An innovative new youth project has made itself felt in north London, challenging media stereotyping and an increasing sense of marginalisation amongst young British Muslims.
The project, Young Muslim Voices (YMV), could provide a useful model of successful youth engagement for other groups of young Muslims in the UK, and young people more widely. IRR News went to find out more.
Stop and search
Eighteen-year-old Tariq speaks eloquently of being stopped and searched by the police almost everyday on his way to school when he was younger. Repeatedly late for school and incurring the wrath of his teachers, Tariq says he simply got used to being stopped by the police and assumed that it happened to everyone.
It was only later that he realised he was being singled out because he is a young Muslim man. With that realisation came an understanding of the wider context: that young Muslim men are being stopped disproportionately and risk unequal treatment by the police.
Because of his involvement with YMV, Tariq has become increasingly able to articulate his concerns about policing and the disproportionate impact it is having on young Muslim men. He is talking about the issue not only with his peers, but also to the police themselves. And what’s even better? The police might just be listening.
Tariq’s rapid journey to this level of engagement in many ways mirrors the growth of YMV itself. Just over a year after it was launched, YMV enters 2009 having completed a series of successful and imaginative projects and with plans to meet Beverly Hughes MP, Minister for Children, Young People and Families, to discuss knife crime. At the end of 2008 the project was awarded one of the Philip Lawrence Awards for active citizenship.
Beginnings: disengaged and marginalised
The project was launched in August 2007. It emerged from a growing concern about the low levels of engagement and the lack of opportunities for young Muslims to speak about issues affecting their lives. The group, led by some twenty young leaders, has, in this short time, successfully engaged with over 2,000 young people who live in and around Islington, north London.
It began in humble fashion: finding the things that interested young people and using them as a way to start talking. And most ironic of all, it began at a place which has been increasingly associated in the media with all things ‘extremist’: Finsbury Park Mosque.
Finsbury Park and football
In 2007, Noori Bibi, coordinator of YMV and part of Islington Council’s umbrella youth participation project Listen Up, linked up with City University where an Events Management course was set up. She was looking for young people to join the course and approached Finsbury Park Mosque, which put forward the names of a number of young people, including 17-year-old Mohammed. They in turn recommended the course to their friends and so it grew, drawing in, amongst others, Tariq.
At the same time, Noori was making contact with the local Somali community. She was encouraged to go to Finsbury Park and one Saturday turned up to find about sixty Somali teenagers, with no funding or external support, running and managing their own football team. Their ethos was all about keeping other young Somalis off the streets and providing them with a sense of a community of their own. They mentored and advised younger teenagers and talked about the dangers of drugs. Eighteen-year-old Omar and 21-year-old Amin were both involved and, through Noori, were also signed up to the Events Management course, hoping to find ways of expanding and finding much needed funding for their football team.
As well as joining the course, Noori encouraged these young people to visit the White Lion Centre in Islington, home of Listen Up. From these initial seeds a series of creative projects grew: an anti-racism football event called Kick Islamophobia, film projects documenting the experiences of young asylum seekers, refugees and British Bangladeshi boys living in Islington, a radio show, focus groups, arts in schools projects and ultimately the launch of Young Muslim Voices.
Young Muslim Voices
The young people working tirelessly in their own time for YMV are trying to show a different picture to that commonly presented about British Muslims. They call on lazy minds and disinterested hearts to question what damage is being wrought to a whole generation of young British people and to a whole community in the name of national security and community cohesion. And they think of themselves as inclusive, starting with the issue of young Muslims but encouraging non-Muslims affected by the same issues to join them.
Their rapid success and appeal to other young people is largely due to a formula that Tariq concisely explained to IRR News: ‘It’s about engaging with young people in a way in which they like. Like through football. Through anti-racism. You have to have something that’s attractive to young people – it’s like having a product to sell!’ For 19-year-old Shukri, one of the few young women involved, it is all about ‘being friendly and providing what they need’.
The first year of YMV became a consultation exercise and resulted, at the end of 2008, in the launch of the Young Muslim Voices Report 2008/9 at a one-day youth-led conference. The event was well attended by key decision makers and community leaders as well as police and other young people. The issues raised by the young people, and detailed in the report, included policing and the criminal justice system, identity and Britishness, anti-Muslim racism, the media, education, employment, housing, girls and young women, and asylum seekers and refugees.
More projects, greater engagement
The issue of community policing and criminal justice is one example of the way in which YMV has turned concerns around key issues into concrete action. As a result of the determination of a core group of young people, including Tariq, YMV has succeeded in getting a commitment from the borough commander as well as other police leaders to work with YMV on the issue of policing young people, particularly young Muslim men. This new project, called Breaking the Barriers, is just one of the many ways in which YMV has expanded beyond its original consultative phase, by beginning to work on positive change around key issues.
Projects on engaging with young Muslim girls and women, on asylum seekers and refugees, and on the Somali community are all beginning to take form. An ongoing Listen Up project on knife and gun crime, which will include the meeting with Beverly Hughes sometime in the near future, is also taking shape.
Alongside all of this, some of those young people who initially signed up for the Events Management course are now doing an accredited course on youth work with Islington Council so that they, in turn, can get the skills they need to go out into the community and work with other young people. Suddenly this group of young people, who had felt so marginalised and stereotyped, are finding their voice, becoming active and, in the process, becoming empowered.
An important model
The success of YMV provides a significant model for young people around the UK, especially British Muslims. It comes at a critical moment when anti-Muslim racism is on the rise and the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘extremist’ are becoming fused in the public imagination. In doing so, Muslim voices are silenced and marginalised, or misrepresented, at a time when, arguably more than ever, they need to be heard.
These young people ultimately represent a significant strand of Britain’s future. They are rising to the challenge of being marginalised with conviction, determination and pride. In the process, they are forming ideas of who they are and what it means for them to be young, Muslim and British. Debating the concept of Britishness, they came up with a definition: ‘a cosmopolitan community where people are respectful of different faiths and different backgrounds’. And their wish for the future: not a British Obama, but a real sign of progress. A Black Muslim woman Prime Minister.
Listen up? Yes, we are!
Download a copy of Young Muslim Voices Report 2008/9 (pdf file, 4,216kb) (large file)