They greet each other like old friends. One, a six-foot Muslim man who founded the Muslim community’s go-to Islamophobia monitoring organisation, the other, a Jewish man a touch smaller, who ran the Jewish community’s equivalent for 15 years.
“Do I know you?” jokes Richard as Fiyaz walks into the room. Theirs is that obvious, genuine warmth you get only when you know each other very well. You get the impression they could almost finish each other’s sentences.
The duo in question is Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Faith Matters and Tell MAMA, and Richard Benson, who spent more than a decade as chief executive at the Community Security Trust (CST), charged with defending Britain’s Jews. They’re on a high because the No2H8 Crime Awards they’re jointly organising has just been given a huge boost, with a double-page spread in the Daily Mirror.
Over the course of the next hour, they explain how they’re growing the awards into a national event, and consistently show that they are on the same page – for instance, when the issue is raised of big national newspapers wanting big national names as winners. “We know they do,” Fiyaz says. “But we push back against that.” Richard nods. “Remember what this is all about – the people who never get a look in, but who do heroic deeds,” he says.
The No2H8 Awards honour those who stand up to hate crimes. They have risen by more than 30 percent in the past two years, so the urge to highlight champions is an obvious one, but how did a Jew and a Muslim come to work together on it?
“Fiyaz woke up one day and felt, as he usually does, that good things need to done,” says Richard.
“He came up with an amazing idea, ran it in 2016 on a shoe-string budget, and it inspired us. The product’s so completely diverse, running across all communities, and the fact that it’s a Jew and a Muslim coming together as well.”
Fiyaz says: “I remember that first night. I called Richard, he said ‘great idea but speak to me later’. After that convergence of the idea and a bit of energy I had, and the structure and reach that Richard has, now you have the awards where they are.”
They’re great to watch, not quite Roo and Eeyore, more like Tigger and Owl. Fiyaz is the energy, the buzz and ideas, whereas Richard is the wisdom, the nous, the reach, and steady hand. So, is Richard the guy that says ‘hang on’?
They laugh. “He always does!” says Fiyaz. “He has to pull me back from different directions.” Richard is diplomatic. “It’s a good double act,” he says. “I bring structure to the energy.” For that, Fiyaz is grateful. “I think the partnership has worked exceptionally well and we’ve complemented each other,” he says.
They first met long before the awards were dreamt up. “Fiyaz came to us [the CST] about eight years ago,” says Richard. “He said ‘Muslims are being attacked. There’s no structure in-place in the Muslim community. How can I replicate what the CST is doing around recording hate crimes and supporting victims?’ We at CST immediately said we wanted to help.”
Richard continues: “We’d known of Fiyaz for some years by then, from his work within communities, so his credentials were fantastic. We sat down with him and helped him develop, essentially, what Tell MAMA is today.”
The relationship deepened. CST seconded staff to help Fiyaz put it together, but the basis of the links – the relationship between Richard and Fiyaz – continued after Richard stepped down from his position at CST in 2013.
“Fiyaz nailed me,” Richard recalls with a grin. “He said ‘put your money where your mouth is and join us’. So I did.” He joined as co-chair, with Shahid Malik, an ex-government minister, but he soon chose to become president of Tell MAMA instead.
“I really felt, and I’ll be honest, that an organisation for the Muslim community shouldn’t be led jointly be a Jew. That’s why I became president. Since then I’ve been helping Fiyaz to raise money within government for the work Tell MAMA does. So yes, that’s how we came together. A shidduch made in heaven!”
After Fiyaz has finished laughing, he says: “It shows you what can be achieved when that happens. I mean, you’ve got five different areas of hate crime, but actually, I feel really proud that a Jew and Muslim have come together. That’s the symbolism. It’s what modern Britain is about – coming together, having empathy, binding, bonding, working towards a common good.”
He continues: “Anti-Semitism over the past three or four years has just jumped upwards, it’s become part of the political mainstream, and anti-Muslim bigotry is affecting people on the streets. Now we’ve got the Steve Bannons of this world coming into this country, and it is concerning, for both Muslims and Jews.”
For both men, however, the positive messages outweigh the negative, as they recall last year’s No2H8 Crime Awards, when Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and Imam Mamadou Bocoum walked hand-in-hand up to the stage to collect their interfaith dialogue award.
“That’s the beauty of both communities,” says Fiyaz. “Together, we can achieve phenomenal things.”