Thursday, 15 March 2012

ISLAM AWARENESS WEEK - In Conversation with Julie Siddiqi of Islamic Society of Britain

A version of the following article appeared in this weeks Methodist Recorder
Julie Siddiqi Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain

As a local Minister in Leeds in an area that included four mosques within easy walking distance and more recently as a resident in an area of Birmingham my wife likes to call ‘Islamically rich’, I have for over 13 years experienced living alongside Muslims and have experienced ordinary folk witnessing to their faith. One instance of this witness is the practice of the holy month of Ramadan (the month of fasting). When living alongside Muslims you notice Ramadan, as people take on a different pace of life that is very appealing and counter cultural to our need to be busy. Other times, friends have gently and unconsciously shared their experiences of the simple rhythm of five times a day prayer that punctuate a Muslims daily life with an awareness of God. Recently however; it has been the experiences of generosity and hospitality of neighbours who love to share their food with us and who, in our first Christmas in or new home in Birmingham, welcomed us with presents and greetings, that have most humbled and touched us as a family.

It was drawing close to Muslims, who shared such simple practices of fasting, prayer and hospitality, whilst working in Health Care, that drew the Home Counties born and secularly raised Julie Siddiqi to embrace Islam 17 years ago. She didn’t rush into things though: ‘It took me a long time to realise that Islam was the way of life for me but in 1995 I converted’. Marrying Nav a year later, they now have four children and Julie has long been involved in community work which for the last 8 years has centred on the work of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) and she is currently Executive Director. ISB runs Islam Awareness Week (IAW) which is taking place for the nineteenth time this week. Julie is regularly interviewed for newspapers, Radio and TV, and says ‘All this is a blessing from God and I feel very lucky to be given so many opportunities every day and to work with so many great people from all backgrounds’

So what is IAW? Julie says that it is rooted in ISB’s original commitment to express a ‘British Islam’. ‘We encourage and help our members to understand their faith in the context of Britain. The ISB has played an important and positive role for British Muslims and some of our innovative projects have broken new ground and generated much needed intra-community dialogue and debate.’

Islam Awareness Week is about taking this vision of a ‘British Islam’ into the wider community to challenge misconceptions and prejudices. She adds ‘It is a great platform for bringing people together and, where necessary, helping people understand what the faith is about. But our focus is much broader than maybe the name itself initially suggests. Islam has a rich heritage of helping others, being good to neighbours, charity work, sharing, equality and justice. We like to find projects that bring out those qualities and many of our members are involved in food sharing, supporting homeless people, interfaith events and lots more.’

In local areas, members of ISB work with partners from other faith communities and community groups to put on events to raise awareness. In Birmingham this year events include a dialogue with Christians on Islamic understandings of the love of God, a discussion on Islamic understandings of the Universe, an opportunity to experience a traditional form of Sufi devotion, but also several occasions of free food distribution sometimes in partnership with local churches.

The importance of Islam Awareness Week can be seen in the recent launch of ‘Tell MAMA’, an initiative supported by Police and promoted by the group Faith Matters. It seeks to record and challenge the rising phenomenon of anti – Muslim hate crime. Julie says ‘Sadly, we hear stories of so many Muslims being the target of attacks, whether they are verbal or physical. We hear about Mosques being attacked too and when planning permission is submitted it usually faces hostility and backlash.’ 'Tell MAMA' is an attempt to raise awareness about these attacks and prejudice and to record the incidents. Julie adds ‘This country has a good record of dealing with prejudice and we need to make sure people come together on this issue more and more.’

This year’s theme of IAW is Love, the official website says:

In Islam, love is the basis of our relationship with God. Love is to care, to be kind, to be gentle, to help, to respond, to bring happiness, to relieve suffering, to be patient, to forgive, and the Quran teaches us that God is the best in all these things and more.

As Christians we can engage with IAW as a witness to our experience of the love of God and sharing that love with our Muslim neighbours at a time of growing intolerance and prejudice.

Ray Gaston is Inter Faith Tutor and Enabler for Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and The Birmingham District of the Methodist Church. He was in conversation with Julie Siddiqi Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain.

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