THE BLOG

A European Version Of Islam?

12/07/2017 11:46 BST | Updated 12/07/2017 11:46 BST

My eldest son was born at the end of August 2001. A fortnight later I watched on television as two aircraft flew into New York's World Trade Centre and was terrified. While my initial reaction was to think of all the victims, their families and the emergency services, I was ashamed that the attacks were carried out in the name of Islam and I wondered: "What kind of world will my son grow up in?"

Since then we have seen the emergence of terrorist movements such as Daesh/ISIS and Boko Haram, countless atrocities perpetrated across the world in the name of my faith and the phenomenon of young British Muslims being inspired by twisted internet propaganda and extremist preachers to kill their innocent countrymen and sacrifice themselves.

Some argue this indicates that Muslims cannot live alongside Western values and culture, that the two are fundamentally irreconcilable. But there is nothing in Islam to support such a view, indeed the Quran states that people are free to believe whatever they wish and makes clear that Muslims can fully observe Islam without living in a theocracy.

There are no simple answers, no silver bullet. Instead we need to see radicalisation for the complex, multi-layered problem that it is.

Research from the FBI found that since 1982, young white males have been responsible for 63 per cent of all mass shootings in America. In these cases anger and isolation appear to be much more important causal factors than faith, economics or social class.

The findings are backed up by academics who studied interviews with 49 fighters in Syria and Iraq. They concluded that those from the United States and Western Europe were more likely to be facing some sort of identity crisis and to display a desire for personal recognition than those who joined Daesh from Muslim-majority countries. The latter group were predominantly motivated by the perceived plight of the Syrian Sunnis and, in some cases, money.

Growing up has never been easy but young people in the modern world are under greater pressure than my generation was in the pre-internet age. The 24 hour gaze of social media, the pressure to succeed and finding your place in a rapidly changing society all leave youngsters vulnerable.

For young Muslims this complex question of identity can be even more difficult to come to terms with. Some British-born Muslims are raised to believe that they are from their parents' country of origin. Some of those who think of themselves as British may be told by racists that they "should go back home."

Yet when they visit family in their parents' country of birth and are encouraged to explore, for example, their Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage, they are told they are not from there, they are British.

Even though my parents constantly told us we were as British growing up, each racist encounter made me doubt that, so I too experienced this kind of disorientation. When I visited my Grandmother in Guyana as an eight-year-old in the 1970s, my brother and I enjoyed playing cricket with local children on the streets of Georgetown. I hoped to be seen as a future West Indies batsman, but remember everyone calling me a little Englishman.

However, it was far easier for my parents' generation to keep track of what their children were doing and feeling, when they were in sight. In these days of mobile phones, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube it is hard to spot the warning signs. Teenagers can retreat to their rooms and talk to someone on the other side of the world who offers them simple solutions, money, hero status, an identity. Quite simply, where there is vulnerability you will always find someone waiting to prey on it.

Extremists deliberately set out to trap young people into a life of radicalisation. They promise them a place in their gang and play on the idea of the Jihad, not the one we read about in the press but the internal struggle to lead a good life. They claim it is impossible to lead a good life in the West because it is too decadent, you will be attracted by alcohol, by posters of scantily clad women, by nightclubs. Instead they show images of Muslims being slaughtered, blame the West and urge youngsters to follow their path to a guaranteed place in paradise.

To counter this we Muslims have to ensure that young people are provided with an accurate interpretation of our faith, one that is recognisable in the modern world.

I remember a Muslim woman refusing to shake my hand because, she said, the Prophet Mohamed would not have shaken her hand. First of all I asked how did she know that, then I pointed out the Prophet did not have a mobile phone so, using her logic, how could she be sure it was acceptable for her to use one. We must ensure ours is a living faith, considering the spiritual side of Islam and no longer focusing only on questions such as how you should dress when you go to the mosque and how to stand when you pray.

Some argue that the best way for Islam to be compatible with the West is to create a European version, but I do not believe that a new or additional hierarchy of Islam is the answer. Instead we should examine the way it is taught in Europe.

There are many Imams in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and elsewhere who do not teach in the language of that country. Sometimes I go to a mosque and the preachers are excellent, talking about how we should lead our lives as Muslims in a modern context and dealing with problems we face in the 21st century. Others are very poor, give a very long sermon in Arabic, or sometimes Urdu, Bengali or Turkish, and then finish with five minutes of English which amounts to little more than "Be good and live a good life." Great, thanks. Is it any wonder that young British Muslims emerging from the mosque after a non-English sermon, welcome a leaflet in English handed out by extremists outside.

Young people in particular would have a better understanding of how their religion, their nationality, their popular culture and their way of life interact if religious services were available in their native language. Such an approach would facilitate open and honest conversations within our communities and our mosques about what it really means to be Muslim and European and fill the void that the pedlars of extremism seek to exploit. In today's Europe, we should be preaching sermons in the national language as well as Arabic.

To achieve this requires more locally-trained Imams and an infrastructure to deliver them. At the moment, mosques often look abroad for an Imam, perhaps from a village in a country that has no idea what it means to be British, German, French etc. How can such an individual possibly be expected to reach out to an impressionable teenager born and brought up in any of our countries?

It is not a unique problem for Islam, other faiths have been confronted by similar issues. The English Civil War was sparked by demands for church services to be conducted in English instead of Latin, while Irish friends tell me of an identical debate in the Catholic Church.

At the same time a wider dialogue must be encouraged to identify why a section of young Muslims feel detached from society. There are some fantastic projects projecting a more tolerant Islam or tackling extremism, ranging from global initiatives such as the Istanbul Network for Liberty, down to those working at a community level, but it is up to all of us - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, of other faiths or of no faith - to reach out and make our young generation feel part of the world around them.

In my own country, the British are often uncomfortable talking about their own faith. It is a taboo dinner party subject, along with politics and someone's age. Consequently, the issue either remains unaddressed or, if it is tackled, the debate is uncomfortable and polarised. This needs to change and society must feel able to confront intolerance wherever it is found without worrying about political correctness. Calling out extremism is not Islamophobia.

One of the things I enjoy most about being a politician is the chance to work and speak with young people. I hope that being the first leader of any political group who is a Muslim in the European Parliament has shown it is possible to be in politics, have religious beliefs, be proud of your heritage and be content with your national identity, all at the same time.

Slowly there are more Muslims reaching senior levels in politics, sport, music, film and literature who can inspire young people to be ambitious and believe that being Muslim and British, French, Belgian or European is not an obstacle in their lives or something to be conflicted about.

I am from London, probably the greatest, most culturally diverse and tolerant city in the world. There I am able to practice my faith without let or hindrance, in contrast to many other parts of the world. The West is a place of freedom for Muslims.

Rather than trying to create a "European Islam", we would be better focusing our energy on not allowing those who want to divide us win. Whether it be the neo-cons who want to portray Islam as inherently evil, national socialists who say Islam is the problem or the extremists who insist it is incompatible to be a Muslim and live in the West.

They are all wrong. If we allow any of them succeed, we will never solve this problem.