London Youth, Religion, and Politics

Engagement and Activism from Brixton to Brick Lane

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Daniel Nilsson DeHanas
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2016.
     264 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198743675.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

London Youth, Religion, and Politics: Engagement and Activism from Brixton to Brick Lane examines the civic participation of young, second-generation Bangladeshi-British Muslims and Jamaican-British Christians in London. Three issues guided Daniel Nilsson DeHanas’s research: (1) extending debates about experiences of immigrant/second-generation youth beyond Muslims in the UK and Europe; (2) examining the civic participation of youth whose activities are overlooked in popular arguments, and shadowed by stereotypes about the disconnected nature of immigrant communities; and (3) exploring the role of religion in youth’s civic engagement. DeHanas recruited youth in churches, mosques, and other spaces in Brixton (Jamaicans) and Brick Lane (Bangladeshis), gaining access to churches or mosques. He conducted research with Bangladeshi Muslims and Jamaican Christians of varying religiosities, ties to their parents’ homeland and culture, and identifications with London and the UK. In sixty in-depth interviews, DeHanas probes into the youth’s self-identification, social and political engagements, understanding of citizenship, and political participation. Political involvement is defined as “everyday citizenship,” including activities like signing a petition, attending a demonstration, or participating in elections. DeHanas chose Jamaicans and Bangladeshis in Brixton and Brick Lane in light of their relatively high concentration in these quarters, and their comparable experiences “that are typical to inner cities, including drugs, violent crime, socio-economic deprivation, and educational disadvantage” (7). 

In chapter 1, DeHanas explores the youth’s political knowledge and positioning. How do the youngsters situate themselves in or against the state?, and do they feel represented by the state and its institutions? He explores questions of religiosity, civic identification, political literacy, and participation. Bangladeshi religious youth were the most politically-knowledgeable (above national average), and Jamaican low-or-moderately-religious individuals were the least informed (below national average). For political participation—including voting, fund-raising for political causes, or participating in political meetings—DeHanas finds that very religious Bengalis again scored highest and Jamaicans, regardless of their religiosities, scored similar to each other and lower overall. Consumer boycotts is a preferred form of engagement, illustrating the atomistic nature of some youth civic activities. For Jamaicans, boycotts were guided by questions of individual conscience, whereas Bangladeshis’ decisions were largely “rooted in religion” (47), and more collective. Regardless of their civic engagement, many youths are not very satisfied with British politics, and their “trust of politicians was low” (42). Jamaicans are more individualistic, or practice what DeHanas calls “cheque-book participation” (53). Bangladeshi’s participation is higher, more communal or religiously-oriented, and often “expressly Islamic” (52). 

In Chapters 2 and 3, DeHanas examines self-identifications. He conducted ranking exercises where participants could use “cards labeled with identity options” (and create additional options) and rank them. Options included race, country of origin, religion, and London or UK based categories—such as black, brown, Indian, Caribbean, Muslim, Christian, or British. Almost all Bangladeshis immediately ranked Muslim as their central identity. Jamaicans’ responses were more diverse. For many, “black” or “brown” was their first choice. Christian ranked high for some, but there was no overwhelming identification with any marker. Britain might be these youth’s place of residence and citizenship, but overall, it does not centrally figure in their identities. Britishness to second-generation youth is, “if anything–is a set of citizen rights, opportunities, and responsibilities” (106). Overall, Jamaicans “have more open, flexible, and situational identities, while Bangladeshis were somewhat more sparing in their choices, almost always placing Muslim first” (107).

Chapters 4 and 5 examine “how religious institutions shape youth citizenship” (111). DeHanas explains Brixton and Brick Lane’s spiritual geographies, and introduces two “traditional” houses of worship that largely cater to the sensitivities of first-generation immigrants. He selected two houses of worship that also appeal to younger worshippers: the East London Mosque (ELM), and the Ruach Ministeries (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God). Both attract thousands of weekly worshippers and visitors. DeHanas examines the “kinds of citizenship” (121) that they espouse in their messages and interactions. The “traditional” church and mosque promotes images of good Jamaican or Bangladeshi believers or citizens and cultural continuity with the homeland. The ELM and the Ruach Ministeries actively cater to the young. Ruach attracts thousands from African and Caribbean backgrounds to services that address youth between the ages of fifteen-and-thirty (144). The worshippers, their sense-of-place, and their messagse are global. Ruach is not a community church, but a citywide congregation. The ELM attracts thousands of believers from all over London. Together with the London Muslim Centre, this complex includes vast community facilities, services, and plays host to countless events and activities. It fosters the creation of core Muslim identities, with the understanding that Muslim lives are lived in a dominant British society. “The model of a good citizen is upheld at the ELM is the ‘Islamized citizen’” (154) who acts as part of the state, but is grounded in Islam—and is part of the global ummah. DeHanas notes that Ruach and the ELM accommodate youngsters’ journeys into society, and away from their parents’ ethnic affiliations. In the charismatic Ruach Ministeries, personal ties to God are crucial in the creation of Christian lifestyles. In contrast, the “Islamization process is a systematic restructuring of everyday life” (160) for lives to comply with Islamic rules, and little is left to individuals. Shared actions of believers produce “an enacted community” (163). The influential presence of the ELM explains aspects of the political mobilization among Bangladeshi youth. 

Chapter 6 explores how “religion influences youth to take different approaches to bringing changeto their personal lives, to their communities and (in some cases) to politics” (166). DeHanas describes a Christian anti-violence event that advocated individual change and improvement, and emphasized that the world needs change, one life at a time. Yet, can such “revival activism” (173) make a political difference? Individuals who believe in the power of their faith tend to be blind to larger structural forces, and “are less likely to seek partnerships with other organizations, to initiate a long-term strategy of influence and activism, or to advocate” (174) for necessary structural changes. DeHanas analyzes an iftar (breaking the fast) event organized to benefit the homeless. Believers donated on behalf of “homeless people in London as well as displaced communities around the world” (175-76). This event illustrates personal faith in action, activism by way of partnerships with existing NGOs, and what the author calls “pillared activism” (178)—meaning “actions for social change built on the rituals of the Islamic practice, particularly the Five Pillars of Islam” (178). Pillared activism, where ritual practice meets political practice, influences the civic engagement of many young, pious Muslims. DeHanas concludes that “most evangelicals in the West compartmentalize their influence to the voluntary sector (especially of their local church) or in some cases may campaign on a small set of moral touch-point issues” (186). Young Muslims more successfully inserted their voices, and made them heard in public; their “pillared activism is effective because it harnesses the pre-existing architecture of Islamic rituals for new and creative ethical ends” (186).

DeHanas summarizes that second-generation youth have a similar awareness of local politics, but Muslims are more politically involved than Jamaicans, which he credits the “community-oriented, globalist and decultured form of Islam” promoted by the ELM, and where youth experimentation with new forms of engagements keeps them rooted in their Islamic universe. Islam becomes a source of identity, everyday guide, and framework for civic engagement. Similar processes are not taking place among Jamaican Christians, whose more individualist pieties tend not to inspire political activism. 

London Youth, Religion, and Politics is a very readable book about London youths in two neighborhoods. DeHanas illustrates that Muslim youth are not different from other, similar social groups. He shows that religion plays a different role for diverse constituencies. Christianity fosters individual pieties or engagement within a congregation, whereas Islam, with recourse to everyday rituals and practices, outlines new Muslim identities that allow youth to become Muslim British citizens. As an anthropologist, I occasionally missed more detail in the descriptions of the participants and their lifeworlds, and the houses of worship and their activities. I would have liked to see fuller pictures of some of the youth, including other aspects of their lives. I would also have loved to see more detail on youth group meetings, and other activities in the churches and mosques and their social orbit. 

Overall, this is a very timely and worthwhile book that successfully illustrates the complex struggles of second-generation youth—regardless of ethnicity and religion—showing that they are as active as their peers and finally, that in some contexts, religion plays a role in the articulation of (political) identities and modes of civic participation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Petra Kuppinger is Professor of Anthropology at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Nilsson DeHanas is Lecturer of Political Science and Religion at King's College London. He is Editor of the journal Religion, State and Society.

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