Sunday, June 10, 2018

Be a champion for the causes you believe in, says founder of London's Open Iftar project

Arab News

Omar Salh, the founder of the Ramadan Tent Project. (Photo courtesy: Ramadan Tent Project)
  • Omar Salha believes that everyone has the potential to be a diplomat for the causes they believe in
  • Open Iftar attracts 200 to 300 people from all walks of life every night during Ramadan
LONDON: When you see the word “diplomat” what springs to mind? A smartly suited, state representative well versed in the art of communication — or you, whoever you might be? Omar Salha, the founder and director of Ramadan Tent Project (RTP), which has evolved into the ever-growing Open Iftar movement, believes that everyone has the potential to be a diplomat for the causes they believe in.

“I think you can broaden out the concept of ‘diplomat’ beyond the idea of a person representing a state,” he said at an Open Iftar evening in London. “I think we are at a stage in our lives — especially considering the way the world is — where every single citizen has the capacity to become a diplomat, in the sense of representing an organization. Everyone here is a diplomat for RTP and Open Iftar. I am a proud diplomat in the sense that I represent RTP and am working to create spaces for interaction and engagement.”

This type of community activity plays an important part in combating negative stereotypes of Muslims, he added.

“Unfortunately, a lot of what we see in the media frames various communities in ways that we know not to be the truth,” he said. “This initiative, and many others that are unsung, helps people to believe in positive stories.

“Also, we are in a position to create our own space. People should be mindful that they have the agency and capital to create positive social change and to create those spaces themselves.”

Salha launched RTP in 2011 while he was studying for an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He saw that many fellow international Muslim students, living away from home and family, were particularly isolated during Ramadan. He decided to do something about this and came up with the idea of creating a communal space where students could come together to break bread.

The response was immediate and strong, with non-Muslims also attending what became known as Open Iftar in support of their fellow students. Open Iftar, which is held in a public garden in central London, now attracts 200 to 300 people from all walks of life every night during Ramadan. It is a sign of its growing popularity that for the first time this year, Open Iftars are also being held in the UK cities of Manchester, Bradford, Leicester and Birmingham.

Internationally, Open Iftars have also been held in the US, Canada, Zambia and Turkey over the past five years.

Open Iftar has been supported from the outset by the Muslim World League London Office (MWLLO). Tabetha Bhatti, RTP’s head of communications, explained that the MWLLO remains Open Iftar’s primary source of support in the capital, and she highlighted the role played by its director, Dr. Ahmad bin Mohammad Qadi Makhdoom.

“Dr. Makhdoom was invaluable — he was the one who sponsored meals for people at the very beginning of the project,” she said.

This year, Open Iftar is featured for the first time on the online fundraising platform LaunchGood.

“Through this platform we can raise funds formally and appeal to an international audience,” added Bhatti.

A key sponsor this year is the National Zakat Foundation, the UK’s only Zakat institution. Another major sponsor is Islamic Relief USA. Aside from such sponsors, a huge amount of support comes from the local community, said Bhatti. In London, Open Iftar works with a wide range of local charities, and a special effort is made to reach the homeless, who are welcome to attend.

Bhatti, a former teacher who has worked with at-risk youths and joined RTP in 2013 as a general volunteer, said the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the project shows how, when given the chance, people want to connect and share.

“Ramadan to me is like a spiritual detox,” she said. “Life can get to you — over the course of the year the so-called ‘rat race’ can take its toll. Come Ramadan, you are refocusing your energies on bettering yourself as an individual. It’s a deeply spiritual time and to be able to share that with people and see them appreciate that in good faith is deeply heartening.”

Salha is now studying for a PhD at SOAS and lecturing in international diplomacy, where his research and academic interests include the role that faith plays in public diplomacy [JB emphasis] — and he has big ambitions for Open Iftar.

“We envisage having an Open Iftar in every major city in the UK and then the world,” he said. “Open Iftar is an example of how public diplomacy and faith are amalgamated together. We are out here creating a space for people to interact with one another in terms of soft power.”

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