A Whistlestop Tour: Leicester, Leeds, Birmingham & Bradford

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Newly appointed as Interim Director of CMF, I escaped London last month for a whistlestop tour of some of the Forum’s friends outside the capital.

First stop was St Philip’s Centre, Leicester, to meet Riaz Ravat BEM and to hear about the huge range of community integration work he’s spearheading locally and across the country: faith literacy for businesses, work with schools, Prevent, post graduate courses, a Christian Muslim Dialogue Group and hosting the East Midlands Near Neighbours. Riaz is one of those energy-packed people with deep roots in Leicestershire and a vision for the future.

St Philip’s hosted the Forum’s youth network launch a few years ago and will soon be welcoming a new director, Revd Dr Tom Wilson, whose book Hospitality and Translation (on the experience of Muslim children at Church of England primary schools) was published earlier this year.

I arrived in Leeds just in time to hear Wahida Shaffi, Sam Slatcher and young friends speak to a packed out audience at the Leeds Muslim Youth Forum Conference, launching Muslim Youth Speak.Having listened to nearly two hundred 15-35 year olds in Leeds, the report’s recommendations include safe spaces where young Muslims feel they belong and can talk freely, support with careers and opportunities for relaxed, informal inter faith encounters.  Wahida has built relationships of trust with the young people and they spoke out with honesty and clarity.

LMYF’s founder, Hanif Malik, and Leeds Makkah Masjid’s Imam Qari Asim took part and we were all moved to hear from 7/7 survivor Gill Hicks. I was delighted to meet British Muslim TV’s Aamer Naeem who is offering young people support into paid employment. An inspirational evening!

Wahida is a longstanding friend of the Forum. She led our Women’s Programme and, before that, was our Youth Specialist.  Wahida has recently visited Pakistan with Rev Dr Barbara Glasson (a Forum award-winner in 2012) of Bradford’s Touchstone.  Sam Slatcher (who also worked with the Forum’s youth network a while back) and Wahida have just published an ESRC-supported research paper on creating safe spaces for difficult conversations about difference.

Then it was down to Birmingham to meet another of the Forum’s alumni, Dr Andrew Smith, who later founded The Feast and is now Director of Interfaith Relations in the Diocese of Birmingham. 

In the wake of the ‘Trojan Horse’ episode, Andrew organised (with Bishop David Urquhart) the Birmingham Conversations, a series of meetings between people from different religious traditions to discuss issues usually seen as too controversial. Participants were invited not because of their title or position, but as people with “an ear to the ground” and active in Birmingham life.

By ‘lived faith’ we are looking to move beyond a purely intellectual understanding of religion to see faith as something that not only affects the way each individual member of a religion lives out their faith, but also the way in which that living inevitably interacts with those who live around them.”

The purpose was not to agree on everything but to find a way of living well together without ignoring issues. Find links to the University of Birmingham’s input, the methodology used and the findings on the Faithful Friends site.

Later that day in Birmingham I spoke to Brisbanite Tim Fawssett, CEO of The Feast, a Christian charity promoting community cohesion between Christian and Muslim young people, empowering them to become peacemakers and to spearhead social change.  We talked about human-to-human relationships, top-down and bottom-up approaches, the benefits of chatting over the back fence and the role of religious institutions.

The Feast is now linking up with groups in Lebanon and Berlin and they’ve posted some wonderful pictures of their recent visit to Ghana.

Before heading home, I visited the Yorkshire Dales.  Sheep, moorland, dry stone walls, strong tea – I’m originally from Scotland, so I felt at home.

On the way south, I made a final visit to the Bishop of Bradford, Rt Revd Dr Toby Howarth, whom I know from his days as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Inter Religious Affairs. Bishop Toby has longstanding links with the Forum.

The dates didn’t work out for Anjum Anwar MBE, a President of the Forum and involved in many initiatives: Women’s Voice, hosting a show on Ummah TV and her unique role as dialogue development officer at Blackburn Cathedral.  I travelled to Bosnia with Anjum in 2009 and anyone who has met her knows she is forthright and compassionate in equal measure.  Today she is speaking at the Christian arts and justice festival, Greenbelt.  I’ll catch her another time.

What a trip!

I was struck by the strong network of people up and down the country who have been, and still are, part of the Christian Muslim Forum. They are all people who have a detailed knowledge of their own area and the communities who live there.  They represent a deep well of expertise and experience.

Leeds Muslim Youth Forum encourages us to “GET INVOLVED – MAKE A DIFFERENCE” and it was great to catch up with so many friends of the Forum who have done just that and are inspiring others to do the same.

Catriona Robertson, Interim Director

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