Tuesday, 14 May, 2024

How a British Muslim discovers a sense of belonging to the UK

As millions of people around the world celebrate the festival of Eid, one British Muslim reflects on growing up in a country where her religion was on the peripheries of society.

As a young child growing up as part of a Muslim family in London, it was a sound I never imagined I would hear: the sound of the azaan— or Muslim call to prayer — resonating through the pulsating heart of the city of my birth as thousands of people broke their fast, recited prayers and celebrated their religion.

And yet, against all odds, that is exactly what happened. At last Friday’s historic Open Iftar on Trafalgar Square, thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims hailing from a vast array of backgrounds gathered in an act of solidarity that sent out one of the most powerful messages of inclusivity the world has ever witnessed. Flanked by the colonial-era National Gallery on one side and Nelson peering down on us from his imposing column on the other, we sat cross-legged and shoulder-to-shoulder; row upon row of Muslims observing our faith, marking our territory and staking our claim in this country’s history.

The iftar, arranged by the British charity Ramadan Tent Project, was not the first of its kind – but it was the biggest. The Project has been organising similar events since 2013, with its first Trafalgar Square gathering in 2019. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, it was back this year with events at some of London’s most famous locations, including the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Hays Galleria, as well as in other cities, including Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham, drawing in thousands of Muslims from every corner of the country each time.

When the charity’s CEO, Omar Salha revealed, following Friday’s gathering, that he was “overwhelmed with so much emotion” and that it was “one of the greatest nights London has ever witnessed…a beautiful display of inclusion, diversity and community” he was speaking for each and every one of us.

For it is impossible to articulate the sense of isolation many of us experienced growing up as part of minority communities banished to the fringes of society. For years, we passed our Ramadans firmly behind closed doors; breaking our fasts in silent acceptance, knowing that the outside world didn’t really want us and yet also determined to hold on to our customs and beliefs no matter what. It is a feeling many will never truly understand; our people, the embodiment of an alien race — and yes, it is also about colour — and a non-Judeo-Christian belief system on an interminable quest for belonging.

And now, with the spectre of Islamophobia sweeping across Europe at a rate that is, quite frankly, terrifying, we are filled with daily dread. As governments across the continent brazenly push forward their systemic anti-Muslim agendas and continue to introduce policy after policy that strip Muslims of their rights and further marginalise us, it is now more important than ever not just to stand our ground, but to remind the world of the real message of Islam—one of peace, harmony and inclusion.

The Ramadan Tent Project takes no political stance. It relies completely on donations and its mission is to simply provide a space for Muslims to break fast as part of a community and, in the process, welcome others into the fold and dispel misconceptions about the religion. Yet the backdrop of the current political climate cannot be ignored, and that is why Open Iftar has in many ways become such a powerful symbol of resilience.

"Joy in the air"

In Trafalgar Square, Britain’s imperial past hangs heavy in the air. I wondered, as I ate my dates, sipped my water and peered at the statues of King George IV, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles James Napier that mark the boundaries of the square, what those men would have made of all this. King George’s ten-year reign from 1820 was short-lived, but it was during a time with British overseas colonial activities were at their height, with riches from all over the world— including Bengal, where my ancestors hail from —funding the lavish lifestyles of those who enjoyed the opulence of the Regency Era, recently popularised by the Netflix series, Bridgerton.

Sir Henry Havelock, meanwhile, was a British general who led his troops against a rebellion in the Indian city of Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in 1857 and also took part in the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1839. Sir Charles James Napier, too, is intrinsically linked to the Raj, first as governor of the province of Sindh and then as India’s Commander-In-Chief.

Would these men remain resolute in their version of history, or would they understand that the transformative powers of the passage of time had led to these scenes in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world? A city that is now as much ours as it was theirs.

I was proud to be on Trafalgar Square that evening, not just because of the sense of camaraderie and excitement that comes with being part of something so profound, but also because of the reaction of passers-by of all faiths. So many people gave encouraging smiles, asked inquisitive questions, took photos and took such genuine interest that I was as moved by their reaction as I was by the event itself.

London Mayor Saqid Khan—the first Muslim to ever hold the position—also attended the gathering. He echoed the sentiments of millions of Londoners when he said: “The reason why it’s so important for us to be together is because here tonight, you have Muslims and non-Muslims, you have men and women and children, and we are living the Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him. We are breaking bread, we are doing our Iftar, we are making friendships and we are strengthening our bonds. And that’s what Open Iftar is all about. Because I think diversity is a strength not a weakness. I think we should be not just tolerating difference, we should be embracing it, we should be respecting it, we should be celebrating it.”

With Eid now upon us, there is a sense of joy in the air. But whereas in the past, all we could hope for was a trip to the local mosque followed by a rather unsatisfactory photo session by a tired-looking rose bush in the local park, now we can look forward to going back to Trafalgar Square next Saturday for an all-out Eid festival. Or we can choose from a number of other similar events across London and the rest of the country. There is more than one message in all of this and it is not simply that we are here to stay. It is that, in an increasingly polarised world, we still have the love and support of so many of our fellow countrymen, regardless of race or religion.

The Ramadan Tent Project, with its Open Iftars, has played a welcome and significant role in fostering this harmony. It has given us more than just a sense of belonging. It has given us hope.

For, As Sadiq Khan says, diversity is indeed a strength—and one that we must continue to build on.

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