My Faith, Identity and Belonging in Britain

Ali Amla

The SNS Student Leadership Programmes (SLPs) are a powerful opportunity for young people to further their knowledge after having participated in our flagship education programme, which has reached over ten thousand young people this academic year. It is a privilege to be leading our Bridge Builders Programme (BBP) this summer, with a multifaith team delivering an exciting week-long programme, during a challenging time to be thinking about campus relations and interfaith. 


Exploring faith, identity and belonging will be a cornerstone of our BBP in 2024. My own hybrid identity as a British Muslim of Indian Gujarati heritage has shaped my journey as an interfaith bridge builder, fostering intercultural understanding and peacemaking. Global crises have had a profound impact on my identity, the splintering of Yugoslavia and the subsequent genocide in Bosnia, the destruction of the Barbari Masjid in India and the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat, 9/11 and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and religious persecution and repression of Uyghur Muslims in China. 


Likewise, the importance of Palestine has always featured in my life. Al-Aqsa is the furthest mosque and the third holiest site for Muslims, and the significance of Isra wa meraj (the Night Journey and ascension) has always been an important part of Islam. It is also the land of the Prophets and the resting place of many of the Prophets including but not exclusively, Musa (Moses), Ibrahim (Abraham), Sulaiman (Solomon), Dawood (David), Yakub (Jacob) and Ishaq (Isac) alayhis salaam (peace be upon them).


Unfortunately, similar to many young people today, I have experienced structural and interpersonal racism and Islamophobia throughout my life. The National Front has marched through my home town; there was the bombing of the Arndale centre by the IRA; and the 7/7 attacks. After this, came the securitisation of Muslim spaces and the subsequent Islamophobic discourse that questioned Muslim loyalties and belonging. Many Muslims questioned their identity and belonging in Britain, some choosing to migrate, and the accusation of a ‘failure of Multiculturalism’ was directed at Muslim communities, refugees and asylum seekers. 


Sociologists and ethnographers have written extensively on Muslims in Britain. Key junctures for reflection - be they the Rushdie affair, attacks on Charlie Hebdo, or northern disturbances - have led to narratives being constructed about Muslims, rather than Muslims being able to construct our own narratives.  Islamophobia has not only deepened and worsened, it hasn't simply passed the dinner table test, but has become normalised, mainstreamed and socially acceptable. The fact there has been no independent advisor on Islamophobia for over two years is indicative of the lack of commitment to understanding and countering Islamophobia in Britain.


The last six months have been an incredibly challenging time for interfaith, as we have hopelessly and helplessly witnessed over 1,000 Israelis killed on 7th October, hostages taken and the ensuing war and humanitarian catastrophe, which has resulted in many thousands of Palestinians killed. Hope is diminishing with no end in sight, and anger is deepening while the ability for empathy is dissipating. When we are in pain, we focus on our own pain to such an extent that it often blinds us to acknowledging the pain of others. Many are grieving, upset, angry and fearful. Empathy for how the perceived ‘other’ is feeling is difficult during this painful period, which is further exacerbated by the exponential increase in antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism, Nakba denial, and denial of Palestinian heritage, history and culture. Many are feeling demonised, discriminated against, and silenced.


Speaking to Jewish friends and colleagues, I reflect on the many parallels. The intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust and Bosinian genocide, the journey of migration, questioning identity and belonging in Britain, questioning if now is the time to migrate. 


Is the country we call home going to be safe and inclusive? 


Muslim and Jewish communities are experiencing a defining moment. Israel-Palestine will deeply and profoundly impact how we view the world, community relations and the future of faith and belief in Britain. Some Jewish friends are considering aliyah and some Muslim friends are considering hijrah. Fear about living in Britain in safety, security and freedom is of concern. Unless we listen to these concerns with compassion, division will only continue to fester. Feeling confident that we belong, and can celebrate our entire identities - including being Muslim and Jewish - is vital. Jewish and Muslim students need to feel safe, protected and included. Prejudice, discrimination, and hatred should never be tolerated.


There's no perfect time to build bridges, right now it feels risky and dangerous. But we must recognise that Interfaith is at a crossroads, do we continue with the status quo and continue to make Palestine-Israel the elephant in the interfaith room? Or do we create safe and courageous spaces for uncomfortable dialogue by addressing the elephant, rethinking our relations and embracing the challenge ahead? Campus cohesion and interfaith relations need to be balanced alongside preserving the democratic right and freedoms of students to protest without being vilified. Leadership requires us to manage risk rather than avoiding it. I often hear from different communities that there is no partner for peace or dialogue. The last few weeks I have rhetorically asked, if not us, then who? If not now, then when?


The Bridge Builders Programme 2024 is an opportunity for 20 young people aged 16-19 to join us in Cambridge for five days, in partnership with the Woolf Institute. It offers a unique experience to nurture knowledge and resilience for young people before they arrive on campus - exploring faith, identity and belonging. There is the opportunity to discuss at length the impact of Israel-Palestine on campus relations, and how to build understanding of antisemitism and Islamophobia and stand together against hate, prejudice and discrimination. Collectively we will begin to explore interfaith and how to foster good relations on campus. We will be joined by Palestinian and Israeli peace builders, who will create a unique space to grapple with the core issues of Israel-Palestine - ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories for the Palestinian people, and ensuring peace and security for the Israeli people.


There will also be learning about conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and opportunity for formal and informal dialogue and discussion. Because of our focus on the core humanitarian issues of the conflict, and our centring the voices of peace builders who are committed to our values of non-violence, equality for all and the rejection of hatred, accusations of ‘normalisation’, ‘twosidesism’ and ‘faithwashing’ are invalid and irrelevant. BBP is one of the only interfaith leadership programmes which uniquely place Palestine-Israel at the heart of its learning and development, which provides the opportunity to listen to diverse narratives from leaders, activists and creatives, and which enables people to disagree respectfully, find common ground, and build bridges of understanding. 


I look forward to you joining us on this journey. Together we can be the change we want to see in the world. 


Further details can be found here: