Muslim students: taught to complain

A conference of young Muslims played up their victimhood to an audience of political and media luminaries.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

At a conference organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) yesterday, 100-odd students sat in the plush debating chamber at London’s City Hall, surrounded by four camera crews and national newspaper journalists (1). The panels boasted a cross section of the political elite: London mayor Ken Livingstone, solicitor general Mike O’Brien, home affairs editors from the Observer and Channel Four, and deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Brian Paddick. Yet all the delegates would talk about was how marginalised they were.

A FOSIS survey found that over 90 per cent of students feel that the way Muslims are presented in the media needs to be changed. ‘Why is the media allowed to get away with it?’, asked one young man. ‘Why is the voice of extreme terrorists heard but the voices of 100 students aren’t heard?’ Assorted journalists noted down: ‘Why voice of students not heard?’ I queued up behind Radio 5 to talk to one of the organisers (Radio 5 wanted a delegate to whisk to a studio to talk about the problems with British foreign policy). Moments earlier the organiser had pressed his panel on why the media only demonised Muslims, and didn’t cover any ‘positive initiatives’.

The students saw insult everywhere. One young woman said that ‘Muslim students are marked down. If I go for a job with a Muslim name, I’m less likely to get that job. When people are political they are demonised.’ Many brandished statistics as evidence of victimhood. ‘Within five years of graduation we’re earning less than our white peers’, reported one; ‘Eleven per cent fewer Muslim student find employment after graduation’, said another. Others argued more obliquely that ‘definitions are placed on the Muslim community’.

These students had a slanted reading of media reports. The press release for the event reported one student’s comment that ‘my local paper recently had a picture of Muslims praying on the front page, with the headline “Extremism hits our town”’. In the conference discussion, this report transmuted into something more sinister. ‘In one paper there was a picture of people praying, and it was labelled as “extreme”’, said one woman. ‘Wearing a scarf, having a beard, this is seen as extreme. What are you going to do about these images?’

Some media and government figures provided voices of relative reason. Martin Bright from the Observer argued that most of the media had ‘bent over backwards’ to distinguish Islam from terrorism, devoting column inches to ‘understanding Islam’ and explaining the true concept of jihad. Immigration minister Tony McNulty pointed out, from bitter personal experience, that the media always looked for faults rather than successes – and in any case, giving everybody a good press wasn’t the media’s job. He also argued that it wasn’t all bad for the Muslim community: ‘To resist and not see progress is to belie reality.’

But the students were only talking in terms invented and popularised in the government and media. Their cries of ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘listening to diversity’ weren’t born in university Islamic societies, but were thought up in the New Labour elite, and spread through institutions like the Home Office and Metropolitan Police. The way to gain the ear of authority today is to talk about your difference and marginalisation, and that goes for non-Muslims as well as Muslims. One student at the conference was a black Christian, who noted that ‘I’m the only young black male in this room, which is a sad thing. Our voice is not represented’.

Muslim organisations are encouraged to stake a claim in terms of their marginalisation – all those government-Muslim advisory boards aim to ‘listen to concerns’, or report hate crimes. The FOSIS students were savvy about how to play their cards, with young organisers skilfully chairing sessions then knocking off media interviews. One delegate told me that the event had been sold to him as a ‘leadership training session’. Young Muslims are being sucked into this way of staking their claim. One FOSIS organiser told me that: ‘I don’t like to play the victim card. If there is a disagreement, the only way I can convince you is to argue with you, not to put my fists up.’

Young Muslims are left unable to make a proper political argument. In the case of the Iraq war, for example, they argue not that it was wrong but that it hurt their feelings. FOSIS president Wakkas Khan said that the war ‘seems to be causing more resentment among young Muslims’. Like a child threatening to have a tantrum, they tell Blair to change his policy to appease them.

In truth, the government and media don’t ignore Muslim youth. They are obsessed with listening to their concerns, which is why so many media and government figures turned up at this conference. After all, this was a delegation put together on the hoof, the mates of mates from university Islamic societies. One young man told me that he had been invited the day before, after meeting one of the organisers at another conference.

Young Muslims can’t move for microphones pushed under their noses, asking them to talk about what’s wrong with them. There is a lucrative conference and seminar circuit probing to find out what they really think, what is really wrong. This is antithetical to eye-to-eye political engagement. One young man noted: ‘I am a passionate supporter of the EU, but nobody calls me up to talk about politics. I only get called up about Muslim youth identity. Next week there’s another conference about this.’ The more ‘listening’ conferences, the more grievances will escalate.

These young students seemed bright and keen to get on in the world, but they are being spoiled by a system that sees complaint as a basis for integration. Muslim youth would do well to break out of this poisonous cycle, and stand on their own two feet.

(1) See the FOSIS website

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Topics Politics


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