A powerful photo series is documenting the experiences of young, working-class Muslim men in Britain today.
Mahtab Hussain spent nine years photographing young British South Asian men in Birmingham, London, and Nottingham, approaching them in the street before hearing their stories and taking their pictures.
Hussain, 35, believes that “no one truly understands where these men are coming from” and that working-class Muslim men are underrepresented and misinterpreted.
Hussain was born in Glasgow and grew up in Birmingham. While studying in London, he says, he began to notice that the art in galleries rarely reflected his experience as a British Asian: “It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I was invisible in these spaces, spaces that I love and hold so dear in my life.”
His interviews with the men – who all identify as Muslim – reveal their views on culture, identity, violence, and masculinity, as well as a shared experience of discrimination.
“Time and time again, I heard how difficult their lives were, how misunderstood they were, and how angry they were with the media, the press, the politicians, the imams, and the so-called community leaders,” Hussain told BuzzFeed News. “How they were tired of being continually asked about their identity and proving how British they were, whilst at the same time being told how un-British they are. All this while the community is also telling them how bad they were with regards to their Islamic identity too.”
“Think about this," Hussain said. "9/11 happened in 2001, that was 17 years ago. These young men, who are now in their early twenties, have had to endure a plethora of attacks from the media and government since then. And all they know is that this country hates them.
“That they are criminals, a terrorist, an ISIS sympathiser, a threat to society, sexual groomers who beat their women and quite possibly may one day kill their own sisters in the name of ‘honour’. This is just a small list, but imagine how damaging it is to one’s sense of self.”
He stressed that he doesn't want viewers to feel pity for his subjects, some of whom have become his friends: “I wanted to show that despite the pressures, these men have still found a way to hold themselves up as proud and dignified people, albeit with complex and often conflicting identities.”
“The sad reality is that part of their own community does not understand them," he said, adding: “Crucially, it was never about them as individuals, it was about 'we’, it was ‘us’. They talked about the struggle as a collective, they were carrying the burden of the global Muslim experience.”
The photos appear in his free exhibition You Get Me?, which opens on 5 May at Autograph ABP in Shoreditch, London.
The quotes below are from some of the men Hussain interviewed and photographed. None are linked to specific individuals, at his request.
"I feel unwanted. You are born here, but people still say: 'Go back to where you are from. You are not from here.' But when you are born here, you can’t really say that I’m not… When someone tells me to go back home, I think, My home is here.
"If you’re in a country where ultimately you’re being told to take on British values and that you should be part of, you know, 'Do you feel British? You’re not British enough; do you feel British?', it’s like you’ve been strangled. … I mean, if that isn’t going to piss people off, then what is, do you know what I mean? It’s just the way that we’ve gone about it, in a very aggressive manner as well. And aggression just breeds more aggression, you know?
"If someone were to ask my identity? I always think, Oh yes, I’m British, right? But you have to always feel like, No, OK, British Muslim, because you know you’d get second looks.
"I love this country, bro. … Look, this country gives me food and shelter over my head, I love the country. It is not the country, it is who is running the country."
"When 9/11 happened, I was 4, so obviously I didn’t really know what was going on. But in terms of now, of how Muslims are portrayed in the media, I think it’s a very one-sided story. We’re all terrorists, evil, who want to take over this country. I mean, thinking back now, I was only 4, so all I’ve experienced is that this country hates me.
"The media portrays a man with a beard that’s got a rucksack on his back, walking, automatically … yo, he’s a terrorist. He is probably the nicest man in the world, that may have a degree in law on his way to work, but it is the media that has conditioned that. I’ve got mates that are white. They are thinning on top and [why when] they shave it off does that make him a skinhead?"
Identity and class
"I tell ya straight, the real place where you belong is your origins, where you are from. Where your family is from. Most of us are being raised on principle from our culture back home, you understand what I am trying to say, and the rules of this country don’t apply to certain mans. That is about it.
"We’re allowing other people to define who we are without literally grasping and taking the bull by the horns and saying, 'Hold on, you’re not deciding; we’re deciding.' We’re not in a position to do that and because we’re not, we’re at loggerheads. Not just with the system, but with ourselves. And there is almost a kind of internal hatred. We have that problem because of postcolonial trauma, that we have this constant worry about other people hating us, but the reason we are where are is also because we hate ourselves, you know? You see brown people who hate fellow men, who call each other 'Pakis' or look down at fellow Pakistanis, and they literally, subliminally, fell into that whole kind of self-hating drama.
"I think, by and large, the average white person – the working class in particular – is held to ransom by exactly the same people we’re held to ransom by, you know? It’s just that they’ve done a good job at keeping us isolated or divided, and I think that’s the underlying issue.
"I feel I’m more Pakistani than the other groups, because that’s the community I grew up with and that’s the community my father associates with. So I can relate to them. I can also relate to Britain because I live here and I have a passport and I’ve spent my whole life here and I’m happy here – and it’s given me a lot of opportunity, although I’ve also suffered a lot of setbacks, but that’s made me grow and develop as a person and I may not have done that if I’d had a silver spoon."
"I wouldn’t say I’m not religious, it’s just that I don’t practise, which is obviously, it’s something I should do and I will look into doing. But how do I cope with the pressure of all these labels?
"I’m openly fine telling people I’m Muslim. Even though I'm aware of the label, I’m still open and confident about it. If someone were to come and ask me, 'What do you believe in?', I’ll openly say Islam."
"We have a major issue of failing with young Muslim boys in particular, with Pakistanis but Bengalis as well: low aspiration. The other thing is role models. Who’s the role model for an average Pakistani lad, for instance? Is it going to be Amir Khan? He’s a good boxer, but how many people want to get their faces bashed in to get to that level? And there’s a lack of commitment to start off with. If they had commitment they could do something else.
"I see how things are getting out of hand. A lot of children – the younger generation – are going to struggle with their identity. They are not going to know what they are, to be honest with you. But I don’t really see it as a problem, because obviously we’re technically living in a multicultural society.
"I’ve got friends, my best friends, they say to me, 'Why are you like this, man, why are you always serious all the time? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so serious? You need to learn to relax.' I say, 'I can’t relax. I ain’t going to gain anything from relaxing. If I relax then I’m not ahead of my game.' And they don’t understand it. Sometime in life you can’t relax, man, not until you achieve what you want to achieve. I want to achieve success. It’s not material [though] – through religion people say success is with the mosque.
"I’m just a diamond in the dirt that hasn’t been found."
"The thing is, the Muslim community, when they first came over here, they went through the first phase of isolation, which didn’t work. What they said was, 'We’re going to keep ourselves to ourselves and try and preserve our identity.' It didn’t work because [when] the second generation came about, they started integrating with the society. They wanted to mix in and be part and parcel of society and as a result, many of them lost their identity, but yet, they were never accepted. And both approaches of isolation and integration are useless because it doesn’t serve the purpose of the Muslim identity. The way we should be going forward is how the third generation behaves: like we’re in this society, yes, but we can’t move our identity, our unique identity, which is Islam and we are Muslims. And we will interact with society with this identity and the truth will prevail and the truth is Islam.
"When I used to work at John Lewis in a white area … people used to look down at me, so I had to learn how to handle them, be more polite, Westernize myself a lot more. Then you come to an Asian area, you got to change the way you are, you can’t be open, you can’t show your weaknesses, you can't be nice, you can’t do it, because the groups of people I hang out with are going to take that as a weakness, that’s how it is."
"The Pakistani is at the bottom of the pyramid, the Pakistani is the groomer, he’s the thug, he’s the drug dealer, he’s the extremist; everything bad you will find in the Pakistani.
"I’m often battling against the stereotype. I’m battling against a kind of decontextualised perspective of a topic that we have so much to say about but never get the opportunity, right? I’ve decided now the only solution is entertainment. … Muslims are dying for that; they’re dying for something like The Daily Show or Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah or Larry Wilmore, that’s something that we’re screaming out for.
"Eventually, people are going to be forced to see us as humans. Because the argument at the moment is, 'You’re just not human enough. You know, you need enlightening.' And our argument is, 'No, we’re just as human as you are, but there’s just one problem. You’re spreading a load of lies and you’re holding us to account for something that you yourselves fall short of.' I mean here, it’s a case of, 'We need to enlighten you, British values, this is what you need to adopt,' and yet there isn’t any group that is more loyal to Britain than Muslims, and that’s because they’re stuck in a situation where they’re continually held to account.
"Look, it’s hard growing up in England, all I’ve known is hate. I’m a Paki, I’m a terrorist, I rape white girls, I beat up my sisters, I will beat my wife, I’m always told how bad I am, it’s like I am not even a human being, it hurts. If I am all these things, why do you want me to be British, why do you want to have your British identity soiled by filth like me? And then I am told that I can’t even be angry about it. I just have to accept it and get on with it. I don’t understand why people can’t see this, the suffering we are under. I try not to think about these things because if I did I think I would just lose myself. I hope one day all this will stop, so I can breathe again, be seen as a human being first. I am not all those things that they say I am – yes, I am a Muslim, that does not mean I am a bad person.
"I do feel like the government is going to send us packin’ one day, because you see things going on like the recession and people will start saying that if these people were not here we would have jobs, and they will start using excuses, and you know it is going to happen.
"You get worried really because when you are older and you are married and you have kids you don’t want to bring them up here because look at how hard life is gonna get. It’s hard now and it’s gonna get even harder.
"It is the way you get treated – when you’re walking down the street in a white area they are going to say something under their breath. You’re never going to feel equal, like the same as everybody else."
"I used to get it a lot at school – there was one black guy who was my mate but he would call people 'Paki' and then turn around and say to me that I was not one, but it still hurt because he is still saying it and that part is in me. So you then get into fights and you have to fight, otherwise they are going to think that you are a pushover.
"They came over with that mindset of working, working hard, getting through. And those that have done well have done well, and those that have failed have failed miserably.
"When you’re growing up … you see the baddest man getting all the girls, all the guys talking about him ... got the cars and that’s what you want ... as when you see that you see power. And as humans, everybody wants power, and from that you get … respect."
Crime and terrorism
"I’m not angry, brother, I am hurt, and I need to make duwah [an act of worship or supplication] for the Muslims around the world and duwah for anybody who is going on humanity’s name and killing innocent souls. Innocent lives, does not have to be Muslims, it could be anybody, bro. Those things that happened in London – those were a handful of extreme Muslims painting all the Muslims with the same brush, bro. We can’t be like them, bruv, we are different from them.
"Look at sexual grooming, you’ve got to understand that these guys are idiots. They are stupid for what they are doing, but it’s also their parents' fault: the way their family is at home and this kind of mentality about white people being a lower class than us. 'Ah, they are no good, they are haramis [bastards].' They don’t pray, and their belief system [is wrong] basically. It has been drilled into them and that these things [associated with white people] are bad. They are not taught understanding, [or] tolerance for another culture. When you live in another country, you are supposed to be taught the culture of that country and respect it.
"For a certain number of people, it is sad but they don’t even care about prison. … Some people wanna go prison. To have the reputation, ‘cause really it is all about rep: who you with, what you have done, who’s your links, and that’s it. And I go back to why it is all happening, because of all the fucking hip-hop videos, what you see on TV. That crime pays, basically, that's what the media is saying."
You Get Me? also features in a book that will be published by Mack in June.