Monday, November 13, 2006

Islam - a danger to youth?

There is no such thing as heroes, heroines or saints. Reality is more complex than the one in which heroes and heroines reside. Their reality is narrative - story. The Prophet Muhammad (aws) is often portrayed as a saint, or of a false hero and even the villain. But more sophisticated narratives of his life, such as the sirah by Martin Lings, depict him as a human being pursuing a quest in a world slowly awakening to spiritual truth. Hence Lings represents people in terms of their motives, and not as black and white, good and bad.

Being portrayed as a hero perhaps has its upside, or so hero Bob Geldof thought. In his entertaining autobiography written in the wake of the first 'Band Aid', Is That It, Geldof describes a clumsy encounter with Mother Theresa, during which she explained to him how she was able do things he could not, but equally he could achieve things beyond her own reach. What did she mean? Geldof observed her unashamedly milk her own reputation with some admiration, pinching the conscience of government ministers into acting on behalf of the poor and even gaining audiences with presidents without appointment. The Nun Geldof met was a street-wise campaigner, a character created by Geldof's own aspirations.

Northern European saints are less likely to be religious, these days. Heroes arise to suit the times. An example of the modern, secular saint-heroine is Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the London-based Kids Company. An Iranian born in Tehran, Camila’s rise to prominence has followed the typical saint-heroine’s path – family tragedy (sister’s suicide), overcoming obstacles (severe dyslexia), self sacrifice (using her own mortgage payments to set up a child therapy service) and resounding achievement (Woman of the Year, 2006). A storybook life!

Narratives of Camila’s children are also presented in heroic terms. Victims of an unjust system (inadequate and often callous child protection services), these children often rise from poverty, dissipation and maladjustment to become equally successful (university educated). Even in death, narratives present these children as heroes, as in the story of Jamail Newton (Observer, 12/11/06), killed in a random shooting at aged 19 as he threw himself in front of his friends.

Interestingly, one of the obstacles to Jamail’s rise from abandoned child to healed role model to dead hero status was Islam. Here is the sub-plot, taken from Amelia Hill's story of Jamail in The Observer, but quoting Camila Batmanghelidjh:

[Jamail] he was still highly vulnerable. Last July, an incident took place that made Derrick Graham, Jamail's key worker at Kids Company, realise quite how delicate this aching need had made Jamail.

'He was desperate for adult love and when a man approached him on the street, and began talking about becoming a Muslim, he listen to that,' said Graham. 'He was so desperate for love and a sense of belonging that, when that man promised him those things, he opened up his arms.'

Almost overnight, Jamail adopted Muslim dress and began studying the religion. Alarmed, Graham organised a multi-ethnic group of Jamail's peers to discuss the matter. 'We talked it through, and he came to his own decision not to follow it any further,' said Graham. 'It was one of the unusual and admirable things about Jamail: from a young age, he could have adult conversations and change his mind.'

Why was Derek ‘alarmed’ by Jamail embracing Islam? This is not made clear. Having lived in South London, I am aware of people living in the Capital who pose as religious teachers and pray on vulnerable young people. I met one, ‘Christian John’, who exploited his thin veneer of religiosity to gain control over people’s lives. The story here mentions one man, but overall, the emphasis appears to be on Islam as a threat to a ‘delicate’ young man.

Saints and their supporters carry great moral authority. They can inspire Geldofs (though some see Bob as being anything but a saint), yet equally, they can demonise without having recourse to fact or reasoned argument. Camila Batmanghelidjh routinely attacks local government agencies, but rarely does she mention her association with the Conservative Party in the same breath. Compared to politicians and media pundits, the folks at Kids Company have the potential to do serious damage to anyone they depict as a menace.

The representation of Islam as inherently dangerous, particularly to young men, is a well-worn Islamophobic trope and I am sad to see it associated here with the laudable work of this charity. It raises issues of the accountability of groups working outside of the welfare system with regards to equal opportunity. At the same time, Muslims themselves need to tread carefully and perhaps avoid targeting people whose desire for faith masks unmet emotional needs.

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