Fadi Itani lives in Kensington, London, and is the executive director of the Muslim Welfare House (MWH).
Please tell us about yourself, your background, and how you came to work in the Muslim community
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon. I am married, and have four beautiful children, by the grace of Allah. I moved to London in the late 1980's and studied Business Administration after which I did an MSc in Public Service Management from the University of London.
When I first arrived, there was war in Lebanon and I wanted to assist during this. It was then that I volunteered to help at Islamic Relief. Soon after they offered me a job to set up their London base. Back then, Islamic Relief had a little room in Birmingham and we were opening a little room in London. This was in 1989. The organisation developed and started opening branches around the country, in Europe and the United States. I became the UK Manager of Islamic Relief in 1995. Altogether I spent 10 and half years with them.
In 2000, I moved to MWH. I always had an interest in serving people and this is why I moved to MWH. I wanted to do something at the grassroots level with the community in this country, especially addressing the needs of new communities and building bridges with those that have settled in the past five to 10 years and those that have been here longer. All together I've worked in the voluntary sector for the past 15 years.
It was widely felt that Muslim Welfare House (MWH) was not doing particularly well as a charity organisation before you took charge. How would you respond to this?
Organisations in the voluntary sector often have difficulties fixing their direction for the simple reason that the needs are far greater than the resources available. The more you help or work towards the cause, the more needs you discover. Similarly, Muslim organisations suffer from these symptoms especially when they have limited financial resources, few staff and many challenges.
Secondly, any organisation goes through a life cycle and it will not be fair to say that MWH wasn't doing well. At a particular time (from 1975 up to 1985) it did very well for example, it was the first organisation in the UK to publish Islamic books in English.
We also have to realise that the needs of the community change rapidly and if not monitored on our radar, we can face difficulties addressing the priorities of the community with limited resources.
Islam encourages charity and donations. Being associated with a charity organisation, what has been your experience of Muslims in general? Do you consider them generous in giving charity?
Giving charity is obligatory for Muslims. While other religions encourage charity, Islam has made it a pillar of the religion. Through my experience at Islamic Relief and MWH, Muslims are very generous people; even those who have little are willing to give it all sometimes. Muslims respond to the needs and appeals of different organisations. My conservative estimate is that the Muslim community in Britain is contributing about £20m in charity every year.
That said I do feel that there is a lack of awareness about the importance of supporting projects in this country. This is not to say our people don't give because hundreds of mosques and Madressas (Islamic supplementary schools) are built by the community. But this is not enough. There is a desperate need to build a support structure for the British Muslim community, first with our own funding and then to attract mainstream funding. Sometimes they donate easily for a mosque or Madressa or sponsoring an orphan, but it will be difficult to convince them to support a newspaper, radio station or website, of which the overall benefit to the community can be greater than a building somewhere.
Finally, Islam encourages us to do good, care and share, not only to Muslims, but to all of mankind, animals and the environment. Therefore we need to get involved and support projects and charities that work for the good of everyone, e.g. medical organisations, saving the environment or even donating blood.
How about the non-Muslim communities
through your inter-faith work have you found people understanding of the Muslim situation in the UK?
I have found people from other faith communities very understanding and supportive. Following September 11th, 2001, we were overwhelmed by the messages of support and visits from leaders of various faith communities. This reminded me of the duty on us as Muslims and Muslim organisations to be active, open and involved with everyone in our locality. People won't come to you if you don't open your heart and your doors. It's most likely that you have to go to them first, especially since there is so much ignorance about Islam and Muslims. The ignorance leads to fear and we have to look at ways to break down the fear that exists. The constant bad news is not helping it either. I was particularly touched when we had leaders from other faith communities defending the Muslim community.
We operate in a diverse environment and we have to recognise that we have rights and duties towards our neighbours, whoever they may be. It's wrong for a Muslim organisation to work in isolation from its environment.
You've had several success stories in terms of the innovative services you've introduced to the centre. Were you able to achieve this through support from the local community or from other sources?
The organisation should try to identify the needs of the community and then prioritise them and see how it can be supported. The success of our programmes is due to various elements: the support of the local community, the strength of the staff at the organisation and external support. For example, the Boushra Marriage Support Programme was initiated to address a local challenge, i.e. the break up of Muslim marriages. With the vision of the project leader and now the financial support from a government department, we hope to turn it into a national programme. The Libraries Project, born out of people's misunderstanding and ignorance of Islam, also turned from a local difficulty that we were facing to a national educational project.
Despite all the difficulties, it is important that we do not despair and we must turn difficulties into opportunities and success. Ultimately, success comes only with the grace of Allah.
You are always given credit for working hard to defuse strained community relations in Finsbury Park; however your work is often mentioned in parallel to Mr. Abu Hamza's. What do you think is the reason behind this and how does it make you feel?
Improving community relations and building bridges, I believe, is a duty, not a choice. Good initiatives from local organisations are underreported and seldom recognised by the media and the wider public. It is sad that only bad news makes news and it is sad that certain, abnormal cases are made into national issues and received even international media coverage. Sometimes it is difficult when some elements in the media try to compare the one with the other in the same context.
What do you feel are the most striking changes that have occurred over the last decade or so in the British Muslim community?
Despite the disunity of our multi-ethnic community, over the past few years we are getting closer as a community and more represented, which highlights the need for more co-ordinated strategies to serve, work with and represent the Muslim community. The community has become more politically aware and I believe that we are going through the stages of being aware, becoming involved and hopefully influencing our environment.
Significant world events have had a huge impact on the image of Muslims, and have also, subsequently, led to discrimination and a host of social problems now faced by Muslims.
The British Muslim community has grown and become more diverse and we need to know how to serve this changing community and the country.
At the Muslim Welfare House in London, they say extremist recruiters don't get past the front door. Do you think this statement comes out of a need for Muslim organisations to be defensive under the scrutinising eye of the international media?
Running a public place comes with many duties and challenges. As a place of worship you need to strike a balance of control, keeping it safe, clear and able to serve everybody. When a person comes to use a mosque, church, synagogue or temple to worship, you are not going to check if he or she holds certain views which might be contrary to your own or the organisation's.
That said, we have a responsibility to make sure that people respect the mosque and centre as a place of worship and treat the people and the surrounding local community with respect.
Any community will have people who have extreme views that do not represent the views of the community and shouldn't be portrayed as such. We say what we believe even if some individuals among the audience may disagree with us. We believe that Islam is a mercy to all mankind, that teaches love, peace and respect and we cannot be held responsible for the actions of individuals.