Be the Change: Religious Literacy with Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Muslim Council of Wales Secretary General, Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed, joined us this month as part of our Be The Change: Religion line up. We connected with him again to ask him about his work, and why he feels that we all need to expand our religious literacy.

This month, we were lucky to present three fantastic speakers as part of our Be The Change series. Our second speaker was Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed, who has some impressive credentials that made him a perfect fit for Be The Change: Religion.

Dr Azim Ahmed is the Deputy Director at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, and the Secretary General for the Muslim Council of Wales. As such he dedicates a lot of his time to improving the lives of Muslims in Wales and trying to break down the barriers they face. We caught up with him to further discuss some of the issues he raised in his talk. 

Thanks for joining us, Dr Azim Ahmed. You must be a busy man, being both Deputy Director at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, and the Secretary General for the Muslim Council of Wales. I was wondering if you could give a brief overview of the work that both of those organisations do? 

Being an academic is my occupation, and I am very lucky it is something I both enjoy and is impactful. On a day to day basis, I’ll be writing (journal articles, and a book on its way), researching (Muslim civil society and institutions are my focus), preparing grant applications, ocassionally teaching, and contributing to the day-to-day running of the Islam-UK Centre, working with other colleagues on the varied activities the Centre runs (we’ve just started our 2021 Public Lecture Series, virtual this year of course - https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/centre-for-the-study-of-islam-in-the-uk/events/public-seminar-series).

My role as Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Wales however is my vocation, which is simply another way of saying it isn’t paid. It’s something very important to me. Our vision is to organise and empower Welsh Muslim institutions for the common good. We believe Wales’ 50,000 Muslims and 50 mosques can play a transformative role in Welsh society, through charity, service, and campaigning, to make Wales an even better and fairer society. The role is incredibly varied. It could be chairing a meeting with Muslim organisations about how we’re responding to the pandemic, or working on an area of policy that effects Muslims with the Welsh Government, or building an alliance with new groups on an issue of importance. 


You make the point that there is a smaller percentage of Muslims in Wales than in other parts of the UK and as such, the burden to pave the way falls on a smaller number of individuals. What can Welsh companies do to help alleviate that burden? 

Equality, diversity and inclusion policies have been an important step in encouraging companies to think about the important challenges facing minorities, but I’d argue companies need to go one-step further and begin thinking about relationships. This, for most commercial companies, is nothing new. Relationship management is key to any successful business. Building relationships with minority groups, at whatever level works for that company (whether the local mosque or a national body, a campaign group or a charity) will provide the knowledge, competency (or in the case of Muslims, religious literacy) to ensure that it isn’t down to new (and sometimes junior) staff to make the changes the company needs to make. 


Many people would have been shocked to see the photos of deserts and the pyramids that were algorithmically suggested from the question ‘What is Islam?’. It seems to link to the notion of the monolithic bloc mentality that the Runnymeade Trust report into Islamophobia highlighted. How can tech companies get better at representing the wide array of cultures and individuals from the Muslim Community? 

A company’s knowledge and competency is determined by the sum of knowledge of their employees, and also the opportunities for staff to share their expertise and experiences. So a diverse workforce is really important here, and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable communicating what they know, even if it is the most junior colleague correcting the most senior (I’ve seen some “reverse mentoring” programmes aimed at facilitating just this). These two factors will help bring in the knowledge necessary to, for example, better represent the complexity of what it means to be Muslim. But it of course goes further than that. Any business that isn’t trying to broaden the scope of their collective knowledge runs the risk of being outflanked by one that is. Hiring a diverse workforce isn’t just an act of charity or being “socially-minded”, it’s about making sure that company can perform and grow. It is in its own self-interest.


You discuss the need for religious literacy in the workplace. How can an individual improve their religious literacy, especially someone from an atheist background who may, rightly or wrongly, feel that they don’t have much connection or understanding of religion? 

Some might think of religion as an activity or thing that only some people do. Sort of like a sport or hobby. Another, more helpful, way to think about religion is the relationship every individual has with the big questions, how they make their life meaningful, the history/histories they connect to, their role in the complex and mysterious universe we all find ourselves in. From this perspective, “religious literacy” isn’t just about knowing Muslims pray 5 times a day, Christians believe in Jesus, or that Saturday is the Jewish holy day. Religious literacy is about the ability to navigate those fundamental questions and having the vocabulary to discuss them. So whether ardent atheist or committed believer, we all need religious literacy. The best way to develop religious literacy is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. That might mean visiting a place of worship for an interfaith event, or just reading a book about a religious tradition you’re unfamiliar with. But in all honesty, this can be incredibly difficult, not only in a post-pandemic world, but also with all the pressures in life. One low-effort alternative is being curious, inquisitive, and respectful about religion with the colleagues and friends you are in touch with. And if you find friends and colleagues are all the same as you, it’s definitely time to get out there and expand your contact list.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions Dr Azim Ahmed, and thank you for taking part in Be The Change. 

Watch the full event here:


Be the Change will be back on the 9th March with a focus on Age. For more information and to secure your spot please go to: https://hopin.com/events/be-the-change-age


 


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