08/07/2013 03:04 BST | Updated 06/09/2013 06:12 BST

Ramadan Is a Time to Break Down Barriers, Not Build Them Up


Today sees the start of a new season on Channel 4 - 30 days of programming to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

If you're a reader of the Sun, which splashed news of these programmes on its front page last week, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a stunt at best and inflammatory at worst - a threat to community cohesion at a sensitive time. As one who has been interviewed by Channel 4 for one of these programmes, I beg to differ.

For me broadcasting these programmes is doubly positive. It's positive for Muslims, of course, for our faith to be taken seriously by a mainstream broadcaster rather than demonised. But it's also positive for a wider audience to have the opportunity to look beyond media stereotypes and gain a better understanding of mainstream Muslims and our way of life.

Encouraging this kind of understanding is at the heart of what Channel 4 wants to achieve. The outline on the Channel 4 website talks about serving "Muslim and non-Muslim viewers keen to engage with and learn more about the Ramadan experience". The Channel 4 team who interviewed me wanted me to avoid religious jargon because they were looking for accessible, enlightening reflections from a wide variety of Muslims about the everyday reality of Ramadan and what it means to them.

If you are determined to foster a sense of discord between Muslims and the rest of the population, Ramadan is an easy target. With most people in this country not professing a religious faith and many having little or no experience of the church, the synagogue or the mosque, it's easy to make a whole month of fasting and prayer sound alien, 'hard core', even threatening.

But Ramadan is a time when as Muslims we want to share and engage with the rest of the community, not set ourselves apart. Many of us will be reaching out, and inviting non-Muslims to reach back.

The Huffington Post's Mehdi Hasan explained it well when he spoke at the launch of Islamic Relief's War on Hunger campaign last week. "Ramadan is not just about you and God and your plate," he said. "It's about you and others. Doors are flung open, friendships are rekindled, family ties are rejuvenated. And newcomers are welcome too.

"When people from different faiths and backgrounds get together to share - whether it's sharing beliefs, sharing ideas, sharing food - that's the best way to break down barriers, to understand your fellow man, to fight prejudice and stereotyping and bigotry."

And so, during Ramadan, university Islamic societies will be inviting non-Muslims to share in iftars - the communal meal where the Ramadan fast is broken after dusk each day. And I will be inviting Christian friends, as well as Muslim ones, to share in family iftars at my home.

Giving to those less fortunate is another key part of Ramadan that is not always appreciated. One of the pillars of Islam is zakat, a religious obligation to give 2.5% of your disposal income to charity. Many Muslims choose to give their zakat during Ramadan, and Islamic Relief receives a third of its annual income in this blessed month. British Muslims give over £100million to charity in Ramadan alone.

This Ramadan, for the first time, Islamic Relief is not only raising funds for the world's poorest and most vulnerable people but also collecting food through mosques and our network of shops to distribute via food banks in the UK. Unlike Lord Freud, we see the link between the record demand that food banks are experiencing and the squeeze on benefits affecting some of the 13million people living below the poverty line. In the spirit of Ramadan, I would like to invite Muslims and non-Muslims to join together in supporting our charitable efforts at home and abroad.