Mahmooda Qureishi is a community organiser for HOPE not hate charitable trust, based in Birmingham. She is responsible for hosting interfaith events throughout the year. She describes her journey from arriving in the UK as a child, raised in an insular community to her current work of reaching beyond religious divides. She argues for more work to be done to create bridges with isolated communities and how important interfaith friendships can be in working against fringe elements of the community that try to cause division.
I moved to the UK from Pakistan when I was 9 years old. Back then, parents in the community were fearful of their children losing their culture and faith and failed to realise the challenges us youngsters were facing outside the home. Their upbringing had been in a society and culture that was very different to what we were facing and what we were learning and experiencing at home was very different to what we were exposed to outside.
That ‘fear’ sometimes resulted in them imposing restrictions upon their children and the community, as a result, was very insular. What the parents didn’t realise, was the fact that us youngsters were getting more and more confused about our identity.
When some of my friends wanted to pursue a higher education for example, they were told it was not needed, as the primary role of a woman was to be a mother and housewife and education was not needed for that. Their parents would say men had to provide for their families and therefore needed an education and a good job more. As young girls, we were pressured to marry shortly after leaving school, dress a certain way, behave and socialise in the way our parents expected, and so on. All the rules and restrictions resulted in many youngsters feeling resentful about their culture. My parents were much more open minded. My father was a secondary school teacher and my mother would often teach other women about Islam. Despite that, we were not exempt from cultural influences: for example, I was taught housework, while my brothers weren’t.
What made a difference was that when things we were taught by the community didn’t make sense to us, we would often look them up in Islamic teachings. We would find that what we were taught was not necessarily ‘Islam’. It was people’s interpretations of the teachings and culture our parents were brought up in. In Islam, forced marriage is forbidden, education for both men and women is compulsory as a human right, and housework is not just a woman’s job!
This gave us the confidence to bring our faith in line with the society we were being brought up in. We could be part of both with pride as they were compatible! I developed the mindset of a feminist and would confidently challenge cultural arguments and never hesitated to speak my mind when issues came up. Growing up in the UK helped me develop that confidence, allowing me to differentiate culture from religion and interpret the latter within the British context.
From a young age, I became a member of Young Muslims UK and its parent organisation, Islamic Society of Britain. The organisation encouraged members to be inspired by faith to help towards building a just and caring society. By learning about my faith, and my role in life, I learnt that it was my duty as a Muslim to be part and parcel of the society I am living in. I found a Quranic verse encouraging different groups and communities to get to know each other particularly inspiring.
I learnt that I needed to actively engage in wider society to make a positive change. If there was injustice, I should be playing an equal part in standing against it. People come from all faiths and backgrounds, and I am motivated to learn about them and build friendships with people regardless of their faith, race, background or culture. I have been doing this for the past few decades and have learnt so much from so many people and have enjoyed every bit of it!
I have been working part-time for HNH for the past three years. My work involves bringing communities together, getting people of diverse backgrounds to talk to each other and to break down barriers. Where there is tension between communities, I get involved and come up with creative ways to get people to talk. It is only when we start talking to one another, that we realise we have so much in common with one another. We are humans first, before we start adding labels to ourselves.
The work I’m doing with HNH has mushroomed in recent years, and this was made evident to me during this holy month of Ramadan. I have never seen so many interfaith Iftars [evening meal to break the fast] take place in one city! We had Iftars in churches, synagogues, mosques, outdoors and indoors. Through my HNH role, I supported many of these across the city. One interfaith Iftar that stands out for me is the one we organised with our Sikh friends.
The event came about in response to a fringe group within the Sikh community which is actively spreading hatred against Muslims. We wanted to to help prevent people from believing the exaggerated narratives they were peddling about Muslims. A group of Sikhs and Muslims came together to do something about the situation. Historically, the communities, although not necessarily spending vast amounts of time together socially, have never had an issue in getting on, and we did not want this to change. We called ourselves ‘Same Difference” and set about organising a joint event. The first event we organised had to be cancelled after the fringe group found out about the event and threatened to sabotage it. After putting some security measures in place, we tried again and managed to pull off an amazing evening. Around 100 people attended the ‘Iftar Together’ event hosted by the Sikh community.
The deeper I venture into interfaith work, the more I realise how beautiful the diversity in humanity is. We sometimes create barriers without knowing one another. Our perception of ‘the other’ is often through distorted information or the media. It’s only once we start talking that we realise we’re not so different after all! I have not come across a single faith which endorses violence or hatred against others at its core. The problem is people’s interpretation of said faith. People who follow and those who don’t follow any religions are all beautiful. Religion gives people a purpose in life, while those who don’t follow any faith do good for the sake of a greater good and humanity.
I encourage everyone who has not been to an interfaith or intercommunity event to do so. The amount we learn through direct communication and the friendships we create are truly awesome and enlightening to our very existence.