“Valedictory project of the Foundation, The Joseph Interfaith Foundation (JIF) will be closing down in December 2019 after 14 years - November

The Joseph Interfaith Foundation (JIF), held its valedictory project in November 2019. Many colleagues, members and associates of the Foundation attended.

Lord Hussain of Luton, a longstanding friend of the Foundation who chaired the event, expressed his regret at the closing down of the Foundation, as did all the speakers. He spoke about the important work of the Foundation.

Sir David Michels and Mr Moussavi, trustees of the Foundation spoke about the achievements of the Foundation. They praised Mehri Niknam, its Founder and Executive Director whose determination and commitment made sure that the work of the foundation continued successfully against all odds and many great difficulties. They expressed sadness that JIF could not continue due the Mehri’s health issues and said “she is irreplaceable”.

Lord Hussain, the trustees and the speakers

Imam Asim Hafiz OBE (speaker) spoke about the significance of being a member of the National Council of Imams and Rabbis. He said the Council was where the Imams and Rabbis could further the historical good relations that had existed between the Jews and Muslims but also learn the lessons of what had gone wrong and how we could collectively learn lessons from it.

Imam Hafiz speaking

Sister Margaret Shepherd a longstanding friend of JIF said that although she was not directly involved in JIF, nevertheless, its innovative ways of looking at interfaith was important when she came to consider Christian interfaith relations with other faiths.

Sister Margaret speaking

Dr Harriet Crabtree OBE, Executive Director of Inter Faith Network praised the Foundation and Mehri for the determination to make interfaith a realistic and challenging work. She gave examples of the Foundation’s innovative initiatives which created a trajectory unknown till then in Jewish-Muslim relations. She also spoke about Mehri’s incredible committed to her vision and how she managed to run projects on a shoestring funding when it would have needed a secretariat to run them.

Rabbi David Lister spoke about the importance of learning to work with the challenging difficulties he sometimes faced in working with some members of the Council to the extent that once he told Mehri he could not carry on anymore and was leaving. He spoke about how Mehri’s understanding and guidance enabled him to remain in the Council and how much he gained from it.

Rabbi David Lister speaking

Sayed Yousif Al-Khoei spoke about the significance of the Foundation’s work particularly with schools and the Joint Imams and Rabbis visit to Srebrenica. He praised Mehri’s vision for educating the youth and adults in historical as well as contemporary relations between Jews and Muslims.

Sayed Yousif Al-Khoei speaking

Hilary Patel who was until recently Team Leader of Faith Engagement Department for Communities and Local Government at the Home Office spoke about how the Foundation’s views were always received as significant even when they were not necessarily the accepted view of the Department.

Dilowar Khan, Director of Engagement at East London mosque spoke about the experiences of himself and the senior Imam of the mosque as members of the Council. He said neither of them had ever met or spoken with a Jewish person prior to joining the Council. He spoke about how despite their initial concern and reluctance, it was Mehri’s genuine understanding of their concerns, her support and encouragement that persuaded them to join the Council and how sad they are to see the Foundation close down and hope that the friendships they made with other members will continue.

Dilowar Khan speaking

Rabbi Alexandra Wright (speaker), said it is a cause of much sadness and regret that this meeting is its valedictory project of JIF. “Those of us who have had the privilege of being associated with JIF have a responsibility not only to Mehri, but also to the Jewish and Muslim communities of this country to build on what JIF has achieved. Mehri, you brought together Imams and Rabbis in the National Council for Imams and Rabbis and here we encountered each other, got to know each other and talked about difficult issues. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but it was significant and helped to create an awareness of the concerns that each one of us had. I hope that the Joseph Interfaith foundation will become the foundation stone for new and developing projects that will ensure Mehri’s vision remains ours now and in the future.”

Rabbi Alexandra Wright speaking

Nabil Hawa, Anneessa Mahmood and Tasif Zaman, three Muslim university students represented more than hundreds of students who participated or cooperated with the Foundation. These three young people met Mehri when they were second year undergraduates - all three are now successful professionals -. They spoke about their experiences of working with JIF and particularly with Mehri. They spoke about how participating and later on leading or advising on the projects provided them with significant opportunities to deal with people of differing opinions and to see beyond the status quo. They not only learned about interfaith relations but also how as individuals they could remain strongly committed to their religion and community while developing as independent individuals and participating members of the society. They praised how much Mehri helped them develop their critical ability to question without prejudice. All three said they will continue their close friendship with Mehri even after JIF closes down.

Nabil Hawa speaking
Anneessa Mahmood speaking
Tasif zaman speaking

Mehri Niknam began by giving her genuine thanks to her trustees for their unwavering financial and emotional support to what at times seemed impossible to achieve. She said, truly without them there would not have been the Joseph Interfaith Foundation.

She expressed her gratitude to all who had helped, supported and encouraged her in her work at JIF. In particular, she thanked her daughter Rebecca “who has been my rock of strength as well as providing office help, IT support, admin work and many other emergency help.

She spoke at length about the university students who gave their time and support “because for some strange reason they trusted me”. This enabled us to do ground breaking work on a shoestring budget.

Mehri Niknam speaking

She said, JIF began its work officially in 2006. At the time interfaith was focused on celebrating our commonalities, which had reached the ceiling of its value. This was particularly relevant to Muslim-Jewish interfaith which always included other faiths.

Based on my experience, study and analysis I said if this interfaith relation is to develop and become sustained and productive, it must change. I put forward the idea for the first time that Jewish-Muslim interfaith must not include any other faiths nor should it be just about commonalities but focusing on difficulties and disagreements too. So JIF began its work based on my idea and with the raison d’etre to challenge the status quo.

The immediate general response was that JIF would not last long. But we were to prove them wrong.

Our next major challenge was to say that dialogue means engaging with those who disagree with you on equal basis and with mutual dignity and respect. Immediately the promises of funding were withdrawn and we were perceived at best as “misguided”, at worst “dangerous” by both sides. The general opinion was that we would disappear due to lack of funding. But we stuck to our principles “JIF has an independent ideology. We will not change our principals for financial reward. We will speak truth to power without fear or favour. That is why our motto is ‘United in a Vision for Truth’ ”

Time is short, so I shall mention briefly only a few of our initiatives. Our National Council of imams and Rabbis for the first time brought together senior imams and rabbis from major mosques and synagogues, representing all Jewish movements and Muslim ethnicities in the country. We helped them to sit together, look each other in the eye and speak the truth to one another. Some of these religious leaders had never spoken to a member of the other faith prior to our first meeting. The Council became the one and only most authoritative Council of Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in the country.

We initiated “Joint Imams and Rabbis Visit to Srebrenica” in association with Remembering Srebrenica. For the first time imams and rabbis learned together about the Holocaust and Srebrenica and saw the similarities of ideologies, religious hatred and historical misinformation put forward by the Nazis and the perpetrators of the Srebrenica genocide.

Imams and Rabbis at Srebrenica cemetery

Our school programme “Lessons of Our Common Humanity” opened the doors of the majority Muslim schools to rabbis to speak with the children. Once again our imams and rabbis taught the children how prejudice and hatred does not differentiate between race, religion or colour and how the children can learn about their own unconscious prejudices

Rabbi Lister at a school programme

We initiated the “Annual University Seminars” where over a long period of time we built up trust with Muslim students, gave them the opportunity to speak honestly and frankly, helped them find a way to express their opinion in ways that could be justified. We nurtured a new generation of young Muslims who learned to discuss sensitive and controversial topics with confidence with their interlocutors.

University seminar

To conclude, we stood resolutely against all odds and moved the Muslim-Jewish dialogue far beyond its narrow boundaries. We opened new horizons and achieved what was thought impossible in a relatively short period of time. We hope as our time comes to an end, the strong and durable foundation that we laid will be used for new comers to build upon it and continue to develop it for the equal good of both communities and the welfare of all the people in our country.