Monday, July 25, 2005

NATASHA FATAH: Muslim youth: an identity dilemma

From the CBC.

Muslim youth: an identity dilemma

CBC News Viewpoint | July 22, 2005 | More from Natasha Fatah

Natasha Fatah is a producer for CBC Radio's Current Affairs Show "As It Happens." Prior to that, she was a television and radio reporter in Windsor, Ontario. She has degrees in Journalism from Ryerson University and in Political Science from the University of Toronto. She has lectured on anti-racism, politics and media studies at elementary and secondary schools around the Greater Toronto Area. In 1996, she was the host of 'News from the Muslim World' on Vision TV.

In a small backyard in Ajax, Ont., a Pakistani family gathers for a barbecue. The parents attend to the meal, while the two teenage sons and I engage in a discussion about current affairs. The elder brother, who is eighteen, tells me that he opposes same-sex marriage and supports capital punishment. This young Muslim was raised in Canada, in a secular society, but he has a decidedly conservative frame of mind.

I’m not suggesting that just because you're born here, you are predisposed to being liberal. There are of course, millions of Anglo-Saxon Canadians who were also born and raised here, but who are conservative. What was odd in this scenario was that the parents of this young Muslim man completely disagreed with him.

During the meal, they tried to politely point out to him that capital punishment is flawed and that marriage is a right for any two people in love. But the young man persisted in his unaccented English and his parents shook their heads in resignation.

This interaction was strange, but it is not uncommon. There has been a growing trend in the past few years among young Muslims – born and raised in U.S., the U.K., western Europe and even our mosaic-loving, multicultural Canada – to be more conservative than their immigrant parents.

The common narrative for most immigrant communities is that parents are traditional and conservative, while their children try to introduce secularism, but the opposite is happening in many Muslim households.

Go to any university campus in Canada’s larger cities and you’ll see the first seeds of a conservatism being born in young Muslims. For example, at the University of Toronto’s Muslim Students’ Association, male members won’t make eye contact with the females, they won’t address them, won’t sit next to them, and, worst of all, the female students pray behind the male students, even though in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, men and women pray side by side.

This separation between the genders is not happening at the universities in Karachi, Cairo or Dhaka, but for some reason, it is happening among Muslims in the West. While these "social regressions" may not seem like a big deal, they are emblematic of a larger trend towards rejecting everything that is western.

We only need to turn to that awful Thursday morning when 56 people lost their lives in the London attacks. And then, there was the horror of realizing that this act wasn’t carried out by strangers, by foreigners who had brought some exotic eastern disposition with them to the "civilized" West. These were four young Muslim men, Britons raised in the United Kingdom. They lived in the city that they attacked. Why would they, with all the opportunities in the world open to them, choose this path of action?

Sarah Joseph lives in London. She is the creator and editor of Emel Magazine, a glossy lifestyles publication, targeted at young Muslims. She says young Muslims in the West face particular sorts of challenges, including an identity crisis that their parents didn’t have to face.

"The search for identity is a complicated one among second- and third-generation Muslims," Joseph says. "The first generation knows who they are and knows where they came from. They don’t have any confusion about identity, but the younger ones do. And many young Muslims were searching for a way to bridge the gap between their British identity and ethnic or cultural identity and they saw Islam as that bridge because they could be both British and Muslim."

Joseph says this trend initially proved to be quite positive, because choosing identity based on faith, a set of values, allowed these Muslims to have interracial marriages and allowed women to be loyal to their religion and also participate in the civil society. However, Joseph says that since the war in Bosnia, where thousands of Muslims were slaughtered, there has been steady growth in a militant and violent sector of Muslim youth, who are frustrated and feel alienated.

When asked about the danger of Muslim youth becoming increasingly conservative, Joseph quickly rejects the premise. "Terms like 'conservative' and 'progressive' aren’t at all helpful. I don’t think adhering to your faith is a bad thing as long as you accept that we live in pluralistic society. We have to be accepting." Joseph insists that the "conservative" proportion of Muslim youth is "a minority of a minority of a minority."

She says that Islam isn't just a religion, it’s a way of being, but you need a formula to put that way of being into practice, and that the process can be painful and confusing. And sometimes, people can misinterpret it – the way a minority of militant Muslim men are doing. While these conservative youth might represent a minority, they are the voices that you hear in the news, and when you hear silence from moderate Muslims, tiny conservative voices can seem quite loud.

Tariq Ali, an international human rights activist and celebrated author who also lives in London, says that while militant Muslim youth may be a minority now, their numbers are growing fast.

"It’s a real problem that we face. I’ve had arguments with Muslim kids in this country (soon after 9/11 and they became quite violent in their language when we were debating." Ali says that while acts of terrorism are indefensible, they do require an explanation. He says it's not that difficult to understand why they would retaliate in the West.

"If you decide that you are going to wage wars and occupy countries, it will increase the interest for young people to these radical groups that are resisting and fighting back," he says. "The way to stop this is to go for a political solution, in Palestine, in Iraq and in Afghanistan and pull out western troops from there, otherwise kids here in the diaspora will say 'why shouldn’t we go and fight?' and from their point of view it’s not an unusual response."

Ali says that these youth just want to have a voice that opposes foreign occupation and wars in their countries but, unfortunately, moderate Muslim leadership is lacking, so they join hard-core fundamentalists groups, not necessarily because they are religious, but because it's the only organized response out there. Ali adds that if the only response to these attacks is to punish more Muslims and to defend the West, then this only adds fuel to the fire.

Another prominent Muslim Briton, respected writer Ziauddin Sardar, recently wrote in the New Statesman that “the question of violence per se is not unique to Islam–. But this does not lessen the responsibility on Muslims in Britain, or around the world, to be judicious, to examine themselves, their history and all it contains to redeem Islam from the pathology of this tradition. To deny that the terrorists are a product of Islamic history and tradition is more than complacency. It is a denial of responsibility, a denial of what is really happening in our communities. It is a refusal to live in the real world."

Meanwhile, in the legislative halls of western countries, there seems to be no end to the "war on terror" which usually translates into the detention, humiliation, and death of thousands of innocent Muslims.

Joseph says it's unfortunate that young Muslims and non-Muslims alike don't realize that Islam can be interpreted as so much more than politics and prayer. She wishes that Muslims could be known for other things, such as music, and art, poetry and philosophy.

But for the time being it’s pretty likely that the next time you read about a young Muslim in the paper, you’ll probably also be reading the words "Al-Qaeda," "fundamentalist" or "terrorist."

If this trend continues, then the future for the 1.2 billion Muslims on this planet looks quite bleak.


We need far more pieces like Natasha Fatah's.

Articulate Moslems have been the missing part of the situation since 9/1 - it's taken us four years to find any sort of dialogue with the religion and people(s) amid which 21st Century terrorism has arisen.

Western governments are clueless, and still deny that Iraq is a cause of Moslem frustration. Who else but a Moslem can explain to us that Bosnia was also a trigger a decade earlier?

Edward Mason

website page counter