Muslimah LTD conference: Muslim youth, Muslim students: The reality, the responsibility
A short speech I delivered at the Muslimah Ltd conference in London on November 30th 2011.
Muslim Youth, Muslim Students – The Reality, The Responsibility
I’m here to talk to you about my experience of working with students on campuses across the UK. There are over 100 000 muslim students going through university at the moment – I’ve been in what I consider the privileged position of both being part of an active isoc for the first three years of my PhD at Oxford, but also a ‘public speaker’ who gets to visit campuses up and down the country speaking to students about the issues of concern to them. In my short time, I’ll aim to convey a snapshot of some of the issues, positive and negative which I’ve encountered on British university campuses.
Student Islamic societies have been getting a fairly bad rep in the press lately. From allegations of fostering extremism, to hotbeds of radicalisation, through to controversial speakers – many Muslim students are actually wary of joining their Islamic society (isoc) due to some of the fear mongering which we’ve heard. And in my view, that is a real shame. Over the last 5 years, which is in effect a very short amount of time, I’ve seen pretty significant improvements in British isocs – or certainly those I’ve visited. And it is worth making the point that those who know me and my views may not choose to invite me to the isocs where such perspectives are not welcome – i’m aware such places do exist.
I love working with students and I say working because public speaking for me is at its best an interactive process in which I can hope to convey the tiny knowledge I have to impart, and the students can share concerns and queries which we seek to tackle together. Young people are great – they’re vibrant, enthusiastic, energetic and brimming with ideas – they’re also young, inexperienced, and often naïve. As goes with youth – and mine being not that long ago I do still recall – they can also be intransigent, overly self-assured and convinced they know it all. With a decade on most of them, they greet my predication that the reality they currently often perceive in black in white, will with time morph into varying shades of grey – with raised eyebrows. So I hope in their assessment we can bear in mind that isocs are, like all student organisations, run by tired, stressed teenagers on essay deadlines, and their errors are more often than not the product of shambolic organisation rather than malevolent intent.
Today we’re looking at “integration, identity, social unrest and division” – those who know me know I’m allergic to the word integration as applied to individuals born and raised in this country, so let’s talk about civic responsibility instead – how do isocs fare in terms of inculcating a sense of citizenship and its attendant responsibility?
The topic of voting and whether it is permissible from an Islamic perspective was a fairly hotly debated topic not that long ago in the Muslim community and yet this to me is one example of significant progress, whereby many isocs host MPs or media figures who encourage political participation in all guises. This isn’t to say the issue is resolved – but it seems a far more marginal view nowadays that voting is proscribed and enthusiasm, interest and participating in politics, from the NUS through to campus political associations seems to be much more significant. This is partly fuelled by a feeling that Muslims must address what they view as unjust wars or occupations through the means available to them and in this, I see broad coalitions across campuses with isocs joining forces with anti war groups and human rights organisations to raise awareness of such issues. But it is also the product of efforts by isocs and fosis and various speakers to encourage political participation and it is working! Osman Ali is now the first Muslim vice-president of the NUS and he started in his isoc. Furqan Naeem, a pharmacy student from Bradford university, is now the chair of Manchester Young labour. Rehana ali is the Vice president of Student Education and Welfare at LSE Student union.
Most isocs also run a charity week in which they raise funds throughout the week for charitable causes, in some cases, running in the 10 000s of pounds, a huge achievement for a student organisation! Many run soup trains for the homeless and mentoring schemes and the focus is on giving back to the community and fostering a sense of service.
They also all run Islam awareness weeks in which they seek to inform fellow students about their religion, dispel misconceptions and provide a forum for discussion. One university had a stand entitled “ask us anything” which encouraged fellow students to share their views and concerns. Another had a try a hijab stall – and during Ramadan many host joint fasting events with other students who wish to try fasting or are doing so alongside Muslim students to raise money for charity.
I’ve also seen positive developments in the realm of interfaith at Oxford , a Muslim-Jewish organisation “MuJew” was created as a shared platform for cooperation. Nottingham isoc is currently looking in talks with the Jewish-Israeli society.
Some have had such a positive impact on their university campus, like Manchester uni isoc, that they’ve been awarded the best society across the whole university – a prize which recognises the immense dedication and contribution of Muslim students to their campus.
Are there conservative Muslim speakers espousing views that many of us may find distasteful – sure – there are – but as Muslim students broaden their horizons, they tend to come to that same conclusion. The other issue to bear in mind is that students are often contrarian by nature – they are rebelling, against society, against norms, against boundaries and my experience here again is that by their third year they’ve mellowed out a bit. They’re less drawn to the controversy, most desirous of forging links, cooperating, building.
Some of the issues are undeniably due to budget. Which speakers can afford to work for free? Typically those working for organisations which fund their public speaking – and where the funding comes from is usually indicative of the outlook they’ll be propagating… and the main issue is the outlook they disseminate is not always inclusive, can be discriminatory and exclusivist, perhaps even supremacist and often misogynistic. So much so, that I sometimes get asked if I mind addressing a mixed crowd during my lectures…
There have also been significant efforts by Fosis in particular to address the radicalisation issue, specifically through hosting an event which encouraged policy makers, the police and students to come together to discuss issues of concern. They also encourage communication with university authorities, such as regular meetings with the Chancellors.
This will not eliminate the presence of radical students on campuses – but to some extent, universities are places where radical thoughts are explored and as long as the law is not infringed, one would hope to see freedom of speech upheld. This of course runs counter to what was outlined in the Prevent agenda, namely the government’s position that there are certain religious or theological beliefs which are incompatible with the values on which this country depends; and this is true even if they are compatible with the law. But it seems to me absurd to suggest that everyone in Britain apart from the “non-integrated” Muslim Radical are committed to women’s rights or democracy – as far as I’m aware the Daily Mail is still running and anarchists have yet to be deported!
And my experience again tells me that students are keen to explore sensitive issues and get answers – many talks are intended for a mixed muslim, non-muslim audience and seek to appease fears over islam’s relationship to violence or its stance on women’s rights. In this, they seek reassurance from speakers who can help alleviate both theirs and other people’s concerns.
Women’s participation in isocs have been a delicate issue but is another area where I see vast improvements. Most isocs have two vice-presidents, one of whom is a woman. Salford university’s isoc president was a woman. UE isoc also had a female isoc president. Which of course is not to say there aren’t problems. Some isocs don’t offer an atmosphere conducive to female participation – a strict stance on keeping men and women separate at all times can make communication difficult. The best isocs strike a balance between cooperation on isoc related themes and doing their best to avoid becoming a dating agency. Remember, it is hormonal teenagers away from home, most for the first time, we are talking about here. The reality is that efforts to avoid young people developing too close bonds can lead to the isolation of female muslim students in these isocs, and this should be addressed.
There is still to my mind, a significant lack of female speakers – some isocs only invite female speakers to speak on “women’s issues” – but in my experience, once I point this out – they tend to ask for referrals of other female speakers (a rare breed) who could speak on a diversity of topics. So I do think openness to this issue has significantly improved in a fairly short space of time. There are still significant issues, particularly as concerns a narrow vision of women’s role and place in society, the idea that a woman is either a mother or a wife and a sense her place is ideally within the home. Young women themselves sometimes seem confused about whether they should be vocal or active, confusing the notion of “haya”, modesty, with a mandatory shyness which impedes them from speaking up. I’ve been asked by a young woman studying law whether she would be allowed to work after she was married…another asked if she could leave the house without her husband’s permission. And there is a sense of entitlement amongst many young men as regards what they think women owe them (their laundry, 3 square meals, cleaning, not to mention ‘obedience’) which certainly needs to be talked head on. There is a real thirst for female role models and reassurances that women in the public sphere are not an exotic aberration but a real reflection of Islamic principles.
A recent development has been a greater interest in the arts, which I think shows a significant interest in contributing to our national tapestry – I’m aware that our Isoc at Oxford is for example planning a play which was written by the muslim students featuring both male and female muslim students. Fosis held an art competition last year which received over 200 entries! And I can’t recall how many muslim students have mentioned an interest in film… to me this is another very positive development, opening onto different mediums and a desire to express a positive aspect of their person rather than defensive posturing which it seems a lot of politics can be about. These students want to highlight the beauty of their religion and religious outlook and focus on the positive and to me this is very heartening.
I think you’ve gathered by now that overall I’m very positive about what I see on British campuses – is it perfect? Certainly not. Do I get frustrated when I hear about some of the antics – of course, but I’m reassured by the knowledge that broadly speaking, most people mellow out with age ( which is actually a variable in criminology). A recent report by Demos found that “Overall British Muslims are more likely to be both patriotic and optimistic about Britain than are the white British community,” and this is born out by my experience and time on British campuses.
Thanks for listening!