How Britain's Young Muslims Deal with the Media's Portrayal of Islam

Last week, a report revealed that if you're Muslim, you're far more likely to be unemployed than the average Brit. We spoke to some young Muslims about the stories that lead to this kind of marginalization.

by Robert Stevens
Oct 13 2015, 7:00pm

Photo by Triska Hamid

Last week, a report revealed that if you're Muslim, you're half as likely to hold a managerial job than the average Brit, and far more likely to be unemployed. Papers scrambled to decipher why this was the case, offering up a range of reasons, but not too many solutions. Demos, the think-tank behind the report, had a simple one: Introduce legislation that makes it compulsory for large companies to assess anonymous CVs. That way, the thinking goes, employers can't discriminate against applicants with names that sound like they could belong to Muslims.

It's an interesting proposition, but it sidesteps the fact that the right-wing press's relentlessly negative portrayals of Britain's Muslims are perpetuating these prejudices in the first place. At their roots, these stories tend to be hung off the notion that the Muslim community at large has failed to integrate into British society—a notion that simply isn't true.

Dr. Sadek Hamid, a Post-Doctoral Research fellow at Liverpool Hope University who has written widely on Britain's Muslim youth, spoke to me about this issue. "Muslims are fully integrated in this country and have been for decades," he said. "Yet, there's still an ongoing debate that Muslims aren't fully British. What more do they have to prove?"

Maariyah, 19, a student in London, says she noticed a difference two years ago after she started wearing a headscarf. "I was so new to it, and when people would be rude to me, I would break down. I'd get really upset because I couldn't understand why this was happening to me," she said. "I didn't know how to react. I would be like, 'I'm sorry.' I would apologize for doing nothing wrong, and I would start crying. When I'm out, it's always an issue. When ISIS was on the rise and I'd be on the train to university, people would move away from me. I've been walking down the road with my friends and people have stopped their cars to spit at us. It's really disgusting: We've been called terrorists and told to get out the country. We haven't done anything."

Understandably, most people I spoke to feel far removed from the right-wing media's portrayal of Islam. YouTuber Hussain Manawer, for instance, rarely feels that the Muslims in the media represent his views. "Never has one person said, 'Yo, I've got this crazy idea: let's blow up this building.' When I see those kinds of things on the news, I'm sort of confused—like, where do they get these guys from?" he told me. "I'm faced with so many misconceptions—apparently [Muslims] don't wash their bums. I see a lot of issues raised in the name of Islam, but rarely is the voice of the 'moderate' Muslim ever really presented."

"Radicalization is an insignificant problem for Britain's Muslim youth," said a frustrated Dr. Hamid. "You know what's a bigger problem? Drugs. But communities are too embarrassed to talk about this."

This makes some sense—with Muslims feeling increasingly scrutinized for their actions, many feel the pressure to be "good Muslims" in the public eye. "Every little thing we do, we do as a Muslim," said student Maariyah. "Because of our headscarves, we are 100 percent Muslim—there's no doubt about it."

The pressure to be a "good Muslim" may also have something to do with parental pressures. "Our parents grew up in a world where Islam was normal," said Awab Elniel, the chair of Loughborough University's Islamic society. "They've seen the rise in Islamophobia and are more cautious of their children. They want us to 'blur' our religion, and often they can be incredibly protective."

By contrast, the current generation of young Muslims grew up in a community made to feel marginalized by the media. Because of this, many feel much more conscious of their faith and realize they have to be knowledgeable in order to defend it. "Islamophobia made me want to research my faith further," said Elniel. "And the more educated you are, the more confident you are in your beliefs."

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Interestingly, particularly in light of last week's Demos report, none of those I spoke to said their faith feels like a significant barrier to living their lives. Elniel thought it was fairly easy to live in Britain as a Muslim and never felt anything less than British. "It's the media who really think it's problematic," he told me.

"Being a Muslim sits alongside whatever I do," said 29-year-old Ahmed Hussain, a producer for BBC radio. "My religion fits into my day and my day fits into my religion. I don't kick up a fuss about it and I don't need to. Islam is about moderation, and if you want to practice it and make it part of your life, it will happen. I think that segregation exists if you make it exist. You can go and live wherever you want. You can be a Muslim or not. You can choose to believe that the reason why you won't live in a certain area is because of the people that already live there. But then it's only you and your mind-set to blame for saying that we are all segregated.

"If I have to go to a bar for a work event or birthday—yes, I'll be there, but I don't drink. But that doesn't mean that anyone else has to make an issue of it. I have chosen to be there and it won't make me more or less British if I go or not. Does being British mean you're welcoming of everyone, no matter what they believe or practice? Does it mean being nice to your neighbor? Because if it does, then I'm as British as Tom, Dick, or Harry."