Nisa-Nashim Changemakers conference: Jewish and Muslim women building bridges and creating change

Sunday 22nd April 2018 was the annual Nisa-Nashim conference here in London and if you’re a Muslim or Jewish women based in the UK, then you should have been there! It really was a great day to come together and be inspired to build positive change in our communities, across the nation and even the globe!

Nisa-Nashim: Building bridges

If you’ve not heard of Nisa-Nashim, then you may be surprised to find out that it is a UK-based NGO working to bring the Muslim and Jewish communities together by:

  • Building relationships amongst women
  • Fostering leadership skills and feelings of empowerment in women
  • Addressing some of the misconceptions in wider society about Jewish and Muslim relationships

As a proud volunteer/member of the organisation, I not only believe that this is a great – much-needed cause – but that it’s working! Nisa-Nashim is the largest movement of its kind in Europe and second only to the wonderful Saalam Shalom in the US in terms of size, cause and impact (do check it out if you’re in the US!).

In fact, in the current socio-political climate, it really is more important than ever to stand up against the increasing level of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia we’re witnessing. We must build bridges, form friendships and develop understanding between the two faith communities.

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#NNChangemakers 2018: Creating change

At this year’s conference, 200 Muslim and Jewish women from all over the UK came together to learn about a variety of issues affecting us all. This included: feminist activism, head coverings across the faiths, self-defence, how bereaved families in the Middle East are working together to create peace and to affirm that as Muslim and Jewish women: we can make great change.

This year’s theme was Changemakers and as women, fighting for change doesn’t just mean building relationships amongst sisters of other faith communities (and none) but also fighting the feminist cause! To gives us an idea of what we can achieve, we heard from some of the truly inspirational women from a variety of backgrounds (both Muslim and Jewish) who showed us that women (of any faith and none) can and do have a meaningful role to play both within and outside their respective faith communities. They crucially exemplified how women can and must be given greater room for leadership in the public sphere and the power we have to create positive change.

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Guest speakers included Helen Pankhurst (great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst – leaders of the suffragette movement here in the UK), Gabby Edlin of Bloody Good Period (a UK-based NGO working to fight period poverty) and Robi Damelin of The Parents Circle Family Forum (an NGO based in Israel-Palestine working to build peace amongst bereaved families in both areas). As you’d therefore imagine, the conference offered a chance to talk honesty in a safe space, to learn from each other and to remind ourselves of why it’s important for us to continue working together.

Head coverings: Freedom, autonomy and self-determination

One of the several workshops at the conference was focussed on head coverings and I was delighted to be a panelist. Chair Reina Lewis – Professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion (University of the Arts, London) – fascinated us with her research on modest fashion. Professor Lewis explained how modest fashion was not only important to Jewish, Christian and Muslim women but was also forging interfaith alliances amongst the different faith groups and also offering women of no faith a greater means of self-expression and choice in how they are able to dress.

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Regarding the Jewish faith, Lindsay Simmonds – our Jewish panelist who herself chooses to cover her head with a hat – gave a great insight into the topic of head coverings in Judaism. Lindsay explained how some Jewish women chose to cover their heads with a wig, hat or scarf after marriage. With so much to say, we could have listed for hours but alas, we (of course) had a time limit! The topic is of course broad, complex and very interesting!

From the Muslim perspective – as within the Jewish community – choice and personal autonomy is paramount. As a hijabi Muslim woman, I described my journey as a Muslim convert and how, when and why I first chose to cover my hair. This of course was an independent spiritual choice (and a very private matter) but as a convert, it also came with a very public declaration of faith (or stage of “coming out” so to speak). I therefore recalled my own personal journey and the process, from adopting long loose clothes to finally wearing a full hijab (khimar – scarf). My co-panelist Rabia Mirza of British Muslims for Secular Democracy also spoke about her experiences as a British non-hijabi Muslim and explained how hijab is never be an indication of a Muslim women’s worth and the importance of a woman’s choice to cover or not cover.

All in all it was a great session which really highlighted the complexities of the issue of head coverings in relation to identity, faith and tradition but which ultimately stressed the need for personal freedom of choice the choice to cover or not to cover your head/hair as you believe and so wish to do.

Here’s a brief overview of the session for more insight:

So, if you’ve been inspired then why not get involved? Look up your local Nisa-Nashim group if you’re a Jewish-Muslim female based in the UK or if not, find your local synagogue, mosque or a faith centre from outside your own community. Join a interfaith group, learn about another faith, discover new traditions and build bridges. It makes us all stronger!

Salam, shalom, peace ♡

Credits and acknowledgements

Photos: Yakir Zur (c)

Thank you Julie, Laura, Rabia, Shelley and the team for a great conference and allowing me to share my personal experience as a hijabi Muslim woman.

Thank you also to Lea, Bonie and the team at the Woolf Institute for their lovely podcast.

For more information on Nisa-Nashim, visit their website and/or social media channels: Twitter and Facebook.

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12 Essential recommendations for UK-based mosques

There was a recent conference held by the Muslim Council of Britain last January called “Our Mosques, Our Future“. The conference was based around the idea of “#morethanaprayerspace” – looking at the role of Britain’s 1,500 mosques today compared to how they were in Prophet Muhammad’s time and examining if they are fulfilling their multi-faceted roles and meeting the needs of their communities.

I unfortunately did not attend the conference but have myself become increasingly fed-up by certain obstacles/patterns of behaviour. At the same time, I have also been inspired by the great examples set in other places of worship such as churches and synagogues. Based on personal and non-personal experiences, I therefore present 12 essential recommendations for UK-based mosques – in no particular order.

1. Childcare facilities 

A mosque should be a community space. At the same time it should allow space for quiet prayer and reflection. Especially during busy periods such as Friday Jummah prayers and Ramadan, something as basic as a crèche would avoid clearly distressed children having to be in the prayer hall and disturbing other sisters.

Childcare services would also ensure that women have easier access to mosques. The choice should be mother’s to either to stay at home and build prayer around child caring duties at home or if they so wish to be able to pray at the mosque without yet another obstacle in their way.

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2. Interfaith programmes 

Interfaith programmes are a must for any mosque, in particular in multifaith societies such as Britain. It’s crucial that Muslim communities learn and reach out to other faith (and non-faith) communities. This is especially important in relation to the Jewish community.

Such programmes should however not simply utilise members of boards/management committees – they should be open for members of the local congregation/community to participate and learn for real maximum effect.

3. Women co-leadership

The sad truth is that some mosques do not even have prayer spaces for ladies. I’ve seen some wudhu (ablution) “facilities” that were so dirty I could not wash. This is abhorrent. Islam is for everyone – men and women. This is just the basic level.

Moving onwards and upwards, women must crucially be more greatly included. They must form part of leadership committees, educational programmes and local initiatives. They must be given a platform to share their voices – and with real roles not simply a token platforms and gestures.

For the sake of equality and to ensure that women’s needs are met, women must be included. The lack of women’s leadership and instead great number of all-male committees is a sad reflection of our community and not representative of Islam.

4. Marriage counselling 

Marriage counselling both before, during and even after a marital split to ensure cooperation and mutual respect is essential. Marriage is a big commitment and cultural barriers, communication issues, family tensions and a number of other potential “problems” can create significant tensions and misunderstandings in a marriage. To ensure that couples know what to expect and what is expected of them, pre-marital counselling must be openly available – and be highly recommended to couples prior to their marriage.

Counselling is an excellent form of therapy for couples experiencing problems but is often expensive, comes with stigma or feelings of failure/shame and may lack religious expertise. Mosques must ensure that they can provide a good quality professional service with staff sensitive to religious needs/understandings. This could be through a referral network and in many cases these services may offer a more professional/adequate service.

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5. Women’s support services 

Girls and women at risk of FGM, domestic abuse or any other issues must feel that they have somewhere to turn to seek confidential advice and support. Women experiencing any forms of emotional, sexual, physical, physiological, financial, spiritual or physical abuse will feel frightened, confused and alone. An additional range of cultural, linguistic and social barriers or simply a lack of knowledge of services out there which can help, means that a dedicated support team for women who (are able to) attend the mosque will ensure that these vulnerable women and girls have a greater support network.

Through either dedicated staff or a strong referral network, safeguarding mechanisms, counselling, protection and reporting, legal support and guidance can be offered and protect women at risk or subjected to these unjust and brutal forms of violence.

6. Social justice initiatives

A mosque should not simply be a place of prayer – we may all know that. It should serve as a community centre which helps both its own and other communities, as part of a wider society. That’s why food banks, charity (sadaqah) funds and a whole range of social initiatives are a must.

Help and support should reach those of all faiths and none, regardless of sexuality, gender, age, nationality or ethnic background.

7. Khutbahs in English 

I think it’s rather sad that in my entire experience of attending khutbas in the UK, I have only ever understood the sermons in one mosque/community centre. The khutba should serve to teach Muslims about important issues. However, I see two problems here:

  1. Most are not in English (instead in only Arabic or another language)
  2. They generally are repetitive in nature and do not address a wide enough range of (current) issues

We need to engage people to take action against injustice, to utilise the wisdom of the Holy Qur’an and to do good as Allah wills. This is not simply through “religious ibadah” (worship) but through taking action against injustice, giving in charity and building bridges amongst other communities. Khutbas should therefore be accessible to everyone in terms of language and content, regardless of age and ethnic/linguistic background. The use of interpreting headsets/subtitles is one way to address the linguistic challenges. I also urge leaders to reflect upon their sermons and further reach out to the younger population.

8. Adequate facilities for the disabled

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It has been pointed out to me by the Open My Mosque initiative something which I sadly failed to notice for myself – and this speaks volumes: the lack of facilities for and measure to promote inclusion for Muslims with physical disabilities.

We must ensure that sign language interpreters are available as well as hearing loops, ramps for wheelchair users and adequate disabled toilets and parking. Consultation with communities, families and service providers should ensure that peoples voices are being heard and their needs are being met in the best, most professional, sensitive and inclusive way possible.

9. Youth clubs

It is critical that younger members of the community (especially teenagers) have creative and social outlets, such as craft clubs and sporting initiatives to offer space, productive and inclusive spaces to make friends, spend free time and learn new skills or simply get some exercise!

Having a stable community network with respected role models, people to turn to in times of trouble and meet like-minded young people is important. Mosques must offer this community element, not simply a prayer space for religious purposes.

10. Social clubs

As with youth clubs, social activities to bind the community together are essential. This is particularly important if we consider new arrivals to the UK/refugee communities, converts, stay-at-home or single mothers and other groups to whom we should be offering a strong social community network. The mosque should offer a home, a safe space of understanding to come together and enjoy being Muslim! The greater the cultural diversity the better!

11. Intrafaith inclusion

I’ve talked about interfaith work and bringing different cultural communities within the Muslim community together but here’s one essential critical need which is simply a “no-go” for some people. However, it cannot be escaped. Prejudice, discrimination and intolerance must be broken down and dismantled. We must unite as a community. Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Ahmadi Muslims must work together.

If you cannot work together as a religious community within Islam (and yes Ahmadis are Muslim and who are you to question!), then how can you reach out and build stronger bonds with other religious communities (e.g. churches, synagogues and gurdwaras) and the wider community? It’s hypocrisy. Plain and simple. Harsh words but this needs to be said. No one is saying you have to have exactly the same beliefs and practices, but you should be welcoming to others, share dialogue, shared events and never turn people away. Simple.

12. Good referral network of NGOs and service providers 

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No one can expect each and every mosque to have an infinite amount of financial and professional resources. That is why it’s crucial to build good referral networks with local and national charities, governmental and non-governmental organisations and services providers.

Some of the organisations/local government departments with which mosques need to build, strengthen or maintain links include:

  • ESOL services: Refugee, asylum seeking and migrant communities may need linguistic (and cultural) support. Local refugee organisations and colleges often offer (free) English classes, whilst the Refugee Council can offer advice and support
  • Hate-crime reporting bodies: Islamophobia (as with anti-Semitism) is on the rise and Muslim women in particular are experiencing the brunt of this. Mosque committees need to know what constitutes hate crime, how to report it and how to support their community members by building links with organisations such as Tell MAMA and the police
  • Mental health services providers: We need to end the stigma and reach out to people in need of support – but with professional qualified counsellors and therapists from organisations such as Mind and local community providers
  • Financial advisors: Free debt support services provided by charities such as the Citizens Advice Bureau can offer critical practical advice to families in crisis, greatly impacting upon their physical and emotional wellbeing
  • Immigration advice: Visa worries, asylum claims and anything immigration related can be very confusing, worrying and at time incredibly complicated. Local charities specialising in immigration advice and support can be a lifeline for community members – including people who are undocumented
  • Crisis housing: Homelessness is becoming an increasing problem across the UK and can affect anyone who has fallen on hard/uncertain times. By having the right networks with local councils and organisations such as Shelter, mosques can help an individual/family off the street or falling into homelessness
  • Local foodbanks: For smaller mosques who may not have the resources, local foodbanks will be able to assist members of their congregation and/or offer critical advice/signposting

Now, I’m not saying that all mosques lack these facilities, approaches and services, nor am I saying that all mosques – no matter how small – must have an endless supply of resources – financial or otherwise. However, all mosques must be inclusive, approachable and welcoming for everyone and offer as much help as possible. I do however believe that these recommendations can offer a good conclusive set of guidelines for British mosques.

Through direct service provision and better networking with service providers, facilities can be made available. And when it comes to gender, age, cultural and religious inclusivity and welcoming those with extra access needs, there must be no excuses. Islam is for everyone and mosques must represent that. Mosques – as many are already calling for – must also work as a community centre not an “in and out” prayer space.

Salam

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16 Inspirational quotes to feed your inner peace activist

There’s a lot of hatred, discrimination and violence on every level in our societies – within our communities, towns, nations and across national orders. Standing up for peace is vital. But don’t be disheartened, it’s not all doom and gloom! We can make a difference by spreading a much-needed message of peace, tolerance and love (not as cheesy as it sounds!) to unite communities and remind our fellow human beings of the need for non-violence, tolerance and respect for human rights.

So with that in mind, here’s 16 famous quotes to feed your inner peace activist and inspire us all, courtesy of Postcards for Peace.

1. “The greatest problem in the world is intolerance . Everyone is intolerant of each other.” (Princess Diana)
2. “Race, gender, religion, sexuality, we are all people and that’s it. We’re all people. We’re all equal.” (Connor Franta)
3. “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation” (Mahatma Ghandi)
4. “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” (J.K. Rowling)

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5. “Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.” (Maria Montessori)
6. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” (Nelson Mandela)
7. “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)
8. “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” (Gautama Buddha)

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9. “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch and do nothing.” (Albert Einstein)
10. “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help free the other half.” (Emmeline Pankhurst)
11. “I believe we are here on the planet Earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.” (Rosa Parks)
12. “Each of us has the power to change the world. Just start thinking peace and the message will spread quicker than you think.” (Yoko Ono)

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13. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” (Mother Teresa)
14. “When the world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” (Malala Yousafzai)
15. “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” (Jo Cox)
16. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” (Jimi Hendrix)

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Credits and acknowledgments:

Featured image: Celeste Damiani (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to Postcards for Peace for their inspiring selection of peace quotes. The full presentation can be downloaded Postcards-for-peace-inspirational-quotes.

You can find out more about Postcards for Peace via their website and social media – check them out!

Twitter: @postcards4peace
Facebook: @postcardsforpeacecharity

Salam, shalom, peace! ♡

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Respect, equality and non-discrimination: Aren’t these core universal human rights for each and every one of us?

It’s become quite a sad occurrence to increasingly find that certain individuals, groups, organisations and community figures are continuing (and I’m discovering more) to promote a blatant double standard when it comes to our human rights and freedoms and the basic concepts of respect, equality and non-discrimination.

Time and time again, here in the UK and worldwide, I’m discovering how certain organisations and “leaders” are expressing, promoting or failing to address divisive, degrading language, beliefs and practices. And time and time again, I’m discovering more and more people to quite literally steer well clear of!

Let’s be clear. We all have rights, needs and wishes and we also all have responsibilities and duties to our fellow human beings. For example: we are all endowed with the right to practice our religion freely but we are also responsible for protecting the religious freedom of others, to not impede on the freedom of other groups and to not advocate hatred against other religious or non-religious communities.

I’ve spoken about this before in a previous blog entitled Human Rights: It’s all for one or none for all, but I’m becoming increasingly shocked at the double standards out there. What are these you might ask? Well take a look below at the sad reality. I have not stated names but these are all real examples/issues.

Intrafaith hatred

They campaign against religious discrimination as (presumably Sunni) Muslims but hate Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

Homophobia

They advocate for peace and interfaith tolerance or the rights of their own community yet they exclude and/or demonise members of LGBT community through the use of derogatory language and exclusive practices and/or through constitutional history.

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Divisiveness

They preach the importance of anti-sectarianism within Islam but whilst (often vehemently) referring to themselves as Sunni they (almost always) refuse to accept Ahmadi Muslims as Muslims and preach an intolerant, divisive, hate-fuelled narrative.

Anti-Semitism

They claim to stand for the need for peace and non-violence – in particular by engaging faith communities and strengthening faith relations – but have (un-denounced) anti-Semitic history.

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Violence and extremism

They are concerned about injustices in the name of anti-terror legislation but do not (actively) tackle extremism within their own communities.

Misogyny

They promote a supposedly feminist narrative in opposition of the idea that Islam “oppresses women” but do so with often little or no involvement of women and whilst holding and/or failing to speak out against outdated misogynist beliefs and practices.

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Selective outrage / human rights

They campaign for the rights of Palestinians yet fail to condemn and/or do not advocate against human rights abuses throughout the Middle East committed by “Arabs/Muslims” and/nor comment on violence committed by Hamas. They also use anti-Semitic language and demonise large segments of the Jewish community .

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So, where do we go from here?

Without naming people and organisation this may all appear rather “abstract” but I am sure that if you think carefully and look, you’ll find plenty of examples of these double standards.

I can think of numerous organisations, people and bodies here in the UK and elsewhere operating under the guise of promoting peace, anti-Islamophobia etc. but who are directly/indirectly promoting/upholding some of these double standards. I’m not saying we all have to focus on the same areas of work but ignoring issues, failing to address inequality, preaching hatred and using derogatory language is not acceptable.

When will enough be enough? When will the ignorant, divisive and even hate-fuelled narrative stop? Stand up and speak out – for everyone. We are all human. We are all entitled to the same rights, regardless of gender, age, sexuality, faith, ethnicity and nationality. And we all all responsible for upholding the rights of each and every one of us and speaking out against hatred, discrimination and violence.

Salam, shalom, peace ♡

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How can (better) interfaith relations help build a safer, more equal society?

Last week was UN World Interfaith Harmony Week which brought another important reminder to reflect on interfaith relations and peace building within our community. This reminder was even more crucial barely two weeks before, when on 27th January, we also marked Holocaust Memorial Day.

On this day in particular we remember the six million Jews massacred by the Nazi regime, along with other marginalised and persecuted groups such as the Roma and LGBT communities.

We also remember that despite saying “Never Again”, we have since witnessed further atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Throughout this period of remembrance and reflection, we are reminded of our ongoing struggle against hatred, discrimination and genocide.

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Preventing discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide

As a society, it is imperative that we work together to actively tackle discrimination and prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide. We must remember the lessons of the past and work towards building a safe harmonious space for all, regardless of gender, age, ethnic background, nationality, faith and sexuality.

To do this we have to actively and continuously reflect upon past events and identify key principles and approaches which can tackle discrimination, hatred and “othering” narratives. As a multifaith society, it is also imperative to consider the role of faith and interfaith dialogue within this mission.

In 2018 in fact, we are still seeing discrimination, hatred, division and violence amongst members of various faith groups and ethnic communities. Just last August, we witnessed an outbreak of violence in Myanmar against Muslim Rohingya and Hindu minorities. Since August 25th, at least 6,7000 Roghingya individuals have been killed and around 400,000 people have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in search of safety and security.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the unfortunate increase of both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crime is also proving that we still have a lot of work to do in regards to promoting social cohesion, interfaith relations and tackling hatred.

In addition, intrafaith violence between Sunni and Shia groups remains an ongoing polemic. The Ahamdiya Muslim community in particular also continues to face a range of discrimination and violent attacks across Morocco, Pakistan and even here in the UK with the murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow in March 2016. These unfortunate realities are also proving that hatred and violence know no boundaries.

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These alarming, hate-fuelled and violent behaviours must be tackled. We must never forget that genocide itself ultimately stems from hatred and indifference to injustice. It starts with the “othering” of those different from ourselves, by essentialising someone’s identity to magnify difference, failing to find common ground with someone seemingly different from yourself in some form and from ultimately seeing others who may be different in faith, ethnicity or cultural origin as in fact alien to yourself and somehow unequal in worth.

By failing to respect and appreciate difference (whether it be religious, ethnic or cultural) and recognise the universal self-worth and innate dignity of all human beings, othering can and does lead to discrimination and de-humanising and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Doctor Gregory Stanton, a professor at Mary Washington University and Vice President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, documented this degenerative scale in his “10 Stages of Genocide“.

The pattern starts with stage number 1: Classification – in other words developing an “us and them” narrative. This is followed by symbolisation, discrimination and dehumanisation, leading to polarisation, preparation, persecution and finally extermination and denial. Quite crucially, let’s not forget that this is the denial that we are still seeing today by certain members of the non-Jewish community regarding the Holocaust.

Where does faith fit into this?

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Faith is often cited as a means of dividing people and inciting violence. For example, we find the othering “us and them” narrative within jihadist rhetoric which concentrates heavily on the notion of “infidels”, demonising non-Muslims and declaring them as the “enemies of Islam”.

As witnessed by the Holocaust, the Jewish community were discriminated against because of their faith. However, this wasn’t simply due to difference in religious doctrine. This after all is a personal practice. Medieval narratives of anti-Judaism stemming from the death of Jesus were also intertwined with centuries of socio-economic division, stereotypical “othering”, propaganda and exclusion.

This is in fact a complex issue but behind it all I believe that the answer is really quite simple. Violence and hatred have no faith but faith can and must play a key part in tackling these issues.

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Firstly, if we are to tackle hatred we must start with an inclusive open dialogue which respects the key elements of people’s identity and one of these elements is faith. This requires engaging with and including religious leaders of different faith backgrounds when tackling social, cultural and political issues such as discrimination and the further abuse of human rights.

Politicians cannot combat discrimination and build long-lasting social cohesion without collective, inclusive dialogue and understanding. Without the commitment of faith leaders, they risk forming ill-informed, exclusionary or subjective policies. Respect for and the protection of human rights in a multifaith society is built by developing mutual understanding, respecting the diverse and collective needs of communities and forming a collective unified identity, developed and nurtured over time.

Secondly, not only should politicians not simply exclude faith communities in political and social solutions but I also believe that faith is in fact a crucial but often overlooked tool to actively and positively promote social cohesion and peace.

Faith is in fact an active uniting force. Whilst there are key principles and bonds that can cross cultural, national and social boundaries within a single faith group, faith in its true spiritual sense is also a unifying force between people of different faith traditions and backgrounds. Our faith holds us accountable to a higher power and calls upon us to respect God’s creation and to therefore love and respect one another – regardless of a person’s individual or collective background.

The Golden Rule

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Faith in fact holds the precursor to combatting such “othering” behaviour thanks to a basic universal principle known as “The Golden Rule“. This rule quite clearly calls upon us to simply: “Treat others the way you wish to be treated”.

This principle can be found across all major faith traditions. In Islam for example, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

“None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”.

Judaism also teaches: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” in Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18.

Similarly, in Christianity in Luke, chapter 10, verse 27, Jesus says: “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

This very same principle can also be found in Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism and the Baha’i faith – the world’s biggest faith traditions.

What this rule lays bare is that no one would want to experience the horror of the Holocaust or Srebrenica. By following the Golden Rule each within our own faith traditions, we can build a greater sense of responsibility, empathy, unity and solidarity amongst people of all faiths. This also crucially includes those of no faith.

We must therefore firstly go back to our own traditions and find common ground with and mutual love and respect for our neighbours of other faiths. We must speak out against hate speech and harmful narratives and we must actively reach out to other faith communities to build bridges, friendships and unions. In this way we can prevent these othering narratives forming and developing into toxic practices such a discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Putting faith into action

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This approach however must be nurtured on a variety of levels. On an individual level we must evaluate our behaviour in how we treat and defend the rights of others. On a micro level within our own families and communities we must teach the younger generations in line with the Golden Rule and lead by example.

On a macro level as larger societies and nations, combatting discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide in a multifaith society therefore requires faith leaders of various religious teachings to enter and be part of wider national, international and political discussions. The Golden Rule is a universal principle which should in fact guide the teachings and work of religious representatives. Faith leaders must actively promote unity and commonality between members of different faith communities and none. They are also obliged to stand up against hatred, discrimination and violence towards members of every faith community and none.

If an imam for example is preaching an intolerant, divisive narrative, then he is not doing his duty as a religious teacher. Individual and community faith members must call religious leaders to account if they do not take this responsibility seriously. Likewise, if religious figures and teachers are not addressing such attitudes within their own religious communities, then they are allowing toxic narratives to fester, instead of promoting social harmony. This is in fact contrary to religious teachings. Education, intercultural and interfaith dialogue in line with the Golden Rule must therefore form a fundamental part of their approach to teaching their faith. Responsibility must be taken on every level. There must be honesty, dialogue and transparency.

Faith is a much-needed key element to promoting peace and harmony amongst different communities and wider society. Greater interfaith dialogue on a variety of levels – just as intercultural understanding – is the way forward and the key to breaking away from the 10 steps to genocide and instead build more cohesive, equal, safer and fairer societies.

Whatever our religious or spiritual background and whatever our position within our religious communities – from church goer, to imam or even the Pope – each and every one of us can and must play our part of this movement as a member of our wider, collective multifaith society which respects human rights and declares “Never Again”.

Peace, salam, shalom ♡

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust, Srebrenica and all other genocides.

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There’s a place for faith in Britain today – Let’s not become divided

There seems to be a belief by some that having a faith somehow makes you “less able to integrate”, less “British” or locked in some sort of cultural-ideological battle. It’s as if being British can only mean one thing: being (White-)Christian, Atheist or Agnostic.

If we look at the rate of hate crime in the UK, there’s no doubt been an increase in hostility against people from minority backgrounds, in particular members of the Muslim and Jewish communities.

To me this is all rather sad as I equate being British as being free to be who you are and in joyful celebration of such tolerance and acceptance. In terms of faith, you could be Christian, agnostic, atheist, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or a range of many other things. We’re a multicultural, multifaith nation where we’re free to be who we are, in the way we want to.

Image credit - Matthew G (CC BY-NC 2.0).jpg

Image Credit: Matthew G (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I for one, as British-born 20-something with “traditional” Welsh/English/Irish and also Italian roots, who’s gone from being a Christian to a Muslim, certainly haven’t become less “British” since changing my faith. If anything, my faith has given me a sense of comfort, belonging and certainty in who I am as an individual. Islam teaches us to respect other people and treat them well. Like all other faiths, it calls upon us to honour social justice, build bridges with others, respect the law of the land and love others as we love ourselves. I therefore don’t see how being a Muslim would take a way anything from my cultural and national identity.

For me it’s values – or a perceived clash of values – that are the problem, not faith. The ultimate manifestation of such “Clash of Civilisations” is extremism – a poisonous ideology which isolates in all forms, from the neo-Nazi group to the jihadist cell. On the surface members of these groups come from different faith/social backgrounds but hatred and violence don’t have a faith. The reality is that these people are socially excluded and feeling victimised, confused and lost. They’re looking for a sense of belonging and empowerment.

What we must remember is that social integration is a two-way unified process. In a free democratic nation, we all have the right to choose our own faith, to speak a second, third or even fourth language and to hold on to our own precious histories, stories and memories. It’s our collective identity – where our multiple identities merge into one – that makes us British. To share an identity we need common values, a shared language and a shared history. We don’t need to belong to any one particular faith.

Image credit - Roberto Trombetta (CC BY-NC 2.0).jpg

Image credit: Roberto Trombetta (CC BY-NC 2.0)

We all have multiple identities. Identities are fluid, they’re hybrid, they’re plural. They change, merge and adapt over time. I’m Muslim yes but I’m also British, I’m European, I’m also a millennial, a second-generation half immigrant, an activist, a Midlander and a wife of a Berber-Algerian! Quite simply, I’m me! When I feel respected and included as a Muslim by non-Muslims I also feel even more heart-warmingly proud to be British.

If you take a look into a British mosque, synagogue or church, you’ll see a myriad of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. These faiths are already uniting people. Faith can and does play a key role in our sense of belonging and unity in British society – let’s celebrate that, please!

However, let’s also not forget that not everyone has a faith. What ultimately brings us together is our sense of solidarity. Whether we can live as a socially integrated nation ultimately depends upon each and every one of us. Ask yourself these questions: do you see your neighbour as a potential friend? Do you love them as you love yourself? Do you feel proud to live in a diverse nation?

As Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately. Always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course, whereby you will reach your target (of paradise).” This is a simple crucial message we can all follow, regardless of our own individual faiths.

Credits and acknowledgements

Feature image: AwayWeGo210 (CC BY 2.0)

This article was first published via Three Faiths Forum (15/11/2017)

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Interfaith lessons: What the Jewish community has taught one Muslim convert

In Autumn 2016, I moved from the Midlands and sleepy Staffordshire to the hustle and bustle of London. Having moved to a more diverse, vibrant area of the country and being curious about other faiths (particularly Judaism), I started to notice a visible Jewish presence in and around the city, spotting Jewish brothers with payot curls or kippahs. Back home, this was not something you ever really saw. Now living in London and having been curious about Judaism for a while, after a quick Google search I contacted West London Synagogue to see how I could find out more about my Abrahamic brothers and sisters.

I subsequently joined the synagogue’s Jewish-Muslim interfaith women’s group and during our first meeting eagerly borrowed a book: Judaism for Dummies. Yes – I really was starting from zero! A few pages in and I started to understand something which would teach me not only about Judaism but also my own faith: the richness of diversity.

Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Jews, atheist Jews, secular Jews… The great (sometimes seemingly contradictory) diversity was apparent and very intriguing – if at first confusing!

Yet, as I spent more time at the synagogue (later becoming co-chair of the ladies’ group) and attended various interfaith events, I discovered exactly what this meant. I learnt that Judaism was incredibly rich and diverse – not just culturally but religiously. What’s more – such diversity was no hidden secret or elephant in the room! Visiting a reform synagogue, led by a male-female board of rabbis, which welcomed with open arms diverse members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, including LGBT devotees and non-Jewish spouses, I witnessed how the synagogue actively embraced diversity and didn’t shy away from debate.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear (2)In fact, questioning, debating and discussion were seen as such positive (not troublesome) elements of their faith that one of the recurring jokes at interfaith events centred around how disagreement is almost a marker of the Jewish community! Take two people with two different views to a rabbi and you’ll find the rabbi will declare that there’s no one answer. Difference of opinion is not seen as a problem but instead an eye opener.

Now when I think of Islam, whilst there is diversity – and a much richer diversity than many people realise – there seems to be somewhat of a shying away from questioning and inclusivity of the “non-traditional” or “mainstream”. Whilst I cannot generalise, and of course my experience of the British Jewish community seems to be mostly of liberal/reform Judaism and there is indeed a wide range of “branches” and views within both faiths, there appears to be far less inclusivity and debate, discussion and search of knowledge within the Muslim community. Often questioning and differing views are deemed as ignorant, overly liberal or even heretical.

At a recent event on “Islam vs. Islamism” held by Faith Matters, Dilwar Hussain (founding chair of New Horizons in British Islam) highlighted that the period in when Islam really “flourished” was during the “Golden Era” in Al-Andalus. In this era, the Muslim community practised a tolerant, explorative, enlightened and socially open form of Islam. This community accepted – not restricted – diversity.

So, what has my interfaith experience taught me? It’s highlighted that respecting and including diversity within our faith, given the current global socio-political climate is more important than ever. Diversity is something to be proud of. It doesn’t “water-down” Islam. It doesn’t threaten the Muslim community. Quite the opposite – it helps it flourish.

Credits and acknowledgements

This blog feature was first published by 3 Faiths Forum on 22/08/2017 (c)

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A Christian dedicating his time to the Qu’ran? Find out why!

We’ve not long finished the month of Ramadan – a holy month for Muslims across the globe which marks the start of the the period in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received the Holy Qur’an from God Himself. This period is obviously one of reflection and unity for the billions of Muslims across the globe. Yet this month was not just a time of great community for Muslims both in the UK, but in fact the many diverse faith communities in multifaith Britain. Despite some terrible tragedies here in the UK which have recently taken place during Ramadan itself, I was delighted to attend a number of interfaith/community gatherings and witness the heartwarming sense of love, unity, community and friendship amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

What’s more, in the run up to Ramadan itself, I was honoured to meet a brother who was making a particularly curious stance of unity. You see, whilst many Muslims will spend the month of Ramadan reading the Qur’an, this gentleman was on an exploratory mission of the Qur’an teaching others about its values and content. OK. You might say. Seems normal… But wait for this: he’s a Christian. Although far from a stranger to this book, Julian Bond launched his blog “How to Read the Qur’an” to get to grips with Islamophobic rhetoric out there and spread a message of peace and unity.

“A Christian!?” many may say, perplexed. Well yes, the Qur’an is not off limits! Anyone can read it! But why? Well, here’s what Julian says about why he’s been reading and teaching others about how to read the Qur’an:

I will be writing and posting a series of blogs during Ramadan 2017… to encourage people to read it and, particularly, to help them not misread it. I have been treated as an ‘honorary Muslim’ for years and welcomed into all kinds of Muslim-only/majority spaces where I have sometimes been the only Christian present.

I have read the Qur’an many times since 2000, in a number of different translations. I have been a habitual reader of it… I know that I have read it more and am more familiar with it than a lot of Muslims… I have even had people attempting to ‘convert’ me when they have read less of the Qur’an in an accessible tongue than I have…

What really fires me up is Islamophobes and extremists who choose the most extreme, and wrong, readings of the Qur’an, when a proper reading of the Qur’an highlights that they are completely off the ‘straight path’…

Julian’s message is one we should all take head of: it is only by learning about other faiths and cultures that we can built unity, dispel myths, counteract hate speech and broaden our own minds. You see, “How to Read the Qur’an” isn’t a proselytising mission -it’s an educational mission which reveals a lot about not just Islam but interfaith relations themselves.

For Muslims, Jews, Christians, those of all faiths and none: take a look, read, comment like and share your thoughts! And for Muslims: learn about another faith. Pick up a copy of the Torah or New Testament. Learn about your colleagues and neighbours and you’ll find out you’ve got more in common than you realise. As Jo Cox said – as was remembered during the Great Get Together in the month of Ramadan itself:

“…we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Peace, salam shalom! ♡

Credits, acknowledgments and further information:

Thank you to brother Julian Bond for taking the time to meet with me and for being such a great Muslim ally! It was lovely to meet you and hear about your inspiring work. I wish you all the best in your current and future initiatives.

Find out more about Julian Bond – follow him on Twitter!

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Julian Bond currently leads the Methodist Church’s grant team and is involved in a range of interfaith activities both online and offline, working with a local dialogue group in Leighton Buzzard (London) and occasionally organising dialogue events at Abrar House. Also volunteering at St Ethelburga’s (the Centre for Reconciliation and Peace), Julian was previous Director of the Christian Muslim Forum for nine years, where he edited the Ethical Witness Guidelines and led its leadership programme. Julian also spent two years on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christian-Muslim Initiative.

Image credits: Heidi Lalci (CC) (featured image), Julian Bond (C)

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Statement on Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017

July 11th is Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017. This year, we are recognising the 22nd anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, during which thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered, simply because they were Muslim. It is vital to commemorate Srebrenica to take a stand against hatred and discrimination that targets groups based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any type of difference.

During the course of the conflict that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, and sadly in societies all over the world, including our own, there still remains a lot of stigma around sexual violence. This year, we are working with the charity Remembering Srebrenica to commemorate the genocide, and to reflect on the experiences of women in conflict. Remembering Srebrenica’s theme this year is Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide. This year is about recognising the strength and resilience of women who have survived conflict, standing committed to challenging sexism and gender based violence within our own communities. You can read more about this year’s theme on Remembering Srebrenica’s website.

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Ten years since the war in Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995, thousands of people are still deeply traumatised by the war. Here a woman cries for her sons and husband who were killed in the massacre at Srebrenica

It is now more important than ever for us to come together, no matter what our background, to celebrate diversity and to stand together in solidarity against hatred and discrimination. I wrote about the Srebrenica genocide in a previous post last year, which I urge you to take a look at. It is vital that we remember this tragedy in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past and honour the memories of the innocent men, women and children who were killed, just for being Muslim.

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men_Cl.jpg

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men

I hope you will join us in mourning the loss of those who died at Srebrenica, and reflecting on how we as individuals, groups and communities can come together to build a better future without hatred.

Salam, peace ♡

Text and images: Remembering Srebrenica

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A Simple Path Made Difficult – Advice for Muslim Sisters

Hi everyone. Inspired by previous discussions, the lovely Ashley from Muslimah According to Me asked me to write a guest post on her blog about moderation and extremism in Islam. Here’s my thoughts and experiences. Take a look!

Muslimah According to Me

Salaam everyone! Today I am jumping back in with a guest post from my dear sister Liz, who blogs over at www.voiceofsalam.wordpress.com.

Firsly, I highly recommend you go check out her blog! She writes about current events, her personal experiences as a revert, and other topics that need to be brought up in our communities. I love her strong point of view, and I always look forward to reading her posts!

Today’s guest post is actually kind of a substitute for another post I was dragging my feet on, but I daresay I like this one better! I was planning on writing the post I mentioned in my last post on different homogenising pressures within the community, but then I got to talking to Liz about these kinds of things and it turns out she has just as much to say about it as me!

So she kindly agreed…

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