Bringing up Muslim children in the UK

17 October 2006

How do British Muslims cope with the pressures of raising children in what can feel like an increasingly hostile society? Fahim Mazhary, a 52-year-old father of five from London spoke to Fareena Alam, a journalist for The Guardian, about how it feels for him:
"Sometimes I wish I could prevent my four teenage sons from becoming adults, because adulthood is so complicated and confusing. It is a monumental task for any parent to ensure their children grow up balanced, kind individuals, so imagine the pressure of being a Muslim parent in the current climate. My sons watch TV, read the papers, and surf the net – they are exposed to ideas that are incredibly challenging for me. The other day I saw one of my sons enjoying a not-yet-ripe banana. I was horrified. But he insisted that he loved it, and it’s his mouth, his taste. It was a revelation for me. My sons are individuals – I cannot control where life takes them.

"Recently, I listened to a sermon by Sheikh Babikr Ahmed Babikr. He talked about religion being a source of refuelling at a time of intense stress and helplessness. I would go mad if I didn’t have my religion to hang on to. And it helps me raise my children. The Prophet Muhammad warned against getting angry, and I believe that the root of most family problems lies in anger. If parents don’t listen to their children, they will stifle the children’s anger and frustration, driving it underground. Your child may shut up because you tell him to, but his confusion is not resolved.

"There will always be an inherent communication gap between parent and child. I used to think my sons thought I was stupid, old-fashioned, out of touch, and it used to tear me apart. So I taught myself to speak their language. I realised that our home is the safest place to deal with their questions and frustration – I look at it as a controlled explosion! But can you ever know what your child is saying when he thinks no one is listening?

"Children are most honest not when they talk to their parents but when they talk to each other. I overheard one son talking to the other about racist bullies at their school. "We ought to just blow them up!" he said. I was horrified but I let them have their say and when they calmed down, I had a chat with them.

"I told them I share their anger, but don’t go along with their conclusions. In the 70s, I went through a period of anger and intense politicisation but I learned that there are better ways to deal with frustration. No matter what you lecture your children about, they too need to make this journey of discovery. During this journey, they will either be met by individuals who channel their youthful vigour to violent ends, or by adults who guide them well.

"It is difficult to know when to tighten control and when to let them go. My boys are at such an impressionable age that if I lose concentration for even a week, they develop characteristics I do not recognise. This is a fact for every parent on this earth, and it is why I spend so much time engaging with my boys.

"I tell my sons that if someone is abusive, they should pray that God gives that person guidance. They may change right away or in 10 or 20 years. Patience is difficult but it pays. I tell my son about the family who used to live across from us. The two sons used to call us Paki and would urinate on our doorstep. Instead of lashing out, I befriended their grandmother. My wife and I were given several opportunities to help her – like when she was locked out in the middle of winter. Slowly, over years, we won the family over. The boys who used to urinate on our doorstep began playing with my children and we would go on outings together. The fact that they saw the inside of a loving Muslim home changed their view of "Pakis" for life.

"John Reid says it is our duty as Muslim parents to spy on our children. There is an Urdu saying: when you are strangling a person, how can you ask why his eyes are popping out? Politicians – look where your hands are! You are strangling people with your policies and yet you ask why our eyes are popping out.

"I want my boys to grow up to become individuals who, in their quietest, most solitary moment – when no one is watching – will do the right thing, because I cannot watch them forever."

Mr Mazhary’s comments appeared in an article entitled ‘If you are strangling a man, don’t ask why his eyes are popping out’ in The Guardian on Saturday October 14, 2006. Reproduced by kind permission.