As a group who strongly support the excellent pro diversity and support work of Tell Mama UK we were delighted to have the opportunity to interview founder Fiyaz Mughal. In addition to his work at Tell Mama UK Mr Mughal is also the founder of Faith Matters and on the board of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
We have put the transcript below as some of the video footage is a bit hard to hear.
RH: I’m Roanna from Resisting Hate and this is Fiyaz Mughal from Tell Mama.
If there any viewers who don’t know who Fiyaz Mughal is, he is the founder of the pro diversity group Tell Mama which focuses on targeting anti Muslim hate and supporting the victims of discrimination and prejudice. Mr Mughal is also the founder of Faith Matters, an organisation that seeks to bring different faiths together in the common goal of unity and peace. In addition to these projects he has been appointed to the Holocaust Memorial day charity which ties into both his Interfaith work and his personal and professional opposition to Anti Semitism.
Thank you Fiyaz for taking the time to talk to me today
RH So how did you get interested in multifaith work?
FM: Interest that happened many years ago, I have been involved with communities for around twenty years now so a very long time but around 2001 to 2002 there were disturbances and issues taking part in the Middle East and Israel Palestine, again impacts in this country between Muslims and Jewish communities and relations in this country and there had to be a better way a way forward instead of always blaming each other’s position on Israel Palestine and actually we had to find ways where we could bridge, talk, discuss, dialogue and find positive relations.
So that was the basis on which I effectively set up Faith Matters which was Muslim Jewish relations work and it is something that has always been close to my heart. So that’s how I came to it. And I find both communities moving toward each other much more than they have been over the last decade, so real positive developments and positive movements. However the Middle East still obviously has the ability to cause fractions and we just need to watch out for that and keep the good work going here
RH: Absolutely, yes, totally agree with you.
There must be challenges involved in trying to bring together people of different faiths toward a common goal of unity? What kind of obstacles have you faced in doing this?
FM: Well actually there are a number of obstacles in trying to bring communities together. The first thing is obviously there are parties who have vested interests whether it be politically or in terms of resource. There are vested interests in trying to keep, sadly, people apart. That’s one thing.
We also have a changing environment where sadly there seem more angry people around, whether because of social media, the economic climate, Brexit, whatever you want to call it but our country seems to have turned a corner where there is a bit more anger within communities and a bit more finger pointing going on. And so part of that is also a potential barrier, the fact there is less patience in society we are finding, that’s a potential barrier and last but not least and one of the key areas, one of the biggest barriers is really around social media and generally around the way the media wants to elevate and exacerbate issues and tensions. Sometimes they are small but to sell papers and to get clickbait newspapers will exacerbate that and that doesn’t help community relations.
RH: Can see your point there.
So sometimes there is a perception that the high profile work you do for a Muslim charity means you must have a pro Islam agenda. Is that the case?
FM: That’s a really good question. The answer is that no we are not pro Islam and clearly we are not anti Islam. The fact is we don’t do religion. The fact is we are not interested in promoting religion, that’s not the nature of our work, that is the work of other organisations if they want to do that. That also means that we are not going to take positions against people if they have personal issues against any religion, if they have personal views against any form of faith that is not something that we work upon, act upon or try to change. We are interested in those people who literally target, focus on and malign members of Muslim communities because of hatred toward Muslims. So our work is really focused on the individual, it is not focused on theology, religion or religiosity. So one thing, and I’m glad you mentioned this as we need to be very clear, we are not a Muslim charity, 80% of my colleagues are non Muslim so we are not a Muslim charity but we are focused on countering hatred and intolerance toward Muslims. As the CST do with Jewish communities, so we do with Muslim communities. It doesn’t mean that we also don’t assist people who are beyond Muslim communities. We have had trans Muslims come to us for help and we have helped them. We have had gay Muslims, we have had African Caribbean women who are Christian come to us for assistance. We have had members of the Pakistani Christian community come to us for assistance when they are targeted for hatred and we will help anyone and everyone. So it is a really good point you raise, people do think because we deal with anti Muslim hatred we must be defending Islam. No we don’t defend religion, we won’t defend Islam but we will defend individuals who are targeted because they are Muslim.
RH: So I think possibly some confusion out there about your values. What would you say are the core values that drive you and this work you are doing?
FM: One of our core values is basically this is human rights work. This is fundamentally human rights work. This is about the protection of individuals, this is the protection of the dignity of individuals and it doesn’t matter who you are, we will defend your right to live freely from targeted hatred and intolerance. That is the core value.
We will defend and stand in solidarity with anyone in relation to standing up for their rights so they live free from targeted hatred. We don’t get into political quagmires about Israel and Palestine, it’s not what we do. That’s not our role. We don’t get into political debates and discussions around who is wrong and right on political issues. But I just wanted to say that actually this is about human beings coming together. This is about saying we should live freely, we should be who we want to be and if we want to also change religion, change characteristics of who we are then you should have the right to do so. If somebody wants to leave religion they should have the right to do so. Those are fundamental human rights principles, we defend them and we will continue to defend them. So in a way if people see us as standing here as people who should defend Islam they’ve got the wrong organisation. We are people who will work with others to defend their human rights.
RH: Fabulous, that has really clarified that, thank you, I appreciate that.
Ok so you’re also, in addition to your work with Tell Mama, on the board of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. How did this come about and do you find that there is some resistance to remembering the Holocaust within Muslim communities?
FM: I have been a trustee for three years and it is an honour to be a trustee of an organisation that is doing some phenomenal work raising the issue of the Holocaust. There is a film called Denial which is being released tomorrow. There are deniers of the Holocaust as there are deniers of genocides like Srebrenica. Sadly deniers exist and sadly they also have a voice within social media. So we need to be robust and we also always need to put the facts across. And this is what HMD, Holocaust Memorial Day does, it puts a flag right in the heart of the sand as they say. They say these are facts, they took place, that this kind of genocide should never take place but also it gives a clear understanding of when society starts to break down, it gives us a clear picture of what to look out for as to the potential for future genocides taking place. HMD does some very, very important work, they also focus on Rwanda, Srebrenica and other genocides. So I’m really proud to be associated with this really incredible work.
So one of the biggest things that has impacted on me in being a trustee of Holocaust Memorial Day has been actually listening to the victims, to those people – the survivors – who survived four or five years in concentration camps who kept themselves going during the darkest periods of time. Now I think for me it is a personal reflection of how we take so much for granted – the rights, the equality rights that we have in this country where so many didn’t have a single element, a shred of a human right within Germany at that period of time. So this work is extremely important because human nature is such that it forgets what takes place just even a decade ago. Rwanda happened, Bosnia happened, other genocides sadly will happen in the future and human nature is that we seem to forget and I think the work of HMD is always making clear that we can’t forget. We need to reflect, we need to understand, we need to digest the fact when society really does start to break down and when dictators do take over how we can challenge the sense of hypocrisy which for example Hitler brought to Germany.
So really important work, I’m proud to be associated with it but also on the question you said on the question of Anti Semitism within small sections of Muslim communities, sadly there are. We can’t get away from that fact, the fact is during the Gaza crisis of 2014 where the war was happening in Gaza between Israel and Palestine, some of our Twitter feed in Tell Mama started filling up with Anti Semitism. That was because of some of the people we were following. We had to delete those, we had to unfriend them. The volume was quite significant and I have to say to be honest it was quite sickening – what I saw in terms of the Anti Semitism that was coming through Twitter feeds.
So the answer to is there Anti Semitism, yes. Is the term Zionism sometimes used as cover for Anti Semitism? The answer is yes. And these are very real problems. They are problems where we have to tackle them head on, we have to be robust and say not only is it not acceptable we need to challenge those people who use terms like Zionism as cover for Anti Semitism and we also need to be very clear that where there is Anti Semitism in Muslim communities, and I do this quite regularly, that we challenge it and openly challenge it. There is no point in hiding behind the sofa and saying that we fight for equality when actually Anti Semitism stares us in the face. So the answer is that it’s troubling, the answer is that it has not gone away, the answer is that it is there, the answer is people are trying to be cleverer in hiding it. People have different views as to what Zionist means to them.
A member of the Jewish community can be smeared with the term Zionist because nobody knows what they’re about but this kind of word is thrown into the mire as a way of deflecting any kind of legal recourse, as a way of deflecting any charge against the individual. I find that nauseous and I find that very toxic and we need to challenge that.
RH: Totally agree with you.
So obviously there are some challenges. What are the challenges that you see in the future about how people try to divide Muslims and Jews?
FM: Well I think one of the biggest challenges is the presidency of Trump and positions on either Israel or Palestine will be used by either side to cause divisions or even just to cause irritation. The reality is the Presidency and the positions on Israel and Palestine are going to be causing waves and are going to cause distraction between both communities. I think there are also going to be some significant issues when there is military activity in Gaza again.
Military action may well be on the table. When that happens there will be tensions again. Sadly those tensions will rise. I hope and I pray that I don’t see what I saw before. I was talking before about the Twitter feed and I hope I don’t see some of the Anti Semitism coming from sections of Muslim communities. And not just about Anti Semitism, I also saw anti Muslim hatred coming from some small sections of Jewish communities. So I am saying both sides have to be very careful that they don’t take positions that they don’t further antagonise and further create problems and issues.
RH: Absolutely yes.
RH Holocaust denial and so called Revisionism has had a lot of press recently, particularly as you mentioned, with the new film Denial about to come out. What are your views on Holocaust Denial?
FM: Holocaust denial I think is one of the worst forms of victim abuse, primarily because victims are denied their experience. Second it denies a part of history, no matter how bad that is, of a community. Thirdly it attempts to marginalise the experience of individuals who have suffered such great persecution and actually by marginalising their experiences effectively dehumanises those individuals and that community. So I think it is one of the most toxic forms of hatred that enacts itself, that shows itself through the actions of individuals who are deeply radicalised in many instances as in Neo Nazi and far right rhetoric. That is not to say it is just coming from Neo Nazi and far right individuals. It is sad to see but recent conferences in places like Iran on Revisionism and Holocaust history has been problematic. And so there are also elements within the Middle East where succour has been given to revisionists around the Holocaust because it has played to and pandered to political views. And that I think is appalling, it is abysmal. Within the Middle East, particularly within the Middle East people should not be given quarter, should not be given the opportunity to come and spread their poison and their revisionism.
RH So no doubt since you work on tackling anti-Muslim hatred, you may have come across people who may be anti-Semitic and who come across the work of Tell MAMA thinking that Muslims could be an audience for their anti-Semitism? Is this something that you have encountered?
FM: Sadly we have encountered this very fact. We have individuals who basically have approached us thinking because we work, as you said, on countering Islamophobia we may have some kind of bias toward their views which is quite pathetic and quite perverse.
RH: Very much so and also I think the problem of self radicalisation. People sometimes start out to be normal and with normal views but radicalise themselves to the point where they start to develop extreme views which must be a concern as well?
FM: Indeed it is a concern. I have seen that. People engage with us, say can we be helpful and we’ve said give us some material and they do and seem reasonable. But over time we suddenly realise that they are posting up on websites some other material in other areas which are particularly problematic. So you can’t tell where people are coming from but you can certainly work your way through it and as soon as you find out there is a problem, that time to disconnect is very clearly there.
RH: Do you find that as head of a support organisation that tackles anti-Muslim hatred, it is assumed that you must have anti Jewish views? How do you deal with that?
FM: There are people who might think because we work tackling anti Muslim hate there might be succour or some room for their views to be promoted. It makes me sick to think there are people who have such a simplistic and barbaric view of life. And I use the word barbaric because if people hold an opinion on another community which is extremely negative and in instance bestial because these are quite bestial thoughts about other communities then they are approaching the wrong organisation and they are certainly approaching the wrong individual by coming to us. How anyone can think because we work on tackling anti Muslim hate that we would in any shape or form have any form of resonance with their views is beyond me. Just because people work with Muslim communities does not mean they are Anti Semitic. Just because people work with Muslim communities doesn’t mean they are anti LGBT, in fact I have been vocally attacked both within sections of Muslim communities and beyond sections of Muslim communities for my stance on tackling LGBT hatred. I have stood up against Anti Semitism, I have stood up against trans hate. I have stood up against a number of things.
RH: So interestingly enough we have actually seen the exact opposite allegation levied at you that you are in fact a Zionist. How would you respond to this?
FM: This is the bizarre nature of what we are dealing with. If you are just trying to take a path of respecting human rights, particularly in this field of tackling anti Muslim hatred as you said, some people may think their Anti Semitic views have resonance. On the flip side if you say that Anti Semitism, Holocaust Denial, use of the term Zionism are targeting Jewish communities often in very subtle ways like assuming that Jews have power and are wielding power in government -when you tackle these kind of tropes then suddenly you get charges like those some silly individuals have made that we are Zionists. Because we have a Jewish chair they assume we have to be Zionists because the Jewish chair used to work with the Community Security Trust. The reality is they have no clue.
RH: A lot of the charities and anti hate groups we have contacts with are very concerned about the upsurge in Neo Nazism. Can you tell me about your thoughts on the increased popularity of far right and Nazi movements in Europe and the US?
FM: Well certainly within Europe far right groups have been using social media and using the internet to mobilise and given the fact we have had the refugee crisis they have used that as a focal point to mobilise. The fact is we have not had much disruption of some of these groups within Europe, we have had real government focus and organised disruption of these groups which means that they have been allowed in many instances by default to ferment.
FM: It is a concern. Clearly within Europe we have got many fragmented Neo Nazi groups as well as the rise of the alternative right in the US. These are two concerns and they are both amplifying each other.
There certainly are more fragmented groups of Neo Nazi and far right groups and they are organising and activating using the internet. The answer is yes we are at risk if we don’t challenge some of these narratives.
RH: Anti Muslim prejudice is a problem that affects mainly women at a street level. What can the public in general do to help counteract this?
FM: There are a couple of things members of the public can do. If the incident is over and they see the Muslim woman then go up to her and ask if she needs any help, does she need any assistance. That makes a difference, it makes a huge difference to victims. The second thing is if the perpetrator is physically not intimidating individuals may want to intervene. As long as they feel safe they can intervene.
The third thing is that assistance, any kind of assistance, even giving a mobile phone so the victim can make a call, saying if she is ok, if on a bus sitting next to her makes a huge difference to the confidence level of the victim. Gives confidence to the victim that she is not alone and that in fact people who are not Muslim do care.
RH: Thank you. It’s been great to hear your views on different topics today and thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions. Can I ask you to finish by summarising your views on how pluralism can best be achieved and the part your own work will play in this?
FM: I think the underlying framework for pluralism is communities valuing and standing with each other. When communities come together, when they carry out activity together, when they share time, space, food all of these elements create a sense that each one of us have a unique space in our society. It gives a feeling that without one of us we are not whole. And that is a really important element.
So what I am saying is that pluralism is not complicated, it basically means that when we come together as communities we feel that together, collectively our experiences are the sum of us and not just a part of us as communities. And that is really important. That is the way many of us lead our lives,, that’s the experiences we have every day.
RH: Fabulous. Thank you very much, and like I say, thank you for spending some time with me today.
FM: Thank you very much Roanna