Seen and Not Heard is an assessment of young Muslims in the United Kingdom, by Sughra Ahmed of Britain’s Policy Research Centre. The study, conducted over 18 months and released in September 2009, aims to give voice to young Muslims who are often analyzed by researchers, but rarely heard from. And as someone who was born in the United Kingdom, spent her early years there, and recently lived in London’s East End – an area with a large urban Muslim population – I found Ahmed’s report to be highly topical and necessary.
Over 100 young Muslims were interviewed across the country in various focus groups, all representing over 15 ethnicities. Ahmed’s work is an intriguing analysis on the state of young Muslims in the UK and clearly has much input from the young Muslims that she spoke to. Seen and Not Heard informs us that young Muslims have a plethora of issues to deal with – including poverty, education, subcultures, the generational gap, media, police interactions – and of course, religion.
But first, there’s the terminology itself. Ahmed notes that a primary distinction must be made in addressing and discussing young Muslims in Britain. The term “youth” has the negative connotations of being affiliated with gangs and violence, which occurs all too often in perceptions by the government, police, and media. “Youth” are seen as a problem in society and Ahmed therefore proposes that Muslim youth be addressed as “young Muslims” or “young people,” which some of her interviewed youth workers also recommended, for a step in preventing “otherization.”
A highly refreshing aspect of Seen and Not Heard is Ahmed’s analysis of the interactions between young Muslims and their parents, and how education comes into play. Overall, the tensions between the two are often comparable to what young people in general experience with the older generation – this intergenerational gap is present in many communities, Muslim and non-Muslim.
However in Muslim communities, factors such as language and culture are also present and frequently cause distance between parents and their children. Such circumstances do affect the education of young Muslims and their attitudes towards it, as many Muslim parents in the UK are not able to engage with their children’s education:
“The research shows that attitude, language, poor education background and feeling insecure with systems of school governance can turn parents away from helping children with their homework, coursework and other assessments, remembering that many parents of the first generation didn’t attend school in the UK and in fact have a generally poor track record of education themselves.”
In other words, this results in young Muslims thus not taking their education very seriously, for their parents do not check on their progress. This was certainly the case with me – my parents, like many, were either too busy with work or were not able to understand my teachers and coursework, resulting in disengagement (though not indifference) with my education.
In contrast, after we moved to the United States, I noticed that young American Muslims around me often had their parents involved with their education, while I was left to my own means. Ahmed has shed much light onto my shared UK experience and recommends that schools need to extend outreach to parents of young British Muslims with a better cultural understanding. This would result in a better education for young Muslims, and ultimately, better life and job opportunities.
A discussion of the media’s treatment of young Muslims is another critical and necessary – but rare – insight offered by the report. Ahmed quotes many young Muslims on their perceptions of how media portray them negatively, and documents how this affects their identity. For example, young Muslims are often unfairly forced to answer for the actions of Muslims abroad, and more frequently so because of an increasingly globalized media network.
Some interviewees often times felt helpless at the expense of the media, saying, “You can’t really make a difference.” Ahmed recommends that young Muslims be encouraged to enter media fields as a means of empowerment. As a precursor to this, other interviewees have proactively countered the negative perceptions enforced by the media simply by getting to know their non-Muslim peers.
Ahmed concludes that the identities of young Muslims in the United Kingdom are constantly in flux, because of shifting attitudes towards education, culture, and religion – and that the media’s everyday barrage also spurs perceptions to shift quickly. By dispelling many stereotypes and misconceptions, Seen and Not Heard demonstrates that young Muslims in the United Kingdom do have a lot of potential. It’s just that their potential needs to be recognized and respected.
Hena Ashraf is a filmmaker and a fierce advocate for the making and use of independent media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Download and read Seen and Not Heard here.