I watched the passionate argument made by Riz Ahmed about the lack of diversity and representation in the media. He seemed to hit the nail on the head when talking about how a failure to represent was leading to alienation and potentially extremism for some. I've heard similar arguments made before by Muslims up and down the country, who like myself, are concerned not only about the lack of diversity, but also the lack of equal opportunity in employment more generally, as well as everyday issues such as falling living standards and educational underachievement. At the heart of Riz Ahmed's message was the claim that 'people are looking for the message that they belong'.
Yet that sense of belonging is hard to cultivate when successive governments have only ever been concerned with one issue when dealing with the Muslim community; extremism. Undoubtedly, it is a dangerous menace that must be dealt with, yet it would appear that the government and policy makers have come to only view the Muslim community through this narrative, meaning that issues like lack of opportunity and barriers to achievement, have come to be viewed as less important at best, or non-existent at worst. Never mind that Muslims are poorer, more likely to live in some of the most deprived areas in the country, with a Muslim Council of Britain report finding that 'almost half of the British Muslim population resides in the bottom 10% local authority districts for deprivation'. These issues seem to matter a lot less, to those who think that Muslims must simply own the problem of extremism, and that is the be all and end all.
Given such socio-economic deprivation, is it little wonder then that Muslims are underrepresented in the media, with BBC director general Tony Hall claiming that both his own organisation and others favoured the 'well-connected and well-off from the South East'. Yet the message of belonging that lay at the heart of Riz Ahmed's plea for diversity in the media is part of a wider struggle, a struggle for equal opportunity and the need to highlight the inequality that British Muslims have to contend with in areas such as education and employment.
These issues cannot be viewed as less important, or as issues that can be dealt with at a later date, whilst many become preoccupied with simply treating the Muslim community as a 'suspect community'. A preoccupation that plays into the very narrative of the extremists. It requires us to look beyond the fear that a tiny minority have helped to create, and to engage with the everyday struggles millions of Muslims face, struggles for a better future, helping us to realise that we have a lot more in common than divides us. Issues such as a lack of diversity in the media, poverty and educational underachievement matter, because unless addressed, they will continue to add to the isolation and marginalisation that extremists thrive off.
I've seen plenty of campaigns and events aimed at the Muslim community dedicated to combatting extremism. Yet when I sit with friends I realise the sheer gap between what defines the lives of ordinary Muslims, desires for a sense of belonging, for equality, for a sense that we matter too and what governments and others think has come to define them.
At times it makes me wonder, that if British policymakers and governments can pump millions of pounds into counter extremism programmes such as Prevent, why they cannot do the same to fund programmes that tackle the barriers that contribute to the conditions of disadvantage and marginalisation, the very conditions in which extremism thrives.