If we confuse the visible aspects of the Muslim faith with fundamentalism, we risk alienating a generation
The terrorist attack in Manchester has drawn worldwide condemnation and caused immense sadness. But there is also great concern about the narrative formed by the media. It is a narrative that has contributed to the politicization of the activities of young Muslims and the emergence of Islamophobic attitudes which tend to portray young Muslims as a threat to British society.
I lived in the Old Trafford area of South Manchester for about 20 years. It is a wonderfully diverse community with a large Muslim population. I listened to various news reports about the attack and references to areas such as Old Trafford, Whalley Range and Chorlton took on a sinister turn.
For example, the BBC2 Daily Politics program reported that South Manchester is a “terrorist training ground“on May 24, when the subway reported it as a”fertile ground for terroron May 25. Such claims are ignorant at best, and dangerous at worst. For young Muslims growing up in these areas, it sends the message that they should be treated as different from the rest of the nation.
This process of coming to see certain groups as outside the norm allows the dominant group in society to construct boundaries and hierarchies based on minority differences. American sociologist, Saher Selod suggests that this process of “otherness” allows non-Muslims to deny Muslims the same rights and privileges of citizenship. In my community, the first response to the incident was to plan a picnic for people of all faiths in the local community garden. The underlying idea – that we should not allow this terrible event to create a culture of fear and suspicion.
According to former Prime Minister David Cameron in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2011, Islam has been seen as promoting “un-British” beliefs among young Muslims. But research I recently participated in suggests something quite different.
My colleagues and I explored interpretations and understandings of ‘Britishness’ among visibly observant young Muslims and their perception of the compatibility of Islamic and British lifestyles and values. “Visibly observant” here refers to appearance: face covering or head covering for women (the niqaab, hijab and jilbaab); the traditional robe (jubba) or overshirt and underpants (shalwar kameez), prayer cap (topi kufi) and full beard for men. Through their traditional dress, their Islamic faith is more visible.
Britishness can be interpreted in many ways, and defining Britishness and British values is difficult. But we found that young Muslims’ recognition of their religious attachment developed from a positive identification with Islam, rather than one that opposes Britishness.
These young Muslims not only recognized the British aspects of their identity, but embraced them, reflecting a strong affiliation with Britain rather than a rejection of it. Obviously, this is quite the opposite of media reports which suggest that the traditional clothing of the Islamic world is an identifier either fundamentalist or less integrated views in British society.
As Manchester continues to grieve and come to terms with events, it is inevitable and right that politicians, police, community and faith leaders will discuss responses to extremism.
Prime Minister Theresa May has already declared that she will “drive out extremism” from civil society. It is almost certain that we will see a revitalization of the much-maligned Prevent program, but we have to be careful. As the visible pitfalls of their faith become increasingly politicized, the disproportionate use of security forces and surveillance techniques on young Muslims can potentially alienate an entire generation.