Author: Louise Archer
Genre: Education
Publisher: McGraw-Hill International
Release Date: 2003-12-01
Pages: 189


During the 1960s and 70s, Muslims were deemed a passive and industrious people who kept their heads down. In the post-Rushdie, post-9/11 era, they were recast as an emotional and subversive force. In both instances, the emergence of shallow stereotypes reveals how sociology is losing out to politics. Rather than delving into the social structures, migration and settlement issues and structural inequalities in society, it has been easier to construct stereotypes that dovetail into public policy, whether it be Britain’s need for immigrant workers in the past, or justifications for draconian legislation and military expeditions today.

Louise Archer’s work helps in reclaiming the ground for sociology. She notes, “young Muslim men have occupied a sensationalised and demonised position, at the forefront of the British popular imagination, for a number of years now and few would disagree that they are currently regarded as national ‘folk devils’….the high-profile al Qaeda terrorist attacks this century have fuelled the popular imagination, and fear, of ‘dangerous’, ‘angry’ Muslim masculinity”. In order to provide a more “careful, sensitive analysis” she has undertaken a field study of four schools in north-west England, involving 31 Muslim boys aged 14 – 15 years (mostly of Pakistani origin, but including eight Bengali). The research design included inviting these pupils to create a photographic diary of their daily lives, an offer taken up by two. Her book also makes reference to research of nine Muslim girls.

Her findings indicate that “in contrast to dominant popular conceptualisations of ‘Muslim’ identities (which tend to be negative and homogeneous’), boy’s own identity constructions appear to be far more complex, shifting and contradictory”. However she has also found that “all boys in the study primarily identified themselves in terms of their Muslim identities….brotherhood and umma were integral concepts within the boys’ constructions of Muslim identities”. Archer believes that this should not be interpreted “as a sign [of] that they do not feel a strong sense of national belonging and/or that their loyalty cannot be counted on” but rather ‘the boys’ association between Muslim identity, unity and strength challenge contemporary western ideals of individualistic white masculinity”.

Archer has also found that “across the discussion groups, boys described their family lives in overwhelmingly positive terms, associating home life with warmth, love and security”. The boys were wise enough to explain that this was what distinguished them from their white counterparts. As one interviewee stated, “it’s like once your parents are old its like your responsibility to look after them….whereas whites….it’s like….we get the picture that…you are old you lead your own life”.

There was a great hullabaloo when a Muslim community leader stated that “everybody can learn from everyone. Some of the Muslim principles can help social cohesion – family, marriage, raising children with boundaries…” (Dr Bari, Independent on Sunday, 10th November 2007). Archer’s empirical data indicates that Muslim values have much to contribute to modern Britain.

Racism is a day-to-day reality. The boys interviewed “themselves raised the issue of racism before the interviewer had asked any questions about it”. One noted, “..they [white people in his local area] do loads of things…throwing eggs at our windows…throwing rubbish in our garden…my little brothers and sisters they always go out to play in the evenings and they got beat up”. In two of the schools the boys linked racism to physical bullying. Other boys interviewed described how white boys could be friendly with them at school, but would ignore them in public when they were with their friends and families. Boys also identified particular teachers as racist individuals on the basis of their interactions with them. Muslim boys complained that they were unfairly punished by the school, rather than the white boys, following incidents of ‘fighting back’ against racism of white pupils. When asked by the interviewer how they would bring up their own kids, one response was:I’m gonna say to them…when you’re called ‘you black bastard’ – you deck them out – dec, dec, deck them! Kill them!

Muslim youth angst is clearly not irrational or because of some inherent psychological problem! Archer’s work indicates a pathway to ‘gangsta’ identities. Her solution:”I would [thus] argue that there is plenty of potential scope for work to be undertaken with respect to addressing institutional racism(s), and indeed, critically interrogating the normalising assumptions that underpin many everyday practices and behaviours within schools”.

In the concluding chapter she notes of her approach, “I wish to focus attention on representation of Muslim boys as thinking, agentic, complex human beings, rather than the simplistic, homogenised,negative stereotypes which currently abound in the popular imagination”. At a time when money is pouring into studies of Muslim youth – a tranche of four million pounds will soon be made available to the Arts & Humanities Council’s ‘Religion and Society’ programme – it is academics like Archer who should be on panels that set the research agenda and decide on the allocation of research grants.