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COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT – A MUSLIM PERSPECTIVE.

I have been working in Community Development work for the last twenty years, since I converted to Islam in 1995. It is not automatic that people who convert to Islam find a place in community work or in sharing information about the faith and making friends and partnerships with people from all backgrounds.  But it has certainly been my life’s calling and I can’t see that changing any time soon.  I love it!

Post 9/11, Muslims in the US, the UK and in Europe are frequently viewed through a terrorism lens.  This is sharply pointed out to me when I have conversations with my children, especially my son Musa, who is thirteen. He shares comments and questions that he has from school and he asks and challenges things himself.  Sometimes, there isn’t just one answer to what he wants to know.

Muslims have been living in Britain mainly since the 1960s when migration from South East Asian countries was encouraged and very much welcomed by our Government.  People from largely poorer and sometimes uneducated backgrounds came here as labourers and workers in factories and mills.   Usually the young men came first and then their wives came, and children were born here and this was home for them.  For many of those men what started as a ‘temporary’ stay here in the UK, became permanent.

We are now onto third and fourth generations of Muslims in Britain and young Muslims who have been born here, like my four children, don’t know anywhere else to call home.  Being British and Muslim does not clash and indeed I feel very proud to be both and feel they complement each other well.  There is no such thing as ‘The Muslim Community’; it is a brilliantly diverse group of people from all backgrounds, shapes and sizes who see themselves on a spectrum of beliefs and practices that can differ depending on who you speak to, and that is a strength!

Last year, as part of the ongoing work of the Christian Muslim Forum, I spoke at an event in South London that brought together Christians and Muslims from the local area to set up local ‘twinning’ projects. I spoke about the benefit of people working together and doing good for the people around them, together.

A few of us have been working for a number of years now on a project called ‘The Big Iftar’ (the fast-breaking meal at sunset).  This encourages Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan to be more open, to share food, to invite people into their homes, to feed the poor.  Ramadan is a time when Muslims fast for thirty consecutive days and that, of course, is the main focus of the month. It is also a time of heightened spirituality and charity and raises awareness of the difficulties and struggles of people who are less fortunate than us, either nearby to us or in other countries.  It provides an ideal time for Muslims to meet their neighbours and share food with them. We have also seen other faith groups host an Iftar in their place of worship or community centre. In 2014, Archbishop Justin Welby hosted the first ever Iftar at Lambeth Palace, which was wonderful!

Last summer it was announced that a ‘Draw Muhammad’ Cartoon Exhibition was to be hosted in London by some extreme far-right activists.  It was obvious that they were looking to provoke a response, probably a violent response.  While free speech and all that surrounds it, is a very important part of living in Britain, with it has to come responsibility and when people are inciting hatred, it is clearly not in our interests to allow it to go unchallenged.  Consequently, working with the anti-fascist organisation ‘HOPE not Hate’, we decided to organise a national campaign called ‘Our Cup Of Tea’.  A very simple concept: encouraging people to have tea together!  It was so simple but worked brilliantly and was supported by people from all over the UK who used the simple example of a cup of tea to bring communities together and not allow them to be set apart from each other.

In 2015, there was terrible flooding in parts of the UK.  Muslim charities and individuals came out in great numbers and helped immediately and in the weeks following.  Cleaning up, making food, donating goods – whatever was needed, they were there and it was lovely to see.  ‘Sadaqa’ is often translated from Arabic to mean ‘charity’ and that is usually seen as giving money in charity. Muslims are among the most generous at donating to charity.  Part of my work is also to encourage Muslims to see charity as giving time, helping others, being the best neighbour you can be, feeding the homeless, not going to bed full when your neighbour is hungry.  These are all teachings from our faith, often lost or missed in the narrative when terrible things happen and news reports become sensationalised, casting suspicion on everyone so that people from our faith group feel defensive and unwelcome in their own country.

Violent extremism and the threat of terrorism are very real. We all need to remember that among the three million Muslims in the UK or one and a half billion Muslims around the world, the vast majority are law-abiding, faithful people who are trying to live good lives.  As Muslims living in Britain we have a responsibility to reassure, to build friendships, to help people understand us and our faith better. We need to rise above the hatred so that we allow hope to take over.  We need to be at the forefront of inviting people in to our places of worship, to our homes, to our community centres.

Friendships are crucial.  When the terrible killings happened in Paris at the beginning of last year, the first people to call and message me were my Jewish friends.  People I have developed love and respect for wanted to know if I was OK, to reassure me that we are all friends together and that hatred cannot drive us apart in the way that evil people want it to.  It was very touching and something I will always remember.

Individually we can all do more. I am an optimist, and I know that the difficult phase we are in is just that, a phase.  I know that if we nurture and love them well, the next generation of young people will have friends from all backgrounds, will be proud of their multiple identities, will be passionate about making the world a better place and will not allow hatred and intolerance to go unchecked.

And we can start all that with a simple cup of tea.

 

Julie Siddiqu is a mentor, consultant and activist with a focus on gender issues, Jewish-Muslim relations and social action. She was Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain from 2010 to 2014 and led on several high profile campaigns during this period.