Growing up as a Muslim in this country means facing a unique combination of challenges. The Muslim identity is often seen in a negative light, thanks to the actions of extremists and a perception that Muslims isolate themselves from wider society.
The political system under the Conservative-led coalition has so far failed to provide answers to what they see as Islamic extremism while also failing to define the boundaries of toleration. David Cameron has likened Islamic extremism to a hostile force that must be constrained by ‘muscular liberalism’. Meanwhile Michael Gove MP speaks of the need to “drain the swamp” when dealing with the threat of Islamic extremism in schools and communities. In a nutshell, the current government has merely reinforced the narrative that Muslims are the ‘other’ and should be feared.
It is up to the political system to re-engage young Muslims and change the nature of political discourse. In the long-term, this means tackling narratives that demonise Muslims in favour of those that emphasise inclusiveness and shared civic values. Communication will play a key part throughout these efforts. This is especially important in tackling political apathy among young Muslims, 70% of whom stay away from the polling booth come election day.
Failing to equip the next generation with the principles of tolerance and mutual respect will merely sow the seeds for future division and isolation. The ideal goal would be for young people to be comfortable with the Muslim identity as one of many in a society characterised by fluid and diverse identities. Unfortunately, hostilities have escalated to a point where this goal cannot be achieved by simply installing Muslims in high-profile political offices or through other forms of tokenism.
In practical policy terms, the next government should adopt a multifaceted approach. Education policy should provide the strong foundation for young people to understand and accept the multiple identities they and their peers hold. Beyond the classroom, policies should be devised for the critical ages of development to provide training and work opportunities to young Muslims so as to strengthen their sense of purpose within British society. This can either mean the promotion of role-models to inspire all young people; or helping grassroots projects across different community groups.
The media should also be co-opted into this effort to re-engage young Muslims in the political system. Steps to dampen media hostility towards Muslims would go a long way to encouraging young Muslims to participate in our democratic system. This could be achieved through the creation of a means of measuring the prevalence of certain negative words with Muslim identity, in a similar way to how the Bechdel test uncovers gender bias.
Small, sensible steps like these will help erode the barriers dividing young Muslims from the political system, and hopefully allow more of us to say we are proud to be British Muslims.