Islamic Relief is a “remarkable humanitarian organism” – Jon Snow speaks on the eve of Ramadan
Respect on the eve of Ramadan – a time for contemplation.
When I was 18, somehow I won selection by Voluntary Services Overseas to go for a year to Uganda to teach in a secondary school. I had never been on an aeroplane, I had never been out of Britain, never experienced life beyond the cosy confines of rural England – in short, I had had a privileged and secluded upbringing. I had no experience of other faiths, I had no experience of other ethnicities…I was an innocent abroad.
Imagine the shock of waking up on the banks of the River Nile, 60 miles north of Lake Victoria, 15 miles from the nearest postbox, 15 miles from the nearest telephone. There were two other mzungus on the Catholic Mission School staff – that’s ‘white men’ in Swahili – they were both priests, and I wasn’t even a Catholic. For several weeks I was desperately homesick, but my learning curve was very fast.
The thing which completely changed my life was to be in the South, looking North. To be amongst people who had absolutely all the intelligence, the gifts, the cleverness, the inventiveness of the people I had left behind in the North, but absolutely none of the resources and very few of the opportunities. I think from that moment on, I wanted to be involved in changing the world.
Well, I tried, and I failed, and I became a hack – and this is what you see before you! A man who is only famous for wearing bright ties… But that is why I’m here tonight – because above and beyond anything, I believe passionately in the power of the human spirit. The power in each and all of us to use our own individual and collective talents and enthusiasms to alleviate and improve the lot of others less fortunate than ourselves – and where better to see that in action than in this very hall?
We are rightly here tonight, on the 30th anniversary of Islamic Relief, on the eve of Ramadan, celebrating a most extraordinary and exceptional achievement – this remarkable humanitarian organism. Not only that, we’re here tonight, as you’ve seen, to pledge and commit ourselves to do still more.
So let’s first celebrate the record. Founded to bring relief to victims of the devastating famine in the Darfur region of Sudan in 1984, Islamic Relief represented the first major organised humanitarian NGO in Britain’s Muslim community. Within just ten years of its foundation, it had become the first Muslim charity to attract UK government funding, and has enjoyed a fertile relationship with what was then ODA (Overseas Development Aid) and is today DfID (Department for International Development). A further ten years on, Islamic Relief was the only Muslim charity to become part of Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee – in other words, Islamic Relief is an organic element of the UK’s generous preparedness to reach out to others in need across the world.
I suppose many of us in my generation think we’re somehow making up for some of what went wrong in the Empire – from the Bengali family in the cornershop in Leeds to the Prince of Wales in his palace, each have put their shoulders to the wheel, giving what they can. As a result, today Islamic Relief is working in 44 countries, raising £200 million a year to do so.
Pakistan is the biggest recipient of Islamic Relief’s aid – about £70 million a year – and I’ve seen Islamic Relief in action there in Pakistan, not least in Kashmir. Who can forget the shattering aftermath of the earthquake of 2005? It was an unbelievable scene because it was the most impenetrable place – mountainous, roadless, the roads had been rocked to pieces, the rivers were all over the place…it was incredibly difficult to reach people. I was sent to report, and I found Islamic Relief the first out there ready to deal with the consequences of an event in which 100,000 people died and 130,000 were injured.
But for Islamic Relief, the gravest challenge there lay in the 3.5 million people who had been displaced, and I saw at first hand Islamic Relief hand in hand with the International Red Cross, the United Nations, Save the Children and many others, toiling in appalling conditions, first to rescue, then to shelter, and then to feed. It was a vast and integrated response. There is nothing stand-alone about Islamic Relief – it is utterly connected to the entire endeavour to improve the lot of those less lucky than ourselves.
I saw Islamic Relief at work in Haiti, where as a matter of fact, I think there are few – if any – Muslims. Indeed, I don’t think I met a Muslim all the time I was there, and yet Islamic Relief spent £5 million tending the survivors. So this is not an apartheid charity – this is not simply Muslims looking after Muslims – where there is need, Islamic Relief never turns its back. Yet again, the consequences of that earthquake in 2010 were massive – a quarter of a million people died, and most of the people that Islamic Relief tended were either Catholics or believers in local faiths.
For me, this year, the most searing image of deprivation has been captured in that shocking photograph from Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, which has been deliberately – as a weapon of war – starved into the most appalling suffering and deprivation. That picture, of face after face after face after face, the long wrecked streets…we all saw it, on the front pages of our newspapers, people starving, queueing to try to get the few strands and seeds of food that were available. That camp remains terribly badly cut off even now, but even there, Islamic Relief has been able to make some difference.
Each face tells the story of the pain and destruction wrought by civil war, and each describes the use of starvation as a weapon of war. In this hellish smash-up of a once intricate and beautiful part of the region, Islamic Relief is on the humanitarian frontline, deploying £68 million this year alone in relief.
I’ve seen Islamic Relief in Gaza – how proud we should be of what Islamic Relief is achieving in Gaza! – for now, we have the infernal scenario of both Egypt and Israel tightening the noose ever tighter around this beleaguered entity. Islamic Relief is now the principal NGO source of succour for the people trying to survive with any kind of dignity there, hand in hand with the United Nations – those are the two big and formidable providers of help.
This year, Islamic Relief have tagged onto a big public opinion survey of the issue that has arisen recently – what are British values? Don’t ask me, I haven’t got a clue! In fact, I have to scratch myself to remind myself I am British, because at the end of the day I always feel I am a human being – that seems to me to be the most important aspect.
In this YouGov poll, 64% of British Muslims declare themselves proud to be British, while the number who are not is just 13% – and let me tell you that 16% of Scots are not proud to declare themselves British! 70% of British Muslims believe in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, and respecting and upholding the rule of law – the core values of Britishness as recently defined by David Cameron – while a tiny 6% do not. Well, that is an interesting and corrective finding, and an important one.
We must not let developments in Syria and Iraq drive a wedge between our communities at home – and that’s why the influence of Islamic Relief, right here in our own country, is so important. It isn’t just a question of what is being done overseas, to help people in need – it is the fact that in binding together to look after people less fortunate than ourselves, we’re doing something that people are doing all over Britain, and which people are prepared to support each other in doing. We are one human condition, and we have to bind together and stay together.
This very gathering is testament to the vibrance, altruism and confidence of the Muslim community here in Britain – but we all need to do more. There is still too much that separates our communities. There is still too little understanding of what each is about. Even today, how many people in Britain even understand exactly what Ramadan is? Equally, how many Muslims understand where the Queen fits into the Church of England, and why? It’s not about tokenism or quotas; it’s about living together, growing up together and working together, and that does not happen everywhere in Britain.
So tonight, as we contemplate the start of Ramadan this weekend – and my goodness, because of the way the calendar falls, my Muslim friend at work told me that it’s 19 hours of fasting! – we need, during those periods of contemplation, to re-dedicate ourselves to the great work that Islamic Relief is undertaking. Historically, this is a period of fantastic generosity in the Muslim community; last year, Islamic Relief raised £15 million in the month of Ramadan.
DfID, as you’ve heard, is matching £5 million worth of pennies, so everything everybody gives in this room tonight will be doubled, and that is a fantastic incentive. It’s not often you can put £10 in and know you’ve put £20…or put £1,000 and know it’s £2,000…or £100,000 in and know it’s £200,000…or £1 million and know it’s £2 million! But I know that the pockets here are generous, the handbags are generous, the hearts are generous – so we must all give, and we must all pledge our hope and our determination to raise still more money than we did last year.
Alhamdulillah to the raising of money during Ramadan. Thank you.
This transcript has been slightly abridged, and statistics from the YouGov survey amended to reflect the most recent findings. Watch the full speech below.