Exactly one year ago, like many of you, I was shocked by the scenes on the television as I watched and learnt of the stabbing and shooting of Jo Cox. It was a brutal murder of an MP on her way to the constituency office in Batley by a far right extremist.
I must admit, that till then, I had never hear of her but the more I read of her story the more upset I was that her life was so brutally cut short. I learnt that she was a campaigner and a humanitarian whose mission in life was defined by hope and love of others. I cried as I had not cried for a very long time.
Jo was a vocal anti-racism and pro-immigration campaigner whose relentless work for her diverse constituency made her the target of hatred and resentment. She proclaimed the benefits of immigration and diversity to this country. This had a huge impact on me.
As I read of her speeches to the House of Commons asking for protection of civilians in Syria, or support for estranged communities in the UK, I felt that she spoke to and for me. Like many of you, I contributed to the fund that her husband Brian set up and was overwhelmed and delighted as I saw that in a few days it had far exceeded the £10,000 he had intended to raise. Within 24 hours it was up to £500,000 within a week over £1million pounds were raised and donated to charities that she believed in like Hope not Hate and the White Helmets, an organisation carrying out Humanitarian work in Syria. What was most striking to me was that donations had come from over 40,000 people, all who like me were similarly overcome by her life and story.
The acts of terror that we have seen in Manchester and London over the last few months have shocked me to the core. That people who in the name of my religion kill and maim others is deeply abhorrent. When they recite the Quran and in the same breath plot to terrorise others is despicable. And with terrorism come fear, suspicion and hatred.
I attended a literature festival in Hay in Wales with my children last month, 1 week after the London attack on London Bridge. On previous years when I have attended there had been an open entrance with people thronging in and out. This time however, at the entrance they had placed 3 burly security guards who checked everyone’s bags as they entered. The irony was that this was to “instil public confidence” but in reality what it led to was a sense of frustration and paranoia that something was amiss. The effect on me as one of the only Muslims in the line was anxiety about what they were thinking of me and a ridiculous fear that they would find something incriminating in my rucksack. I was even rehearsing what I would say if they found something amiss!
Our Current State
And this is despite knowing with total certainty that our religion is one of peace and solidarity with humankind. Our prophet came as a mercy not just to Muslims but to all of humanity, all of creation- In Arabic “Rahma lil Alameen”. And those of you know the Arabic will know that Rahma is a word whose root described the womb and with it a sense of safety security and total dependency. But it also means that we are all in it together. There is mutual dependence and accountability.
Most of us will have very few friends outside our cultural and religious circles. Other than a few colleagues, I suspect that you like me will tend to befriend mainly with individuals in a similar group. To a degree this is only natural, as people like people like themselves. But it is also highly dangerous as it leads to an increasingly disparate community and in my case a sense of complacency. I made the effort to read the Sun on-line last week, certainly not my usual read but I wanted to step out of my bubble. What I saw in the comments section shocked me. The amount of venom and hatred towards Muslims took me back. Even Jo Cox was described with ridicule and contempt as a “Muslim hugger” and out of touch. It made me realise how out of touch I was with the public mood and the divisions that now pervade our nation. And is a mainstream paper read by millions every day.
Her killer had sought to spread hate and division, emboldened by how what were previously peripheral far right views had encroached the mainstream. Xenophobia and bigotry have entered the public discourse in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime.
The number of reports of anti-muslim comments and actions has exceeded anything I have experienced. What I remember as a tolerant welcoming community during my childhood has a hard edge to it.
The attack on Jo was not just an attack on her, but an attack of her ideas and ideals. It was an attempt to undermine our democracy and the inclusivity that we all enjoy.
Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the outcomes it delivers. The reason that we have hatred and bigotry is because the system we live in allows it and encourages it.
If it is to change, we need to transform something in the system. Events like this are a good start as we throw open the doors to our mosque and invite our neighbour and community leaders to break bread with us, but they will not be enough for transformational change.
I, we, you, need to be reaching out beyond our comfortable cliques in a way that you may never have done. As Muslims we need to partake and contribute to this great community in a much more confident way than has happened over the last 40 or 50 years. Contribute to the local scout group, the social club, volunteer at the library, deliver meals to the elderly, go talk to and offer comfort to the homeless. Muslim or non-muslim, they are our brothers and sisters in life and humanity.
Start by speaking to your neighbours, find what you share with them, a love of nature, of food, of soaps. Find common causes, the litter on the street, the standard of council housing, fight justice and injustice at home and abroad. Unite around what you share.
With the Brexit referendum and the most recent election we see the return to two-party politics- a hard right and a softer left. Having seen in Jo someone who went into politics for all the right reasons I have been engaged in my community in ways that I have never been. I implore you to do the same.
The more you give, the more you gain, not just in this life, but in the hereafter. Again and again in the Quran, Allah calls out to “Inna allazina ammanu wa amilu assalihat”= Oh you who believe and do good! What He tells us is that belief in your heart is not enough. Prayers are not enough. Fasting is not enough. Hajj is not enough.
For those who believe and do good- for you is forgiveness and a huge reward.
As Muslims we have an incredible amount of warmth, generosity and compassion. These are attributes that we possess and hold dear, just like Jo.
I end with the words of MP Jo Cox during her Maiden speech to the House of Commons:
“Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it Irish Catholics across my constituency, or Muslims from Indian Gujarat or Pakistan; and whilst we celebrate our diversity, the thing that surprises me time and time again as a I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”