Blogger Najm Al-Din says too many British Muslim youth are chasing the UK’s culture of materialism and instant gratification by any means necessary, as exemplified by the hit series Top Boy, in the hope of accumulating wealth, power and status.
A few years ago, while walking past a play area in Stepney Green, I remember seeing a group of students having some playful banter during a PE lesson.
One of them addressed his peer as “Dushane,” before turning his attention towards me and asking: “Do you know who Dushane is?”
Later that week, when stumbling upon a trending hashtag on Twitter, I realised the character being referred to was a drug kingpin and main protagonist of Top Boy, a British crime drama series on Netflix, set on the fictional Summerhouse estate in Hackney, London.
And after having watched all five seasons including its Channel 4 predecessor, the powerful performances of rival-drug gangs on the gritty streets of London engrossed me from start to finish.
But this authentic snapshot of thug life in a city blighted by gang violence also got me reflecting on a toxic culture that thrives in the dark underbelly of London’s crime-infested neighbourhoods.
For decades, criminologists, politicians and youth workers have explored various reasons for why many of Britain’s youth become involved in crime.
A major contributing factor is undoubtedly the widespread phenomenon of unstable families.
The true scale of family breakdown in the UK is staggering, and was recently highlighted in a report by Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, who disclosed that 23% of UK families are headed by a single parent and that 44% of under 21’s have not lived with both their parents during childhood.
This social problem cannot be overlooked as the likelihood of gang membership is higher in those with emotionally-detached parents and continued exposure to trauma by way of neglect, abuse and domestic violence.
Education funding is also crucial to combating the wave of gang activity menacing the streets of Britain.
With more research highlighting an inverse correlation between education and crime, the situation is only compounded by the growth of school exclusions and slashing of central government grants to local authorities, with austerity measures resulting in a significant decline in extra-curricular provisions such as youth clubs and the growth of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET).
This adversely affects a young person’s employment prospects, stunting their ability to gain meaningful work which is another long-term factor contributing to the wave of gang violence.
This intricate web of social issues contributing to the alarming rise in UK youth violence is symptomatic of a dysfunctional society that is failing in almost every metric of human happiness and psychological well-being.
While the debate on the causes and solutions for youth crime continues, it’s time we interrogate an understudied factor which is eating away at the fabric of western societies – materialism.
According to Louise Shelley, a University Professor at George Mason University and expert on transnational crime, the fulfilment of sensual pleasure is an instrumental motivating factor for modern criminal networks.
Shelley takes a deep dive into the literature of modern urban studies and contemporary criminality which she synthesises with historical accounts of crime and civil disorder. An important conclusion from her research into crime patterns is the correlation between criminal actions and the predominant values of society.
Having explored the relationship between modernisation and fundamental forms of crime, Shelly states that the commission of property crimes and willingness to resort to any means necessary to secure desired goods is a reflection of the underlying materialistic values embedded in modern societies.
This perspective on crime causation is also echoed in the works of Robert K. Merton, hailed as one of the founding fathers of sociology and an important contributor to the field of criminology.
Merton opined that much of the social deviance plaguing societies is the result of an unchecked commercial culture that stimulates our desires, particularly within asymmetrical social structures where opportunities to fulfil material goals are unequally distributed.
The structural impediments to financial security coupled with the omnipresence of mass advertising creates heightened tension (or strain) between the goals which society venerates (like financial success), and the legitimate means available to achieve those goals.
The misalignment between the cultural goals and the means to obtain them became known as “strain theory” and led Merton to place materialistic motives as a contributing factor to recidivism and juvenile deviance.
Merton also draws attention to how the same motivational drive to amass riches is dominant in white collar crimes, such as insider trading, embezzlement and ponzi schemes, the perpetrators of which often hail from affluent backgrounds but tend to go underreported due to the generally sophisticated manner in which these crimes are committed.
In my opinion, policy makers must pay greater attention to the culture-wide obsession with sense gratification as a common motive behind gang violence.
Across many developed nations like the UK, children are bombarded with messages which encourage the feverish pursuit of wealth and fulfilment of sensual pleasure as the pinnacle of success.
Mass media is awash with messages promoting ownership and consumption as the key ingredients for a happy existence, without which one will be condemned to insignificance and obscurity.
Whether it’s the consumer-oriented economy fuelling their desires, social media nudging them to make an ostentatious display of riches or the violent and hedonistic undertones of drill music which is quickly becoming the sound of UK’s inner cities, a toxic materialistic culture that glamorises the pursuit of status symbols has infected the hearts and minds of large swathes of British youth and disposed them towards delinquent behaviour.
In such a climate where children – who are the most impulsively driven members of society – are drip fed materialistic messages from cradle to grave, it is not surprising that some will chase these status symbols without consideration for the legal implications of their actions or regard for the culturally acceptable ways of accomplishing such goals, such as hard work and perseverance.
It brings to mind the famous proverb coined by American rapper 50 Cent – “Get Rich or die tryin.”
That is precisely how many youth are wired in secular liberal societies which has psychologically conditioned them to believe that they are nothing but the sum of their possessions. Simply, if you don’t have the latest gadget to flaunt on Instagram or some serious “drip” to show off to your peers, then you score low on an existential scale.
Lured by the trappings of wealth and smitten by the lifestyle of “shottas” and “trappers,” it is an uncomfortable truth that a significant portion of the younger generation attach value to the criminal lifestyle embodied by the Dushanes of this world, which is an inevitable consequence in any society that grossly over-emphasises materialistic goals whilst under-emphasising the legitimate means by which to achieve them.
The Muslim community in the UK must be alert to this social epidemic, seeing as Tower Hamlets, the London Borough with the highest Muslim population, is no stranger to gang activity.
Our mosques, families and support networks must recognise the urgency of culturing youth to aspire beyond the compulsive consumerism which is a hallmark of capitalist economies.
This can only be achieved once we align our tarbiyah with the Prophetic example and socialise a generation of children to eschew the superficial materialistic mindset where everything is extrinsically-motivated and instead equate success with earning the pleasure of Allah SWT.
Although spurning the fleeting pleasures of the dunya is a tall order in a liberal society which extols individual autonomy and self-gratification, equipping the youth with an akhira-centric worldview so they can recalibrate such tendencies and foster gratitude remains the strongest inoculation against the destructive lure of materialism.
Through our parenting, dawah and outreach, Muslim children must be nurtured to pursue a higher calling, in which there is far more to a wholesome life than “Keeping up with the Joneses.”
The tragic reality is that a sizable number of British youth are responding to their culture’s adulation for materialism by entering a violent rat race, in the hopes of accumulating wealth, power and status.
Unless we can offer a more fulfilling vision of human flourishing and convince younger generations that the antidote to materialism lies in contentment, the unhealthy competition to become “Top Boy” will only intensify, leaving behind a trail of death, destruction and misery.