There are many reasons to be glum if you are a Muslim living in Britain today. For starters, a 2010 YouGov poll revealed that the overwhelming majority of respondents in Britain believe that Islam is synonymous with both extremism and the repression of women. And many Muslims believe that Britain is becoming increasingly Islamophobic.
But some might be surprised to learn that despite frustration and fear among Britain’s Muslim populace, a generational shift has occurred in the last decade. The Muslim community has shifted from being isolated to being self-reflective and ready to take on challenges. This is the natural expression of an inquisitive, creative, empowered and articulate generation of British Muslims. And at the forefront of this changed community are women who are the driving force for change.
Take Tahmina Saleem and Sara Khan, for example, who in 2009 established Inspire, an organisation that seeks to empower British Muslim women. After having witnessed numerous “cultural crimes” committed against women, Sara and Tahmina decided to redress the wrongs and start a debate. In the process, they have stood up against patriarchy, challenged extremist Muslims and thrown the gauntlet down to far right extremists. As part of their ongoing struggle to restore gender equality within contemporary Islamic discourse, or what could be described as “gender-jihad”, they are organising a conference next month in London for policymakers, grassroots organisations and the media called “Speaking in God’s name: Re-examining Gender in Islam”.
Samina Rehman, from Nottingham, is a prolific writer and director of Mona Media, an innovative film and theatre company specialising in issue-centred drama, workshops and participatory arts projects. Samina has written and produced plays and films that tackle a range of issues – from bicultural identity and cultural bigotry, to drug abuse and attitudes that lead young Muslims to social isolation.
Their passions are derived from their faith, which is unashamedly encapsulated within a sense of being British. And it’s not only Tahmina, Sara and Samina who have a strong sense of belonging; it’s something they shares with most of their fellow British Muslims. In fact, a 2009 Gallup poll revealed that 77 per cent of British Muslims identified “very strongly” or “extremely strongly” with Britain, a higher percentage than the British public as a whole (at 50 per cent).
It’s no surprise then that an energetic group of young Muslim professionals lie behind the creative input of the public educational campaign “Inspired by Muhammad”, which aims to challenge misconceptions about Islam and inform the British public how the Prophet Muhammad inspires Muslims to contribute to society. A similar message was expressed by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – the first female Muslim to serve as a Cabinet minister in the UK and co-chair the Conservative Party – who proudly declared: “As a British-born Muslim, I believe my faith makes me a better person.”
Yet the impetus for these Muslims’ newfound confidence has, perhaps surprisingly, come from the unlikeliest of places: the gloomy news that has plagued the Muslim community. Remona Aly, Campaign Director at the Exploring Islam Foundation, an organisation that challenges the damaging stereotypes about Islam through the medium of creative resources, explains that “since the horrendous events of 9/11 and 7/7, Muslims have felt it ever more vital to get their voices heard – to speak for ourselves rather than being spoken for, to be proactive rather than reactive. And through this has emerged a greater need for and a greater sense of confidence.”
It appears that this generation of British Muslims does not want to be ghettoised, nor remain on the fringes of society demanding special privileges. Rather, they want a fair deal. They want their contributions appreciated, their commitment to this country valued and, above all, they want to be treated as equals.
As the famous 13th century Sufi poet Maulana Jalalluddin Rumi advised: “Be not content with stories of those who went before you. Go forth and create your own story.” Clearly, this new generation of Muslim activists, leaders, artists and thinkers see themselves as stakeholders in the future of Britain, keen, confident and able to forge their own paths, write their own stories of success and overcome the challenges they face.
Aftab Malik is a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Global Expert on Muslim affairs. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).