Faith In Our Youth
As England’s cities burned last summer and hooded rioters fought running battles with police, few people in the capital had anything good to say about young people.
But in Shadwell, a rough district of London’s East End where depressingly little has changed in decades, a stirring encounter took place as the capital descended into chaos. In the midst of the tumult, one elderly white lady walked out to meet Nurul Ullah, a Muslim youth worker, to discuss the behaviour of the local Muslim youths. She wasn’t there to demonise young people, rather to praise them.
“She walked up and told me how impressed she was with the Muslim boys’ conduct,” recalls Ullah (pictured), who works for Islamic community centre Darul Ummah.
“Even though there was potential for them to cause havoc, the vast majority of the Muslim youth I know avoided the riots, because it was Ramadan – a time of peace, spirituality and respect. Some even joined in with protests against the riots, which was a wonderful experience.” After the flames had died down, police and the government embarked on a nationwide drive to wipe gang culture from Britain’s streets, blaming members for the mayhem.
In a bid to try to keep riots from erupting again, the Metropolitan Police deployed 1000 officers in February to target the 4,800 18 to 24-year-olds who are thought to make up the bulk of London’s 250-plus gangs.
Yet even as doors were being rammed in and young men carted off to jail, behind the scenes a different group of people were doing their bit to get youths back into society: Muslims. “Islam is a word that means peace,” Ullah adds. “In fact, if you look at any major world religion, all of them call for peace – which is exactly what we need in today’s age.
“I truly believe religion has a massive role to play in forming character and breaking gangs. There is a growing culture of rebelliousness and we need an alternative way of dealing with it.” Ullah is dedicated to steering young people towards a non-violent life.
He mediates between local youths and introduces violent teenagers to local police officers as well as religious leaders from local mosques and churches. This tactic, Ullah says, builds trust among young people, who then feel the authorities are out to help, not victimise, them.
This approach saved lives in 2009 when Ullah and his colleagues stopped a gang war from erupting after the death of 18-year-old Salum Kombo, who was stabbed to death in Bow, east London, by a friend simply because he had called him a “pussy” on Facebook.
This sparked tension between two local gangs, so Ullah stepped in to mediate between the rivals and managed to avert further violence. “We basically prevented another two or three murders,” he says.
In today’s Britain, some of the time-honoured methods of encouraging kids to abandon violent crime no longer work. Across the country, police and community workers would try to scare kids away from violence with graphic pictures of stab wounds, gunshot injuries or people crippled by gang beatings.
This doesn’t cut it any more, says Hanif Qadir, programme director at the Active Change Foundation (ACF), which works to combat gangs and tackle violent extremism in Muslim youths. He says: “That shock tactic worked for a while but now, when you show a gory image of someone that’s been attacked by a machete, the kids are like, ‘Damn, that’s a good job’. It’s not scaring them any more.”
Instead, his group brings in “everyone from the gang bosses to the young guns” in Walthamstow to meet reformed criminals fresh out of prison – people who can talk with real experience. They also collect statements from mums and dads whose children have been killed to help young criminals understand the effect they are having on families, or invite in successful people who have turned their back on crime and made good. One man in his early twenties recently gave a talk about his progress, turning up in a £100,000 Jaguar he uses to ferry stars such as Angelina Jolie around London.
Sadly, sometimes the ACF has to spend its time cleaning up the mess left by extremists. Qadir adds: “Some Muslim groups say you can sell drugs and cause harm to other people as long as they’re not Muslims, and God will be pleased. What nonsense. If we hear a kid say that, we want to work with them first. No religion teaches that, let alone Islam.”
One group of anti-gang activists is making sure parents know how to keep their kids out of trouble. Bushra Tahir is head of a charity called Awaaz (Voice of Women), which is based in Redbridge and named after the word for ‘voice’ found in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and other languages. She started the group after witnessing a fight between two groups of children, which ended when a 16-year-old boy was chased into a subway and stabbed to death.
Last month, her group received £10,000 of lottery cash to launch a new scheme called Parents Up, which teaches local parents how to stop their children getting involved in gangs, drugs, gun crime and prostitution. Describing herself as “religious, but not a fanatic”, she helps mainly Muslim women in the area, but also women from other ethnic and religious groups in this diverse part of east London.
“We tackle the problem through the parents, because young people are often hard to engage with and don’t listen to anything you tell them,” she says. Women have a vital role to play in stopping trouble, she adds, because they steer clear of the aggressive tactics often favoured by men.
“Women often use their brains more than men,” she says. “God created men and women differently, meaning men go at the problem very strongly but the women think more wisely, often using more persuasive tactics.”
One man whose life was changed by Islam is Ashley Chin, a 29-year-old south London actor, rapper, poet and community activist who believes converting to Islam is what saved him from ending up in jail, or worse.
Having recently received critical praise for his role in Victim, a hard-hitting film about a young criminal’s attempt to break a cycle of violence for a better life, you would expect Chin to be satisfied with taking up a lucrative career in the arts. In fact he’s dedicated himself to making connections with young people and trying to steer them away from a life of crime, drugs and violence.
“I’m a bit biased, but I do think Islam’s got the answer to a lot of Britain’s problems,” he says. “When I think of Islam, I think of wanting for your neighbour what you would want for yourself. "What I learned from Islam is the strong man is not the person who beats someone up, but the person who controls their anger, and that forgiveness is better than revenge. These lessons have made me a better person.”
Since converting to Islam aged 21, he has flown across the world to deliver the peaceful message that Islam can help young people to a better life. With his face now plastered over film posters across Britain, he credits the religion with bringing him success.
Of course, there are people who would disagree with him, particularly after seeing gangs such as the Muslim Boys running rampant in parts of London. But, as ever, there are two sides to every story. Perhaps it’s time to focus on the positive one.
Portrait: Tom Campbell