Young Muslims in Europe: misrepresentations, identities and the search for one’s own voice.


“I know you really hate this question, but I am so curious: why do you wear the headscarf?” askedan acquaintance from university. When I responded that it was part of my religion, she was surprised: “but why do you believe in God?” I think it was a very intuitive and honest response. She knew me as an activist, as a thinker and as a reflective, critical person. For a lot of people – especially those who have been socialised in a secular way –  this doesn´t seem to correspond with being religious. Especially if it is a belief in Islam, which has been narrated and projected as a religion of terror, violence, misogyny and patriarchy.

Sadly, this is the hegemonic discourse about Islam and therefore, your religious choice is perceived as your “weak point”; despite your intelligence and critical self-reflection. Having dark hair and black or brown skin seems to be enough to be attacked on the streets, but religion adds further complications.In everyday relationships it makes a difference when you say that you’re religious, that you practise Islam. Surrounded by a secular lifestyle, in the political sphere and in school, you are also surrounded by question marks.

As a young Muslim in Europe you’re constantly dealing with media and politics debating and discussing (often carelessly) your religion. You’re constantly dealing with misrepresentations, singlesided arguments, becoming the topic of discussion in your class or lecture. You’re constantly a little less anonymous than white non-Muslims. Strangers feel free to ask you about your head scarf, about your religion, your marriage. Things one might perceive as intimate topics.

Global issues, local problems, and being a Muslim

We live in world that is globalised and changes constantly, ours are societies full of hybrid identities. The dynamic created through the news and in political debates makes it difficult for all young people in Europe to make up their minds and speak out for what they believe is right, but especially for young People of Colour. Particularly for People of Colour, there is more than one society or community that we feel deeply connected with. And yet, hybrid identities are not easy to deal with when the majority of society acts like there is a homogeneous conflict between “We” and “the Others”.  As a young Muslim woman, being otherised is something I grew up with.  But before the advent of anti-Islamic discourses, I mainly felt otherised by being non-white: being of Turkish descent in Germany, going by a Turkish name, and having a non-German appearance. But in recent years, I have observed and experienced an increasing focus on Muslim identities.

There isan increasing anti-Islamic atmosphere in Europe, especially in France and Germany. And on this point I would differentiate between people who are Muslim by socialisation and those who live their religion very actively. I don´t mean to differentiate in order to categorise who is a Muslim and who is not, nor to banalise anyone’s personal struggle. But by personal experience and what I know from the daily reality lived by a lot of other people, it appears to me that on some points there is a difference made by society whether you ‘just’ have been born into a Muslim family, or if you are  claiming the Islamic identity actively with your lifestyle. 

Because of the heightened public debates of the last few years, racist thoughts and attitudes are easier to articulate in public. After years and years of unthoughtful, racist, anti-Islamic public debates in politics and media, which have constantly dehumanised Muslims and other People of Colour, it is surprising to see how the liberal left has responded to the emergence of PEGIDA: with shock and awe.

Many debates in the media and in political discourses have been racist by omission, if not by commission, having only one-sided debates about “We” and “the Others”. I ask, how are young Muslims supposed to react to this? Not only do we see that we are being Otherised, when strong reactionary movements arise, the supposed defenders of rights and freedom are shocked? It’s difficult not to feel cynical, not to feel abandoned by Europe, but still, we have hope.

Not only is the non-Muslim discourse about Muslims single-sided, but so too are the publicised reactions of Muslim communities. I know so many young Muslims who react to the things I post on social media and in my blog articles with support. I sense that there are a lot of young Muslims in Europe who feel frustrated by both the mainstream media coverage and the reactions of the Muslim community. We always see the same kinds of people speaking for the Muslim communities: people with “acceptable” public personas who denounce Islam, or reactionaries who advocate violence. Public figures who disassociate themselves in the name of “the Muslims” during times of unrest (such as the recent Charlie Hebdo assassinations), may feel they are presenting a more humane and acceptable face of Islam to an uncaring public. However, they implicitly accept the underlying assumption of the media and viewers: that there is an obvious connection between those who commit crimes and other Muslims.

We are tired of being apologetic for things which are mistakenly being applied to us as Muslims in general. That kind of discourse itself is framed by racial bias and cultural hegemony, always hidden behind a false concept of freedom of speech.

But, for some reason, perhaps fear of social rejection, perhaps cynicism,a lot of young Muslim don´t feel like articulating what they really think and feel. A good friend of mine posted this status update a few weeks ago on Facebook:

“I was 11 years-old when 9/11 came upon us. No wonder our parents raised us to be PR experts. No wonder many of us have forgotten how to speak our minds. We were raised to be cautious and frame the things we wanted to say in a language that didn’t upset the master. We tried to wrap this in dignity and called it “diplomacy” or even “dawah” (proselytising). But it was nothing but fucked up”

The tone of the message conveys the anger and exhaustion of young Muslims; not only at the media and political discourses that Otherise us, but also at our own acquiescence in this charade. Our parents have not done enough to change these discourses, but young Muslims in Europe have to.

We have a lot of young Muslims in Europe who feel voiceless. Not because they do not speak or cannot speak, but because the mainstream discourse is not listening. In the rare instance that they  do listen, there is a danger that the media will silence everything which does not match into the narratives they want to create. That is why we have been having the same discourse for years now. That is why radical changes among the Muslim community are not appreciated by wider society: it’s not that they are not taking place, it is that they are not being depicted, especially in the contexts of self-definition and community work which would show how the community has changed.

We saw that very clearly after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. The Muslim voices who were invited to talk shows and were asked to write articles on Charlie Hebdo were those who were either very engaged in renouncing fundamentalism, or those who were very busy with publicly blaming the Muslim community for “not doing enough”. These are the basic oppositions young Muslims are presented with, instead of hearing what we need: a call for solidarity among Muslims and other People of Colour who are constantly dragged into a frame of terrorism and Otherness. We needed someone to speak to and about us as human beings, not as “terrorists” or “blind followers of a religion”.

Behaviour like this leads to more frustration among young Muslims. Discourses like that blur the lines because they pretend that there is a responsibility of the Muslim communities only. This separation of communities shows that there is in mainstream opinion, an overwhelming feeling that Muslims are separate from wider society, part of different communities, and that wider society has no responsibility whatsoever.

Well, at least not when they do bad things. As long as they are successful they are trophy People of Colour/Muslims and suddenly part of the society. We feel the distinction between useful and useless Migrants, People of Colour very strong these days. Whenever a Muslim does something wrong, he/she becomes the responsibility of the Muslim community only. The action is being focused as a specific behaviour or problem of Muslims in general. It is related to Islam as a religion. This ignores those troubled young Muslims who become fundamentalists (in part) as a result of a society that failed them. They are the result and the responsibility of the entire society, of politics, and of the media.

It is really important that media and politics starts to make clear statements and reflect the way they address crimes done by Muslims/People of Colour, and crimes by white people. There are multiple problems including integration, but more importantly, the structural problems and racial profiling evident in a contemporary western state and its justice systems. The way empathy and solidarity is shared with white lives and not with black lives, lives of People of Colour and Muslims in general is palpable. Wider society needs to allow Muslim communities to work on their inner problems, but also alongside Muslim communities. Muslim communities have been working on their internal problems for years now, and they need to be able to continue this work without having the state standing behind them watching and administrating every step they do.

But no one will do that voluntarily. No one will give up their comfort zones and privileges if Muslim communities and minority communities do not push them to do so.

Freedom of speech as a responsibility

Earlier I spoke about the false concept of freedom of speech. When I say this, I mean two things. First of all is freedom of speech linked to having equal access to resources of producing and reproducing knowledge and speech. If we look into areas like politics, academia, media and education, we are far away from that. Secondly, I find it deeply problematic that people talk about freedom of speech as a absolute right, as if there were no responsibilities or boundaries attached to and entailed by this concept, as if our constitutions would not also contain freedom of religion or defending the dignity of individuals. The mainstream discourse we are having about freedom of speech ignores the reality of the responsibilities attached to the concept; as though things are said in a context-less vacuum in which the uttered thing has no impact on people. When debates are had, they pay only lip-service to the idea that freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. Responsibilities do not limit freedom of speech, they acknowledge that context matters, and that what you say has an impact:movies like American Sniper and cartoons like the ones of Charlie Hebdo have an important impact on dehumanising marginalised people and this needs to be discussed more.

The problem I see here is, that Muslim and other communities of Peoples of Colour do not have a common platform to create powerful counter-narratives, to resist dehumanising and marginalising discourse together. False concepts of freedom of speech need to be deconstructed for us to legitimise our interests and narratives. Instead of reacting to the discourses created by mainstream society, we need to be pro-active. Instead of having an attitude of self-defence regarding discourse which is underlined by a hegemonic, euro-centric perspective, we need to disrupt the narrator-narrated constellation with the contributions of our own communities and voices.