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Contexts and Concepts

For most young people religion and religiosity is something latent or private activated by private events or the passing of years. For Muslim young people it can be activated by an incessant Islamaphobic discourse that requires fundamental questions of relationships and belonging to be addressed in the public gaze whilst being positioned as representatives and ‘explainers’ of their religion and their communities. Written by a leading practitioner and academic in the field of youth and community work this multidisciplinary book reflects the way theoretical, the social and the religious impacts on the lives of Muslim young people.

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Written from an experiential standpoint this chapter provides an angry and powerful statement of the use and abuse of the research subject, and of those intermediaries drawn into credentialising researchers who would document the experience of British Muslims. The chapter provides a telling insight into the emotional and existential violence experienced by those who are used as a facilitator of others’ access to Muslim research subjects. The analysis provided here speaks eloquently of the wariness of the researched to research, and echoes the earlier chapter Two in underlining the state’s interest in controlling the validation of ‘credible’ expertise.

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Maxine Green (2006), in A journey of discovery: Spirituality and spiritual development in youth work, refers to the opportunity youth work has in drawing concepts and articulations from different cultures and traditions as an activity that seldom happens, and this missed opportunity is captured by her use of Chandu Christian’s observation that:

Youth work has yet to absorb and use the multi-faith or multi-cultural concepts that are now available to it. For example the concept of Guru-shishya as relationship, Islam as submission, the Tao as the way, Zen as a method of self-actualisation without complicated rituals, the Shabad (word) as a revelation – these and many other concepts are now part of our multi-cultural legacy. Youth work can apply them for both personal and spiritual development of young people as well as to create a tolerant and understanding society. (Youth & Policy, Autumn 1999, p 25)

This is due to what can be termed ‘the committed mainstream’, with its history, its heroes and its stories, despite a societal context in which notions of wellness, mind, body, spirit and wholeness rarely allow borders, whether religious, ethnic or national, to censor their movement or knowledge. However, the strength of notions such as ‘wellness’ in Europe are finding their way into children and young people’s discourse in Britain (Nairn, 2011).

Green’s (2006) book captures the repeated invocation throughout youth work history for the need for the spiritual development of young people and the role of the youth worker or educator to facilitate this exploration.

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The importance of the development of theoretical frameworks has become increasingly necessary for a number of reasons:

  • to analyse the configuration of individual relationships;

  • to analyse the relationships prioritised by organisations and their subsequent investment;

  • to identify relational deficits and priorities;

  • to identify the purpose and outcome of an activity;

  • that existing curriculum and thinking is not dismissed simply because it does not have the badge of Islam on it.

The proposed understanding of Muslim youth work as a relational exercise that integrates key principles of youth work practice and process is difficult to present due to the manner in which it may be understood as part of a cultural or confessional paradigm, and the manner in which Islam and Muslims have become involved in a struggle of symbols of identity that have been moved from acts of individual faith or piety to that of political and personal identity. Soroush’s (2000) configuration of identity as consisting of form and essence (form being the ‘clothing’ of faith, its visible presence, and essence of values and principles) is useful in this working out.

The theoretical framework presented in this chapter acts as a means of identity analysis through actual relationships constructed. It has the potential to understand types of identity that are being created – consumer, believer, worker and so on – by identifying types of relationships that are being invested in and who they are being invested in by. It has an ability to make sense of questions that challenge Muslim constructions of the private and the public and to delve into the smokescreen that can be provided by commonly used or cited mantras of Islam being ‘one’, whole, all-encompassing, which does not differentiate the private or the public.

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Antonio Gramsci developed the notion of hegemony to describe how dominant ideas and interests were being adopted by working-class people which maintained the vested interests of the establishment/elite (Apple, 1990).The picture of society being saturated by a particular idea or message which then determines political outlook, personal relationships and professional networks seems to be an appropriate analogy to describe the incessant and powerful nature of the portrayal of Islam as a moral marker that forms an ‘us and them’ and the Muslim caricature as the folk devil. Cohen’s definition of a moral panic seems particularly precise, naming key protagonists in this exercise:

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people. (Cohen, 2005, p 1)

The outcome is the cultivation of a discourse that leaves little room for manoeuvre, with Muslim expression frequently expressed from the ‘back foot’ – a constant act of explaining shaped by the agendas and fears of others. Those working in professions shaped by a strong value or ethical base can be particularly prone to internalising this discourse which is often manifested as an act of preservation and defence of values through, for example, notions of liberal equality or as rescuers of young Muslims in general and young Muslim women in particular, through problematising family, community and belief.

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Academic knowledge generated out of research on any marginalised community rarely finds itself in verse, careful as it is about the validity of its methods to secure the expertise of the researcher and the factualness or correctness of its data for potential generalisability.

The following examples aim to express the feeling and impact of being researched. The first example is an extract of the lyrics from a song by Floyd Red Crow Westerman (1936-2007), a Sioux actor, political activist and musician, titled ‘Here come the anthros’:

And the anthros still keep coming

Like death and taxes to our land;

To study their feathered freaks

With funded money in their hand.

Like a Sunday at the zoo

Their cameras click away –

Taking notes and tape recordings

Of all the animals at play.

Here come the anthros, better hide the past away.

Here come the anthros on another holiday.

Then back they go to write their book

And tell the world there’s more.

But there’s nothing left to write

It’s all been done before.

And not a cent of funded money

That the anthros get to spend

Is ever given to their

Disappearing feathered friends.

And the anthros keep on diggin’

Our sacred ceremonial cite

As if there was nothing wrong

’Cause education gives them the right

But the more they keep on diggin’

the less they really see

’Cause they got no respect for you or me.

The second example is titled ‘Ethical pimping’ that I wrote and which was published in the Muslim News in 2007 in their ‘ From another shore’ column:

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In his text, Modern organisations, Amitai Etzioni (1964) observed that we re born in organisations, educated by organisations and most of us spend much of our lives working for organisations. We spend our leisure time paying, playing and praying in organisations. Ultimately most of us will die in an organisation, and consent for our burial place will be given by an organisation. Scott (2003) observes that the rise in organisational types and numbers has been a defining feature of the last hundred years, principally because organisations have become the main mechanism by which, in a highly differentiated society, it is possible to get things done.This level of differentiation is reflected in organisation types, activities and in organisational size.

The voluntary sector comprises organisations that have budgets of millions of pounds and those that have struggled to have a budget at all. It encompasses organisations that are part of the cultural landscape of Britain, such as the Scout Movement andYMCA, and organisations that are embryonic, local and with no history to demonstrate capacity or expertise and everything to prove; organisations that do not have to explain themselves and their credentials; and organisations that have to spend most of their time explaining themselves to funders, government and politicians, before they can or are allowed to do anything. More often than not Muslim organisations happen to fall into the latter group, and those that claim to do work informally through youth work have to explain not only their youth work, but the meaning of ‘Muslimness’ and its relationship to social policy and government agendas with regard to the management of difference, diversity and, of course, community cohesion.

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In ‘The politics of recognition’, Taylor (1992) linked identity with the notion of authenticity, of being true to oneself rather than constantly trying to be accepted by others, your difference only exacerbated by your efforts to fit in. In youth work, authenticity appears to be a major issue for Muslim organisations seeking to develop an active and viable presence in the youth work organisational landscape, yet there appears to be stubborn persistence with Muslim organisations, only taken seriously when followed by a constituency or membership, and this limits the vision of what is possible. This mono view of the emerging Muslim organisational landscape is symptomatic of closed views of different societies and communities, as defined by the Runnymede Report (1998) on Islamophobia. Political necessities may require appropriate representational organisations for dialogue, but these representational structures have a considerable struggle themselves within the Muslim communities in valuing informal education or youth work and in supporting anything other than masjids, Muslim girls’ schools or international relief charities. This struggle is compounded by the absence of the political will to support the development of models of practice, either through the use of space or in the training of Muslim- literate informal educators. The development of a Muslim youth work degree at the University of Chester was a significant development, and its closure both disappointing and sad in the opportunities it could have afforded for the development of narratives to inform Muslim pedagogy.

David Billis’s original organisational worlds theory (1989) is helpful in locating organisational practice, as discussed in the previous chapter.

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This chapter explores the symbiotic relationship that exists between community cohesion, preventing violent extremism and Islamophobia, and how this relationship has been experienced and has found expression for those working with young people. I suggest that one cannot exist without the other, and attempt to reveal the relationship between them and the impact that this relationship has had or is having with those working with young people.

In considering what preventing violent extremism brings to understanding Islamophobia and what Islamophobia brings to understanding community cohesion, and what each brings to the understanding of the other, there is much to be gained in identifying their interrelatedness. Husband and Alam (2011) look at the operational implications of the two and their experiential and perceptual impact on those working with these remits in local government, suggesting that Islamophobic assumptions that underpin community cohesion have laid the foundations for the acceptance of strategies employed by preventing violent extremism and the allegations and perceptions that underpin it.

There has recently been increasing respect and attention afforded to the ‘journey’ of the researcher, finding ultimate expression in heuristic research where the researcher becomes the object of the search (Moutakas, 1990; Vickers, 2002). For example, Claire Alexander’s book, The Asian gang, while maintaining a focus on the youth group she was working with, makes it clear that she was close up rather than a distant observer, involved in a ‘rubbing together’ that revealed as much about herself as it did about the young people she was working with. Accounts of personal journeys have become viewed as authentic writing, and writing as an obligation with knowledge of the risk involved (Vickers, 2002).

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Poetry is a beautiful way to simultaneously hide and reveal, an alchemical process through which anger, frustration, feelings of brutalisation, marginalisation, of being unheard, finds form. It asks of alchemists, individuals who can experience the aforementioned and yet engage with society, absent of any semblance of their effect. This is the alchemy asked of any marginalised group or individual, and it is a real jihad.

It is no surprise that music, and with it, poetry, has been an important vehicle of expression for young Muslims. Rappers refer to Islam as the unofficial religion of hip hop; as Samy Alim (2005) documents, seminal hip hop groups and figures have drawn inspiration, for the last two decades at least, from Islam and/or the experience of being Muslim, such as Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, the Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy and Fun-Da-Mental, with its ‘nice’ counterweight appearing through nasheed artists in recent years (nasheed songs are those that praise Allah or the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh). Hishaam Aidi (2012), in his article for Al Jazeera ‘Opinions’, differentiates between poetry or lyrics that make no political demand, and those that do make a political demand, that name a condition, challenge or critique, and to this you could add a category that includes poets or musicians who celebrate religion or who exhort an individual spirit. While much of nasheed appears to make little political demand, providing ‘halal soft pop’ with clean-cut individuals and groups that make Justin Bieber or JLS look like the devil’s spawn by comparison, the hip-hop field is much more of a site of struggle in terms of whose message reaches the ears of young people with increasing state intervention in using hip-hop to showcase and give credibility to its messages.

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