From the Pulpit: Imperative for faith communities to ‘listen afresh’ to youth

Guest Column by The Rev. James Walters

Usually, I am pleased to see friends appear on TV or in the newspapers. But whenever I see my friend Imam Qari Asim in the media my heart sinks a little. That’s because I know his appearance will have been prompted by the disappearance of yet another young British Muslim to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria or the arrest of another young U.K. terrorist suspect. And Qari will be there to express the outrage and shock we all feel and to speak on behalf of the thousands of law-abiding, decent and faithful Muslims who are our friends and neighbours in Britain today.

Qari is working hard to counter the growing suspicion and hostility toward Muslims that is poisoning community relations across the country. While our government has been eager to dissociate Islamist extremism from mainstream Islam, they have also fed the stigmatization by putting pressure on mosques to monitor young people and by feeding a pervasive myth about the threat posed by radical preachers. But Qari has confirmed what I had already been learning in my own work with university students, which is that the Muslim community is as bewildered as everybody else by the radicalization of their young people. Because young Muslims are not being radicalized in their mosques. The problem is more serious: Young people are increasingly disconnected from the mosques and their preachers.

In that sense, the attraction of radical political Islam is part of a far wider problem that affects us all. Young people throughout Western society are disaffected with their religious institutions. Some become apathetic and cynical. Some embrace a postmodern spiritual relativism. Some become dogmatic atheists. And others are drawn to the neo-conservative identities that we now see in all the world religions from biblically literalist evangelicals and Zionist extremists to Hindu nationalists and the much-feared Islamic fundamentalists. A tiny minority will turn to violence.

We can only conclude that, at some level, all our faith communities are failing to meet young people’s concerns, aspirations and desires. Our churches have become preoccupied with homosexuality and gender in a way that most young people find hypocritical and bizarre. For minority religious communities the disconnection is often attributable to leaders who have trained overseas and who have scant understanding of the issues facing young people who have grown up in the West. So it is imperative that religious hierarchies in all the faith communities listen afresh to young people, take them more seriously, teach them reflectively, and allow them to own and develop the traditions that have formed them.

And why wouldn’t we want to? I often think I have the best job in the world. As chaplain to the London School of Economics, I have pastoral care of 10,000 young people drawn from over 140 different countries. All the main faith traditions are represented on campus from the Abrahamic religions right down to Jains, Baha’is and Zoroastrians. Eighteen months ago, we opened the doors to the LSE Faith Centre, which provides spaces for the worship and fellowship of all these different religious groups. But most importantly we run a range of events and programmes to engage the religious imagination of all LSE students and foster friendship and understanding across the divides.

Earlier this year, the prince of Wales presented certificates to 20 inspirational students of different religious backgrounds who completed our new Faith and Leadership Programme. This extra-curricular certificate, open to all, builds the students’ religious literacy alongside their capacity for leadership that brings about change. One participant has set up a football club for boys at his local mosque in London. Another is returning to China to teach Buddhist/Christian relations. Another is setting up an environmental charity based on his Baha’i beliefs.

If I have learnt anything it is that young people of different faiths are eager to learn, eager to better themselves, and eager to serve. But all too often they don’t find the possibilities for that in the faith communities in which they’ve grown up. I often hear religious leaders say that they want to attract more young people to their congregations or better engage with the ones they have. But I suspect the problem is that we mostly want that engagement on our own terms. We succumb to the idolatry of wanting to perpetuate our religious communities as we have known them, not subject them to the challenge, innovations and energy of the young.

Fortunately, not all religious leaders are like that.

Imam Qari Asim has a big following among young Muslims. He has been outspoken on taboo issues like forced marriage and domestic abuse and he works tirelessly to promote good community relations in his home town of Leeds. And Qari is one of many who have demonstrated to me that this task of re-engaging and spiritually resourcing the younger generation is a task that we can share across religious divides. Indeed, if we can do that well, it could be the most important part of the religious education today’s young people receive.

The Rev. James Walters is chaplain at the London School of Economics and oversees the LSE Faith Centre.