Muslims in Britain, By Hafsa Kanjwal

Posted on May 8th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, Faith and Politics


Last month, I was fortunate to attend the Young Muslim Advisory Group’s “Dialogue” Conference in the United Kingdom. Organized by the British government, the aim of this conference was to allow young people to engage with each other and offer solutions to key decision makers on the most pressing community issues.

After the tragic attacks in London four years ago, committed by young British Muslims, the British government has struggled to address the issue of home-grown extremism. The Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG) was created by Communities and Local Government and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to address growing concerns relating to young Muslims in the United Kingdom. The Advisors speak directly to ministers and policy makers about the issues affecting their communities, giving voice to a demographic that has felt marginalized in society. This group is comprised of 22 students and young professionals from across England. It was convened last October, and this conference was their first event. Its organizers hope that results from the conference will influence the type of work YMAG will embark on in the near future. The work of the group is set within the framework of the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) initiative.

During one of the small-group discussions, I brought up the terminology and framework surrounding the PVE agenda and expressed concerns that it might not be the best way to recruit Muslims to join the efforts of the British government to fight extremism. I asked my question to a panel of individuals representing officials in the United Kingdom, including Hazel Blears, a Member of Parliament and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; Jawaid Akhtar, Assistant Chief Constable; Fahad Khan, a member of YMAG; and Lesley Longstone from the Department of Children, Schools and Families. MP Hazel Blears admitted that the language surrounding the PVE agenda was “difficult” but stated that “there comes a point when it is important to directly confront the problems that exist and have a difficult conversation.” She said that the UK's government has a real interest in combating extremism, and that it would not be productive to pretend that it is not a problem. Although I agree with her in that extremism is a problem, I think it is still going to be difficult for the PVE agenda to gain much traction within the Muslim community. No group likes to be told that they are effectively the problem, and this is why the reaction has indeed been less than enthusiastic within the Muslim community. Perhaps reframing the discourse as “building social cohesion” or “promoting pluralism” would be more effective in gaining Muslim allies and also obtaining support from other communities in the UK, especially faith communities, to work towards that common end.

The next session was an open 'interactive voting' session in which participants were asked a variety of questions. For the question, “What do you most associate yourself with?” the participants were given the options of religion, race, nationality, region, local area, language, a mixture, or other. A strong majority stated “religion” and the next answer was “a mixture.” This was interesting to see, as I am fairly confident the American Muslim community would respond in a similar manner. A majority of the participants said that they felt responsible for shaping the future of 'the community,' which was understood to be the Muslim community. However, to cultivate a “British Muslim” identity, it is imperative that Muslims in the United Kingdom see their identity as one that contributes to the society more broadly, and does not simply focus on issues isolated to Islam in the UK. American Muslims often view themselves as living out their faith by being civically active and engaged in the society around them. Fostering networks of greater cooperation between diverse groups to address social concerns would be an ideal way to instill that framework in the United Kingdom.

A third session, entitled “Foreign Policy,” was a centered around a discussion with a British Foreign Service officer and the Press Officer at the Embassy of the United States in the UK. Their role was mainly to explain British and American foreign policy to the participants. Most of the questions that participants raised related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the role of foreign policy in impacting extremism. The representatives did a good job of navigating the tension between explaining their country’s policies and also listening to the concerns of the participants. However, two young men were not satisfied with the answers that were given and walked out of the room during the session. I was surprised to see how raw the anger can be, and it appeared that the two parties were speaking on completely different planes. It did not seem like the young people were really interested in hearing the views of the officials or having a “dialogue” but mainly in finding a target for their grievances. Creating more forums in which policy makers interact with young people will necessitate a broader framework of engagement and a genuine response to legitimate grievances.

At the end of the day, evaluations were conducted through another round of  'interactive voting.' A majority of the participants enjoyed the conference and stated they learned something new. However, a strong number also said that they were skeptical about YMAG’s ability to actually address the issues that were raised, and a majority said they did not believe the British government would act upon the results of the conference. It is interesting to see that even during a government platform, these young people still do not feel that the government is working to help them and their communities. It appears that the two great challenges for any efforts to engage the Muslim community will revolve around finding ways to build trust between the government and the community and having a strong buy-in from authentic community leaders.

hafsa_k1Hafsa Kanjwal is the Leadership Associate at the Interfaith Youth Core. Her previous involvement with the IFYC was as a Fellow during the 2007-2008 academic year. Hafsa recently graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where she studied Regional Studies of the Muslim World and International Development. Hafsa was born in Kashmir and moved to the US when she was six years old. She is deeply interested in political Islam, especially as it relates to democratic reform. She also has a strong personal and academic interest in women's issues, including Islamic law and gender and development. She co-founded and directed the Summer Public Service Program for KashmirCorps, an organization that seeks to improve the development, healthcare, and education sectors in Kashmir through its volunteer and internship opportunities.

One Response to “Muslims in Britain, By Hafsa Kanjwal”

  1. mustapha says:

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