‘As you’re growing up you are taught to deal with bullying, but you’re not taught to deal with attacks on your identity’
So said a young Muslim girl at a session Talk for a Change ran for a group of young people on dealing with online hatred.
Like many others we’ve been shocked and saddened by the news of three young Muslim girls from the east end of London going off to join IS. Our sympathies go out to their parents and families. There is a palpable sense of helplessness behind much of the debate on how to prevent this steady trickle of idealistic and naïve young people going off to Syria. But what is missing are the voices of young British Muslims themselves both on what might draw them towards this ideology of glory and hate, and what might help them develop resilience to it.
Last summer we facilitated a session with Aik Saath, an innovative youth led charity based in Slough. On a hot July evening there were over 50 young people in attendance, squashed into the workshop space in the Aik Saath office. The youngest was about 12, the eldest in their early 20s. The group was diverse in terms of ethnicity and faith, with a majority of Muslims and Hindus and smaller numbers of Sikhs and white young people. The atmosphere was friendly and informal with lots of good-natured banter and laughter. This was clearly a group who trusted each other, united by a common cause and ethos. Aik Saath means ‘Together as One’ in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, and they run sessions in schools and youth centres on issues of identity, belonging and good relations across difference.
We were there to lead a session exploring online hate and how to tackle it. With the help of the older Saathies, we organised everyone into groups, and soon they were all engaged in deep discussions about different forms of hatred online, sharing stories of how it had affected people and the strategies they had to deal with it. A strong theme began to emerge of young people’s bewilderment and hurt at seeing prejudice and hatred expressed against them because of their faith and / or the colour of their skin.
Talk turned to Gaza – the Israeli army was in the middle of its bombardment, and only a couple of days before four Arab boys had been killed whilst playing on the beach; the heartbreaking pictures had been beamed around the world. A spirit of thoughtfulness and sober reflection characterised the conversation. The older Saathies in particular demonstrated a strong grasp of the complexity of the politics and history of the region, whilst also feeling a strong emotional connection with the killing of innocent children. They gently challenged any calls for anger or retribution, encouraging the younger ones to check their facts, and urging them to be wary of the things they read on social media.
We need more projects like Aik Saath, where young people of every faith and none, and of all ethnicities, can come together to explore, and sometimes challenge each other, on issues of identity and belonging, and in the process forge trust, respect and friendships across difference. These kinds of projects are vital for achieving longer term aims of integration and good relations. Sadly organisations such as Aik Saath are few and far between.
Projects such as this can strengthen the voices of young people in this debate, and particularly the voices of young British Muslims. They need our support in order to have these complex difficult conversations with each other, with other young people and the wider community. And in a way that respects them as young people – interested, curious and passionate about the world, and still in the process of working out who they are and what they think. In particular we need to ask them what they need from us in order to build their resilience to extremist ideology and violence.
Last October at the Houses of Parliament Talk for a Change launched our report, Untold Stories of Good Relations. On the panel was 15 year – old Damayanti Chatterjee from Aik Saath. She made a moving speech in which she said,
‘It is more important than ever that young people join in the effort to boost good relations in Britain now that divisiveness between age groups is widening and questions about what it means to be British are growing. Young people that are confident in their identity, their abilities and their communities are ones who will shine for us on the world stage’
Perhaps if we had more youth organisations like Aik Saath the three runaways from east London would have been persuaded that they can take leadership and make a real difference in this country, in a way that is free from hatred and violence.