Brondesbury Park Hotel in West London contains some good memories for me: my sister got married there; my children have run amok in the halls and corridors and I have attended no end of dinners, conferences and charity events in this former police hostel. But now it has closed down. The trust that owns it, founded by Yusuf Islam, is considering other options. It is no coincidence that since 9/11 all of Yusuf's charities - and other Islamic charities in general - have suffered financially. `It is absolutely awful,' he protests. `The Islamic ethos is to encourage charity, whilst the actions of extremists and certain government administrations is putting fear into people and thereby discouraging them from donating to worthy causes. One of the deeply regrettable fall-outs about this is that many people, including Muslims, have stopped the noble tradition of donating money.'
|`The Islamic ethos is to encourage charity, whilst the actions of extremists and certain government administrations is putting fear into people and thereby discouraging them from donating to worthy causes. One of the deeply regrettable fall-outs about this is that many people, including Muslims, have stopped the noble tradition of donating money.'
One of the lounges in the hotel is opened up just for us to have our meeting. Yusuf had arrived concerned about being late for his next appointment. Life has been a roller-coaster ride over the last few weeks. How does he feel about the Hollywood-style diversion of his plane and his subsequent deportation? `One wonders what a British passport is worth nowadays,' he retorts. `On the inside front cover there is some blurb about Her Britannic Majesty requesting and requiring the bearer to be allowed to pass freely without let or hindrance. Well, the Americans were clearly not minded to entertain Her Majesty's request on this occasion. But perhaps,' he says on reflection `there is a lesson in all this. The US is no longer the welcome destination it had a reputation for. It is no longer the 'dream land' it once was. It is paralysed by fear and is sending frightful signals to the outside world. But good sense in the end will prevail, Insha-Allah.'
Will he try again to go to the US? He smiles. `Well, the world is a big place.' In the meantime Yusuf is determined to carry on his work, helping the needy and promoting peace. His focus has turned eastward. He spends a lot of time in Dubai and is very proud of his charity Small Kindness (started in 1999). In November 2004 he was honoured with the Man for Peace Award in Rome by a committee of Nobel laureates. His face is instantly recognisable in the Muslim world and beyond and he has become an icon for many millions of people. In my own travels I have often been asked about Yusuf Islam. His personality makes an impact on those he meets. I remember being told about one incident where two students from Oxford went into a restaurant. They saw Yusuf in one corner dining with his family. One of the students couldn't contain his enthusiasm and skipped over to Yusuf's table to greet him with salaams. The other student, being English, was naturally reserved and after the meal said sorry to Yusuf for his colleague's conduct. `No need to apologise,' Yusuf consoled. `Your friend was doing nothing wrong. To say salaam is a good thing.' This small but genuine gesture left a deep impression upon the young man and he finds this humility lacking in many with a public profile even Muslims.
There is a patent desire in Yusuf to do the right thing. He clearly has a concern for wider society evidenced by his international humanitarian work and his Islamic schools. Some have accused such schools of being divisive and of creating a segregated society. Yusuf appears impatient with such criticism. `Well, football can be divisive. I'm actually an Arsenal supporter and often we see the passion and hostilities generated by this game. But there isn't a clamour to ban football. I believe the arguments against Muslim schools are ill-conceived. Firstly, a 'Muslim school' is not a 'school for Muslims only,' rather it is a school that runs on universal Islamic values values which most people would recognise and admire. Islam has a strong tradition of pluralism and has created multi-cultural and multi-racial societies. Secondly, faith-based schools have consistently performed well. Year after year the results of students at such schools are remarkably good. Thirdly, a good Muslim school will help create well-rounded citizens who make a valuable contribution to society and the world. The problem is not with the vision or idea of a Muslim school, but rather the implementation of that vision, which requires time, dedication and resources.'
emel magazine January/February 2005