Q&A: Young Muslim Advisory Group

Four young British Muslims from the UK’s Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG) visited the Maldives this week to learn about the Maldives and speak about their own experiences growing up as Muslims in a western society. During their visit they met ministers, civil society, school students and numerous community and religious leaders across Male’, Kuludhufushi and Hanimadhoo.

Minivan News spoke to Fahad Khan, YMAG’s chair and a graduate in International Relations from Leeds, Aisha Iqbal, a biochemist with an MSc in toxicology, Saadeya Shamsuddin, a London-based journalist and author, and Waliur Rahman, founder of the Bristol Active Youth Service (BAYS) and Project Manager for the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations (CEMVO).

JJ Robinson: Can you explain what the Young Muslims Advisory Group does, and the purpose of your visit to the Maldives?

Aisha Iqbal: The organisation was set up in 2008 by the previous UK government to engage young Muslims with the government on issues relating to violent extremism, which has now expanded to other issues including Islamic justice, religious and sex education, and foreign policy.

Waliar Rahman: We have a relationship with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – therefore this visit – and we also advise other governments, including the US, Syria, Bangladesh and Algeria.

Fahad Khan: We’re not in the Maldives on behalf of the British government. We are here to promote and express our own views, to explain what it is like being a young Muslim in Britain, what Islam is like in Britain, and what the benefits and challenges are.

JJ: How did the group come about?

Saadeya Shamsuddin: Since the [London bombings] of 7/7, and 9/11, the UK’s government has made a whole range of changes in terms of how it gets in touch with Muslims on the ground. YMAG is part of something they created called ‘Prevent’.

FK: After 7/7 the government released a policy document as part of its wider counter terrorism strategy aimed at preventing violent extremism. At the time it was formed it had a strong focus on al-Qaeda. There was quite a large backlash from Muslims in the UK, down to how the document was worded, and its use of rhetoric they found offensive.

What we want to do is engage with the gov to change the policy and make it more positive. Currently the document is under review, and it is looking more likely that the policy will change to focus on all forms of extremism, such as the current surge of right -wing extremism in the UK. It is trying to challenge ideology in a positive way, and bring extremism into the mainstream so it can be challenged.

WR: [YMAG] is not representative of Muslims. We are not elected. But we are a channel between young Muslims and the government, and we are in a unique position because we can see both the government’s strategy and the thinking at a grassroots level.

AI: We are the first group so have had so much access to cabinet ministers and government. ‘Prevent’ was a very top down policy imposed on Muslim communities, with no prior engagement with Muslim communities, which had settled into different parts of the UK and been left alone – there was no interaction [with government].

It addressed Muslims in a very security-focused way. Our role is to make sure the government understands the need for dialogue and consultation, and not just imposed policies.

JJ: What changed with regards to the treatment of Muslim in the UK following the July 2007 bombings?

FK: I’m from Leeds, where three of the bombers came from. The experience in Leeds was very different and exaggerated compared to other parts o the UK – there was a massive influx of the world’s press wanting to speak to locals about the bombers, wanting to know about them, and asking how extremism had taken root.

A lot people walking down street had a microphone put in front of them. It made the Muslim community in Leeds very uncomfortable, because a lot of those speaking were young people aged 14-15, people without confidence or skill to speak clearly. As a result, the community became very insular and closed off. The spotlight was on them, and they were saying “we don’t want this, it’s not fair.”

Five years later the Muslim community has started to open up, and is willing to talk to people and address the issue.

JJ: How did people’s reactions change to you as Muslims living in Britain?

SS: One of the crucial things was that these were so called ‘home-grown’ terrorists. Prior to 7/7 terrorists from different parts of world had attacked America – but now it was British people attacking their own country.

AI: The whole question of identity and ‘Britishness’ came up. People asking who were you loyal to – to your faith first or to the country?

SS: The government made it an issue. it was never an issue for us.

AI: People on the street would wonder. We had huge debates and people were asked to choose [between their faith and their nationality]. It was really unfair – nobody asked Hindis or Jews. They targeted Muslim communities.

WR: In Bristol a young person was arrested on charges of planning to blow up a shopping centre. He was self-radicalised – there wasn’t a terrorist recruiter involved, which was quite unusual. He was vulnerable, disengaged, and that fed it even more. What was different was that the Muslim community stood up and worked with police to prevent this from happening.

After that the Muslim community formed the Muslim Advisory Network, a single point of contact. Because Muslim communities [in the UK] are under the spotlight, they have had to be more proactive in promoting their faith and putting in safety blankets so it doesn’t happen again.

SS: There was a media storm – it was overwhelming after 9/11 and 7/7. I’m from London and the bus bomb in Tavislock square happened a few meters from my university. There was a climate of fear – I use the tube a lot, and you could really feel the sense of fear.

A few days afterwards I was at Finchley Road station and saw two bearded men giving bags to a policemen with a resigned look. I thought it was so sad it has come to this.

AI: A lot of young people felt targeted. Young boys were so disengaged by police and felt targeted just because they were Muslim. Stop and searches went through the roof, and every time I went to the cinema they would look through my bag. A lot of people were feeling targeted and under suveillance.

In Birmingham, with no community consultation, the authorities put up £3 million worth of number-plate cameras ring-fencing the majority Muslim areas, so that anyone coming in or out would be under surveillance. The community was so angry – before that the counter-terrorism unit had great links with Muslim community, but a separate department funded it with counter-terrorism funding and said it was targeting anti-social behaviour.There was huge debate in the community, and eventually police lobbied for the cameras to be taken down.

JJ: Is there a sense that Muslim communities in the UK do isolate themselves because of this kind of reaction from the authorities?

WR: What happened was that after 7/7 people felt targeted and marginalised, especially young people. They were disaffected an disillusioned, and they felt not done anything wrong, and were being targeted because of their faith. Because of that they became increasingly isolated. One of our roles was to be that channel and identify where this disengagement was happening.

FK: In response to the question, very bluntly – yes, Muslim communities did become very insular, and I think generally speaking if your way of life is under the spotlight you will shut off, and you will only speak to people that have same beliefs as you, the same culture, and understand things the same way. That’s what happened.

WR: Let’s remember – it’s not even a percentage of the population that have these terrorist ideologies. But 100% of the faith was tarred with this brush.

FK: I work closely in schools, and one of the messages I hear is segregation in schools of young Muslim males. But that’s not just the case with Muslims – you see that with other ethnic minorites. In the UK we do not want to become isolated. We don’t want to become divided to the point where communities live in different parts of cities and there is no cultural crossover.

AI: I do think that although the majority of communities have withdrawn from politics, we are seeing a lot more young people engaged in politics and civic engagement. It is more visual now – especially at universities. I became much more active, and the events held were interesting and engaging. There is also lots of investment in leadership skills and empowerment of young Muslims.

JJ: Would you say the situation for Muslims in the UK has improved since 7/7?

WR: When Prevent was introduced, there was a large group of people who would not apply for funding – they would not go near it.

AI: It has taken a long time.

WR: The government does seem not sure where taking the strategy. A minister described it as a “fluid process” – which to to me means they have no idea where it is going.

FK: Mosques are now a lot more engaged with statutory authorities. There are programs to go out and train Imans as community leaders, run workshops in mosques, debate and discuss Islam in a way that young people can get involved in the conversation.

AI: Initially, Muslims felt attack and went on the defensive. But people are breaking from the mold and becoming self-critical, and improving governance in the mosque. Often [mosque] council members stay the same for a long time and it is very hard get the change that is needed, but the fact is that Muslim communities are slowly taking on the challenges rather than burying their heads in the ground.

JJ: What is your impression of Islam in the Maldives?

SS: We’ve been learning. We’ve had a crash course over the last week or so, starting with the Maldives High Commissioner in the UK [Dr Farahanaz Faizal] last week.

AI: Some people here are saying the religion is very similar to the culture, other people said they are seeing new influences of conservative Islam from abroad which is concerning them. We need more time to understand it.

JJ: What are some of the things that have struck you so far?

SS: I’m familiar with the culture and lifestyles of countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and what I really like about the Maldives is the progressive equality of men and women. At all the offices we visited we’ve seen women working alongside men – in many of these other countries women seem few and far between – even the UK has gender imbalance. It is very impressive here – women have freedom to go out, do shopping, and without a chaperone. It was a huge shock, I wasn’t expecting that.

I’m not sure about the economic status of the Maldives, but it’s clean, has nice pavements – and it’s really impressive in terms culture and religion. Even though women are wearing headscarves, they are also out enjoying themselves and being independent.

WR: I think for me it’s been a shock to see the segregation of the tourism and the locals.

AI: It struck me the way people dress here. I thought coming to a Muslim country people might be conservative or there might be a traditional way of dressing, but what I found was that everyone looked Western – skinny jeans and tops. I was really shocked because I thought a conservative country would be covering itself or wearing baggy clothes. But it reminded me a lot of Indonesia and Malaysia, where faith is seen as more internal, and people aren’t judged so much by their image and their exterior.

Even where I’m from in Birmingham, a predominantly Muslim area, you get judged for what you wear. People tend to make judgements on how religious you are by your exterior appearance.

WR: Although there appears to be a rise in that here, judging from the concern of ministers and NGOs.

FK: For me what has been fascinating was to find that divorce for women is not a social taboo. In the UK, particularly for Muslim women, divorce probably means she will find it very difficult to get married again – she is seen as tainted. Whereas over here a divorced woman is not looked at as any less than a single woman.

AI: The High Commissioner told us a very funny joke about it when we were in London: “A tourist comes to the beach and sees a very pretty Maldivian girl. He wants to know who she is so he goes up to three guys and asks them.

The first guy says, ‘She’s my ex-wife.’ The tourist is very embarrassed by this, and says sorry. The guy next to him says ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, she’s my wife.’ The tourist is now really apologising. Then the third guy says, ‘Don’t worry, she’s my future wife.’” And that’s how relaxed marriage is. We were really shocked.

FK: We find this fascinating, because divorce is talked about a lot in Islam – scholars say you should avoid it.

JJ: Some Maldivians who travel overseas meet a lot of criticism back home from people who say they have been exposed to corrupting, decadent Western influences, and that these make you less Islamic, less Muslim than those who live in a 100 percent Muslim society. As young Muslims living in the West, what is your reaction to that?

SS: We visited a school and spoke to a class of 25 teenagers. We asked them to describe what they thought our experiences in the UK were. A lot of answers were quite conflicted: “tough”, “difficult”. We gave our own experiences, and I can understand why Maldivians might have this myth of British Muslim youth being corrupted.

It couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, because we’re not a 100 percent Muslim country, because we have such a diverse mixture of colours, cultures and races, especially in London, it is a good test of your faith. You have freedom to choose, freedom to wear the headscarf, freedom to fast, freedom to pray five times a day.

Aisha’s family in Pakistan is always asking her: “you must have boyfriends – how many boyfriends do you have?” Then they come over and see the way we live, that we are far more conservative than they are, in terms of what we want to do and don’t want to do. I think it is a complete myth.

AI: I think it is true to some degree that external appearance shows that someone is more religious. But religiousity is different everyone. I’ve seen people who follow a very spiritual Islam, and for them it is about making sure their character is correct. Culture also influences you – when I first went to university nobody wore the hijab. I was one of the few to wear it, but wearing it has become a trend. People wear it in a funky way, and it’s also an identity thing. It can be very trendy.

SS: That said – there are definitely corrupt Muslims in the UK, maybe as much as in the Maldives – but no one’s watching them. Of course we have option of drinking alcohol when our parents aren’t looking, or to go out with friends to nightclubs, or have boyfriends. But it’s a very strong test of your faith to set your boundries yourself.

Because Islam is such a diverse religion, with different thoughts and cultural influences, it’s such a generalisation to think that because we are exposed to corrupting influences that we are therefore by default corrupt ourselves.

JJ: The authorities are strict in policing [unIslamic] things here, and there is antagonism towards questioning these rules, at least publicly.

WR: But then you drive it underground, into secret communities. It gives the authorities even more of a headache in terms of enforcement. What we advised when we spoke to ministers was to let people have a dialogue – people are going to have ideas that don’t conform to what you would want them to think. But let’s have a dialogue and celebrate diversity rather than trying to control it.

JJ: How do you promote debate within Islam? There is a case made here that you are only allowed to participate in a debate if you are a scholar, if you have a particular level of training.

FK: In the UK I do talks on Muslim cultural awareness – I’m not an Imam, I’m not a scholar, and I don’t have as much knowledge as them. But we can comment on Muslim culture in the UK – and certainly Islam does allow you to quote verses, and give information – so long as it is the right information. Of course I think the reason the Maldivians are more conservative about this is because they don’t want the wrong information being given out by the wrong people, which can then cause deviations from the faith, or traditional school of thought.

But in the UK, because we have the freedom to debate, we have different schools of thought. Ultimately we believe there is one God, and that Mohamed (PBUH) is his last messenger. That, and the five pillars, are universal among all schools of thought. We celebrate that.

AI: In response I would say that the first thing the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) commanded was “to read” – to read and find out about religion for yourself. We cannot just expect scholars to teach us about religion, we have to find out and take our own conclusions on the faith – to have a dialogue. Having only lectures is not empowering – it is disempowering. It’s important to learn and engage through dialogue, and if somebody doesn’t agree with you, the fact you have made your point means they have a choice; to reflect on their position, to adjust their position or maintain it.

WR: This is a difference in our cultures regarding education. It’s common in South Asian countries to learn by ‘read, regurgitate, put on paper.’ Whereas in UK we are taught to debate, to analyse, think on our feet and think for ourselves. That’s reflected in the way we practise our religion as well.

SS: I think having scholars commenting and reflecting on passages in Islam is only effective if it is in conjuntion with all these other things, such as young Muslims going out and reading the Quran for themselves, understanding the different interpretations and engaging with that inforamtion on all levels – not just sitting there and being talked to. It should be organic, not stilted.

JJ: What you are talking sounds similar to the human right of freedom of expression, which is stated in the Maldivian constitution as ‘freedom of expression subject to the tenets of Islam’. There is a perception that freedom of expression let fundamentalism out of the bag, as well as the liberal side, but such a caveat gives the moral authority in any debate to the conservative side – the liberal element feels it cannot debate publicly for fear of social ostracism. Can you have the kind of debate you are promoting with such a precondition?

SS: That’s very interesting – I think it’s about tolerance, and tolerance goes both ways. If you are liberal, you should be tolerant of extremist ideas – not accept them but give space to accept them. Freedom of expression is a good thing – but you can’t have it both ways. If you stop that debate, you will only hear the liberal debate and ideas – and that isn’t a democracy, or probably what the Maldives is striving to be.

AI: I would say that under the tenets of Islam you have 73 different groups that are going to be coming out – so I’m sure that both liberalism and conservatism will fit somewhere within those 73 groups. There is room for that debate and dialogue.

WR: I think that in a true democracy you have debate both sides of the argument, and do not control that debate to surpress one side or the other. I think what the Maldives will do is allow this new conservative view and allow people to have these ideologies, but also allow people to have the right information so it doesn’t become an extremist ideology. And to have control measures in place so there is no violent extremism. I think the only way you can empower people is to allow them to come to their own conclusions.

AI: I think the fear in the government here is that this new wave of conservative Islam may be eroding their culture. Any culture for them is integral because of their history. But I think that’s something for the people to decide, not the government.