The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is upon us - a time for reflection and contemplation as well as fasting. An opinion poll for Islamic Relief this week has already given me plenty of food for thought.
Via YouGov, we asked a sample of over 5,000 people about their attitudes to Britishness and British values, to religious charities and to Ramadan. The results paint what for me is an unsurprisingly positive picture of Britain's Muslim community, one that I believe much better reflects what we are about than the narrow stereotypes that dominate some sections of the media.
Muslims are encouraged to give generously to charity during Ramadan. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was known to be more generous during this month than any other. We already know from previous surveys that today's British Muslim population has upheld his legacy, with a recent ICM poll showing them to be the most charitable faith group in the UK, including those of no faith.
That finding has been upheld by our new YouGov poll. As poverty continues to blight a large proportion of the world's population, only 4% of Muslims surveyed said they never give to international aid charities, compared to one fifth of the wider population.
Islamic Relief celebrates three decades of service this year, and we are grateful for the opportunities we have had to reach more than 92 million people over 30 years. We say 'grateful' rather than 'proud', because the word that best captures how we feel is the Arabic alhamdulillah - all praise and thanks are due to God, without whom none of our work would have been possible. This is a sentiment which will be familiar to our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters in faith, as alhamdulillah is the Arabic counterpart to the Hebrew phrase hallelujah.
Islamic Relief's faith identity, bolstered by our partnerships with other faith organisations, has played a crucial role in our efforts to alleviate poverty over three decades. Our Islamic identity opens doors to support communities who would otherwise be wary of aid agencies' motives - like Gaza, where the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development has funded many of our projects. In turn we partner with organisations affiliated to other faiths in countries like the Central African Republic and the Philippines, where our main partners are Catholic Relief Services and the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation respectively.
It is particularly encouraging to see that where Christian aid agencies have greater access to populations in need, YouGov found that more Muslims than any other non-Christian faith group would happily donate to them, while a third of Muslims would readily give to Jewish organisations in similar positions of access - more than the wider population, where only 27% would be willing. Muslims were also among those most strongly against the notion that faith-based organisations should only assist people of their own religion.
It is our long track record in humanitarian relief and development work with people of all faiths and backgrounds that has enabled Islamic Relief to strike up partnerships with major funding institutions, including the UK Department for International Development (DfID). Alhamdulillah, this Ramadan DFID has agreed to match-fund donations from the generous British public pound for pound, up to a maximum of £5 million. This funding will enable us to transform more than 50 villages across impoverished Sudan, the first country in which we worked in the year we were founded in 1984 - in response to the same famine that inspired Bob Geldof's Band Aid.
Like Band Aid, Islamic Relief is a British institution. Our organisation was born in Birmingham, which is still home to our international headquarters. We are proud of our British identity, and so are 64% of Muslims YouGov surveyed in the UK.
A significant majority of the Muslims polled (70%) also expressed their belief in the values David Cameron recently defined as quintessentially British - including tolerance, freedom and mutual respect - in sharp contrast to what media stereotypes of Muslims sometimes suggest.
One disturbing finding was that there seems to be a significant undercurrent of religious intolerance in society as a whole. A quarter of respondents to the survey believed that public expression of religious faith should be more tightly restricted, and a quarter also believed that Ramadan should not be celebrated openly.
Thankfully for Islamic Relief, most Brits don't agree with these sentiments. The guests who joined us at Church House in Westminister for our own celebration of Ramadan on June 26 included Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, leading Anglican the Rev Rachel Carnegie, human rights activist Bianca Jagger and a wide a range of representatives from the Muslim community.
In a rousing speech, Jon Snow recalled reporting from Pakistan and Haiti on the devastating earthquakes of 2005 and 2010, and from the "beleaguered" Palestinian territory of Gaza - and seeing the effective work of Islamic Relief in all three places. "Islamic Relief is now the principal NGO source of succour for the people struggling to survive with any kind of dignity in Gaza," he said.
We hope that this Ramadan, Islamic Relief can help to change minds and turn around any negative attitudes. Ramadan is traditionally a time of sharing and community, opening both homes and hearts to others. Muslims up and down the country will be sharing iftar (the evening fast-breaking meal) with friends, neighbours and even complete strangers, at initiatives like the Ramadan Tent Project in Central London and The Big Iftar.
Meanwhile, dedicated Islamic Relief volunteers will be working hard to raise much-needed funds, delivering delicious chocolate cakes in aid of Syria and pounding the sunny streets (without any food or water!) to shake donation buckets. Their hard work should be an inspiration to us all, and an example of the positive contribution British Muslims are making to their country.
So if you see one of our bright turquoise T-shirts, please do stop and say hello, or even Ramadan Mubarak (have a blessed Ramadan)! #Alhamdulillah
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