Engaging with Islam's disaffected youths

12th August 2005 at 01:00
The day after the failed suicide bombings in London, I visited a large inner-city secondary in Birmingham which draws most of its pupils from the local Bengali and Pakistani communities. Along with three other fellow writers and artists, I had been invited to a residency with Year 7 pupils as part of a project entitled Image and Identity.

The project's aim was to broaden the pupils' sense of who they are by engaging and exploring with them issues relating to their cultural identity and their relationship with the wider indigenous community. The intention is to foster free expression and provide pupils with a platform to express their feelings - a chance to connect with the vulnerable and disenfranchised Muslim youth.

So far I have found my work with this group a little disheartening because of their lack of interest or effort. They were, to say the least, challenging.

But on this visit - July 22 - they seem uncharacteristically eager to engage with me and their regular teacher. As ever, they are raucous but underlying their mood is one of serious curiosity to learn, to make sense of the attacks and clarify their relationship with Islam.

We start talking about what it means to be a Muslim in the context of the teachings of the Koran and then I try to get them to discuss what it means to be a British Muslim. Then the pupils talk about what they understand by "home" and their sense of belonging.

And then, out of the blue, one of the pupils asks why everyone is hysterical about the loss of 50-odd lives against an international backdrop where Muslims and Jews are dying every week. Before I can comment, their Muslim teacher interjects and tells off the boy for making a stupid, insensitive comment.

He is told to be quiet and concentrate on writing "nice" poetry.

Well, yes, the boy's line of inquiry could be seen as insensitive and the way he expressed himself lacked precision and subtlety. But should he have been silenced in this way? In order not to make a display of disunity in front of the class, I decide to let it go and move on to the next activity.

I tell the pupils to write about themselves, and their perception of their culture, using their own form of English, slang included.

Towards the end of the session, one group gives a performance in front of the class. It's a little too raw and disjointed to describe as poetry, but it does contain some key components such as the rhyme and rhythm which bring it in line with popular rap.

Alas, the assistant head won't allow it to be performed in front of the whole year. The class teacher agrees.

Their main objection is the use of street-diction ("My friends all think they're funky But I know they're all junkies"). The pupils plead with her.

Would it be ok if they took out the offending lines? Please. But she's made up her mind. She construes this as unacceptable behaviour and suspends the group. I'm aghast.

How ironic that pupils in this project, which aims to help these young people express themselves and their identity, are discouraged in this way.

Just when they start showing interest they are told to be quiet and their work, of which they are clearly proud, is dismissed as "rubbish" and effectively banned.

There is muddled thinking here which needs to be challenged. In the wake of the London bombings, inner-city schools are likely to see more and more arts-based initiatives tackling issues such as the politics of language, belonging and cultural identity. Such projects are desperately needed if we are to combat the growing disaffection among Muslim youth.

But before writers and artists like myself plan a programme of work with the pupils, perhaps we also need to work with teachers and their management. It is one thing to challenge pupils for expressing themselves insensitively or inappropriately, but quite another to silence and discourage them.

After the events of last month, it is more important than ever that we engage with our disaffected youth. That process must start in the classroom. And we must accept our own understanding of cultural identity might not be a perspective shared by everyone.

Roshan Doug is visiting professor of poetry at the University of Central England.roshan.doug@uce.ac.uk

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