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Challenging Islamophobia Event: A Response

Muslim Council of Wales leader, Sahar al-Faifi, responds to a number of points raised in a recent WalesOnline article: –

“My name is Sahar al-Faifi. I’m the Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Wales. I’m also the Chair of MEND Wales, and I recently organised a dinner in Cardiff called “Wales Challenges Islamophobia”.

The event was intended to raise the profile of the increasing Islamophobia in Britain – something I unfortunately have been victim to first-hand. As a Muslim woman who wears the face veil, barely a week goes past in which I am not subject to some form of abuse on the street or on the way to work. Muslim women are often the first victim of on the street abuse, as various studies have demonstrated, and it is unsurprising that the majority of the team that put together and hosted the event were other Muslim women. We worked from the beginning of the event to delivery, and I myself chaired the event.

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The team who organised the event with speaker Abu Eesa.

We were honoured to host Health Minister Mark Drakeford AM. His gesture of standing shoulder to shoulder with Muslims in combatting prejudice and bigotry was warmly welcomed by me, the Muslim Council of Wales and the other attendees of the event.

Following the event, an article was posted on Wales Online by a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate, Shazia Awan. I felt it important to clarify some of the statements made within the article, both in terms of the event I organised, and also the claims she made more generally. I do this in good will, and following an attempt to speak to her directly about the concerns she raised.

Absence of Women on the Top Tables

Speaking of the event, Shazia wrote “it didn’t seem representative to me; not a woman in sight on the top tables and championed by the Muslim Council of Wales.”

This is absolutely untrue. I chaired the event, and the top tables were full of women – I know because I made sure they were well represented and given the best seats in the house.

This lie is upsetting as it erased me, my contribution to the event, and the other women who attended. I hope Shazia apologises for this complete untruth.

As anyone who attends the Muslim Council of Wales interfaith dinners will know – our tables always are diverse, with men and women present. We recently hosted the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in a historic gathering in October 2015, and invited Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in February 2015.

It is a shame Shazia feel’s the Muslim Council of Wales is unrepresentative. We are a broad based umbrella body. Our affiliates include the majority of mosques, Muslim organisations and societies in Wales, from both Sunni and Shi’i backgrounds, and from all the different schools within Islam.

As we work with organisations, rather than individuals, it is not possible to represent everyone. But we do represent the interests and views of the majority of Muslim organisations, mosques and groups in Wales to the best of our ability.

If Shazia has any suggestions on how we can improve our structures of representation, I welcome conversation on the topic.

On Hosting Abu Eesa Niamatullah

Shazia wrote: “The speaker who made me walk out was Salafi preacher Abu Eesa Niamatullah whose 45-minute speech I listened to and who, in my view, should never have been given a public platform.”

The reason for her objection to Abu Eesa’s presence at the event was a statement he made several years ago about women in the workplace, specifically, his opinion that women should avoid working. Clearly the event in question was not one in which he was advocating that view, I myself am a geneticist and in full-time employment. As for Abu Eesa, when asked about his statement from several years ago, he clarified “it is permissible and allowed for Muslim women to work,” he said. “In Islamic law it is permissible and I retract that (earlier) statement I made completely.”

Although not stated explicitly, the article also seems to criticise Abu Eesa for being “Salafi”, described as “a fundamentalist and ultra conservative approach to Islam”. Salafi mosques, Imams and scholars have been vital partners in working with the Muslim Council of Wales (and indeed other bodies) in countering violent extremism, and advocating positive messages about engaging with wider society. I think it is unfair to imply that simply being Salafi is a problem.

Furthermore, the presence of Abu Easa at the event was made clear from the outset, his name was put in all publicity materials and it was no secret that he was to be one of the speakers at the event, I am surprised that Shazia did not know before the event, and felt the need to walk out during his talk – which was short, and completely unrelated to the issue of women working.

On MCW and extremism

Implicit in the article was the criticism that the Muslim Council of Wales do not take extremism seriously. We consider tackling violent extremism as one of our most important duties and we expend considerable energy towards this goal.

We have been active members of civil society groups such as the Cardiff Prevent Stakeholder Group, and worked with partners across all institutions to combat extremism.

We have facilitated Imams and religious scholars to tackle the theological messages of groups like Isis, through Friday sermons, leaflets, posters and online videos. We’ve also hosted courses to help develop young leaders who can counter extremist messages.

We have invested in training for Imams and Muslim scholars in Chaplaincy training, so they have the pastoral skills to reach and communicate with young Muslims as we believe youth support work is one of the vital tools to countering radicalisation.

We have developed projects also aimed at reducing the appeal of extremism, such as our prison chaplaincy project New Leaf, and our youth leadership programme, iLEAD.

In February 2016, we are hosting a conference aimed at exploring radicalisation with our national partner, the Muslim Council of Britain.

There is still much more that can be done of course, and we invite everyone to help us in carrying out this important work.

I hope this clarifies our position on a number of issues raised in Shazia’s article.”

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