Alienation and identity

Emily Bransom reviews Navid Akhtar's Young, angry and muslim (Channel Four, October 24)

Director Navid Akhtar revisited his British-Pakistani roots to make this contribution to the debate on the reasons why some young muslims have turned to 'radical islam'. Appropriately, the unforgettable scenes of the 7/7 London bombings opened the programme, with the videoed personal statement of one of bombers immediately following. Akhtar described the shock this had provoked among muslims and explained how the aftermath of the attacks had left many questioning the values of their own communities. How could young people from this British-born generation turn on society with such hatred? The programme suggests the answer is an internal crisis of identity, felt most keenly by youth. Torn between the restrictive traditions of their parents and the 'individualism' of British society, young muslims feel dislocated and without a genuine 'home', according to Akhtar. Consequent feelings of alienation and a lack of direction "make young muslims vulnerable to the radicals". This point was repeated throughout the hour-long programme - young and angry muslims are drawn to radicalism to fulfil a sense of belonging and identity. The voice-over of the director warned ominously that "ignoring these voices will only ensure that we hear them again". In order to help us better understand the "very real, not abstract" identity crisis felt by so many muslims, we were invited by Akhtar into his community to see for ourselves the problems faced every day. The majority of muslims in Britain are of Pakistani origin and, having been born there himself, Akhtar focused on this group. Images of British troops herding up Pakistani refugees in the 1960s and 1970s accompanied an interview with an elderly man explaining how he, like thousands of others, had come to Britain to make money to send back home. Their plan was to work here for five years before returning to Pakistan wealthy and capable of looking after their families. In reality though, for most this did not happen. Instead, the old man continued, "We are now citizens of the UK and Pakistan." It is this double identity that was the focus of the programme and in a sense, the title was very misleading. Rather than concentrating on young and angry muslims, it was more an insight into Akhtar's personal turmoil and that of his friends and family. His father had recently died and we followed him in his attempt to decide what to do with the land he had been left in Pakistan. Clearly, Akhtar did feel torn between two cultures and it would be wrong to deny the significance of this on his personal life. However, to use this personal crisis to make sweeping generalisations about the motivations of political islam and its attractions for some youth is to miss the point. The programme presented no evidence of young muslims being fundamentally different in objective terms to youth from any other social or ethnic group in Britain. So the question that needs to be addressed is why some at the fringes of this group have become so desperate as to make human bombs out of themselves and what this tells us about not simply this section, but also wider British society. A representative from the Muslim Youth Helpline spoke of the 5,000 calls received by the organisation last year. It was explained that this was significant because it showed a growing disillusionment among muslim youth. However, most of the calls turned out to be about issues such as personal relationships, school, friends and family - all difficult enough for any young person. Although trying to make us see how young muslims have to fight the contradictions between their 'two worlds', Akhtar himself sometimes appeared not to appreciate that teenagers born and brought up in Britain would not necessarily find Pakistani elders qualified to deal with their problems. To dismiss the added cultural pressures faced by muslim teenagers in Britain would be foolish. Yet to use it as proof that they are unlike other youth groups is also unhelpful. Young British muslims have the same objective problems as any other adolescents, although refracted though the particular culture of their communities, of course. In some scenes with his family Akhtar seemed to project his own obvious identity crisis onto relatives who actually seemed perfectly at ease with themselves. Given that his programme featured no interviews with ' young and angry' muslims tortured by their split personalities, it seems he did exactly the same thing with a whole group of people he did not even know. In reality support for reactionary islamism is a symptom of a far deeper and more disturbing malaise not simply confined to one ethnic/religious population - the alienation produced by capitalism itself. And the effects of capitalism's ills are particularly felt amongst some minority groups. There is massive unemployment within the muslim population and the programme claimed that 60% of muslims are on low incomes. In addition to this, there are proportionately more Pakistani-Kashmiri muslim men in prison than any other Asian group. The programme was useful in offering an insight into the "rural tribal mentality" that prevails within much of the Pakistani-Kashmiri community. The clan system, known as the biraderi, is designed to keep power with the elders. In return for positions of influence in local politics, clan elders deliver votes for mainstream parties. This was demonstrated by the massive and systematic fraud conducted by Labour in the 2004 council elections in Birmingham. These elders, detached and remote from youth culture in Britain, are promoted by Blair to help solve the problems of alienation and identity. The programme alluded to the idea that anger felt by so many young people in Britain today often stems from the hypocrisy of the Blair government's foreign policy. This is accentuated for muslims when the government claims it is passing anti-terror legislation to protect the innocent in this country whist itself terrorising the (mainly muslim) innocent in Iraq. However, disaffection with particular foreign policy strategies is hardly adequate to explain the tragedy of July 7. The lack of identity suggested by Akhtar cannot be dismissed. However, it is misguided to place it as the issue that most urgently needs addressing. It is one factor within a layer of social and economic factors affecting the whole working class. The building of a viable working class alternative that all disaffected sections can relate to is the essential antidote to the alienation experienced most sharply by sections such as young muslims. The answer is to be found not in Respect-type platitudes, but in the programme of working class socialism.