Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World by Shelina Janmohamed,
Reviewed by Klaudia Khan
I wanted to read Generation M as soon as I heard about it. I guess it’s the subtitle that got me hooked: ‘Young Muslims Changing the World’ –great! I wanted to read it and become part of the change. I am young, and Muslim… Does that make me a part of Generation M? I couldn’t wait to find out. To begin with I did some research about the book and found out that it got really good reviews, curiously all of them were in mainstream media and mostly written from non-Muslim perspective, like the Guardian’s review.
Suddenly the phrase ‘Generation M’ was something you could hear and read casually mentioned in both mainstream and Muslim media. Young successful Muslims were branded Generation M, but so were Muslims who did controversial stuff, like the American hijabi journalist Nour Tagouri, whose article appeared in Playboy magazine talking about modesty. So what’s the deal with Generation M? And is the book by Shelina Janmohamed really a manual for changing the world?
After reading Generation M I must admit that it was not quite what I expected. First of all it felt like I, as a Muslim and not involved in business, was not really the target audience of the book: At times there was so much focus on the consumer behaviour of Generation M that it felt like a manual for the PR professionals whose job would be to promote brands among Muslim communities.
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On the other hand I really enjoyed reading the stories of dozens of Muslim entrepreneurs who have achieved much in their field and whose successes have radiated far and wide. The message I got from the book was that young Muslims want to be successful, but they want their success to be ethical and they will make sure it’s halal from the bottom up; and that’s great news not only for the Muslim Ummah, but for humanity.
If we raise our standards, others will follow. If we refuse to lower our expectations, there will be people and companies who would strive to reach up to us. And because buying power is THE power acknowledged in the modern world, with appropriate know-how we can utilize this power to change the world for the better: to demand that industries act more fairly and for us to choose that what we buy is not only halal, but also tayyib.
The standards that we follow are high; after all, they are Allah’s laws. So whether buying or selling we remember Allah’s commandment to distinguish between what is mandated for us as beneficial and what is not:
And eat of what Allah has provided for you [which is] lawful and good. And fear Allah, in whom you are believers. [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:88]
as well as an overriding motivational principle:
Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly. [Surat Al-Hujurat, 49:9]
But regarding the focus of the book, why really deal with some distinct Generation M, rather than speaking simply about Muslims overall? The book, dubbed as the milestone in understanding modern Muslims, explores the beliefs, philosophy, culture and most significantly the consumption patterns of the young Muslim middle-class from around the world.
Janmohamed argues that even though the Muslim Ummah is not homogenous, the young and affluent Muslims from around the world have enough in common to be classified as one cultural group – and that is Generation M.
So is being young and well-off the only markers of distinction? Not really, as Janmohamed points out. But rather, Generation M’s particular trait is that they are able to embrace modernity without compromising their religion, or even to mold it to make it compatible with their beliefs. So basically Generation M refers to young Muslims with buying power and an understanding of that power.
Even though the term Generation M is sometimes associated outside of the book with controversial characters, like the aforementioned Tagouri, I did not find any such examples in the book, and the American hijabi journalist doesn’t feature in it at all. Janmohamed’s book does briefly explain Islam to the non-Muslim readers and it does explicate the sectarian differences and tensions that occur in the Ummah, but she does not take sides or make any theological arguments. It’s simply a description of how things are—and not meant to stir controversy. And I feel that it makes a good introduction to the Muslim world for an outsider.
According to Janmohamed, not all Muslims in the relevant age or income category can be classified as Generation M; in opposition to that group are the so-called traditionalists. Janmohammed doesn’t really explain what makes one a traditionalist, but she alludes to their stance towards the modern and cultural attachments as marking traits. Because the traditionalist is juxtaposed to a Generation M Muslim, we can conclude that they are either unable to merge their religious beliefs with modernity or they turn down the modern as incompatible with their culture.
A general audience fed constantly with the negative images of Muslims and news of da’esh would easily interpret this division as the good Muslims versus the bad ones. Perhaps it’s not such a bad interpretation except for the label, as I know some Muslims whose description would match Generation M characteristics, but who proudly call themselves ‘traditionalist’ referring to their attachment to family or local tradition.
Janmohamed doesn’t deny Generation M their cultural attachments nor does she demand that they forsake all the local traditions for the sake of global Muslim culture. It’s rather their openness to the world and modernity that makes a Muslim one of the Generation M.
When reading Generation M I could not help but admire the scope of Janmohammed’s research: She has reached out to young Muslims from around the world, representing different schools of thoughts and ideologies within Islam and has found examples of their vibrant and diverse activities in just about any field. Within the pages of the book we meet Muslim entrepreneurs from around the world: from Malaysia, Turkey and the UK. We also meet ordinary Muslims and get to hear their narratives on what it feels like to be young and Muslim in whatever place they happen to live. It creates a vibrant mosaic of passionate young people who are very much part of the modern world; and inspired by their faith, they try to make their world a better place.
However, in the book there is a passage that made me question the depth of Janmohamed’s research. On page 185 Janmohamed writes: “Naima B. Robert, who lives between South Africa and the UK, is the author of several young adult books including ‘From My Sisters’ Lips’ which looks at what it is like to grow up as a Somali woman in the UK.” Well, it would be sufficient to check the description of this book by Bint Robert on the Amazon website to find out that this description is not at all what Bint Robert’s book is about. Bint Robert has written several young adult books, but this title is not one of them.
And what is more, Janmohamed completely ignores Bint Robert’s other achievements: a publisher of some of the most popular Muslim women’s lifestyle magazine and other websites, a speaker, children’s author and poet, merely mentioning her achievement as a YA writer. And even the information of Bint Robert’s whereabouts is incorrect. And if it’s just that Janmohamed is wrong about this one person, then still it casts a shade of doubt over the accuracy of the author’s findings generally.
On the whole I am glad to have read Janmohamed’s Generation M and I would recommend it to both my Muslim and non-Muslim friends. OK, before reading it I knew already that as Muslims we should and we do have higher standards when it comes to consumption. And I knew that there were loads of young and not so young creative Muslims doing great stuff. And I knew that their influence radiates beyond the Ummah. But still it was great to hear some specifics and to learn about the impact they are making.
Although I feel that the book’s projected audience is primarily non-Muslim, I think that we as Muslims can learn something from it or at least gain arguments to defend the impact of our faith on the modern world. And for the non-Muslim it’s a great introduction to get to know their Muslim neighbors. It’s a book that deals more with consumption patterns than with the tenets of faith, but then this is what we have very much in common with the wider society. So focusing on the similarities, we can combat the phobias and create a more positive image of a modern Muslim.
I hope Generation M will make others understand what halal really means and how it applies to more than chicken. I hope it will make others appreciate our striving for more fair, more wholesome, and more ethical business practices. I hope it can help build bridges of empathy and understanding. And I hope that young Muslims reading this book may get inspired to go ahead and fulfill their dreams and keep on changing the world for the better.