How can mainstream young Muslim students get heard when fundamentalists often have a stranglehold on their groups and societies? Saniya Gour, 17, an east London A-level student, has struggled. "Everyone where I live is so extreme. There are very few who are not hardline about things. And, as a girl, they don't want to hear what you have to say. I go to Leyton Sixth Form College and when I asked one of the heads of Isoc (the Islamic Society) if I could speak, he said no. They don't even like me talking to guys. They say: 'You're wearing a headscarf, you shouldn't be talking to boys'."
However, Saniya and other young Muslims now have a national forum where they can learn leadership skills and how to speak up. The Young Muslim Leadership Network (YMLN), funded by the Government as part of its controversial Prevent programme designed to stop violent extremism, is working hard to make its mark. It needs to. Early soundings by some of its two dozen members show that it is up against powerful forces.
The network was founded last year for young people aged 16 to 21, and has three groups – two in London and one in Birmingham. The central London group is researching university Islamic societies, and members have been shocked at what they have found. Hazura Bazeer, 18, a member of the central London branch of the YMLN, is in her final year at Coombe Girls' School in New Malden, Surrey, and has a place to study medicine at King's College, London. She says: "In one case that we heard of, a girl was slapped in the face for not wearing a headscarf, and, in one society, women were not allowed to speak and had to hold up their questions in writing."
On many campuses, societies are run by extremists, and moderate Muslim students avoid them. Such students also know that these societies are now closely monitored by the authorities – even more so after the recent University College London-educated alleged "underpants bomber" – and worry about the consequences of membership.
She points out that a lot of societies don't have any election process. "There is no democracy," she claims. "Posts are just handed on, so it is all just a vicious circle."
Her group is sending out a questionnaire to students and consulting on what changes people would like to see. It is also planning to visit more open Isocs, such as those at Oxford and Cambridge, in order to produce a code of good practice. "These societies have a lot of potential and ought to be a really cool part of university life."
Muhammad Saqib, 20, who is a student at Manchester University and active in the Birmingham group, has only recently become a practising Muslim. "I only started praying last year. Before that, I just thought it was a strict religion with a lot of rules that just seemed quite depressing. All these Muslims blowing themselves up gave quite a negative impression."
However, a talk at the LSE made him realise "that Islam is just the opposite", and now he is helping to produce a series of short video clips aimed at counteracting stereotypes and encouraging young Muslims to become engaged in society. The group has already interviewed Clare Short, the former Cabinet minister, and various prominent Asian figures, and, when the DVD is finished, they plan to show it in schools and to youth groups.
But Naqeeb Ahmed, 29, project officer for the network, knows from his experience at the University of Birmingham that young Muslims are often prime prey for extremists. "They've been brought up in liberal families, but then they get to university and start to explore their own identity and who they are as a Muslim, and they get drawn into these societies and become more and more extreme so that, eventually, even if their own father dies, they refuse to say a prayer in the house for him because they have been told that that is wrong. I've seen it so often myself. And these groups are strong and well-funded. We're up against the petrodollar – and how easy is it to fight that?"
Najda Khan, 18, who works for Bradford Metropolitan District Council, says schisms within Muslim communities can be deep and divisive. "Where do I start?" she says, rolling her eyes. "It can be about someone praying in the wrong way, about the Prophet's birthday, about issues with the Council of Mosques." She has already founded a campaigning environmental group and spoken to the House of Lords. "I'm passionate about getting young Muslims politically active."
These young people are also working to counteract prejudices about Islam. Crude stereotypes of oppressed women and bushy-bearded terrorists are, they say, reinforced by an irresponsible media, while barriers such as poverty, lack of confidence and family tensions stop many young Muslims playing their full part in society.
The network recently held its second national conference in London, and Bazeer, like others, values the chance to meet. "There aren't many Muslims where I live, and I don't have other Muslim friends at school. Alcohol is a big problem. You get invited to birthday parties, and there you are with a load of drunk people and you're sober. It can be difficult. And my friends say: 'Oh you're so innocent. You don't do this and you don't do that'. Everyone in the network is dealing with these kinds of misconceptions and stereotypes."
The network works alongside other organisations, such as the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the Young Muslims Advisory Group, set up by Hazel Blears, the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. However the Prevent programme, which has backed the YMLN with £110,000, has drawn widespread condemnation from critics who say it is being used to spy on Muslim communities. In March, a cross-party committee of MPs published a report, after an investigation into the three-year-old programme which has spent £53m on funding more than 1,000 community projects, which found it was doing more harm than good.
But Don Rowe, senior adviser on curriculum resources for the Citizenship Foundation, which administers the network, points out its aim is simply to "increase the young people's understanding of how our society works, so that they will feel more comfortable engaging with people in power and have more faith in the system and how it works. If they can sit down for an hour with someone like Clare Short and discuss a whole range of issues they have identified as important, it is bound to increase levels of trust and understanding".
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