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Engaging Muslim Youth

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Discovering what young Muslims in London really think about their home, roots and religion

"If they ask me what is your ethnicity, I say I am from Somalia and I am a Muslim - but if they say where are you from, I say from London." – Young female participant

When Louise Ryan and her team talked to 37 Muslim youths in the London borough of Barnet about their sense of identity, the majority had ambiguous feelings about "being British". What emerged from their study was a much more nuanced picture.

Many of the participants had arrived in Britain as small children during the 1990s, sometimes fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan or Somalia. They felt a strong affinity for Barnet and London as a whole, seeing it as a place of opportunity. "London is almost greater than the sum of its parts," says Ryan, who is Professor of Sociology at Middlesex. "London is like a state of mind." But it was often when they revisited the countries where they or their parents were born that a sense of what it was to be British emerged: the freedom to criticise the government, talk freely to the opposite sex, travel around the world.

The Muslim Youth in Barnet report was published in 2009. It was part of a four-year partnership between Middlesex University's Social Policy Research Centre and the London borough - an unusually long timescale for such research projects, reflecting the ambitions of the national PREVENT strategy. PREVENT was set up after the July 7 bombings in 2005 in an effort to divert young Muslims away from extremism.

Barnet, which has a large and diverse Muslim population, used the PREVENT funding in "quite innovative and imaginative ways" which were not explicitly anti-terrorism projects, says Prof Ryan. The aim was to establish groups that could articulate the needs and concerns of the community. The SPRC had already carried out a quantitative study for the Barnet Muslim Partnership Board. Ryan and her team were subsequently asked to organize interviews and focus groups to discuss young Muslims' sense of identity, citizenship and belonging.

The participants felt strongly that they belonged to a global community of Muslims. As you would expect in a survey of any young people, their views were occasionally contradictory, and "sometimes a bit ill-informed in terms of how they perceived Muslims around the world," says Ryan. Some saw Muslims as victims of western aggression even when a conflict was between Sunni and Shia. "These are teenagers," she says. "I'm convinced that if I went back to these people now, some of their views may have developed or changed." They were overwhelmingly intolerant of extremism (which was deemed "un-Islamic"), though a few said they could imagine why some people might become radicalized. The 'war on terror' was widely regarded as a war on Muslims.

The hijab aroused differences of opinion, with the girls resenting boys' judgments about them based on whether they wore it. Even in different parts of London, they were aware of how reactions differed: "In some neighbourhoods it warranted respect, while in other parts of the city it attracted suspicion and harassment, " says the report. But they felt that the UK media didn't reflect the diversity of the capital, and believed it portrayed Muslims in a negative light: the women, for instance, wanted to stress that wearing a hijab was their personal choice.

While there is nothing local government can do about young Muslims' grievances about the war on terror, the study has proved very useful in Barnet's efforts to prevent the emergence of grassroots extremism in the borough - which are regarded as a model of good practice in local government. Even as the government has switched its emphasis away from PREVENT and towards securitisation, the findings remain pertinent. "I don't think views have changed that much," says Ryan. "There is still a strong sense of suspicion against Muslims which in turn reinforces a sort of victim mentality among some Muslims. The challenge for us all is to ensure that not everything is simply regarded through a religious lens."

Jill Stansfield, Barnet's former executive director for communities, agreed. In her foreword to the report, she described it as a "powerful reminder to influential adults about the importance of remembering that while it is often convenient to group people together on the basis of a perceived shared common understanding, the reason why people feel positive about their locality is that is allows their individuality and vibrancy to flourish. These recommendations will feed directly into the Barnet Muslim Partnership Board as it matures."

Prof Ryan and her team followed up the reports with a third on Muslim women in Barnet, which made a number of practical recommendations for how the borough could improve their working and family lives. 

View Louise Ryan's full profile

Read an executive summary of the Muslim Youth in Barnet and Muslim Women reports

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