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Femyso conference: The role of religion in Europe

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Last week, I participated in the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations conference which brought together 100 active Muslim youth from across Europe to discuss the key issues and challenges facing all of us in Europe and to exchange ideas and experiences and cooperate more closely. My contribution is below:

1. OPENING SESSION, Thursday 30th, 9:30 – 11am

My opening statement:

European Muslim Youth often face a multiplicity of challenges which tend to get boiled down to simplistic issues of identity politics in a political climate ill-equipped to deal with the more substantial and substantive issues facing Europe more generally. As Greece teeters on the edge of the abyss, stubbornly high unemployment is plaguing France and in the UK, we can’t seem to shake a stagnant economy – at the same time, unions are calling for strikes, student fees are hitting the roof as are food prices and of course, the only thing politicians seem to be able to agree on in this time of heightened emotion, is that “Muslims” are a problem.
This singling out of the “Muslim” component of one’s identity can often lead to an internalisation of that prognosis, so that in response to riots in France over primarily issues of economic and social marginalisation, a leading French imam issues a fatwa denouncing the violence as “unislamic”. The fact of the matter is, much of what is attributed to Muslims as “Muslims”, by which I mean referencing their religious identity, is often a misattribution. The vast majority of problems faced by European Muslims are faced by other sections of European society, be they issues related to employment, racism, sexism, poverty… and a central challenge, as I see it, is for Muslims not to allow ourselves to be defined in narrow terms and not to define the struggles we face in narrow and exclusionary terms. For every case of so-call Muslim exceptionalism, there is usually a significant universal principle in need of defending. To take a case very close to my heart, in my native country of France – While much of the discussion over headscarves and Burkas has been presented in what I term “exceptionalist” terminology – “those Muslims, at it again, making unreasonable demands”- what is really at stake in that discussion, is a broadening of the French definition of femininity – What does it mean to be an autonomous woman in France? What does it mean to have rights over my own body? Not to be judged for the length of my skirt or the amount of skin I’m showing…or not. And of course, this example, of the attire of French Muslim women, which is in essence a feminist struggle for a woman’s right to choose her own definition of femininity, feeds into another even more universal principle, the right to self-determination, the right to make choices about one’s self, for one’s self, unfettered by the state or anyone else. In France this discussion should and has to some extent been tied into the question of national identity and Muslims mustn’t shy away from this discussion. Europe is home, European countries are our countries and we have a stake and a say in the painful process an aging Europe is engaged in, as it attempts to define its identity in a global village, where those Europe ruled over yesterday have spawned Europe’s dynamism, its youth, who question the very values which spawned European imperialism and which are used to justify today, a two-tier system within Europe.
The crux of the issue for many European Muslims is how do we live out our faith in countries where there may be widespread suspicion if not hostility to it. Of central importance will be a thorough identification with one’s country, not necessarily an easy process when people’s responses to us may be hostile – Being European means understanding our history, our culture, and navigating our values confidently, selectively, in order to best determine how, in our context, we enjoin the good and forbid evil. The answers are unlikely to be uniform across our differing contexts, and that itself will reflect the country specific trajectories which must define how we map out our contribution to the bettering of our society, for all its members. Being true to our faith, means staying true to its values, wherever they may come from and denouncing those it opposes, wherever those may come from.
In a way, we face a double challenge, within our community, to move beyond culturally specific practises which muddy the reputation of our faith and which foster and engender oppression, and distinguishing the broad and rich Islamic ethics, often narrowed by their country or at times even region specific understandings, so that they can be applied to improving not just our community in the restrictive sense, but our society and our global village. Ultimately, being a European Muslims isn’t about forgetting one’s ancestry, nor is it about denying Europe’s historical or more recent wrongs, it is about taking the universal ethics of Islam, and as fully engaged citizens, using those to make the world a better place.

2. SESSION 2: MUSLIM YOUTH: WHAT FUTURE IN EUROPE? Thursday 30th, 11:30am – 1pm

– Is there such a thing as European Islam?

It seems un-doubtable to me that the way, we as European Muslims conceive of our faith, is distinct and reflecting of our environment. Many friends of non-European ancestry have commented to me the extent to which they understanding of Islam, their practise is remarked upon and at times even derided when they visit the country of their origins. From the way they may dress, to what they consider important or central in the faith, when we travel abroad, we tend to realise just how “European” we are and this, has a necessary impact on our understanding of the religion. Of course, we share an inviolable core, the essentials, the foundations – but in our concerns, our activism, we are and rightly so, shaped by our environment. This can be both positive or negative obviously – it can be negative when we internalise a politicised view of ourselves and forget that at its core, Islam is a spiritual program for personal development – once we master ourselves we move out from there, but we always look at ourselves first when there is a problem, when we are irked, when we face hostility – the first place we should be looking for answers are within ourselves – are we living up to our ideals. There is clearly a rich tradition of this in Islam, from making 70 excuses for people to Quranic ayas where Allah tells us he won’t change the situation of a people until we change ourselves.
In our priorities, it seems clear to me that the concerns of the European Muslim community reflects our place in the “first world” – we are not lobbying for clean water, basic human rights or the right to a free press – our problems, whilst not seeking to discount their importance, should never allow us to feel defeated or negative, because frankly, in the grand scheme of things, our priorities as European Muslims reflect first world problems, not the most basic struggle for human dignity which the vast majority of the world continues to struggle for today.

So the priorities for European Islam in terms of our campaigns will reflect the broader concerns of a first world nation.
The recent movement towards ecology is in some regard, a reflection of a growing realisation in the first world, that we can’t keep exploiting natural resources and not pay some kind of serious consequence for that. Those in the third world, despite often being those most affected by the impact of ecological degradation, don’t necessarily understand, due to lack of education primarily, the frustration some of us may feel at how people dispose of their rubbish, or deal with the delicate balance of life – or treat animals…but Muslims have been increasingly present on the eco front, from a Muslim presence at the climate change camp, to emel’s “Eco Jihad” front cover – many European Muslims now conceive of environmental struggles as an integral part of responsibility, as Muslims, to be vicergents of God on this earth…to some extent, it seems obvious to me that the distance between what are clear ethical ideals in this realm and the action of some Muslims reflects just how unbalanced we are – even our basic relationship to the land, to the environment is off balance…not to mention our relationships to one another…

Those who dispute the existence or the relevance even of “European” Islam often like to state that there is only one Islam – of course there is – but let’s not be blind to the particular cultural manifestations of Islam in different settings, from dress codes, to architecture, gender relations and political systems. It seems clear to me that the reason a young woman might choose to wear a niqab in France will differ from the reason given by a woman in Pakistan.

– What do you think should be the priorities of European Muslim youth organisations?

The central priority in my view ought to be overcoming the victim mentality and forging confident, educated young people able to articulate the contribution Muslims can make to improving the world around them.
Determining what Islam has to offer young people is a real challenge when those minds are oversaturated by a constant stream of messages suggesting happiness and fulfilment can be achieved through the material, that our worth as human beings is dependent on our capital, financial capital for men and primarily physical capital for women and that religion is a hindrance to the achievement of the only thing that is scientifically knowable, that is the ephemeral pleasures of this temporal life. It’s important we offer young people – all young people- an alternative to the dominant model of success, one which offers real meaning, substance, a stake in defining themselves and the world around them and empowering them to recognise that Islam offers a paradigm for human fulfilment that is more meaningful, more ethical and more rewarding…

In the marketplace of ideas and ideals, in which we’re competing against the Miley Cyruses and Fifty-cent models, human embodiments of capitalism and materialism, we must align us ourselves with the alternative world order – the one in which profits don’t supersede human dignity, in which we raise our daughters to care more about those going hungry than going hungry themselves so they can’t fit some pseudo-physical ideal –where our boys are valued not on their salaries but on their contribution to helping the poor.
We need to find ways of better communicating Islamic education – there have been vast strides in educating the young – by which I mean we’ve realised that rote learning with a stick is less successful than praise or reward based methods, but I still think we can improve vastly on our teaching methods – we need to capitalise on new media to use the media to access people with the ease of film, TV, art – books are great, but they don’t reach anything like the audience of a blockbuster – we need more young people, solidly grounded in their faith, entering the media, so that we might start producing cultural output reflecting the beauty and richness of our faith – but without necessarily shoving it down people’s throats… I want to see Muslims making blockbuster films, putting on astounding plays and producing music hits which resonate with the youth – we need to be confident enough in what we have, to draw on that and package it to make it more accessible. Contributing to our culture, European culture, means publishing novels which contribute to enriching that culture, which enter into national dialogue, it means producing films which speak to the sensibility and cultural core of each of our countries, while infusing our work with the spiritual message which is a universal language which need not be named to be recognised.
We need to address the problems within our community and not leave other organisations to deal with them – we need to be true to the saying of the Prophet (saw) when he said help your brother whether he is the oppressor or oppressed – when Muslims are behaving badly, not only should we not side with them, by virtue of them being Muslims, but we should actively work to restore the ethical ideals of the faith, educating along the way to ensure coming generations don’t have to go through some of the same oppressive cultural practises disguised as Islam, we see today.

But we also need to contribute confidently to bettering our community with a big C – Homelessness, domestic violence, the aged, youth work, animal shelters – Europe has many problems and very few volunteers – in fact, far far fewer than are needed to cover our needs. Muslims can draw on our immense capital for charity and community activism, to become invaluable members of our society – and many are already doing great work in this arena. The bonus is that community work often puts us face to face with people who might otherwise have limited contact with Muslims…allowing us to break down barriers of fear or misunderstanding.

- Do Muslim youth have enough role models?

The short answer is no – but someone I myself consider a role model once said to me you shouldn’t sit around waiting for one – be the role model you wish was out there! So yes, we do need more role models and we especially appear to need more female role models – I often play a game when I see a Muslim event, by trying to guess how many female speakers they’ll have – I rarely need more than one hand to count on – sometimes I don’t need a hand at all!

- Are we, as a Muslim community, failing our youth?

Definitely – we may even be failing our community more broadly – when I go to university campuses and I get asked by a young woman studying law whether once she is married she is allowed to work or visit her mother without her husband’s permission – there is a serious problem. When I see young girls in headscarves wearing more makeup than a Maybelline model and holding hands with a boyfriend, I know there is a serious problem. When I watch so-called Islamic channels and the youth programs on them, which frankly my 8y daughter finds laughable – there is a problem – I can’t even find a good Quran stories series for my kids – the stories are either badly written or so simplistic, the essence is lost – and yet I grew up reading marvellous Bible stories, which brought alive the prophets and made me identify with their struggles – I have yet to see anything close to equivalent in the literature available to Muslim youths. To some extent, this also reveals the low standards within our community – when we laugh off “Muslim time” or “Muslim organisation” we are becoming complacent with the standards we really ought to be setting in our community. When we host events, for the youth or not, people shouldn’t have to premise their response with “for a Muslim event, (….it wasn’t bad)” – what does that say about what we really understand “Muslim” to mean…

Finally, unless we start to associate Islam with fun for our youth, not dry rules and limitations – I know, controversial – but until then, we’ll keep losing people. Studies suggest children learn best when they are playing – Where are our summer camps where kids can learn to canoe, rock climb, ski or windsurf and enjoy Quranic stories around the campfire in the evening? I know a few, very few organisations, do organise such things, but this is where the future lies, in not secularising our faith to a Saturday morning madrassa, but making it a lived experience, where Quranic learning is intertwined with fond memories of roasted marshmallows and midnight dips.

- Do Muslim mainstream organisations meet the needs of Muslim youth? Do we need a new model away from the older generation?

A few mainstream organisations do seem to be making the very painful leap into giving young people the leeway they need to devise events and activities suited to their needs. But because Muslims don’t trust themselves, and lack confidence in their outlook, they don’t trust their youth and therefore tend to keep a fairly tight leash and firm – some might call meddling hand – in youth activities. Some of the elder generation are still debating whether we can listen to music, maybe with drums – while our kids are humming lady Gaga and Rihanna. FACT. Segregated venues, dry lectures, absence of women, a lack of pedagogical training – all reflects the generally fairly poor efforts made to engage our youth who, overarchingly attend mixed schools, where they listen to engaging singers, rappers, actors addressing them using the latest medium based on solid studies of what young people want to see and hear. FACT.

- What is our relationship as European Muslim youth to the rest of the ummah?

The umma or the worldwide Muslim community is our family – that is to say, if you heard a family member was in need, presumably you would leap to their help. Similarly, we are not lacking in causes, from water sanitation, to basic medical care, to education, political rights, human rights more generally – Muslim youths should be engaged in all of this and more. But to be exclusively interested in your family is selfish and at odds with Islamic ethics – Sayidna Ali (mAbph) said a person is either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity – there are many of our equals in humanity also in dire dire need of a voice. European Muslims are in a privileged position through our access to positions and persons of power, through the innumerable rights we benefit from in our countries, from the voice we can have in the public sphere without fear of repression, persecution or even death – that is a privilege in this world – we are part of a small privileged minority with a voice and it is our responsibility to use that voice, to be the voice of the voiceless, the call for help for those unable to make themselves heard, Muslim or not.

Written by myriamcerrah

July 4, 2011 at 15:01

emel: The Green revolution

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Written by myriamcerrah

June 17, 2009 at 22:33

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