The world is a vast and intimidating place, and in spite of friendships that exist between different cultures, religious instability is nevertheless an impediment to social cohesion. The promotion of interfaith harmony is one way to tackle this issue, by celebrating our areas of commonality. Imam Monawar Hussain is a living testament to the positive effects of such an effort. Not only Eton’s Muslim Faith Tutor, who supports boys within the school, he is also the worthy recipient of the Sternberg Interfaith Gold Medallion.

This prestigious award is given to those who have “endeavoured to make an exceptional contribution to the improvement of understanding between faiths in the UK, and across the world”, and one previously awarded to such people as Her Majesty the Queen and Pope John Paul II.

The Eton College Press Office were honoured to be able to interview Imam Hussain in celebration of his accomplishment:

What effect has the Sternberg Interfaith Gold Medallion had on you personally?

It’s a huge recognition of my many years of work, in seeking to build deeper relationships between the diverse faiths and cultures of the United Kingdom. For me personally, it’s also a wonderful recognition for my family, friends and supporters, who’ve been on this journey with me for many years.

Has the desire to weaken bitter religious divisions between both people and cultures been a lifelong passion?

I began visiting schools to speak about Islam – and especially its rich spiritual tradition (Sufism) – in my late teens. My experience over the years has been that relationships between the diverse faiths and cultures in the United Kingdom, on the whole, are very good and to be celebrated. We must not be complacent though; the contemporary challenge to social cohesiveness comes from religious extremists but is also driven by an extreme right ideology and populist movements. There are many across the UK therefore who are working tirelessly, creating initiatives and projects that aim to create shared spaces for cultural and religious celebration, thereby deepening understanding and creating friendships.

What is your own personal perception of the supposed ‘Islamophobia’ that seems to pervade many of today’s societies?

I don’t believe Islamophobia is as prevalent as sometimes it’s perceived to be. It is true that there are individuals and groups whose purpose for existence is to spread hatred and misinformation about Islam and Muslims. Often these individuals and groups use the barbarity and narratives of Islamist extremists to malign the whole Muslim community: a community that abhors all acts of indiscriminate murder and a community that is rich in its diversity – cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious praxis – just like any other community, but is conflated with Islamist extremists, whose primary victims are often fellow Muslims. My sense is that there is an opportunity here for Muslim leadership to be proactive in their communities, to reach out to the wider society; some are doing this through, for example, the interfaith breaking fast initiative and visits to my mosque, while others are rediscovering beautiful Sufi music and creating spaces to share that.

Why is it, do you feel, that there exists such underlying religious and spiritual tensions between members in both the public and political domains?

Sufism is often described as the heart of Islam and that is the path I follow. Its outlook is pluralist and in the subcontinent, the Sufi shrines often draw together the different faith communities, whether they be Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. The tensions between religions emerge because each may hold beliefs with great conviction and adherents feel a duty, as it were, to proselytise, often employing the threat or use of force, to do so. The Qur’an clearly states: “there is no compulsion in religion, that forcing people to convert is not permissible”. In the contemporary context, I see movements rooted in political ideology, using religion and religious symbolism as a means of furthering their political aims for power and dominance. These movements are antithetical to the pluralist vision of societies and often much of the contemporaneous tensions between religions emerge from this quarter. My final point would be the importance of sound religious leadership, that seeks to build on the common ground and that strengthens the bonds between the human family.

What have been the greatest challenges you have faced in your mission to promote harmony between the most conflicting religions and challenge extremism?

I love to bring people together to celebrate with integrity and one of my initiatives is to create a shared space for many diverse faiths or non to share a prayer, maybe a song or music from their traditions. I think some individuals and faith leaders have found this concept difficult but once they ‘experience’ or as the Sufis say ’taste/dhawq’ an event, they usually and very enthusiastically exclaim “I get it!”.

On behalf of the entire Eton College Community we would sincerely like to thank Imam Hussain for sharing his perspectives with us, and congratulate him on his amazing achievement.