Creative young Muslims want to change the world as we know it

Millennial Muslims are making their way in the world as both the entrepreneurs and consumers of the future. Edgar Su / Reuters
Millennial Muslims are making their way in the world as both the entrepreneurs and consumers of the future. Edgar Su / Reuters

When Ala magazine launched in Turkey, with its glossy pages of fashionable women wearing headscarves, the country’s growing number of hijabista women took to the publication straight away: at last they found themselves reflected in the mainstream. Not as oppressed. Not as religious stereotypes. But front, centre and proud of who they are.

Cut 8,000 kilometres away to Chicago, Muslim Quarterly was launched – a magazine aimed at Muslim men, with front-cover teasers such as “Foods to Boost Your Sexual Mood” and “Learn how to Sizzle up Your Love Life”. The difference between it and GQ, the inspiration for its title, is that the content is a creative endeavour designed to be entirely halal, Islamically permissible.

What on earth is going on? Technology, sex, creativity, fashion, media …? These Muslims are not rejecting modernity, they are shaping it. They are turning their aspirations for freedom, security, employment and engagement into a concrete and formidable reality, and they are doing it at a frenzied pace. Theirs is an entirely new, fresh and self-empowered phenomenon that is going to change the societies they live in, and by extension the wider world. They see their faith as a tool with which to engage with modernity. They are interested in rewriting the rules of leadership, social structures, consumption and communication with one specific factor in mind: faith.

It’s a Muslim world we’ve never seen before: a world where religion affects the way people consume, interact, work and enjoy. It’s not a comment on religiosity, or a judgment on the level of piety – it’s simply that faith has an effect.

For “Generation M” – the up and coming generation of Muslims – their faith affects everything, and they want the world to know it. This is what sets them apart from their non-Muslim peers. It’s the single factor that will shape them and a world that they are determined should deliver to their needs. They believe in asking questions, entering into dialogue with authority and crossing geographic and cultural borders to connect with their Muslim peers around the world. They embrace technology and education and believe that, inspired by their faith, they can make themselves, their communities and the world a better place.

Not all Muslims hold these beliefs; not all Muslims are part of Generation M. While most of Generation M are young, it is their attitude, not their age, that defines them. They are a tech-savvy, self-empowered, youthful group who believe that their identity encompasses both faith and modernity.

Their stories are important stories for them to tell and for us to listen to. After all, there are 1.6 billion Muslims. They are young and they are growing fast. One in three Muslims are under 15, and two in three are under 30. That’s more than one billion people making up 14 per cent of the world’s population. It’s also a global story. In 81 countries the Muslim population will exceed 1 million people. More than 60 per cent of Muslims live in Asia. And 500 million Muslims live as minorities around the world. And in India – which will soon have the largest Muslim population in the world even though they are a minority – they are increasingly middle class.

Young, educated and increasingly affluent, the growing Muslim middle class are realising they can assert their right to demand goods and services in line with their Islamic requirements.

This is a group that is proud of its faith and its identity, but is equally comfortable demanding its rights on the high street. Halal consumption is a badge of their identity. That can mean anything from the ingredients themselves being halal-compliant, the communications being ethical or even the corporate affiliations of the brand being subjected to scrutiny.

While the statistics are important in understanding why we must pay attention to young Muslims, it is the granularity of their stories that is most interesting. These are far from the extremists that populate our newspapers. Instead, these are young Muslims around the world, drinking lattes on the pavement at midnight in Jakarta, or smoking shisha on London’s Edgware Road on a balmy summer’s evening. Another is doing a stand-up comedy gig in her Indonesian hometown. They shop for Ramadan clothes in Dubai at DKNY or indulge in rare halal treats at a night market in California. These are Muslims whose faith is actually the counter to extremism. Their faith is about building bridges with others and strengthening societies, not sowing division and creating destruction.

Their enthusiasm and gusto for life are infectious. Conversations about love, sex and shopping are as full of passion as those about pilgrimage, prayer and hijabs. There’s humour: if your son is called Jihad, don’t lose him at the airport – you won’t be able to call out for him. But there’s also intense seriousness, debate and self-reflection: Not in My Name, Je Suis Muslim, #AsAMuslimWoman.

This is a creative generation. If they go on to the high street and find out that products that suit their needs are lacking, they set up their own businesses and institutions. Inspired by their faith they want to cross over with halal and tayyab (pure) products that are wholesome and ethical. They are challenging the ideals of the beauty and fashion industry by establishing modest clothing lines, and experimenting with visual imagery.

They believe in the right to ask questions and to demand answers. Authorities, institutions, and businesses should all be held accountable. They believe knowledge is their right, and they have found that knowledge and the space for that expression in Dar Al Internet, their digital home, where the e-ummah has flourished, and created a platform for their shared global identity. Their parents only dreamt of an intimately connected ummah, for Generation M, it is at their fingertips.

This is a purposeful generation. Their faith inspires them to make things better for everyone. Often, this puts them at the cutting edge of consumer trends.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters described themselves as “Tahrir Square”. The prescription of tayyab consumption is part of the drive towards organic, sustainable, fair-trade supply chains.

They believe it is Islam that gives their life purpose and direction, that by being Muslim they are empowered. As a result they are proud of the shoes that they stand in, and their religion gives them a defining identity.

They believe they have a key part to play in the world’s future that will be hugely positive. Due to their growing demographic and economic clout, their disproportionate influence over the wider Muslim communities, and their pioneering trends in social cohesion and consumer dynamics, they are absolutely right. Their challenge to us is, will we actually pay attention?

This is an extract from Shelina Janmohamed’s book, Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, which will be published on Tuesday by IB Tauris

Published: September 1, 2016 04:00 AM


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