Inside outside

How young British Muslims come to feel alienated from the country of their birth

'I don't feel British. Their values have nothing to do with mine...Besides you're just a pawn in their game. They just want your vote. They don't give a damn about you.'

These are the words of Zakaria, a Bangladeshi from the East End of London. In his trainers and hoodie he looks like any other British teenager. He speaks the slang of the London streets but, Manchester United supporter or not, he feels deeply alienated from the country of his birth.

Bangladeshi New yearDr Justin Gest, Deputy Director of the Migration Studies Unit at LSE, calls this withdrawal from the democratic system – either actively or passively – 'apartism'.

'This is rooted in the perception that the government is not looking out for your interests and, crucially, that that won't change,' explains Gest.

He argues that it is not terrorism that is the greatest threat within democracies, but rather this sustained alienation of people from their political systems.

Wanting to understand why many Western Muslims are disaffected in this way, Gest undertook research in the London borough of Tower Hamlets where he interviewed young Muslim Bangladeshi men, community leaders and imams.

He was particularly interested in their perspectives given the heightened security around British Muslims in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London public transport system. He found that many young peoples' only interactions with the 'state' were with the police.

Ridwan a university student said: 'More police makes me feel watched all the time… [The government] suggest that breaking down barriers is conditional on assimilation…I'm an average citizen. Just because I have a beard shouldn't make me a suspect.'

Friday Prayer at the East London Mosque overflowing onto streetGest also found that while the younger generation were very aware of their rights in a democratic society – and were highly aware when these were not being fulfilled – they were less sensitive to their obligations. In contrast to their parents, who saw Britain as a beneficent provider, having fled poverty and lack of opportunities in Bangladesh, the second generation felt entitled to the same benefits as any other citizen.

'Obviously the UK gave me a school and stuff, but that's my right, cause I'm born in this country,' says Zakaria. 'There's a bare minimum that they owe me.'

But as well as feeling alienated from British society, many young Muslims also felt estranged from the older generation in their own communities. They did not feel comfortable or welcome in the mosques where the teaching is in Arabic. Indeed many of the imams, who are not British, struggle to communicate in English.

One imam in Shadwell explained: 'Because of the communication gap, I can't always communicate with the youth...There is a gap between older and younger people. Each thinks that that other doesn't know anything.'

Into this vacuum step groups such as Hizb-Ut Tahrir (HT) or 'Party of Liberation' in Arabic. The transnational political party aims to undermine 'undivine' governments, build support for Islamic rule and the re-establishment the caliphate that covered much of the Eastern Hemisphere in the centuries after the Prophet Mohammad's death.

In seeking to connect young Bangladeshis with a global nation of Muslims, HT encourages them to reject both Britain, as well as the Bangladeshi community – the Islam of which it regards as Hindu-ized and backward.

Young Muslim boys and men are targeted by HT through clubs and groups where they discuss pertinent issues such as bullying , for the younger members, and 'Obama's foreign policy' and 'Citizenship in Islam'. Gest points out that these groups offer an exclusivist sense of belonging and community.

The rejection of the British government is underpinned by the argument that the West fosters hate for Islam. At an event in Toynbee Hall in 2008, the leader speaker said: 'The West needs hatred for Islam to support its interventions in the Muslim world. They want us to be afraid enough to accept Western Islam, because our Islam is scaring them and making them lose sleep.'

Distributing Hizb-Ut-Tahrir pamphlets after prayersBut while HT showcases democracy's imperfections, its members are very much the product of the British society that enables their self-expression. Most are not familiar with the alternative regime and society they aspire to install. 

For Gest their sense of entitlement about civil liberties, individual rights, representative institutions and responsive government can only emerge from political integration and an understanding of the democratic system of governance.

He says, 'You must know the system before you rebel against it. So it's wrong to argue that "better integration" of religious or ethnic minorities is essential to combat political alienation. In fact, the former appears to be necessary for the latter to occur.'

So what does need to happen? 'The problem for Muslim communities is that the job of engaging young people is being won by extremists,' says Gest. 'The Government needs to empower mosques and support moderate madrasahs. There is a need for imams that can speak English. The first point of call for young people who are seeking guidance is going to be the mosque or their parents – if they are not qualified to help, young people will turn elsewhere.'

Gest's research also suggests that there is a trade- off between current anti-terrorism security policies, such as profiling and surveillance, and the level of young Muslims' sense of belonging.

'If these policies are truly the most effective security measures, then societies must determine what is actually the greater risk - vulnerability to an isolated terrorist attack or a growing population of the alienated and the gradual dysfunction of democracy?' questions Gest. 'In the medium and long term, the best cohesion policy may be the best security policy.'


Useful links

For full details of Dr Justin Gest's research and publications see his profile on the LSE experts directory: Justin Gest  |

For more details about Justin Gest's book, Apart: alienated and engaged Muslims in the west see: Apart|