sim cards. The situation in Calais with migrants trying to get into the UK has paled into a minor issue compared to the number reaching Germany and other European countries.
European governments are now being led by a surge of heartfelt people-led compassion towards migrants as people first, with their nationality and colour or religion as secondary. At present it is not hard to have this conversation about migration as it dominates the news, which allows discussion about how ‘other’ migrants really are, and also how much Muslims pose a threat to European security and identity. However, it is important that these conversations continue in the coming years to reinforce the potential of common identities between hosts and migrants, to mitigate difference, and prevent extremism.
Whilst conversation is a process in which the outcome cannot be predetermined, dialogue about extremism offers potential. Stereotypes about both Muslims and others will be challenged, with common issues recognised and diversity valued. Regarding diversity within Islam, the potential is to realise that not only the country of origin of parents, or more likely grandparents, will influence the way their faith is practised but also the country of residence within Europe. All too often young Muslims can defend their religion against criticism by seeing any negative aspect as ‘cultural’ so seeing religion as a fixed ahistorical entity. The search for a valid form of Western Islam is important and young Muslims need to be involved in its construction. This will be a sophisticated conversation since there is a tendency for youth sub-cultures to reject all parental culture; and potentially young Muslims rejecting all of Western youth culture. This is a path to extremism and that only conversation and challenge by others can resist.
The professionalism of youth workers will be the main basis for deciding when and how it is best to promote conversations in this difficult area
by John Holmes (2015)
John Holmes has been involved with training Youth Workers in both Wales and Birmingham for over 30 years.