The Truth about Muslim Identity
At a recent Christian Muslim Forum event held in Westminster Abbey, I spoke about identity, what it means to me as a British Muslim and the variations between genders. I am a strong believer in each individual finding their own identity – this is part of growing up and one of the biggest challenges that young people face: the challenge of navigating their way through teenage years to develop and form their own sense of self, whilst negotiating with those around them.
For young Muslims in the UK, this journey is fraught with obstacles and barriers to forming a healthy and confident sense of themselves. Ideally the identity formation of a young person results in a young adult who feels at ease with who they are, and their place in society.
Thinking about identity prompted me to remember my own personal journey. When I was around seventeen years old, I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of who I was. I would often have superficial debates with friends about whether I preferred Oasis or Blur, and what that meant about who I was. Whilst internally I would be grappling with whether I should say I was Indian, East African (my parental heritage), or British, when asked where I came from, when actually all I felt was English. Incidentally, in the end I went with Oasis – they were more “real” and I liked the things Noel Gallagher would say about life (thankfully I’ve moved on now). I thought it was deep, whereas Blur and Damon Albarn just seemed too artificial. Anyhow, my seventeen year old self also decided that I was simply British. It was the safest thing to say, since at that time I did not know of any individuals from an ethnic minority group who called themselves English. This however also made me feel anger. Anger that maybe I was not perceived to be on the same footing as my English friends, just because I didn’t have the correct skin colour, and I adhered to a different faith. Despite the fact that I was born in the UK and had no affiliation or ties to any other country.
Growing in life experience, attending university, completing an MSc in Mental Health Studies, and capitalising on the subsequent opportunities, empowered me to become settled in who I was, providing me with confidence to be able to deal with questions about my faith, background and values.
Later, as an adult, I found that for my young children the answer to where they came from was much simpler:
“Mum we’re English. We speak English, we were born in England, we do English things, how can we be anything else?”
These were the wise words of my four and five year old daughters. I’m pleased that for now life is that simple for them. Hopefully they will not have to spend their teen years wrangling over this issue. However, I am also acutely aware that anti-Muslim prejudice is one of the biggest challenges our society is currently facing, along with the implicit sexism within most of our structures.
When a young person is developing their identity – the most critical years of their lives – they should not have to face constant challenges. Challenges which undermine fundamentally who they are; about whether they are British or not, or if their faith is compatible with British way of life. Unfortunately, for many young British Muslims, this is a daily occurrence. At any given time they receive a barrage of negative media, with public personalities debating what Muslim women should or should not wear, to describing Islam (and thus its followers) as inherently evil and trying to take over the country. Most worrying are the growing number of anti-Muslim hatred attacks on the street. This scrutiny has a negative impact on an individual’s identity formation. Young people are more likely to suffer from a lack of confidence and self-esteem, finding it harder to feel accepted and part of wider civil society. And in turn if they are not understood or accepted by society, why should they then contribute towards it in a positive way? Despite these barriers, the majority of young British Muslims feel British, and contribute enormously to their communities, and wider civil society. But perhaps this sense of being socially excluded is compounded when faced with lack of opportunities in education, employment, as well as a lack of access to good health provision?
Confident identities can only come from good psychological well being, which can be achieved through support, friendship and opportunities. Feeling like you are a part of, and accepted by wider society, is also crucial to this. I was fortunate to have access to both opportunities and support. Thus when I am faced with sometimes uncomfortable or abusive challenges about my identity, I am able to negotiate and engage with these. In turn, this can be incredibly powerful and transformative. However, for most, these challenges are a source of anxiety, causing them to retreat into themselves and their communities.
When we look at the genders, we see there are differences. On the whole Muslim men in the UK, have poorer outcomes compared to Muslim women across, education, employment, crime and social mobility. The genders are taking distinct and different journeys in their separate identities. The barriers described earlier are feeding into this trend.
There are also obstacles within the Muslim communities. I feel strongly that British Muslims need to cultivate their own identity in which they are confident and secure, one that enables them to integrate into wider civil society freely and plurally. This will engender confidence when faced with criticisms on Islam and their beliefs. In order to achieve this, Muslim communities need to create and build infrastructure within, that is inclusive as well representative, for Muslims and local communities, in particular young people and women. This will facilitate a cohesive and confident identity through education, support, nurture, social bonding and capital, but does not necessarily mean all Muslims have to agree on everything or have “one” voice.
Yet we find that the facilities for women in mosques are imbalanced in favour of men. If there are separate sections for women, often basic amenities such as baby changing and feeding rooms are non-existent, but mostly women can expect either dire provision or in some circumstances exclusion, with no facilities at all. Most committees or governing bodies of mainstream Muslim organisations and mosques, still lack meaningful representation or engagement of women at every organisational layer. The implicit gender inequality within Muslim communities is sometimes so embedded that blatant misogyny is unrecognised and often attributed to being the fault of the women themselves.
The truth about Muslim identity is that it is complex, with barriers originating from both within the Muslim communities and externally. However these can be overcome if we remember that integration is a two way relationship. Then it is clear that in essence any future Muslim identity is dependent on how the majority of society view British Muslims, and their faith. Thus, it is vitally important to not only build internally within Muslim communities but to also overcome discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion that many British Muslims face.