The demographics of the Muslim community in Britain has significantly increased in the past decade – there are now 2.4m Muslims, with a high percentage being under 4 yrs old, according to ONS in 2008. A recent study by the Young Foundation (Valuing Family, Valuing Work: British Muslim Women and the Labour Market, October 2008) noted that “46% of Muslims are less than 25 years old. Within the next 10 years Muslims will account for one quarter of the growth in the working age population in the UK”.

The number of mosques, Islamic schools, civic organizations, businesses, newspapers and magazines has grown. In spite of a barrage of negative media portrayals in recent years, especially after 7/7 atrocities in London, Islam is now recognised in many levels of society and many members of the Muslim community are known to be contributing to the social and economic fabric of British society. With their growing social integration comes the impact of social norms, values and challenges from the wider society. How Muslims can learn the ways to successfully raise a strong and healthy community that contributes to the betterment of the wider society is a big question that dominates the public discussion inside and outside the community.

Over the centuries, post-Renaissance Europe has shifted towards secularism with fewer roles for organised religion. However, values, ethics and morality that are common to all have their roots in transcendental religions and they are still influenced by faith.

But society, especially in recent decades, is changing rapidly. Technological gadgets have increased this pace- too often young people today are influenced by what they see and hear on television, internet and on the street. While physical interaction among people has decreased, virtual interaction through social networking has increased. There is then the over indulgent commercialisation and sexualisation of society, together with increasing individualism, which is having a pervasive impact on our lives.

Generation Gap

The generation gap is something that affects us all. This refers to differences between people of a younger generation and their elders, especially between children and their parents’ generation. This difference is universal in all ages, but because of the fast changing social trends in modern times, gaps between two generations have increased significantly. This is more prominent in areas such as lifestyle, fashion, musical tastes, religion, culture and politics. The 1960’s era in Britain witnessed an unprecedented willingness to rebel against social norms.

Young people, especially in their teens, nowadays spend little time with the older people even though they may live under the same roof. A significant proportion of senior citizens literally fear young people because they associate them with antisocial behaviour and crime. On the other hand, four in five children said they did not feel that older people understood them. There seems to be less empathy for each other. This gap between young and old can undermine the spirit and values of human society.

What about the minority evolving communities, such as Muslims, who have come from a traditional background in developing countries? For many reasons the gap between the first and the latter generations is much wider then the norm.

Cultural Gap

Over two third Muslims in Britain are from South Asian countries, for historical reasons. They have their unique social conservatism, mostly due to cultural heritage. They have more or less settled their communities in Britain’s inner cities, spanning over 3 to 4 generations. Muslims from other parts of the world have also brought their distinct cultures with them. Muslim culture, however dissimilar internally, has some unique features that differentiate it from others, especially post-modern European ones, e.g., the nature of family, dress and modesty, understanding of spirituality, practice of greetings, food habits, celebrations, creative expressions, expectations in life, environmental views, pets, illness and bereavement, concept of time and space and so on.

How much of this is passed on to the new generation to help form a new British Muslim identity for the youngsters is a big issue. It depends on the education and awareness level of the first generation, the level of parenting and social interaction and the role of mosques and community centres. Muslim children, like their friends from the indigenous communities, are exposed to the values and norms of the wider society through mobile phones, internet, TV, peer groups, role models, etc. This manifestation of identity (Race religion and Muslim Identity in Britain, p109) is fluid and social trends within the Muslim community are changing fast.

One of the issues British Muslims have to confront in their daily life is the issue of religious practice. Islam demands of its adherents more ritual time and commitment compared to other world religions. In a modern secular environment its disciplines seem rigid. While spirituality is the essence of all this practice, men sporting beards and women wearing the hijab can be seen as ‘extreme’ public demonstrations of religion. This can lead to an impression among ordinary British people that Muslims are ‘obsessed’ with their religion. Some may even feel threatened by this overflow of religiousness and make them feel that Muslims are less amenable to coexistence than followers of other faiths.

Muslim loyalty to Britain is a hot topic and detractors have left no stone unturned to prove that Muslims are the ’others’ in their midst. This is sadly gaining currency in the British mind. The YouGov Survey commissioned by the Exploring Islam Foundation (http://www.mcb.org.uk/article_detail.php?article=announcement-883) is just an example.

Although the reverse is also true, e.g. UK Muslims are the most patriotic in Europe, according to a work carried out by the Open Society Institute on 19 Dec 2009 (http://www.mcb.org.uk/media/presstext.php?ann_id=380) and an ongoing poll conducted by Gallup and the Coexist Foundation on 7 May 2009, shows that Muslims in the UK are the most loyal (http://www.mcb.org.uk/media/presstext.php?ann_id=349),

This perception of Muslims adds an extra layer of pressure onto a community already struggling to produce a coherent, attractive narrative of itself to the wider British society.

The impact of this widening gap and how to tackle this

Relative socio-economic deprivation is one of the reasons for under-achievement in sections of British Muslim community. As a result, social ills such as drug addiction, criminal activities, alcoholism and prostitution are on the rise, contradicting Islam and its teachings. A crisis of character in social habits is weakening the foundation of the community. Hedonism is having its impact on young Muslims. On the other hand, a tiny fringe group, due to anger and misunderstanding of the spirit of Islam, have become vulnerable to nihilistic ideas and activities. Mere religious observance and goodwill cannot match this pull of overpowering hedonism and attraction of nihilism.

The issues that are giving worry in the community are a contradiction between ideals and reality, loss of parental control because of poor parenting and decline in the moral authority of the elders. Ineffective family control or imposition of draconian restrictions on adolescents will not solve anything, as young British Muslims have now learnt to challenge the authority in their family and the community. Many are voting with their feet. They see mosques do not have the capacity to engage with the youth, Imams do not have the skill or interest to talk to them and internal narrow politics is ripe in many places.

It is time parents, community leaders and Imams address this serious issue by raising awareness and taking positive actions:

1. Stable family and positive parenting

A stable family and positive parenting are essential to raise children properly. Due to generational and in many cases cultural gaps young Muslims in their adolescence can live parallel lives in many Muslim households. Positive parenting empowers parents in understanding the world of youth in a post-modern society and gives them the confidence through useful techniques of addressing the challenges. Mosques, community organisations and youth centres should encourage and support positive parenting in the community.

2. Increasing mosque capacity to engage the youth

Mosques provide religious and spiritual service to the community and are generally the hub of the community for social and cultural life. Even though not all young Muslims go to a mosque they have some affinity towards it for various reasons. But many mosques do not have the capacity to engage the youth and they must improve in this to help the youngsters in navigating through their multiple aspects of life.

3. Effective Youth Work

Young people are energetic and they need to be engaged positively. They need help in understanding Islam and the values of meaningful, sound and stable family life. Premarital counselling should be provided as part of social service delivery in the Muslim community. There are now a good number of professional social workers that work with the mainstream society. Services for the youth must be provided by those who can engage with them, such as counsellors and social workers. Young people need to be reached out – in schools, youth centres and mosques. They need basic life skills training, e.g., communication skills, anger management and decision making based on Islamic teachings.

4. Addressing mental health issues

For many reasons mental health has become widespread among some young Muslims. Problems of depression, family disorders, poor parenting, drug and alcohol related stress on the one hand and prejudice, racism and Islamophobia on the other contribute to individuals developing mental illnesses. There are now social workers and mental health therapists who are well grounded in Islamic strategies who should assess and treat these young people.

5. Prioritising in education & skills

The Muslim community has come some way in its educational achievement for the young people in recent time. Most Muslim children are educated in state schools with only 2-3% in Muslim independent schools. But many attend evening or supplementary schools in the evening and/or weekends. The Muslim community should invest in the educational and emotional needs of the future generation. At the same time adult education among Muslims is terribly important.

* Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and community activist. The speech was given at an International Forum: Interaction, Adaptation and Integration – Muslim Minorities in China at the China in Comparative Perspective Network (CCPN), LSE