By Jehangir Malik, Director, Islamic Relief UK
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).” Qur’an 49:13
Last year, I found myself sitting at a table with eight Muslims, eight Christians and eight Jews.
It was the Cambridge Co-Exist Leadership Programme, a kind of Big Brother of Abrahamic faiths, running for six months.
I was initially worried that this programme would concur with my experience of traditional interfaith gatherings – good intentions and a lot of talk. But it was inspirational, particularly because I met JHub director Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner.
As director of Islamic Relief UK, I was again blessed to share a platform with these two truly awesome women at the recent Limmud conference. I spoke at two sessions, ‘Jewish and Mainstream Leaders in the Spotlight’ and’Religious Values in British Society – and Interfaith Experience’.
Both were interactive and thought-provoking, engaging the audience, members of which questioned all of us on the role of faith in our lives, particularly in today’s increasingly complex and ever more secular society.
Islamic Relief grew out of the generosity of the back streets of Birmingham, a truly British-born organisation.
I joined during the dark days of the Bosnian war after meeting one of our founders, Dr Hany El-Banna, a man who truly lives his faith, always reminding us that ‘whoever saves a life, it is as if they save all mankind’ (Qur’an 5:32).
Since then, I have seen some of the most horrendous natural and man-made disasters around the globe, and sadly the need for international non-governmental organisations like ourselves is increasing.
Islamic Relief flourished because of the supportive and nurturing British environment. Yet last month, after Paris, a police chief on the Today programme said that ordinary Jews and Muslims in Britain are feeling increasingly isolated, vulnerable and fearful.
My wife and I once visited Andalucia and learned about La Conviviencia (The Co-existence).
Our two communities lived side-by-side in peace, before the Jews and Moors were expelled in 1492.
This made me feel both wistful and inspired. What is stopping our modern communities, united by so many factors, finding, creating and celebrating our own Conviviencia in 2015 Britain? I don’t think we really apply all the faculties our Creator has bestowed upon us.
Do we talk to each other properly? Do we listen? Not just hear, but really listen – with heart, mind and soul?
We hear soundbites on news programmes and we think these represent the majority, but how many Jews and Muslims go out of their way to meet each other?
To find out if what they hear is true? We need to move towards what we at Islamic Relief call ‘faith based action’ – locally owned, locally driven, born out of grassroots ideas and addressing people’s needs.
Crucially, it needs to be genuine and organic, not carefully choreographed by political agendas or traditional round-table discussions that may not translate into the average person’s day-to-day reality.
Sincerity is the key for true change to take place. This is the spirit in which Islamic Relief supports Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq and World Jewish Relief supports children with ebola in Sierra Leone.
During Ramadan and Yom Kippur, we both fast to purify our souls.
We need to hear from each other, break fasts with each other, share in each other’s pain and celebrations: Eid, Purim, Chanukah, births, deaths and marriages.
Today, ordinary expressions of faith like wearing a kippah or wearing a hijab can lead to discrimination. Let us be united by this, not divided, and reminded of the horrific directions hate can lead and react to current conflicts with understanding.
We won’t always agree, but a more inclusive environment will help build a more cohesive society, for us and for our children.
Interfaith action needs to be judged by its fruits.
Whether it’s World Jewish Relief campaigning with Islamic Relief, joint social action projects or difficult conversations we might have within our respective faith groups, let’s not be all talk and no action.
Let’s join hands and hearts, step away from the darkness and walk into the light.