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Cultural Inclusion

By Raheel Mohammed, Founder and Director, Maslaha

 
Raheel Mohammed
Founder and Director, Maslaha

How do you understand a community of people? How do you interpret or translate their words and actions, communicate their fears and hopes for those outside that community?

Any committed translator will describe the sensitivity with which they approach the original text, their sense of awe and responsibility. Does the translation do justice to the original rhythms of the text? to metaphors that are, for example, both witty and deeply insightful? How to maintain the integrity of the author’s voice, to ensure the translator’s voice does not encroach too much? It is an aesthetic and cultural as well as a technical endeavour.

The poet Mimi Khalvati writes: “Of course, translation involves not only rendering a text, but also negotiating between two cultures. Arguments about the respective merits of foreignization and domestication are endemic and call into question our ethical and aesthetic values.”[1]

Do we apply the same level of expertise and sensitivity to issues facing Muslim and other migrant communities and their place in society today? Are their concerns being translated, or interpreted, as they would like? Are we doing justice to complex lives?

The absence of sensitive translation is exposed by traumatic events such as the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, and Barcelona, and the subsequent attacks on innocent Muslims caught up in the collateral damage. The ensuing debates and interviews recycle an all too familiar narrative. Another terrorist act, another layer of media assertion, hand-wringing Muslims rolled out to dissect their own communities and government policies, Muslim experts crowned and dethroned.

Appropriate “translation” is a fundamental aspect of our work at Maslaha, a response to the lack of appropriate cultural understanding that surrounds us –in public services, organisations, governmental structures. The repercussions of this poor translation is so pervasive, so clichéd, that we risk becoming immune to the vividness and unique character of people’s stories. Empty acronyms such as BAME (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority) that lump all minorities together provide a reassuring security blanket for those organisations and institutions who don’t want to venture too close to the messiness of people’s lives.

In the context of our work at Maslaha, “bad translation” exacerbates a heightened focus on Muslim communities and Islam across the UK and abroad. In recent years, the combination of terrorist acts, war, and political decisions about how to tackle radicalization have rapidly shaped how Muslims are portrayed and regarded in wider society.

The cost of exclusion

Muslim communities in the UK context face a daily barrage of violence, discrimination, inequality and stigmatization. Our public services and politicians struggle to differentiate the diversity within Muslim communities; whether they are Somali or Pakistani, Shia or Sunni, or live in Walthamstow or Washwood Heath.

Muslims represent the largest minority faith group in the UK and are an ethnically diverse population with a very young age profile.  A significant proportion of this population lives in deprived inner-city areas, and Muslims face higher levels of unemployment, economic inactivity, ill health, educational underachievement, and poor housing conditions, compared to other faith groups.

Criminal Justice System.  22% of those in Young Offender Institutes describe themselves as Muslim, a rise from 13% in 2011. Muslim prisoners account for 13.4% of the prison population yet make up only 4.2% of the UK population, according to the 2011 Census.

Economic activity.  According to the 2011 Census, 17% of all Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed – the highest rate, quite significantly – of any faith group.   Across all age and gender groups, 45% are economically inactive: almost 100,000 Muslim men of working age are unemployed, and almost 400,000 Muslim men of working age have no qualifications

Health. Muslim communities frequently have trouble accessing health services, and what support exists isn’t necessarily relevant or appropriate.[2]  Rates of long-term conditions tend to be higher than average in Muslim communities. For example, type 2 diabetes is up to six times more common in South Asian communities in the UK (Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian origin).[3] A lack of shared language between patients, communities and health practitioners contributes to challenges in accessing support, and that support being relevant and appropriate. For example, there is no word for conditions like depression, dementia, hepatitis, etc., in many languages, including Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Bengali, Sylheti, Punjabi, and Gujarati.

Gender equality.   There is a strong gendered dimension to Islamophobia. [4]  Recent figures show a 70% rise in hate crimes against Muslims in London between 2014-2015. 60% of these incidences involved women, with women wearing face veils being the victims of the most aggressive attacks.[5]  In the workplace, discrimination against Muslim women means they are 70% more likely to be unemployed than white Christian women – even when they have the same qualifications and language skills.[6]

For the Common Good

Maslaha creates new ways of tackling long-standing issues affecting Muslim communities. Our work provides practical alternatives informed by cultural insight and understanding. We combine imagination and craftsmanship to improve services, change attitudes and challenge systems of inequality. We believe that reminding people that Islam can also be synonymous with social justice and charity is an important step towards challenging divisive negative stereotypes.

‘Maslaha’ itself translates from Arabic as ‘for the common good’ and this principle lies at the very heart of our work. We use creativity and an innovative approach to bring together a wide and varied group of people to create a movement around addressing a need or celebrating inspiring stories and ideas.

I have chosen some examples of how our projects provide practical and positive support for unheard voices and marginalized communities.

Policy recommendations

  1. Working practically with communities at a grassroots local level. This involves working collaboratively to create resources addressing systemic inequalities that can be picked up and used by local statutory services, for example health services. The diverse nature of a community or city, and complexity of social issues demands input from the whole community if deep change is to take place.

Example: Talking From The Heart

The award-winning resource, Talking From The Heart (www.talkingfromtheheart.org), tackles depression and anxiety in Somali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, with the aim of widening the language around ‘mental health’ to better resonate with patients and their families. This involved working practically with communities at a grassroots local level, including AT Medics, London’s largest group of NHS clinical practices; Midaye, a Somali community organisation; psychotherapists; imams; musicians; film-makers and community organizations across London. A diverse group of partners helped us develop a practical, innovative mental health resource, despite the fact that there is no word for ‘depression’ in Arabic, Somali, Sylheti or Urdu.  We were also able to mobilize a larger and more varied number of community members on a subject which carries considerable stigma.

Outcome: Talking From the Heart is now used in 7 NHS Trusts and by the leading mental health charity Mind, endorsed by the Royal College of GPs, and included in Kings College School of Medicine’s curriculum.  The Talking From the Heart resource is used by the Queensland government in Australia and is being picked up increasingly internationally following the project winning the Innovation Mindset Challenge 2014, set by the Rockefeller Foundation and Columbia University.

  1. Changing practice at a local level can only be sustained by sharing our learning at a strategic level and ensuring that expertise from practical delivery is able to inform future policy decisions. Working with organizations like the NHS, Ministry of Justice, and universities and schools to deliver accessible and inclusive approaches to the widest possible audiences has been an effective way of addressing systemic inequalities in Muslim (or other cultural) communities and influencing future policy decisions.

Our work tackling the root causes of the disproportionate number of young Muslim men in prison developed while working with a community group in Mile End, east London. Over two years, we explored the experiences of young men and the criminal justice system. We ran entrepreneurship workshops and school workshops led by the young men we were working with; collaborated with artist Hannah Habibi Hopkins; and participated in the international Unusual Suspects festival.

Prior to this work very little research had looked at the experiences of young Muslim men in the criminal justice system. Our report aimed to provide a more complex picture which did not ignore the voices of young Muslim men, and gave them a chance to be heard.

Outcome. The recommendations of our recently published ‘Young Muslims on Trial’ include delivering training to magistrates and criminal justice professionals so that problems associated with stereotyping can be overcome. The training would be developed and delivered collaboratively with young men who have been in prison.

This is an important step towards redefining who ‘experts’ are in the eyes of policy makers and encouraging them to see the immense value and expertise of communities who have unique insight and lived experience of areas that are being worked on. Recognizing this knowledge and acting accordingly will mean interventions will be more effective.

  1. How to influence the Public Imagination. Wherever possible we aim to influence and shape the public debate and media narrative around Muslim identity through these tools which have proven increasingly important in countering the negative discourse which many Muslim communities feel has been forced upon them.

Creative tools such as film, photography and music inform and develop our practical work.  The Talking from The Heart resource incorporates the language of faith and culture using film and music, and cultural figures, concepts and messages (words) that are recognizable to Muslim audiences. For example, Somali musician, Maryam Mursal’s songs of exile helped to create a vocabulary around depression.

Example: Muslim Girls Fence project

Muslim Girls Fence uses the sport of fencing to challenge misconceptions of Muslim girls and share new visions of what it means to be a young Muslim in the UK today. We recognize that because of the complex discrimination facing Muslim girls – ranging from the double discrimination they face on the basis of both gender and faith, to the impact of the government’s current counter-extremism policies and strong social inequalities in areas such as education – that radical and unusual interventions are urgently needed.

We also understand the need to counter the force of pervasively negative images of Muslim women projected in mainstream media. For this reason the project has also involved the production of an exhibition and short film in an effort to breach a public imagination that is being ever constricted by the media and government preoccupation with a certain type of Muslim woman. The exhibition and film were showcased at the Women Of the World (WOW) festival 2016 at the Southbank Centre, attracting international attention and coverage.

Outcome.  The unusual nature of this project means it has fast gained an international audience, meaning that the voices of these young women are being projected on a considerable scale – offering them the opportunity to grow in agency and confidence. The practical element of the project and the ongoing involvement in fencing and conversations around identity has also been central in building resilience and drawing out new skills. Testimony from teachers at the school show that these young girls, many of whom are seen as ‘difficult to engage’ were not previously being given opportunities to grow and excel. Since the pilot project teachers have noted a couple of girls who had previously been quiet in class, becoming more confident, both in contributing to lessons and also with their peers.

Conclusion

In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode distinguishes between simple fictions – which he calls ‘the opium of the people’ – and complex, nuanced fictions of the kind that reveal truths. Complex fictions, he says, not only ‘console but make discoveries of the hard truth here and now…we do not feel they are doing this if we cannot see the shadow of the gable, or hear the discoveries of dissonance, the word set against the word’.

Simple fictions create pat narratives that pit ‘us’ against ‘them’. They exclude people; those who don’t control the narratives are absent. As in paintings that celebrated Britain’s colonial past, the ‘others’ are just out of frame. Their stories become trite, one-dimensional fictions. They may be at ease with exploring an aspect of another person’s identity but the whole is too much trouble to understand.

The same could be said of the repression of rich, powerful, diverse voices that exist in migrant communities.

The right to control our own story is a powerful one, and the story of migrant communities needs new writers, new storytellers. We don’t need simple fictions.

[1] Saudade: An Anthology of Fado Poetry, ed. Mimi Khalvati, w. Vasco Graça Moura (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation)

[2] See e.g. Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (2007) Postnote: Ethnicity & Health, p2; Mind UK (2013) We still need to talk, p19; L D Laird et al (2007) ‘Muslim patients and health disparities in the UK and US,’ Arch Dis Child Oct; 92(10): 922–926; APPG on Diabetes (2006) Diabetes and the disadvantaged

[3]  K. Khunti et al (2009) Diabetes UK & South Asian Health Foundation recommendations on diabetes research priorities for British South Asians, p1

[4] http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/tangled-web-discrimination-faced-muslim-women

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-34138127

[6] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/british-muslim-women-71-more-likely-to-be-unemployed-due-to-workplace-discrimination-10179033.html

The Author

Raheel Mohammed is the founder and director of Maslaha and has recently been profiled as one of Britain’s 50 New Radicals in The Observer newspaper for pioneering creative change to some of society’s most difficult issues.

He has created award-winning resources which tackle inequalities in areas such as health, education, the role of women in Islam, and the historical relationship between Islam and Europe. Maslaha’s award-winning health work is now used locally, nationally, and internationally and seen as examples of good practice and innovative in its use of technology. . Raheel helped set up and was the Assistant Director at the award-winning Crossway Foundation, advising on and initiating education programmes designed to raise awareness of Middle East and Muslim cultures through art. He is an award-winning journalist and he has also completed a unique executive education programme focusing on entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School.

Recommendations:

  • Working practically with communities at a grassroots local level. This involves working collaboratively to create resources addressing systemic inequalities that can be picked up and used by local statutory services, for example health services. The diverse nature of a community or city, and complexity of social issues demands input from the whole community if deep change is to take place.
  • Changing practice at a local level can address systemic inequalities and provide sustainable solutions when lessons learned and expertise from practical delivery is used strategically to inform future policy decisions
  • Influence the public imagination. Wherever possible aim to influence and shape the public debate and media narrative around cultural identity through these tools which have proven increasingly important in countering the negative discourse which many cultural communities experience

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