What really angers young Asians

It's no culture clash: they're quite comfortable with Islam and Michael Jackson. But disrespect they won't accept
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
AMINA lives in Electric House, a crumbling Victorian block of flats opposite Bow station, in east London. The last time I was here was some eight years ago, reporting on a fire-bombing of an Asian family. Amina vaguely remembers the incident. "But it is all different around here," she says brightly.

She is watching a video of an interview with Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, which had been aired the previous day. "You've got to see the video for HIStory (Jackson's new album)," she says excitedly. "It cost pounds 6m to make." And she makes me sit down and watch.

I ask her whether she has bought the new album. "What? At pounds 22? No way!" She cannot wait, though, for Jackson to resume his world tour, which he aborted after the child abuse allegations. "I'm definitely going to see him when he comes here," she says. "Won't your mother object?" I ask her. "Why should she?" Amina responds. "Anyway, she couldn't stop me."

Amina is 16 and has just taken her final GCSE exams. This autumn she will be studying history, sociology and politics A-levels at a further education college in north London. She hopes to go on to university. I had come over to talk to her about Islam and the attitudes of young Muslims to their faith. Instead, our conversation rambles from Michael Jackson to Manchester United (a diehard fan, she is distraught that Paul Ince is going to Italy, and even more distraught at the idea that Eric Cantona might follow him) to Ryan Giggs ("I don't like him, not since he went out with Dani Behr") to Blur ("Do you know they're playing in Mile End Stadium today?") to Joy Gardner ("It's terrible what they're saying about her," she says as she disappears to her room to fetch a cutting from the Sun).

Ever since the Bradford riots of two weeks ago, media pundits have been expressing fears for a generation of alienated Asian youth trapped between two cultures, Muslim and British, and not knowing quite where they belong. Young Asians themselves perceive matters differently. "My parents might have felt caught between two cultures because they still feel attached to Bangladesh," says Amina. "But it's different for us. We belong here. We are not a strange breed of people, you know. We do the same things as anyone else."

Today's Asians walk with a swagger and a strut that was never there a decade ago. "Have you ever been attacked by an Asian?" asks the flyer for Outcaste, a monthly Asian jungle night at Ormonds, a club in London's West End, before adding on the reverse, "Musically, that is." Today's generation wear Chipie jeans and Reeboks, listen to Freakpower and Snoop Doggy Dogg, support Arsenal or Blackburn Rovers, and on Saturday nights will probably be clubbing at the Astoria or the Wag.

The transformation that has taken place over the past decade is particularly noticeable among the girls. Amina may wear a traditional shalwar and speak Bengali with her parents, but she is as sussed and as streetwise as any white teenager of her age. Girls still do not have the degree of freedom that the boys enjoy, but neither are they simply trapped at home or pushed into arranged marriages. A very high proportion go to FE colleges, and then to university. Many families accept that their daughter may be more interested in her career than in marriage. Like Electric House itself, it's different now for teenagers like Amina.

There is often a palpable sense of embarrassment among today's young Asians about their parents' attitudes and values. "I cringe every time I see an old man with a beard who can hardly speak English coming on TV and speaking for our community," says Rejwan Miah. "They seem to be stuck in the dark ages." Rejwan lives in Bradford's Manningham area, the centre of the recent riots. His father came to Britain in the Sixties to work in the mills, but Rejwan has grander ambitions. He works as a solicitor's clerk and is hoping to become a solicitor himself. He is like many young Asians today - close to his family, respectful of their beliefs, yet often frustrated by their attitudes and more in tune with the outlook and values of his white peers.

The increased confidence and assertiveness that Asian youth shows today has brought its own problems. To a generation that is so much more integrated into British society, the lash of racism is felt that much more acutely. "We won't put up with the kind of shit that my parents' generation did. We're not going to sit back and allow our brothers and sisters to be spat on, and beaten up and racially abused," says Shuhel Miah. "If someone calls us a 'Paki' we don't have to take it any more." Shuhel is 17 and a student at Tower Hamlets College in London; he wants to study computing at university. But being bright, articulate and confident is no protection against racism. A scar runs along one side of Shuhel's face, the result of a knife attack by a gang of racists in May last year. "I was walking back from doing some part-time teaching when I was jumped by a group of five or six. One of them had a knife and slashed me across the face." The fact that someone like Shuhel should remain a "Paki" in the eyes of so many creates a burning sense of resentment within Asian communities.

Harassment from the police irks Asian youth even more. In both Bradford and east London, young males complain that they are constantly stopped and searched by the police. "Wherever the police see young Asian drivers, they stop you," says Fayzur Rahman, 20, from Whitechapel. "If you're going somewhere important and you're in a hurry, they'll stop you for maybe 20 minutes, searching you for nothing. If they stop you three or four times a day, it is too much hassle." Rahman got stopped so often that he was forced to sell his car. Now he is suing the police for false arrest.

"The reason the police are picking on us," his friend Mac Miah believes, "is because we are not taking it any more. When we were quiet and kept off the streets, they liked us. When we were just victims they liked us.

"Now that we are standing up for ourselves, they see the Asian kids as if we're taking over the country."

The experience of Mac's family is not untypical. Eight years ago his father, Waris Ali, was beaten up by a gang of youths carrying iron bars; they stamped on his leg to break it. Mac's mother, Sara Bibi, was attacked by a gang of youths who beat her around the head with a piece of wood with nails embedded in it. His younger brother, Mukith, suffered a horrific attack, when a gang knifed him down the entire length of his back with a Stanley knife. "They tried to sacrifice him," says Mac quietly. Mac himself has been stopped, searched and humiliated by the police so often that he now drives a BMW with the number plate UPR1X. The sense of grievance created by such constant hostility helped to spark off the Bradford riots, and could well do the same in east London.

Yet Mac is far from the image of the bitter, twisted, alienated young Asian so often painted in the press. He still lives in Stepney with his parents and six brothers and sisters. The huge gulf in values and outlooks between two generations causes little friction in practice. "I would like my children to have the same beliefs as I do," says Mac's mother, Sara Bibi. "But young people never do. I don't mind so long as they remain good people." The family is warm and welcoming. They are also ambitious and hopeful about their future. One of Mac's sisters is at university, another studying for her A-levels. Mac himself is a typical East End small businessman, adept at selling everything from Indian take-aways to mobile phones. What they demand above all, however, is respect from white people and the police. "I wanted to be treated equally," says Mac. "That's all."

The constant conflict between a sense of ease and familiarity with British culture and a sense of rejection and frustration created by racism is a problem for all Asian youth. But it is felt particularly acutely by young Muslims, because forever haunting them is the spectre of Islam. Few young Muslims are religious. Fewer than half the Muslim community attend mosque regularly. The majority, particularly those under 25, go to mosque only once or twice a year, if that. The weekly Islamic classes at the East London Mosque attracts around 100 young people. Yet even those who do not follow the faith remain fiercely defensive of Islam. "I don't go to mosque" says Shuhel, "and I am not religious. But if anyone said anything bad about Islam I would thump them." Similarly, Amina cannot remember the last time she went to a mosque but nevertheless says that Islam is important to her. "It's my identity," she says.

That is a common view among young Muslims. "Islam has been constructed for us," says Ali Hussein, "by the strength of the anti-Muslim hysteria in this country." Hussein has been a black activist in Bradford for nearly two decades. He rejects the idea that today's youth are alienated from society. "It is society that is alienating itself from us," he says. The constant barrage of hostility towards Islam inevitably draws young Muslims closer to the faith.

"I remember being surprised by the number of young people who went on the anti-Rushdie demos," he says. "But they weren't there because of the fatwa. They were there to defend the dignity of the community."

Over the past year the National Union of Students and other student groups have voiced increasing concern about the growth of hardline Islamic groups in colleges. Organisations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir - Arabic for "Party of Liberation" - have made a determined attempt over the past few years to attract a following among young people. Its opponents accuse Hizb-ut- Tahrir of intimidating non-Muslim students and of spreading racism and anti-Semitism. The organisation has been banned from most colleges in London.

Students like Shuhel feel that the influence of such groups is exaggerated. "They make a lot of noise," he says, "but they don't have that much support." Hizb-ut-Tahrir lives in a world far removed from that of people like Shuhel, Amina and Mac, a world whose Islamic rigidities leave little room for Michael Jackson, Manchester United, the Wag club or the other icons of Asian life today.Yet it remains attractive because it refuses to be cowed by racism or by anti-Islamic sentiment. The belief that attacks on Hizb- ut-Tahrir are part of a wider attack on Islam compels many young Muslims to defend it. "I don't like Hizb-ut-Tahrir but it is part of our community," says Shuhel. "The more such groups are victimised," observes Ali Hussein, 'the more that young people will identify with them and their militancy."

Ironically, Hizb-ut-Tahrir plays on the same images of alienated Muslim youth caught between two cultures that the mainstream press promotes. "Increasingly Muslim youth find themselves caught between Western values and Islamic values," says Sayeed Khan, a Hizb-ut-Tahrir organiser in Bradford. "And increasingly they are rejecting Western values for Islam." It would be ironic if British society's refusal to respect young Asians as equal citizens should drive them towards groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and make them feel that they are, indeed, caught between two cultures.