Back in 2013 we drew your attention to the appearance of a fascinating book, ‘Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements’, written by Anandi Ramamurthy. At the time Gus John wrote, ‘we can only hope that young people and their parents, of whatever ethnicity, demand this book is included in the school and college curriculum. It shows that even before the ‘war on terror’ and Islamophobia, South Asian communities needed to engage in a defensive war in the face of a neo-fascist and state terror that was relentlessly visited upon them.’ A later review by Matloub Husayn-Ali-Khan, who was personally involved, underlined the significant role of youth workers in the emergence of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement, which was initially called the Asian Youth Council. It was born out of a meeting on October 12, 1980 between Bradford and Sheffield activists held at the Attercliffe Youth Centre in Sheffield. He recalls, ‘an atmosphere that brought out a feeling of togetherness, commitment, comradeship; oneness and unity between all those who felt the struggle.’
With the Manchester tragedy very much to the fore in many people’s minds this historical context is revisited by Kenin Malik in ‘How did the left radicalism of my Manchester youth give way to Islamism?’ — After the atrocity, we recall a past when to be young and Muslim was to be engaged in class politics’
To take, but one aspect of his argument, he remembers his ‘real fury at a society that would not embrace [him] as an equal, legitimate citizen. But it was a very different kind of anger to that which many young Muslims feel now and the ways of expressing it were even more distinct. My fury towards Britain was not expressed through the prism of being “Muslim”. Partly this was because I was not religious. But partly, also, because few adopted “Muslim” as a public identity. We thought of ourselves as “Asian” or “black”, but these were political, not ethnic or cultural labels.’
Perhaps the question to ask is not: “Were I 20 today, would I be attracted to Islamism?” but, rather: “Had Salman Abedi or Mohammad Sidique Khan been born a generation earlier, would they have rejected Islamism?” It is impossible to answer, but in asking that question, we can begin to tease out some of the social reasons for the Abedis and the Khans of this world becoming as they are.
I am not suggesting that anyone apart from Salman Abedi (and his co-conspirators, if there are any) bears responsibility for the carnage at the Manchester Arena. The reflex response to anyone digging deeper into the motives of jihadis is to denounce them as “apologists”. Witness the Tory onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn for what was a largely innocuous speech on Friday. What I am saying, however, is that while individuals bear responsibility for their acts, they also act within particular social contexts. If we are serious about combating the scourge of homegrown jihadism, we need not just to denounce jihadis as evil, but also to look at how the shifting social landscape has given them space to act as they do – and at how we can remake that landscape.
How might youth work contribute to such a remaking? As a minimum aren’t we obliged to engage afresh with the politics of our work? Whose political agendas have we been embracing in the era of neoliberalism? Is there the possibility of turning at least some of this world upside down?