With waves of terror attacks hitting Europe in recent months, mistrust of Islam has reached a higher level than ever. To save our societies from division, when Muslims come together to promote peace, as they so often do, the world needs to see it. The largest of these gatherings takes place this weekend, in the heart of the Hampshire countryside.
A large recent French poll showed that 78% of the public view Islam as a religion that seeks to impose its way of life on others, and almost 50% believe that the faith contains within it seeds of violence and intolerance. With every terrorist atrocity committed by a Muslim, of which several have occurred recently across the UK and other parts of Europe, these numbers are likely to keep rising. Such doubts and suspicions, though perhaps understandable to a degree, have the potential to deepen the rifts and divisions across Western societies.
As a young British Muslim, I could tell you that Islam in fact promotes freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and the formation of pluralistic, peaceful societies. I could tell you that Islam not only guarantees other religions their rights, but tells Muslims that they must defend them in the same way they would defend their own faith. I could tell you that the Qur'anic way to attain nearness to God does not entail slaughtering innocent people, but feeding the poor and being truthful and kind to others. I could tell you all these things and more, but perhaps you may still remain doubtful. Perhaps you need to see these values practically demonstrated. Soon, in the Hampshire countryside, you will be able to see just that.
For three days each year, Oaklands Farm becomes home to the largest annual Islamic gathering - the three day 'Jalsa Salana' of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Its purpose is to bring together Muslims, spiritually benefiting them, and also provides non-Muslims an opportunity to see true Islam in action. Over 30,000 people from around 90 countries will attend on the 28 - 30th July, with millions more watching on TV or online.
As an event it has something for everyone - Muslim or not. There are bazaars selling clothes and other goods, magnificent food, charity exhibitions, historical relics, speeches from parliamentarians, religious leaders and other dignitaries, and a general atmosphere of spirituality, peace and joy.
However the highlight of the event is on the last day, in which a human chain is formed leading to the Caliph, or spiritual head, of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, in which each participant repeats a pledge affirming his or her commitment to being faithful to God and faithful to humanitarian values. Though I am a Muslim of around the same age as the recent Westminster and London Bridge attackers, far from pledging allegiance to ISIS, I will be pledging allegiance to a man who, representative of his community, stands for true Islamic principles of peace, justice and loyalty to one's nation.
As shown in the French polls, much of society may view Islam as an imposing, intolerant religion, due to the enduring images of terrorists shouting 'Allaho Akbar' while killing civilians. To save our society from division, it's time for a new image. Perhaps it can be this one - of a Muslim gathering with flags of every country raised high in a symbol of unity, of a 35,000 strong pledge of peace, and of a truly Islamic motto - 'Love for all, Hatred for None,' raised high as dignitaries from across the world speak out against extremism in all forms.