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‘I Attended the Peace Symposium to Learn the Real Message of Islam’

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s annual National Peace Symposium is vital to help cut through Britain’s Islamophobic politics and media

Adeel Shah, Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead and members of the East Hampshire District Council and Community Press Team at the National Peace Symposium, 9 March 2024.

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It was a real privilege to have been invited to this year’s National Peace Symposium. This annual event of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is aimed at promoting a deeper understanding of Islam and other faiths and bringing communities together for the cause of peace. The Symposium took place on 9 March, the eve of the start of Ramadan.

My host, the genial Adeel Shah, who is one of Britain’s youngest Imams met me at the entrance of the Baitul Futah Mosque in Morden, London, the largest in Western Europe and the administrative headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK, where Adeel Shah serves in the Press and Media Office. I was one of more than 1200 guests from 28 countries who gathered for the 18th Peace Symposium.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was founded in 1889 to revive the peaceful teachings of Islam. It is dedicated to establishing peace and protecting the basic human rights of all. With nationalism and the relentless desire for power fuelling conflict around the world, as peace-making efforts fall deeper into crisis and situations deteriorate, there could not be a more important time to unite for the cause of peace.

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As a white, atheist woman, I know little about the Muslim faith, other than from having worked with Adeel Shah before. Through misleading headlines, harmful stereotypes and inflammatory language, for decades, the UK media has demonised and vilified Muslims.

If I took notice of such incendiary and inaccurate reports, I may be inclined to think those who practice the faith are people to avoid. If I listened to right-wing politicians like Lee Anderson and Suella Braverman, who deliberately whip up anti-Muslim sentiment, again, I might hold unjust views against Islam. Amid this toxic political and media ecosystem, it is hardly surprising that British people are three times more likely to hold prejudiced views against Islam than other religions.

Following Lee Anderson’s accusation that the London Mayor Sadiq Khan is being controlled by ‘Islamists,’ Islamophobia within factions of the Conservative Party, and the wider country, was finally given the attention it merits. Rishi Sunak’s hastily arranged address on extremism outside Number 10 was seen by some as hypocritical, given the party’s – and its media backers’ – connections to Islamophobia. “It was a masterclass in gaslighting and made a new art form of rank hypocrisy,” said Caroline Lucas, Green MP.

But the National Peace Symposium 2024 was a world apart from the bickering and double standards at Westminster. What was especially encouraging was the notable cross-political party attendance. 

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Dame Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, Jonathan Lord, Conservative MP for Woking and Vice Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, all gave speeches on the urgent need for global cooperation. Dame McDonagh spoke of the suffering and oppression taking place in Gaza. She said the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has been at the forefront in calling for peace throughout the conflict, and that the worldwide Head and Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, has reached out to world leaders and presented solutions on how to establish peace.  Jonathan Lord shared similar gratitude for the Community’s efforts for establishing peace worldwide. Noting the devastating conflict in Sudan, Yemen, Ukraine and Gaza, Ed Davey said Britain needs to double down its efforts to play its role in bringing an end to the conflicts.

The event’s keynote speech was delivered by His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad. Through sermons, lectures, and literary works, His Holiness is a tireless advocate for championing the cause of peace and for religious harmony.

The Caliph called for ceasefires in both Gaza and Ukraine. “Political leaders and those who have access to policymakers must take a long-term view of what is in the best interests of mankind, rather than being blinded by selfish desires to assert their superiority over others,” he said. His Holiness also dismissed the misconception of the conflict in the Middle East being a ‘religious war,’ instead stating that it was a “geopolitical and territorial conflict” with religion providing a solution.

The more I listened to the speeches and spent time with people who worship this inclusive, peace-orientated religion, and those who partner with the Community to promote their work and messages, the sadder I became about the way in which Islamophobia, and conspiracies about Muslims are so well-established within sections of British society. 

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What was disappointing was the lack of mainstream media presence. Surely, as war devastates communities around the world, national newspapers and news stations have a duty to cover such vital peace-making events? The lack of national mainstream media interest in the Peace Symposium 2024, for me, said a lot about the challenges Muslims face in Britain, and the wider lack of peace-making progress.

Charlene Maines, a Conservative Councillor on the East Hampshire District Council, where Adeel Shah also serves as a Councillor, was attending the event for the first time. Charlene shared my views on the importance of the Peace Symposium at an educational level.  “People are afraid of religion. It’s all about education. Once we are informed about a religion, we can come to our own conclusions about it. That’s why this event is so important. You can literally feel the connection in the venue,” Charlene said.

I came away from the National Peace Symposium feeling honoured that I had listened to the Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and others, deliver rousing yet logical speeches on achieving global peace. I felt grateful to have spent time with people who practice and support the message of a religion of tolerance, peace, and universalism.

If only others from a broadly ignorant media and certain Parliamentarians would do the same.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist.



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