‘What’s Ramadan like if you are a widow in Syria, or an orphan in South Sudan, or a Rohingya refugee on an overcrowded boat?’
Jehangir Malik, Islamic Relief’s UK Director, has spoken out against the demonisation of Muslims and made an impassioned defence of the British Muslim community.
In a wide-ranging speech at our Welcoming Ramadan dinner at the Middle Temple Hall in London, Jehangir highlighted the important role that British Muslims play in supporting Islamic Relief’s life-saving work with refugees in the Middle East – where a record 30 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. He expressed concern about ‘extremely worrying’ opinion poll findings that suggest public perceptions of Muslims are hugely negative and that public sympathy for refugees has fallen sharply.
“Isn’t it time we recognised the role British Muslims play as part of the solution for the humanitarian need in the world,” he said, “ rather than the Muslim community being demonised as part of the problem?”
Here is the full text of his speech:
“Thank you Ramona for the welcome, welcome all. Salam alaikum, peace be upon you all. Your Excellencies, lords, ladies, parliamentarians and gentlemen, friends. It’s an honour and a privilege to be here with you today. And we extend a very warm welcome to what is surely one of the highlights of Islamic Relief’s year.
It’s one where we welcome and celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, with a truly international gathering that we have today, bringing together friends and acquaintances from a wide variety of different faiths. Different countries, different backgrounds and political persuasions. It’s a night where we look forward, most of us do anyway, to 30 days of fasting, and up to 30 days and nights of reflection. Getting closer to God Almighty.
But what’s Ramadan like if you have little or nothing to share at iftar, no relief from the pangs of hunger? What if you were a widow in Syria, or an orphan in south Sudan, or a Rohingya refugee on an overcrowded boat, with barely a single country that wants to show you an ounce of compassion? These are the people that Islamic Relief exists to serve, 104 million of them in our 31-year history. These are the people at the heart of our message for Ramadan this year: ‘Share Your relief with those who need it most’.
We face the challenges of a changing climate, both environmentally and politically. From an environmental perspective, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are seeing a devastating increase in droughts, floods and tropical storms. Islamic Relief is at the forefront of protecting communities in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa against the impact of drought and floods, and this Wednesday, our supporters will join those from a wealth of other organisations, descending upon Westminster, my parliamentarian friends. To lobby their MPs for tougher action on climate change, at a crucial UN summit in Paris in November. So we hope that our elected parliamentarians will listen dearly to our voices from our supporters from all persuasions in Westminster, taking us forward to Paris.
Who better than our esteemed honourable guest and speaker tonight, Zac Goldsmith MP, a highly respected environmentalist and a climate campaigner, to share with us this evening the environmental challenges that lie ahead? A warm round of applause for our guest tonight. And who better than Mary Creigh MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, to talk about some of the political challenges, like the plight of the refugees and the priorities of British aid. Round of applause for our guest tonight.
Ramadan should be a time in which we reflect on hope. But that hope is being tested at the moment, and if you read the front pages of any newspaper you’ll see why. We are witnessing the worst global refugee crisis since World War 2, and Islamic Relief is at the forefront of delivering aid to those most in need. We’re saving lives in the most complex conflicts and supporting vulnerable people in the most remote and neglected places on earth. Four long odious years in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia, rural Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Yemen and the list goes on.
We’ve assisted 7 million Syrians inside Syria, and in neighbouring countries. I’ve had the fortune, or the misfortune, of visiting some of those refugees in the north of Syria. Since the conflict began four years ago, with food and shelter and life-saving aid, the real heroes are our teams on the ground. Imran madden is head of our humanitarian department. His team are the team that are in Nepal, in the Philippines, in all the disaster zones, all around the world, sometimes risking their lives on a daily basis to respond to humanitarian disasters. I think Imran and his team deserve a round of applause.
They work courageously around the globe, working with those of other faiths. It’s in our DNA. In places like Nepal, Haiti, the Philippines, Central African Republic, and the list goes on. And here in the UK, joint campaigns and partnership through the DEC.
The work we do of course is not without its challenges. Somebody outside was asking me: “It must be a busy time for you?” Sadly, the last 31 years have been a busy time for Islamic Relief! And we often get caught in the line of crossfire.
The celebrated Brazailian cardinal, Dom Helder Camara, once said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a communist.” Fifty years on, it feels as if when we give food in natural disaster areas, such as the Philippines typhoons, Nepal and the list goes on, they call us proud humanitarians. When we deliver aid to victims in conflict, some of the most difficult circumstances around the world, we get called all sorts of names; extremists, terrorists, siding with this side or that side, and question our impartiality and our neutrality. But the truth is, we have no political agenda. We strive to uphold the highest humanitarian standards of neutrality and impartiality.
Sadly, the news today is dominated by two young British Muslims, who chose to get involved in the conflicts of Iraq and Somalia, and I’m saddened by the choices that they made. I can barely imagine the suffering their actions have caused and the pain and anguish that their families are going through at this moment in time.
I want to say, though, that the British Muslims involved in conflicts in the middle east represent just 0.02% of the Muslim population. That’s one in every four and a half thousand. The vast majority of Muslims are peace loving people who make a huge daily contribution, a positive contribution to British society and the wider world.
The challenge is this. I’ve travelled with our teams, and Zain Bhikha who’s singing here tonight, over the last two weeks in some of the greatest cities in our country, to Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham. All these wonderful cities right throughout our country, and I saw over 4,000 grassroots volunteers being mobilised to bring out the very best in our communities and live what we call at Islamic Relief, ‘faith inspired action’. But sadly, none of those 4,000 are going to make front-page headlines, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not why we do it.
We do it because we’re committed, they do it because they want to make a difference and make a positive contribution whether they make it onto the media headlines or not. Through this tour they’ve helped over 100,000 people in Syria to have food on the table throughout Ramadan and I think that deserves a huge round of applause for these amazing volunteers.
Today sees the publication of a YouGov poll which shows that most of the UK public sadly has a hugely negative view of Muslims, with perceptions of terrorism and extremism to the fore. The results also show a decline in public sympathy for refugees, particularly in regard to refugees from Syria and the Middle East.
These findings are extremely worrying. There’s over 30 million refugees and others in the Middle East who are in desperate need of humanitarian aid and assistance. And the British Muslim community, who are perceived so negatively at times in this poll, gives its huge generosity to charities in the Disasters Emergency Committee and beyond and to charities like Islamic Relief and we work to deliver this aid particularly in Ramadan.
Isn’t it time we recognised the role of British Muslims play as part of the solution for the humanitarian need in the world, rather than the Muslim community being demonised as part of the problem? Coming from the great city of Birmingham, the city that Fox News described as a Muslim- only zone, and living through the Trojan horse saga of last year, I know how this feels. I talk to and live amongst young people who need hope and aspiration, not demonisation.
I can’t help noticing, by the way, that fundraising appeals in areas around conflict consistently raise less than those in natural disasters. As if some people are more deserving than others. As I end this address, as Muslims I remind ourselves that we make no distinction between the deserving and underserving poor. Every life is precious and we often carry the quote and embody the quote, as the Qur’an says: “If you save one life, it’s as though you saved all of mankind.”
The UK Government deserves great credit for meeting its historic promise to commit 0.7% of national income for international aid. It has also given over £800 million generously to the Syria crisis response. But the UN budgets for this year are chronically underfunded. And thousands of lives are at stake. Renewed diplomatic energy is needed to work for peace or at least to achieve more breakthroughs like the temporary truce that we had which allowed the UN to get into the besieged Yarmouk area of Damascus, supported by organisations like Islamic Relief.
So in conclusion I’m going to end by introducing you to our video for Ramadan, which encapsulates our ‘Share your relief’ message. Islamic Relief is committed to sharing your relief in Syria and beyond and contributing positively to what we hope will be a more peaceful and prosperous future in the Middle East and around the world. #ShareYourRelief this Ramadan, with those who need it most.”