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Open Letter to a Muslim School-leaver

Q-News International, No. 295 & 296 (October 1998)

After the certainties and structured lifestyle of school, entering the real world outside can feel like jumping out of a boat into a bottomless ocean. It's alarming and disorienting when the routine of ten years vanishes overnight. So what to do?

Parental pressure (notorious in our community), combined with a desire to make some money and 'get on', can be overpowering. But hold on a minute. The road straight ahead is easy, but it's a dead-end.

The fact is that our community, the second biggest religious group in Britain, needs you very desperately. It needs you not as a grocer or a taxi driver. Not even as a medical doctor or an accountant. It needs you in positions of influence.

This, of course, does not mean politics. The clowns of the Commons have very little power. Most serious decisions are made by advisers in the Civil Service, and unless you change your religion and perhaps your complexion as well, you'll never become an influential desk pilot in Whitehall. The English establishment is polite, but it's a closed shop.

But there is another way of being useful, of raising your community from its present scorned and humiliated status. Ours is an age of words and images whirling around the globe, moulding public perceptions and creating the mutual perceptions of whole civilisations. This is the age in which The Bill is seen by 950 million people - a sixth of the world's population. An age in which John Simpson's lopsided view of Iraq can trickle down into the national media of two hundred states.

Muslims need representation in the media. Not as ethnic marionettes reading Channel Four news, mouthing words written by others. Nor as make-up girls, actors or cameramen. We need people with flair and creativeness.

Most Muslims in Britain don't have two ideas to rub together when it comes to presenting community issues in a creative and stylish way. Instead we have those awful pompous conference, attended by the occasional embarrassed MP, which burn up money and achieve nothing at all; save, perhaps, an enhanced self-image for their organisers.

This is not good enough. We Muslims have been here in force for forty years, and yet we still cannot present ourselves in a coherent and attractive way. The oldsters have the excuse of incompetence in English. We, however, are in a position to work our way up through the system. If we do not, then we are failing in a most vital religious duty.

Let us take a leaf out of the book of the Jewish community. In the nineteenth century, the Jews were subject to a hatred and discrimination no less virulent than that which now confronts Muslims. Like us, they saw their co-religionists being slaughtered in Central Europe and wondered if it could happen here. Their response was an intelligent one: to educate their children, and shepherd them into professions where they would be influential: the law, finance, business, and scholarship.

There are five times as many Muslims in Britain than Jews. There is no reason why we should not emulate their success. But this requires ambition. If the Blessed Prophet observed that "high ambition is part of faith," then for a Muslim to fail is disobedience to God. The most successful form of Islamic activism here takes the form of long, dedicated work aimed at succeeding in a useful career. We do not need more maulvis. Nor do we need more doctors and dentists. Islam would not suffer in Britain if we had not a single Muslim accountant or engineer.

But what could we not do if we had just one great novelist, or playwright, or film director? A man or woman with the subtlety to get a spiritual message across without having to resort to crude propaganda?

Somewhere out there is a potential Hafiz, or the architect of a new Alhambra. Our community is a youthful one, but it resembles a field of seeds in need of watering. Once our young people realise that Islam demands success, and that laziness, stupidity and greed are mortal sins, we will start to rise up.

There is no escape from this obligation. Whoever you are, dear reader, this is your task.

Kerim Fenari

Unfulfilled Promise

I write in response to the 'Open Letter to a Muslim School-leaver'. I agree with Kerim Fenari who points out the importance of being successful in the right fields as young Muslims but I feel he leaves out an important point. Enthusiasm and the desire to succeed are not enough to guarantee success. Young Muslims need networks of support, and quite frankly these networks do not exist.

Last year I graduated with a degree in the arts and humanities. Like the article suggested, I appreciated that more successful Muslims are needed in fields other than medicine or accountancy. But the fact is I also graduated with a heavy loan to repay, and I now work in an unrelated field just for money. I feel I have both the talent and the enthusiasm, Alhamdulillah, but what use is it? It is very difficult as a practising Muslim, who has certain values and limitations, to try and carve a niche in the mainstream organisations and attempt to work without compromising your morals, especially as a woman.

As a student who had just reverted to Islam I had false illusions whilst at university that a Muslim community was out there waiting for me; that I could do great things for them, and them for me. But such a network just doesn't exist. There is the odd initiative like Q News or Khayaal Theatre, which is great but it's not enough.

We need a Muslim recruitment agency, but before that we need to develop some organisations that have great ambitions in the right fields. For our generation the message is not simply to be enthusiastic and get the right job, but to set up and invent new initiatives that can grow so that Insha' Allah, the future generations will not have the same problems that we have.

Anonymous, London.

Copyright 1998 Q-News International, UK.

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