Last week saw the start of Ramadan and I couldn't help but notice a change in the media coverage since I started writing for this title two years ago. The Guardian provided a guide to the Islamic holy month while the Independent invited an op-ed from Tehmina Kazi titled Ramadan fasting: Modern opposition to age-old rules.
All of this was trounced on Friday following David Cameron's speech in which he said parts of some Muslim communities have to share the blame for young Britons joining ISIL forces because they 'quietly condone' extremist ideology instead of confronting it. Hello front page of the Daily Mail (p.s. WOULD you have known that was Kate?), goodbye any advancements in a balanced media view and a peaceful Ramadan. But is he really an inadvertent PR man for Islamic extremists?
What's happening in Britain is severe and the PM is right to bring it to the fore. I found myself spending a lot of time in the Tower Hamlets last year (don't ask) and could often feel a level of tension on the streets. The only similarity I had with the locals was the colour of my skin and the fact I could walk into a mosque and stand next to them but I felt like an absolute outsider in the world that seemingly gives rise to terrorists, having benefited from a British education in a well-to-do London suburb, but in the grit of zone two, I could sense the unhappiness and struggle of someone being priced out and feeling like they no longer fit in. If I sensed it, I have no idea how Michelle Obama felt and I certainly have no idea what a white British people would feel in the area.
This isn't just isolated to the Tower Hamlets. All over the country there are pockets where Muslims live together - migration patterns naturally stick to certain areas - and a particular mindset can and will evolve. From Birmingham to Bradford, we have to be mindful that communities are starting to form that are separating from the mainstream. We have to ask ourselves: is it push or is it pull? Pre-9/11 I recall Ramadan being a peaceful, inquisitive time that provided an opportunity to talk about Islam openly with my friends at school. What has changed?
Muslims are being pushed away from British society.
David Cameron's speech in Slovakia was flawed for two reasons. First: it wasn't on home turf. If he wants young Muslims to feel like they have a space within British identity then it's best to be amongst them sharing that message. You could almost hear him say 'your young people' rather than 'our young people' throughout the speech. Second, his call for Muslims to stop condoning ISIS creates a media storm that isolates and pushes those affected (or who are likely to be affected) further into the fringes. The Telegraph's view is understandably 'we agree' - Muslims must take some responsibility for the radicalisation that occurs within their communities. The comments section of that article is a scary place if you are a fragile Muslim trying to make sense of your faith and the country you've been brought up in.
Muslims are being pulled away to a dark world
There's a pull factor, too. People will go through a rebellion in their teenage years. That's only normal. I recall an article that claimed when British people rebel in their teenage years they get something pierced or they get a tattoo, when Muslims rebel they join ISIL. It's almost laughable, but it's true. The Islamic world has to get used to society fracturing and be okay with imbalance and disagreement within the faith. It shouldn't be an 'either / or', it should be a layered identity that evolves with time. I'm slowly seeing that no two Muslims are the same. And that's a good thing.
My hope is that in my lifetime many different shades of Muslim will appear. I spoke to Tehmina (of the aforementioned Independent article fame) to find out more about the British Muslims for Secular Democracy. She too believes that there is a space for a more liberal Islam. An Islam that encourages debate and critical thought when it comes to matters including fundamentalism, fasting and feminism.
The truth is, David Cameron can only fix the push factors. He can do more to show that there is space within British society for Muslims. Not all of them have the time, capacity or energy to continually fight extremism (some of us do have jobs Mr C), but there needs to be a space within politics and the media to allow for young Muslims to see their place here. His speech was flawed in that respect.
And it's now up to Muslims to address the pull factors. I agree with Baroness Warsi that we need not demonise millions over a few thousand extremists, but we have to start somewhere by asking some questions. We as a community need to ask ourselves: How can we engage with the questions young Muslims are having about their identity? How can we show them that ISIL isn't actually Islamic? How can we allow them to rebel but not radicalise? Those who are doing this already need to speak up and talk about success stories.
Stopping them at the airport might prevent the outcome, but stopping them in their thoughts and encouraging critical thought around identity will prevent the cause.