Britain’s first Muslim chaplain for the armed forces said it was important that extremist voices do not get “traction” in British society, especially during patriotic events.
Imam Asim Hafiz, who marked Remembrance and Armistice Days last month, said it was important that Britons were united in drowning out extremist voices.
Last week, Nadir Syed from Southall, greater London, was convicted of plotting a Lee Rigby-style attack on the streets of London during Remembrance Day commemorations.
He planned to launch the attack after being inspired by the soldier’s murderers and a fatwa issued by Daesh (Islamic State).
CCTV footage caught the 22-year-old in a store in Ealing, west London, buying a large kitchen knife which prosecutors claimed he intended to use in the attack. Mobile phone footage played in court also showed him stamping on a poppy and kicking it toward a drain.
Hafiz, who is an advisor for the armed forces chief of defence staff, told Eastern Eye: “The poppy doesn’t represent war. It represents sacrifice and courage and the commitment that service personnel carry out.
“It’s crucial at times like this, particularly when we’re commemorating the centenary of the First World War, we stand shoulder to shoulder against these minority voices in our community that want to divide us and tell us how we should view each other.
“We shouldn’t let these voices get traction in our communities. We shouldn’t let them hijack what we as a society feel about each other and how we should view each other.”
Hafiz added Britons shouldn’t let far-right extremists use the poppy as a symbol of their cause, because many foreigners, among them Muslims, sacrificed their lives for the country.
He said: “In the First and Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Muslims, particularity from the Indian subcontinent, came from those countries and fought in Europe for the liberation of freedom and justice.
“Muslims see that as a sense of pride for themselves as British Muslims – that Muslims have contributed to make Britain what it is today. Britain is founded on that diversity which we should celebrate.”
Hafiz graduated from an Islamic college in Lancashire in 1999. Since then he has held several positions in mosques, a Muslim boarding school and the NHS.
He was also the first full-time Imam for Wandsworth prison before taking up his role as a Muslim chaplain for the armed forces in 2005.
“There have been moments where people have questioned my role,” Hafiz said.
“I’ve had some members of the Muslim community say there should be no place for Muslims in the armed forces. But at the same time I had far-right extremists on their blog and online forums saying: ‘How dare the government allow a Muslim access to some of our secure sites? He cannot be trusted’. I have been between a rock and hard stone between communities.”
Hafiz explained his role was about bringing communities together and creating dialogue.
“Even when I got deployed to Afghanistan, what was really encouraging was the commanders out there really wanted to understand the culture and religion. They told me the armed forces were not about fighting wars; it’s about ensuring that they can prevent conflict and escalation of violence,” he said.
“So even though on the one hand there may have been a minority questioning my position, there’s also been a huge amount of encouragement from the armed forces and other members of society.”