Islam Awareness Week 2014 – 21st Anniversary Launch

Below is the full transcript of my speech at the launch of the 21st Islam Awareness Week on Monday 17th March. The launch was held at the prestigious JW3, the Jewish Arts, Culture and Community Centre in London NW3.

Ladies and gentlemen

Salaam Shalom and Peace – good morning everyone

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

I can across this extract quite by accident recently. Some of you may recognise it as being from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil, which was published in 1845. A fascinating insight into the way in which one of the most controversial subjects of 19th century Britain was viewed – the discourse between the rich and the poor.

People living in 19th century Britain had much to contend with. Unsanitary conditions, overcrowded housing, low wages, poor diet, insecure employment and the dreaded effects of sickness and old age.

Fast forward 150 years to the 21st century – and the world is a very different place. Or is it?

A study published last year by Oxfam and Church Action on poverty estimated that over 500,000 people are now reliant on food aid – in the form of food banks or receipt of food parcels – and this number was likely to escalate further over the coming months. It went on to state that this is being caused by unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, the low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices. It also stated that this growth in food aid demonstrates that the social safety net is failing in its basic duty to ensure that families have access to sufficient income to feed themselves adequately. And that whilst thousands are being forced to turn to food banks and millions are unable to meet the rising cost of living as a result of the Government’s austerity programme, wealthy individuals and corporations continue to dodge their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes.

The reality is that without the generosity of friends and neighbours who operate food banks up and down the country, hundreds of thousands of citizens who have been let down by the very social welfare net that was designed to prevent us from regressing into 19th century Britain – would – quite simply – be unable to feed themselves and their families.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout “you never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view – until you climb into their skin and walk around in it”. Imagine not having the means to feed your child breakfast before they go to school – or put any food on the table when they come home in the evening. I know there isn’t a single mum or dad in this room whose child hasn’t said “I’m starving” over the last week. They most probably are not. Sadly there are families in Britain in the year 2014 that are starving. A world away from that described by Disraeli in 1845? Unfortunately not.

I was delighted when I was asked by the Islamic Society of Britain to lead the 21st anniversary theme for Islam Awareness Week – and I must say that in consultation with Julie Siddique and Sughra Ahmed – it didn’t take us long to agree this year’s theme “Charity Begins at Home” – a campaign that was first initiated by the ISB in Ramadan 2012. Some of you may recall the poll that was conducted last year which found that Muslims were the top charity givers in the UK averaging £371 per person. And immediately – as is now the norm in this technological world that we live in, social media went a little bit bananas – and twitter saw some interesting tweets – some positive and some not so. One of the interesting things that became apparent was this belief that Muslims give mainly to Muslim charities – because “we” only support Muslims. Some of the charities that were mentioned in particular are represented here today. In fact Muslim charities are involved not just in international development, disaster and emergency relief, healthcare and sanitation projects abroad, but are also involved in local UK based social action initiatives such as the warm hearts appeal aimed at the homeless and elderly, feeding the hungry projects and fuel poverty for example. I’ll say no more about specific projects as I know that our speakers from Human Appeals International and Amirah Foundation will be telling us more about the work that they’ve been doing in the UK.

And we all know – charity is not just about giving money. Our conscious is cleared very easily when we put our hands in our pockets, purses, or wallets for some loose change which we inadvertently drop into a tin that’s rattled in front of us. Real giving is when we give of something that is most precious to us all – that once used can never be regained – our time.

And this week – up and down the country – from Edinburgh down to London and many places in between – we have people taking part in many different forms of giving and social action.

From chai and chat in Glasgow, feeding the homeless in Bradford, eat ‘n meet in Leicester – projects are focussing on supporting the homeless, helping people in need, enhancing community cohesion, women’s empowerment, community development and supporting local and national mainstream charities. Many of these events you can find out more about on the IAW website and some examples have been highlighted in the brochure that you will have received when you registered.

21 years of Islam Awareness Week. Many of you may not be aware that IAW was initiated by the ISB and the very first IAW which was held in 1994 was designed to raise awareness and remove misconceptions surrounding Britain’s second largest faith group. I certainly don’t need to say too much to this audience about why in the current climate it is imperative that these misconceptions and fallacies are challenged. The misunderstandings and misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims that are witnessed in our society have increased on a daily basis to the point where it appears to have become an acceptable form of denigration. Muslims are depicted as unreasonable, intolerant, violent violators of human rights and anti-women. These popular images which are fuelled by political and economic interests are reinforced by the actions of not just the extremists on the margins of society but by our very own media. But it wasn’t until 2000 that an annual theme started to be chosen that highlighted an issue of common concern across communities and one which promoted social cohesion rather than dwelling on differences. Previous examples have included: things we have in common, love, our common humanity, neighbours, and celebrating the best of Britain to name but a few. During the week many different community organisations get involved in activities that bring people together and it’s a project that over the years has received support from across the political and religious spectrums with previous launches having taking place in the Houses of Parliament and Mayor of London’s offices. However I must say a really big thank you at this point to Raymond and the JW3 team because I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a wonderful venue and its a real privilege to be able to launch IAW from here today. IAW has gone from strength to strength and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that all those individuals, all volunteers, who have invested so much time and energy over the years need congratulating. And I’m sure that they’ll continue with the same energy and enthusiasm and passion for another 21 years at least!

Surely those who believe and do pious acts and establish Prayer and pay Zakat (the Alms-due) regularly have their reward with their Lord. And (on the Last Day) they will neither fear nor grieve. (Al-Baqarah 2:277)

More information about IAW2014 can be found at http://www.iaw.org.uk

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