Wednesday June 17, 2015

Zac Goldsmith hails ‘extraordinarily impressive’ work of Islamic Relief

Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond and a respected environmentalist and climate change campaigner, spoke passionately about the environmental crisis the world faces when he addressed Islamic Relief’s Welcoming Ramadan dinner in London on June 15.


In an inspiring speech, he quoted from the “incredibly powerful” words of Qur’an 10:24 – “the clearest possible message from the highest possible authority about the need for us to respect the natural world”.


He praised Islamic Relief for its “extraordinarily impressive leadership role in relation to climate change”, as well as its grassroots connections, interfaith partnerships and ability to “uniquely access places that others simply cannot”, from rural Afghanistan to Yemen.


Here is the full text of his speech:

I don’t really know what to say now. I follow an amazing introduction, and I have to say a really magnificent speech by Jehangir. Having been here for only 15 minutes I’m beginning, just beginning to understand how this organisation has reached the heights that it has. The level of energy, the enthusiasm, the good will in this room is just extraordinary. So it’s an honour to be here, and it was an honour to have been invited, and I’m very grateful to you all for having me. 

Around 15 years ago I was the Editor of the Ecologist magazine, which is quite a radical environmental magazine, and we put together what we thought would be a landmark issue. It was a special edition of the Ecologist looking at the overall impact of our species on the planet. Trying to measure the threat that we face, and the dangers we faced if we didn’t find a way one way or another to live within our means, learning to live as if the earth mattered.

The Ecologist magazine is a pretty depressing magazine at the best of times, but this issue really was in a different cosmos. It was particularly stark and we couldn’t think of what cover to use, and there were no images to properly capture the gravity of what we were trying to say. We looked around high and low, we looked everywhere… an entire photo bank.

We found nothing that came close to capturing the essence of what we were trying to say. But around that time I had just been out to Pakistan, my first – and in fact, to my shame, my only time – to Pakistan. My sister was getting married to a Pakistani man and it was attracting quite some attention at the time. And I arrived off the plane, and my sister – terrified of me putting a foot in it – said: “Do not speak to the press”.

Mary, a fellow politician here, I’m sure will share my fear of being misquoted by the press. It’s something that happens routinely to politicians. And so I didn’t say a word to a journalist. I spoke only to my sister, my new brother-in-law, his family and my mother, who was a bit bewildered having never been to a place like Pakistan in her life.

The next morning I was woken up by a copy of, I always forget which newspaper, but it was a Pakistani newspaper, and there on the front cover was a picture of me, and a quote. And it said: “I’ve already given Pakistan my sister, what more must I do to demonstrate the esteem in which I hold Pakistan?” I couldn’t believe this. I hadn’t opened my mouth, I hadn’t spoken to anyone. So my sister looked at me at breakfast and said: “What a wonderful thing you said.” So I kept it quiet.

One of the things I came back with from Pakistan was a copy of the Qur’an. I’d never read the Qur’an, I didn’t own one, but my brother-in-law gave me one. On the way back and subsequent days, I read it believe it or not. And as I was struggling to think of what to put on the cover of the Ecologist, this particular edition, a quote kept on coming out to me from the Qur’an.

I shouldn’t really be here lecturing you about what the Qur’an says. However, I’m going to quote it. You will see why it’s relevant. It was a quote that just struck me. “When the Earth has assumed its artful adornment, and has been embellished, and they who dwell upon it believe they have gained mastery over it, there then comes down upon it our judgment, by night or by day, and we cause it to become like a field mowed down, as if there had been no yesterday.”
Incredibly powerful quote. I realised that I had my cover. It was the clearest possible message from the highest possible authority about the need for us to respect the natural world.


I can tell you that we put this edition out, and we were being very rough in that particular edition about a company called Monsanto, a genetic engineering company, and one of the real baddies as far as I’m concerned. As a consequence, Monsanto desperately tried to stop the magazine ever making it to the shops, and they got very heavy. They sent their lawyers in, they threatened the shops, they threatened the printers, and I thought for a moment that we weren’t going to get this magazine out, no one would see this wonderful quote on the front cover. But as a consequence of their heavy handedness, instead of selling the derisory six or seven thousand copies we were selling at the time, we sold over half a million copies. I did do a debate with Monsanto at the time, and I was asked if I had a final message for Monsanto, and I said: “Yes, I want to thank them for handling my PR for me.”

But that quote, that message, runs right the way through the Qur’an, and that’s why – counterintuitively for people that perhaps haven’t acquainted themselves with Islam – it’s why it’s logical that an organisation called Islamic Relief should be at the very forefront of the environmental crisis. Islamic Relief is a dazzling organisation. I have to tell you I didn’t know all that much about it till recently. I knew it was a big organisation, I knew you did wonderful things. But I wasn’t fully aware of just how much this organisation did.


Founded 31 years ago, by a bunch of doctors and activists, it began life in 1984 with a 20 pence donation. A year later, a hundred thousand quid, and today, Islamic Relief has an annual income of over £180 million.

It’s one of the world’s biggest and most important humanitarian fundraisers. It’s an extraordinary achievement. But it isn’t just a fundraising entity; its strength comes from its ability to be able to work right at the grass roots with thousands of volunteers, with mosques, with churches, with youth organisations, with members of all religions and none. And at the same time to be able to uniquely access places that others simply cannot. Clunky government organisations, big conventional humanitarian organisations cannot access places like rural Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and so on in the way that Islamic Relief has proven itself uniquely able to do.

Islamic Relief is on the very front line right where it is needed most, right where it matters. But even more important than that, Islamic Relief has taken the long-term view. So it has played an extraordinarily impressive leadership role in relation to climate change – you heard a little bit about that from Jehangir earlier – but also the broader environmental crisis, which is the defining challenge of our age. It recognises that as a humanitarian organisation, it cannot ignore the environmental crisis.

Climatic instability is always going to hammer the poorest first, and hardest. It’s always going to have a disproportionate impact on those places that cannot afford to cope or adapt. Environmental destruction generally always disproportionally impacts the poorest. The very first people to suffer when you destroy an eco-system and the services it provides are going to be the people who most depend on it, ie the poorest.

You just have to consider the world’s oceans. We know the headline facts. Of the world’s 17 biggest fisheries, on which many of us depend, fifteen have either collapsed, or they’re on the brink of collapse. That’s a biodiversity disaster, but it’s a humanitarian disaster as well. There are more than 1 billion people on earth who depend on fish for their main source of protein. There are over a quarter of a billion people who depend on fish stocks for their livelihoods. You remove the fish, you dash those livelihoods against the rocks, you plunge people into a humanitarian disaster.

It’s not even just a food security disaster. I don’t know how many of you saw that amazing film, Captain Phillips. There was a small moment in that film where his captor explained to him what had happened, why was this problem of piracy so grave, so serious in Somalia, and it was a moment of truth in that film which I think may have passed over most people’s heads unnoticed.

If you look at the moment that Somalia became a place that was almost too dangerous to travel around by coast, that same period, the UN declared their ocean a dead zone. There’s a direct and unavoidable and undeniable link between collapse of that eco-system, the loss of the very last fish, hoovering up all life from that ocean, and the rise of piracy. All these tens of thousands of people, with boats, children to feed, and an understanding of the ocean, livelihoods that were crushed, and they turned, perhaps inevitably, to piracy. So it’s not even just a biodiversity, not just a food security concern, it is a security concern. It affects us all, and this organisation understands that.

Or even an issue that’s topical today, with  new statistics on the decline of elephants. We think of this as a tragedy, and it is a tragedy. Elephants are magnificent species, we’re losing 40,000 every year and in ten years, we could have a world where there are no wild elephants. It is a biodiversity tragedy. But it is also a security threat because we now know that some of the world’s most awful organisations are funded on the back of the illegal wildlife trade. Al-Shabaab, Sudan’s Janjaweed, Joseph Kony’s bonkers Lord’s Resistance Army, all paid for principally on the back of the illegal wildlife trade. All these issues are linked.

Just to bring it to a slightly nicer example, we know everyone in this room I’m sure agrees that it is a lovely idea to plant trees. Who can argue with planting trees? But for Kenya now, it is a matter of economic survival. You’ve got the Kenyan government frantically planting trees, as many as it can possibly plant. Not for ethical reasons, not because it’s a nice environmental thing to do, but because it is the only way to prevent the drying up completely of their rivers.
Protect the trees around the mountain, you protect the water systems, you protect the rivers, you protect the farmers, their livelihoods, you protect the hydroelectric plants on which the economy depends. Take away those trees and you have a humanitarian disaster that goes on and on.

We are two days away from the beginning of Ramadan, a time of spiritual reflection, a time of abstinence. I don’t think I’d have the strength to do it myself, but principally as a mark of respect for people around the world who are suffering, and in this month alone, the British Muslim community are likely to raise more than £100 million for those most in need. And of that hundred million, if the past is anything to go by, Islamic Relief, this organisation, will raise about a fifth of that.

Staggering sums from one country, staggering sums from one community in one country, and that money changes lives today. But it also protects, because of this long-term vision of Islamic Relief, generations in the future. For my part I just want to thank you as an organisation for all you do. I want to wish you well during Ramadan, and I want to impress upon everyone here to do all you can to take the message of Islamic Relief out of here into the wider community.

Jehangir mentioned in his introduction about the problem with Islamaphobia in this country. I saw the poll he cited. I forget the figures, but staggering numbers of people have a negative view, a negative attitude towards Muslims in this country. I personally don’t blame them. There is a divisiveness that we’ve seen and it’s escalating over the last few years. There is a fear among non-Muslims because of terrorist which of course no one fully understands. There is a fear among young Muslims I see in my community, in my own constituency, of the consequences of that.

There is a terrible divide and it’s frightening. It’s frightening for people who are in the front line and I would just say that this organisation, its legacy, its work, is such an extradordinarily powerful example in just one way of the positive contribution from the Muslim community to this country and to the wider world.

It is a tragedy, if you don’t mind me saying so, that not enough people know about it. So I hope you will all try to spread the word, evangelise the work of Islamic Relief, let people know about the work this organisation does, and I hope between us we can begin to counter some of these very depressing trends. But above all, I would like to say thank you. It has been a wonderful , wonderful evening and it is an honour to be here. “

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