‘An Evening with *Hashi Mohamed’
Muslim Youth: Escaping the prevailing paradigm of
terrorism, underachievement and alienation
Wednesday, 3rd May 2017
Chairman: My name is Shabir Razvi. I will be hosting the programme this evening organised by the Gulf Cultural run by Fatima Dosa and Saeed Shehabi. It is unusual for us to have just one speaker so there is ample opportunity for a q and a session after the speaker has presented his thoughts.
The topic of the programme is Muslim Youth: escaping the prevailing paradigm of terrorism, underachievement and alienation. I think one of the signs of the success of this programme is that people have turned up on a cold, wintry evening. If that is a paradigm shift then certainly thank you very much for venturing out on a May evening when it is supposed to be nice and sunny but it feels like winter.
There is this prevailing paradigm which puts Muslim youth as victims and terrorists, underachieving and alienated. There has been a lot of sociological work done which compares the first generation immigrants with the second and the third generation immigrants. Perhaps the dictomy arises because by the time the second generation arrives linguistically they become part of the host community. There is a book written by an American barrister, the one who wrote the book The Tiger Mother. She has just written a book finished last year which compares the successes of immigrant communities in the USA. She looks at the Kenyan community, the Chinese community, the Koreans, the Indians and the Pakistanis in terms of the first and second generation immigrants.
I think the beauty of capitalism and the Western culture is that one success is magnified so that the other 99 percent are also seen as successful but the reality is that it does not happen that way. In no way do I want to contradict what our brother is going to present.
We quite often measure success as having a nice car, a big house, three holidays a year and the community that I come from, certainly the Asian community which is in the third generation stage actually values only materialism as a sign of success. Other measures like family life, associations, contribution to the community etc are neglected. So there is this dyctomy which we also need to understand and appreciate.
Another challenge arises when an individual, or few individuals, from a community become successful they may actually become alienated from their own community. Again there was a seminal work done in the 1950s about the East Indian community living in the Dockland area, where the children of that community went to Oxford to Cambridge and were completely disenchanted from their own community.
So again when an individual being successful does that mean that they are done with their community. So we need to address the issue of where success leads. It is of course wonderful to have successful people in the community but therein lies the challenge itself of whether the community as a whole is becoming successful.
Hashi Mohamed: Thank you very much for inviting me. The title says ‘Muslim youth’ and without sounding rude I look at the audience and I see only some of the youth. I am very grateful for this invitation. It is a very big topic and it is a big question to really delve into. What I propose to do is to say a little bit about myself and my background, then say a few words about the context in which we meet and why this conversation and this issue is such an important one and then offer three ideas or three points that are critical to understanding our sense of purpose, where we are and what we can individually and as a society realistically do to try and improve things.
The important point to make is that I am 33 years and have been in this country for just over 20 years and in many ways my ideas, my thoughts and my form of thinking continues to evolve and I have the very fortunate position of being able to air my thoughts from time to time on air on a place like BBC Radio Four. A couple of years ago I did some work on child refugees. I work in other areas on other topics and just recently on social mobility.
Again it is a way in which I am able to reflect on what is going on in my life and the society that is around me and luckily again on a platform that is not generally afforded to people from my particular background.
Escaping the prevailing paradigm of terrorism, underachievement and alienation – we are not going to cover all of those in any meaningful way tonight, but I will try and address as many of them as I can.
My background is that I came in 1993 as a nine-year-old child refugee without my parents. My father had died in Kenya. My mother had stayed behind. I did not speak much English at all. I came with my half siblings and we settled in Wembley. My mother, if you can believe it, is an extraordinary woman who gave birth to 12 children and when we escaped Kenya and Somalia people had scattered around the world. Some of my siblings are in American some ended up in Canada most of us ended up here.
You can imagine never having left Africa or even Kenya landing on the shores of Britain, never imagining what the future would have, never really being able to understand what it means, never fully comprehending what was about to begin without your parents.
And so what the future holds and what your sense of purpose is and what exactly you are doing there is not something that most adults are able to digest, yet alone a young child or indeed a young child who does not understand the language or culture or the people around them, they do not look like you, you are in a minority and you are trying to digest all of what this means.
We grew up in a very deprived area in north west London, poor performing schools, state benefits and just the sense of real deprivation that existed. But there are just two things to say about that: I am truly grateful for having been in the environment that I was in in this way and actually in many respects as much as we did not have anything we at least had a bit of pride, we had each other. That meant a great deal because you can’t quantify that, you can’t buy that and even if we did not necessarily have the money to get on and do certain things now and again we at least had each other’s company and it was to a large extent, a pretty happy existence.
When I talk about being raised on state benefits and being raised in these deprived communities I don’t ever say it because I am ashamed of it or indeed because I would like to erase my background or imagine that I lived in a different context or that I wished that I had a different upbringing. I say it because it gives you a kind of idea of where I have come from, how far I have come and indeed what the vast majority of people that I grew up around were facing when you think about where they may have ended up and where I may have ended up.
Today they tell me I am a barrister, I believe them. I appear on Radio Four. Again I believe it because I have listened to it. I am also doing well in a way that I have never ever thought was going to be possible in the way that it has turned out to be. One thing that I was always certain about was when we went to a place like Mathma Gandhi House in Wembley and we would queue up for days and days to try and find housing. It is quite funny when you read the Daily Mail and it says all these refugees and foreigners are jumping the queue. I wish I knew there was a queue. I wish I knew how to jump the queue. If I knew then what I know now I would have jumped a lot of queues. You have no idea and nobody is explaining anything to you.
One thing I was certain about, never imagining that I would be where I am today was that my past was never going to be the same as my future and that my future was always going to be much better and much much brighter. I did not know how I was going to do that, I did not understand if I was ever going to be able to do that but I pretty sure that the crap existence that we had was not going to be one that I was going to live for the future.
So I am self employed, I work when I want to, I work from home when I want to, I have clerks who help me to become a better barrister and I present on Radio Four three or four times a year. If you can believe it – I tell this to people who often are shocked – I genuinely believe that I am barely scratching the surface of what is possible. I feel that in many ways I am barely getting started at what I am capable of and what I want to do.
This has not been an easy journey. Please do not under estimate what this has taken. It has taken a great deal of hardship, a great deal of hard work, many sacrifices beyond me and also lots of false starts. Lots of occasions where you have had rejection, occasions when nobody replies to your email. Occasions when nobody returns your calls and it has taken a long time. I may be 33 but I feel I may be closer to 53. But again there is that feeling that I am genuinely just getting started.
I was lucky enough to go to Oxford for my post graduate degree on a full scholarship. I went to the bar on a full scholarship. I did not have to worry about paying for any of that. That gave me the opportunity to fully concentrate on my studies.
So what exactly happened and how was that transition possible? What is it that actually took place and how did it come about that I find myself here? If I genuinely knew what the answer to that question was then I would put in a post card and sell it for a million pounds on every street corner. I have some idea of what it took land how it came about. There is no simple answer. It is a combination of things. It is a combination a lot of luck because getting on a plane with nothing, without my parents, and landing at Heathrow airport in June 1993, God knows, nobody had any idea what that meant. And that is some extraordinary luck.
There were all the other circumstances in which we found ourselves. And crucially remember this: my beginnings and how I ended up here and the life that I led as a youth here, remember this. When you look at the average Somali who has come to the UK in the last 20 years my beginnings are remarkably unremarkable. It is pretty standard. No English, no understanding of context, no understanding of the country that you have just come to, no real connections, no networks, no actual appreciation of how the system works. That is the modern, simple and common Somali story.
It is not the case that I had a particularly difficult start or indeed that I was extraordinarily disadvantaged. Not at all. It was pretty standard. Some people would argue that they had it worse because I least I was born in Kenya and many people had had to flee war whereas my family was tangentially affected in the way that many were coming to Kenya when we were already there.
It was a story of meeting the right people at the right time – people who believed in me, people who gave me a second chance, seizing moments. But also a fearless belief that if my past was what it was my future could not be worse. And on that basis why not give it everything that you can possibly give it because you have nothing more to lose. And that is no easy kind of feat if you think about it because if you in your heart of hearts think to yourself I am fearless and I have no fear about where I am going you can take the leaps and the jumps that most other people would be too scared to take.
I thought my future can’t be worse than my past, so why can’t I give it my best. And what also tends to happen, and it happens to me now and I imagine it will continue to happen to me in the future a lot is that you meet people who you once sought help from and who might have ignored you and who might never have responded when you needed them but have now come out of the woodworks and seek you in a way that you can clearly see is from a different perspective.
There was a chap who I met about seven ago. He was a senior barrister. I had no legal experience whatsoever. I was desperately trying to understand the legal system to get some work experience. I remember approaching this chap. I said to him: “This is what I am trying to do, can I meet you, can I seek your guidance. Can you help me to understand how this works?”
Needless to say he was quite dismissive and never really responded in the way I hoped. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I also remember thinking you will regret that. Today that senior barrister is a judge. Today his assistant emailed me and said his Lordship recently listened to your documentary on Radio Four and would very much like to meet you.
I replied and said of course I would like to meet him. It would be my honour. It would be an absolute delight. I will meet him but I will never forget those who believed in me and those who invested in my when I was nothing. Today when you see kids from my background or people who are trying to desperately improve their lives it is really important that you treat each and every one of those kids with a particular affection and a particular understanding because those kids might never be able to work up the courage to come and talk to you. They might never have the confidence to be able to address you and they might want your help.
Now when I go to schools, when I go to colleges, when I am speaking at an event in Chambers or the Honourable Society in Lincolns Inn where I am a member or anywhere else every kid who talks to me, every single kid – I may not see them again, I may not meet them for coffee – but I make sure that they believe and feel that I am have listened to them, that I have understood them and that I help them where I can. I can’t help everyone but I can encourage everyone. I can give confidence to everyone. That is easy. And so where ever you are, however influential you may be in your area when those young people reach out to you for help, for guidance, for some words of encouragement be wary about your response. Be careful about how you respond. Measure your words carefully. They may not come in the way I will come back but they will remember it. They won’t forget and you might in fact cause them damage because you did not give them the words that they needed at that particular moment in their lives.
If I told you the number of times this happened to me you would laugh. But it happens and it used to happen to me a lot eight or nine years ago. I see those people but I know what their character is about and I know that when I reached out to them they did not react in the way I expected. You might think that I am being harsh to judge them on one encounter. You might be too harsh for not giving them a second chance. But I only had one chance to approach you. I only had that one moment to muster up enough courage. Imagine that teenager, imagine that young person. I have enough confidence to walk up to anyone. But imagine that young person who does not have half that courage, half that confidence to be able to talk to you and you found that you didn’t speak to them in the way they had hoped. Think about that damage. So that gives you a bit of an idea in terms of where I have come from and the kind of affects that the people who have helped me have had on my life.
For this documentary that I made on Radio Four I picked three individuals who have had a massive impact on my life over the past ten years and through this documentary they explain how they felt when they first met me, how they helped me and how I found myself where I am today listened to by millions of people. It is on I player, I have written millions of article about it. That is the power that you can affect on young people if you intervene and you encourage at the right moments.
There are three key principles that I would draw out of these lessons. I promise you there are so many more principles I could bring out and so many more ideas I could share with you but I thought for the sake of brevity I would stick to three.
Possibly the most important in my view is confidence. Confidence is the root from which everything will end up growing or failing to grow. Confidence is at the base of any foundation that you are trying to build. If a child is growing up with not enough confidence in who they are and where they are, what they seek to want to do with their lives that is a recipe for disaster.
If you are going to a particular public school in which confidence is instilled in you from the moment you walk in the door in calculated in a way that it is rammed down your throat I often compare that to the production of foie gras. I don’t know if you are familiar with the way fois gras is made but I can assure you it is not a pleasant process – involves ramming down a lot of things down the throat of an animal. And that is exactly what happens with confidence if you are raised in a particular environment and in a particular school.
The kind of schools I went to and the kind of schools that Muslims in very deprived communities or young black males growing up in very deprived communities go, confidence is snuffed out of you very early on. You are encouraged to lower your sights in line with your surroundings. The hefty pressure and burden of low expectation means that any hope you may have to fulfil your ambition and sense of purpose is stifled before you have even had the chance to realise your potential. That is the gulf of what you are dealing with and confidence is critical.
I grew up in an environment in which my mother and my grandmother and my siblings were always told that we had much to do. My grandmother is somebody who has never been formally educated, never went to school can’t read or write but she always told me that I should always hold my head up high, be proud of who I am and be proud of what you can do. Again we didn’t have much.
Back in those days, I don’t how many of you will remember this, they used to give out food vouchers and those food vouchers would enable you to go to Londes or Tesco and you could hand that over and say give me x amount of bread, x amount of milk.
I remember vividly going to a shop with my grandmother who didn’t speak much English and who would hand these vouchers to the guy. It was like a cheque book. You would rip it out, hand it to the guy who would stamp your book and say that you have used that particular part and you would hand him the other part and he would stamp it, put it in his cash drawer and give us milk or bread.
I am a ten year old boy. I don’t know any different. My grandmother would always say to us when we went there: “ See this. This is not a dignified life.” I remember growing up and thinking to myself, I don’t quite know what she means, I don’t quite understand what she means but she always used to remind us. You can to better than this. And that always stayed with me. And again in due course, in sha Allah, I will have my own kids. My nephews and nieces now from the moment they could listen and understand, I sat there for hours telling them that they are amazing, they are going to do great things, I listened to them, they listened back. I explain things to them, I am patient with them because I know that what you instil in that child in those early years, will be so determinative, so critical.
Sadly so many of our children in these deprived communities whether they are Muslim or not are growing up with their shoulders down, with not really an ability to be able to speak with confidence. Not with an ability to articulate themselves, stand up for themselves, defend themselves. I am not discussing those kinds of kids who are always willing to just answer back to teachers and who are trying to play to the gallery of their friends. Not at all.
I am talking about a kid who is confident about who they are, where they are, what they are trying to do and how they are trying to do it. It makes me angry because I am thinking to myself, you guys are the future and what is it that you have done now both in terms of where you come from and your home mindset that means that I am here discussing these issues and none of you have the confidence to ask me a question, address me or challenge me.
In my household, with all the cousins and brothers and sisters and all of the relatives that I had. If you were not the kind of person who could defend yourself by verbally having a good retort and being able to bounce back with a good quip or a good answer you would be finished. I installed the confidence in you because you knew that you had to hold your own.
For me the number one thing that we are dealing with at the moment is that confidence. That sense of character, that sense of place to be able to understand themselves. If they do not have that confidence by the way it makes it much easier for them to be taken down the garden path by more strongly charactered kids in the classroom. It makes it that much easier for them to be influenced and pushed down a particular path.
So it is critical that they have that belief that they can be who they want to be and nobody, but nobody, is going to tell them that that is not cool. This is cool. And they can be like well that might be cool for you but it isn’t for me.
If that is not at the core they will struggle with what their faith means, they will struggle with what purpose they have in life, they will struggle and be easily led astray on a whole host of things and that again comes back to that sense of confidence that is there for them to be able to discover themselves and be open to ask questions. To ask their brothers and sisters questions and not be afraid.
The second point which is related to confidence but is equally important is the country context. I have lived in France. I travelled around the Netherlands and Germany and I have really paid attention to country specific things. I can tell you, as far as I am concerned and as far as I can tell, Britain is the best place anywhere in western Europe and probably anywhere in the Western world with possible competition being Canada to be Muslim and /or to be black. I defy anyone to disagree with me. All you have to do is go to the suburbs of France, Belgium and Germany and I can promise you that we are not perfect here but believe you me we have it much better than most if not the vast majority.
So what are we doing with that? Are we squandering that or are we trying to harness it in a way that allows us to squeeze every drop of every talent in every human being that is in this country. But there are also other things which don’t help. In Britain for example, this ridiculous structures that are in place that allow people to discriminate without necessarily discriminating. For example the class system which is a classic example of people seeking to keep an invisible system in place that does not allow people to fully engage with society. The way that we judge people on accents and the way that they seek to express themselves.
In France I will be judged by the name on my cv. But if you are a black Etonian you will be absolutely fine here even if your name is Mohamed. And that is an example of the kind of structures that are in place that forbid us in many respects from fully really engaging with society and harnessing as many talents as we possibly can to be able to fully engage and make the most.
The other element which we must also remember in the issue of context is that those who came before us have in many ways paved the way for us to be able to be doing even better and yet in some respects we seem to be going backwards rather than forwards. And what do I mean by that? If you look back to the communities (I came in 1993) who came in the 50s and the kind of deep rooted racism that existed then and the speeches that were being made in an election period.
There was a constituency in a place called Smethwick, a really lovely place, they make a great curry. The Conservative Party’s slogan during that election against Labour was if you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour. That was an actual slogan of the Conservative Party in Sethwick in 1961.
We have had the Race Relations Act, we have had the Indian community who came from East Africa, we have had a number of other people who have sought asylum more recently -the Somalis – but we have made major strides to improve race relations in this country which has meant that me being a black man in 2017 is infinitely, though not completely, easier than it was to be a black man in 1960.
It is certainly easier to be a minority generally but not necessarily if you are a Muslim because we are in that period where the Muslims are in the eye of the storm. But equally it is much easier to be a Muslim here then it is in Paris or Brussels.
So when you look at the country context specifically I am the beneficiary and stand on the shoulders of so many people who have sacrificed through major fights, through riots, through deaths and through major sacrifices to be able to do what I am doing. That gives me a sense of what I am doing with that privilege. What am I doing to make the most of that privilege despite all of the other disadvantages which continue to exist. And that sense of urgency is what you should be instilling in the youth. That sense of urgency is what you should be pushing for young people to make the most of.
We are sitting in London in 2017 and it is almost taken for granted that the mayor of this city is called Sadiq Khan. We don’t even fully appreciate the enormity of what that means. A practising Muslim is the mayor of one of the best and the biggest Western cities in the world – a Western city in which he is in a minority.
Does that mean we should be applauding ourselves? Of course not. Do we have plenty of work to do? Absolutely. Let us just pause for a moment and look at where we are starting from. Where we have come from and than ask ourselves what is possible moving forward. Especially now by the way where we are in that environment where we are soon to leave the European Union and every single person’s talent has to be harnessed and it is all hands on deck. We can’t afford to be complacent. We can’t afford to lose the opportunities to make sure that every child has a decent education, that every child realises their full potential and that every child is able to contribute in a significant way. Not just in any way but in a significant way.
The final thought is knowing what I know and what we said about confidence and knowing what we know about what I said in relation to the country specific progress that we have made and what is possible the next point is (and it is related to the previous two) a sense of purpose. What do I mean by that? I mean that if a young person is growing up in this country and is constantly bombarded on social mobility about what it means to be a young man, what it means to be a young woman, the kind of materialism, the kind of short term feel good transient things that are going on what sense of purpose do we instil in our children? What sense of citizenship do you impart on that teenager who looks at you and is going through that period of puberty and whirl wind sense of understanding of who they are and what they are, or where they come from and where they are trying to get to? What do you tell that child?
What do you tell that child? What do you tell that young impressionable mind? That is often something only very rarely do we fully appreciate in a way that we engage in it. And I am not surprised that so many who don’t have that confidence, who don’t understand the context in which they have grown up, and who don’t have that sense of purpose, might seek that sense of purpose in a place like Syria. They might seek that sense of purpose doing questionable things. They might seek that sense of purpose in a dark, dark place. It does not surprise me.
When you see the horrible attacks of this Khalid Masoud chap who had led by all accounts a troubled life and with a poor understanding of Islam was lured in given a new name, a new beginning, a new community that will not judge you : step away from the society that has abandoned you, step away from the society that has condemned you. We will not condemn you. We believe in you. And this is the form of Islam that we will teach you. You just have to do one thing and be done with this world and you shall be comfortable in the hereafter.
It’s a compelling message. It’s a compelling message if you are incapable of understanding what is at your core. It is a compelling message if you do not understand fully and are not engaged with a critical mind the country in which you are in, the context in which you find yourself and what your purpose is. And that is what is at stake with our youth today. That is what we are faced with when it comes to fully having an understanding of what it means a to be in a minority, what it means to be from a deprived community whatever your race, colour or gender. What it means to be a Muslim, what it means to be black and Muslim. What it means to be black, Muslim and a woman if that wasn’t bad enough.
And that is the kind of context in which we are trying to understand all of these things. I don’t speak for a community, I don’t purport to represent any organisation on whose behalf I seek to advance these points. I cannot sit here and say to you that I have all the answers. I am an imperfect human being just like everyone else who is here. But I would like to think that I have understood some things and that I continue to understand things in the place that we find ourselves.
I end with this. I am intensely inherently and to my core optimistic. I am optimistic because from where I have come from, the depths from which I have come from, and to be sitting where I am sitting now, doing what I am doing now and the opportunities which come my way today I have no choice but to be optimistic. I have no choice but to believe that we have something that is better, that is possible. That can only work if we are all prepared to do our bit. The road ahead will be hard and there will be plenty of false starts. But are we prepared to just look up ahead from the small cocoons and the bits that we see just ahead of us and raise our gaze just to see the horizon of what is possible. I believe so, and I hope you do to. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen.
*Hashi Mohamed is a Barrister and Broadcaster who recently presented a documentary ‘Adventures in Social Mobility’ on BBC Radio 4. He arrived in the UK as an immigrant from Kenya and experienced, first hand, life in over-crowded homes, deprived communities and was educated in under-performing state schools. Yet he ‘made it’ and succeeded beyond all expectations. This narrative is not the same for many of our youth especially Muslims who face many challenges and barriers in breaking through the glass ceilings. In the UK, as in the rest of Europe, Muslims are seen through the prism of terrorism and backwardness. Different European models to integrate minority communities, especially Muslims, have never achieved utopia and in recent years multiculturalism, diversity and social cohesion have been under attack rather than being celebrated. Hashi discusses his take on challenges, barriers and solutions in achieving a cohesive, well integrated and fairer society.