Pride and prejudices

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Stephen Jones finds out how it feels to be young, Muslim and British, after the anniversary of the London bombings

On the surface, the group of students I am engaging in lively conversation are just like any other English teenagers. Bright, articulate and interested in the world around them, they are studying a variety of courses in the arts, sciences and the caring professions.

One wants to teach, one to act, another to nurse. There's an aspiring astronaut among them, anda would-be diplomat. They have relatives in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

In one important respect, they are different. At least they feel they are, and it probably amounts to the same thing. As Muslims they believe they are under scrutiny, marked out, objects of suspicion.

Recently their college - West Thames, on a leafy campus in Isleworth, west London - organised a trip to Parliament where students outlined concerns to local MPs Alan Keen and Sadiq Khan.

Chief among these concerns, according to 18-year-old Faisa Kilas, was "labelling". This, she says, started after 911 and has become more acute since the London bombings a year ago: "There is a stereotype that you will harm other people and that your religion is based on harming others.

"After 77 I was travelling through London with a big suitcase. People were all looking at me. I felt as if I had done something wrong."

Faisa's parents are from Somalia and, although she dresses in western clothes, she has recently started to wear a traditional headdress. She admits that there is an element of defiance in this. "I thought, why should I hide my symbol? Why should I hide my religion?"

I ask if she could understand why, after four bombs had exploded on public transport, people might be apprehensive about a young woman in a headscarf carrying a case. She says: "They're feeling insecure. In a way I don't really blame them."

I am interested to find out what her attitude is to the men who carried out the bombings. "What makes me angry," she says, "is that the people who do this say they are doing it for their religion. But that's contrary to our religion. They say it's for jihad, but that word has been abused and misused."

Usama Alkargooli, who is 16 and following a Btec performing arts course, has another problem: his name. Nor does it help that he is from Iraq. His parents came to the UK when he was nine in 1999, seeking refuge from Saddam Hussein.

"A name is just a name," he said, "but my name is stuck in people's heads."

Baba Tairou, who has been in Britain for five years, having grown up in the West African state of Togo, sees the Muslim stereotype from the other side. With his baseball cap and casual clothes, he looks like any other kid on the street.

"When you tell someone you are a Muslim, they are shocked," he says.

"That's because 95 per cent of the people you meet have a negative picture of Muslims. But we are not at war. We are at peace."

We move on to the vexed question of identity. Do they feel British, Muslim or part of their original communities?

Bilan Osman, who came to Britain from Somalia when she was a year old and plans to go into nursing when she finishes at the college, says: "I see myself as a Somalian Muslim. Now I'm seen as a British citizen, and I feel British, because that's what happens when you're raised somewhere."

Usama, too, is now a British citizen, but he says that first and foremost he's an Iraqi and a Muslim. Culturally, though, he's in a no-man's-land.

He's wearing jeans and a T-shirt and sports a snazzy short haircut.

"I would like to go back, but I've been raised in a British environment. I find it hard to think that if I've got a girlfriend I'm expected to marry her. And that first I've got to ask her Dad's permission."

Faisa's first response is to describe herself as "full British". After thinking it over, however, she calls herself a "Muslim, British, Somalian woman".

All five of the students feel attached to London and its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural milieu. They are outward-looking, and enjoy living in a diverse and pluralistic society. This is perhaps best symbolised by Baba, who has also lived in France as well as his native Togo, and describes himself first and foremost as a "person".

In addition to English, he speaks French, Spanish, Italian and a bit of Arabic, as well as four African languages including Yoruba and Hausa.

"Funnily enough though," he says, "I feel more British than some of my friends who were born here."

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