A UK government letter to 1,000 imams urging them to promote ‘Muslim British identity’ draws criticism – and praise.
In this year’s pre-election grilling by veteran media inquisitor Jeremy Paxman, UK Prime Minister David Cameron was left stuttering as he was asked about the rising numbers of food banks in Britain. Cameron, astonishingly, revealed that he did not know just how many there were in the UK.
Beyond interviews during general elections, which are bound to have political undertones, the issues of poverty – and food banks in particular – are haunting our modern Britain.
The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, with more than 1,000 affiliated food distribution centres, suggested a few months ago that, with nearly one million people being forced to survive on food aid, “life has gotten worse, not better, for the poorest in 2013/14”.
A special report published by Church Action on Poverty, The Trussell Trust, and Oxfam: Below the Breadline The Relentless Rise of Food Poverty in Britain, uncovered something very disturbing, particularly for a first-world economic power like Britain. It reported that “millions of families across the UK are living below the breadline“, and between them, these three main food aid providers supplied “20,247,042 meals to people in food poverty in 2013/14”.
The numbers alone can tell the story. Several years ago there were hardly any food banks in the UK; now, there are more than 1,000.
With an enviably liberal welfare state system for the last seven decades, the British government has a duty to “improve health, education, employment, and social security”.
However, in recent times, under severe economic slowdowns against the backdrop of the 2008 recession and austerity-focused fiscal policies post-2010, many people have come under severe financial strain and are struggling to make ends meet.
Those who live in economically and socially deprived communities are suffering from “low income poverty”. Although poverty in Britain is different in extremity to that faced by millions in the developing world, it is a source of social exclusion leading to a number of other issues such as poor health, high levels of homelessness, high crime rates, and family breakdowns.
In the midst of all this, it is a wonderful achievement that Britain is recognised as the most charitable developed nation in the world, with faith communities giving the most.
Our charity sector has been well known for serving people, including the alleviation of poverty among the most vulnerable. Many of the afflicted see charitable organisations as a safety net in times of dire need. Civil society organisations with altruism-oriented programmes are indeed the backbone in this area.
Within the charity sector, British Muslims are known to give more. They outshine others during the month of Ramadan, embracing its ethos of giving, sharing, and caring. In this month of heightened spirituality, Muslims remind themselves that their giving to others is not mere generosity, but rather, according to the Quran (51:19), the “needy have a rightful share in their wealth”.
Charity giving in the month of Ramadan multiplies manifold because of this heavy religious emphasis. While many British Muslim charities were established in the last few decades to address the needs of the vulnerable across the globe, many Muslim Charities are now shifting their focus to local aid – delivering valuable services to people in a number of vital areas of need.
Among the big names is Muslim Aid, which has undertaken some specific projects this Ramadan. With its Feed the Hungry programme, Muslim Aid “works with partners and local institutions, aims to highlight the alarming facts about poverty in the UK, and give support to thousands of people (irrespective of their background) struggling to put food on their tables”.
The aim is to reach an average of 3,000 people this Ramadan with its soup kitchen scheme in certain areas of the UK. Muslim Aid’s Prisoners Rehabilitation Project, in partnership with the Muslim Chaplain’s Association, is geared towards minimising the level of recidivism by providing ex-offenders with a better chance of reintegrating themselves into society. This is against the backdrop of a higher proportion of Muslims in Britain’s prisons.
The many small and localised charities are serving particular communities and their inhabitants, regardless of their religious affiliation or background. One such charity group in Walsall is providing extra meals for homeless people during the 30 days of Ramadan.
Young families in dire need
Sufra Food Bank and Kitchen, run from a small community centre in northwest London, is always in high demand. They “collect donated food supplies and redistribute them to families in need. Individuals and families who have acquired a voucher can access the food bank during opening hours and receive a parcel of food lasting up to five days”.
Many of the people this charity serves are referred to it through community agencies such as local GP surgeries, housing associations, refugee charities, and the Brent council. Their weekly afternoon sessions are frequently packed and hectic with the ever-increasing flow of young families in dire need of food.
Another charity, the al-Mizan Charitable Trust, supports disadvantaged and deprived communities across the UK. During this Ramadan, they will distribute 1,000 food parcels to poor families who are struggling to afford the cost of food.
Muslims in the UK are expected to give more than $150m to charity during this year’s Ramadan, according to research from the largest Muslim charity, Islamic Relief. Participating in Ramadan means reaching out in the spirit of kindness and compassion to show solidarity with less fortunate populations, regardless of their personal beliefs or circumstances.
Now is the time for British Muslims, and their charitable organisations, to rally in support of the underprivileged members of communities across Britain and to continue their already inspiring legacy of unified generosity.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.