A night at the Muslim Excellence Awards

Keren David found much that was familiar at an evening to celebrate the Muslim contribution to British society


The setting was a smart West End hotel, and the guests were smart, veering to the glittery. On one side of me sat a friendly rabbi. On the other, a press officer for a charity who, it turned out, was a former colleague and friend of my cousin. On the stage yet another rabbi was about to speak. We were all, I sensed, looking forward to dinner arriving.

We’d heard several speeches on the theme of immigrant values, learning from the grandparents who knew they wanted to give something back to our adopted country. We’d seen videos of adorable children in need, made by the charities which give them aid. We’d heard a message from Theresa May praising the community for its philanthropy (“You give more to charity than any other community.”) and achievements.

Yet this event was not held by the Board or Deputies or World Jewish Relief. I was a guest at the annual awards ceremony held by The Muslim News. The aim is to celebrate the very many contributions that Muslims make to British society, in the hope of gaining positive coverage. Although the awards have been around for nearly two decades, the propaganda battle is not being won; the actions of some murderous extremists — people who are not Muslims, we were told again and again — obscuring the words and deeds of the moderate majority.

The cause was good, and these were clearly nice people, judging by the hugs and smiles, but there were a few moments for me when the general soft-focus positive vibe suddenly sharpened into something else. Such as when the comedian warming up the audience asked: “Are there any Israelis here?” Rabbi Laura Janner- Klausner stuck up her hand, and he made a lame joke asking if she was going to occupy the stage. Reassuringly, though, there were hardly any laughs. The audience were more interested in gossiping amongst themselves.

Flicking through the brochure, I saw that in previous years a few awards had gone to people that I’d have a problem applauding: Ibrahim Hewitt, chair of Interpal for one; the chair of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign for another.

But those were more than 10 years ago. With Rabbi Janet Darley at the helm of the 2017 judging panel, there would surely be sensitivity to Jewish feelings?

Even when I saw that NUS chair Malia Bouattia shortlisted for the first award to be announced, I didn’t think she’d win. Clearly, despite her more recent regret, comments in the past about Birmingham University being a “Zionist outpost” and “Zionist-led media outlets” could cause the negative coverage that the awards are designed to counter. But no, her win was greeted with applause. Was this the pattern for the evening? I started carefully reading the citations for the shortlists.

Happily, it turned out that Ms Bouattia was only representative of the other winners because of her gender. Woman after woman came onto the stage, challenging any notion that Muslim women are limited in their role. Winners included a group that encourages Muslim girls to take part in sport; a ceramicist (“I’m an artist…my parents wanted me to be a doctor!”); twin schoolgirls defying ill health to do well academically and train as St John’s Ambulance Cadets.

There was a bioethicist from Balliol College; a maths teacher, a French journalist who told me about a story she’d written about “the French Anne Frank”, and a businesswoman whose website showcases the best halal restaurants. Some wore hijabs, others didn’t, all beamed proudly as they made their acceptance speeches. It was heart-warming to witness, and it gave me hope that Malia Bouattia will grow into her award.

The overriding message of the evening was the rejection of extremism, complete horror at being associated with terrorism. The positivity that the organisers wanted to communicate, was impressive and infectious. And the person whoI thought should have won Bouattia’s Good Citizenship award; a young man, Mohammed Zafran who set up a charity in honour of his murdered brother-in-law, which has helped more than 16,000 young people was honoured with the judges’ overall special award.

Anyone who is tempted to group Muslims together as “them” should attend this awards ceremony. Their community is as diverse, as hard-working, as thoughtful and charitable as our own. And, as Rabbi Janet Darley told me afterwards, “The Jewish community should think about doing something similar. We also have a lot to celebrate.”

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