Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Bridging Divides with Food and Friendship, in Ramadan and Beyond

13 Jul 2016

Guest blogger Julie Siddiqi has been nationally coordinating The Big Iftar for the last four years, is co-chair of Nisa-Nashim Jewish and Muslim Women’s Network and Director of Sadaqa Day.

Last Wednesday Eid-al-Fitr marked the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. In her post Julie reflects on a community initiative called The Big Iftar which brings people together to break their fast.

The Big Iftar started after the London Olympics, a fantastic year during which we saw community commitment and volunteering at its best; much of it happening during Ramadan. The idea was always to encourage Muslims to open up Ramadan, to share iftar (the fast breaking meal) with people from all backgrounds. To invite people in to our homes, to our mosques, to go out in the streets sharing food with vulnerable people who may not have as much as us.  And of course, sharing and caring is not just for Ramadan! The work that is often started in the spirit of Ramadan then continues through the year as people realise how much good they can do for others. Ramadan is a great time of giving money in charity but is also about giving our time in service to others, remembering those less fortunate, thanking God for what we have.

An outcome of starting the initiative that maybe wasn’t expected was the variety of places that now host iftars and this year has been an amazing example of that once again.

Synagogues hosted iftars and invited Muslims and others to participate. Last year at West London synagogue, around 50 people attended, this year more than 250 were there. A fantastic atmosphere of friendship, of solidarity, of standing together, of building relationships that can be worked on and last through the year.  In a world where we are all too often made to feel that Jews and Muslims don’t and can’t get on, events like this and others in synagogues around London are testimony to what is possible and what is needed.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan attended iftars across London including one with young people at Lambeth Palace alongside the Chief Rabbi and Archbishop Justin Welby.  He also attended an iftar at Finchley Reform Synagogue where ongoing community relations and working together are a great example of what is possible.

The Ministry of Defence hosted an iftar again, the third year running. The evening was a show of friendship and partnership but took on a sombre tone too as it linked to the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and recognised Muslims as being part of that effort, as well as in recent years, to protect and serve our great country.  Jabron Hashmi was a British Muslim serving his country in Afghanistan and was killed in combat exactly ten years ago. Jabron’s effort and life were celebrated and remembered with members of his family present too.

And for the first time ever, Coventry Cathedral hosted an iftar, and as I said at the start of the event, it was a most spectacular venue for an iftar! Anyone who has been to the cathedral will know of its history and what it stands for with the ruins of the old building linked beautifully to the new. During WWII the cathedral was a casualty itself and only ruins were left. Local Christian clergy showed immense leadership and vision and again, refused to give in to hate or to show signs of wanting ‘revenge’. Instead they started what has now become a central focus for peace, reconciliation, working together, being positive, building friendships.  What a fitting and amazing place to host an iftar!

At the start of the month we saw the death of Muhammad Ali, an icon and role model for many.  As we broke our fast we sat watching his funeral beamed across from the US and who could have failed to be touched by the messages and speeches from people from all backgrounds who knew and loved this great humanitarian.

One of the most poignant and I guess difficult moments personally for me and for many others was the death of Jo Cox MP in the second week of Ramadan. As I got ready to attend a synagogue iftar that evening the news unfolded of her murder. I was numb. I couldn’t move from my radio and TV. How and why could this happen to someone so amazing, so full of life, so generous, so open, so optimistic and passionate about all communities she worked with? I cried a lot. But it sparked something in me as well.  That evening I spoke at the iftar and dedicated the event to Jo, for us to reflect on her approach to life and how we have a legacy to fulfil for her, in her name, remembering that we all have ‘more in common than divides us’ as she said in many of her speeches and showed it through her actions. I know that Jo would have approved of and loved The Big Iftar, it fits so well with the values she embodied so brilliantly.

A week later I went with my husband and thousands of others to Trafalgar Square to honour Jo, to stand together, to raise our hands in friendship, to speak loudly and proudly to all extremists and tell them we will not be divided, we will not give in to hatred, we will stand taller and stronger together.

It has been an absolute privilege and honour to attend so many iftar events in such diverse and wonderful places.  We have seen a lot of bad things happen abroad and even closer to home in the last few weeks, signs of bigotry and hatred have come to the fore with attacks on people from different backgrounds increasing.

From twenty years of community work I know one thing – friendships are key! It sounds so obvious but can really make the difference.  When real friendships are built, trust comes, when trust is there, relationships can withstand anything that is thrown at them.

Ramadan is a time of reflection, of charity, of hospitality, of prayer, of generosity. Iftars have been a fantastic way to bring people together in this great month but with a spirit and hope that the feeling will last and be built on through the rest of the year.  I am filled with hope and optimism and have certainly vowed to ‘Live Like Jo’. I never had the privilege to meet Muhammad Ali or to meet Jo but their legacy and example will inspire me to be more open, not less, to make friendships where others are too afraid to make them. To be a leader when needed and to remember their teachings when the world seems crazy and hopeless. They never gave up and lived a life of hope over hate. So will I.

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