In July 1974 Turkish armed forces invaded Cyprus in response to the ousting of President Makarios by the Greek military junta. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Greek Cypriots were expelled from the north to the south of the island; Turkish Cypriots were displaced from the south to the north. As a result, the United Nations Buffer Zone was established between the two communities.
My father and his family were caught up in this conflict. Being Turkish Cypriot they, as did tens of thousands of others, left their old lives behind and headed north in search of new ones. My father was ten, but old enough for these troubled times to leave a mental scar. On completion of his Turkish national service he and his brother booked flights to England – with the view to setting up a new life in a country he held in high regard.
Initially he stayed with members of his family who had come to England when the problems started in 1974. Later he rented a flat and sought employment doing whatever he could; my father has never been workshy – far from it. As he established himself and friendships formed, he was introduced to a young lady – my mother. Despite them being from different cultures and religions (my father a Muslim and my mother a Christian) they knew their future was together. After full consideration my mother took her shahada (a declaration that pronounces the testimony of faith) and converted to Islam – soon after they married and I was born in 1996.
My father, with my mother’s blessing, wanted to give living in Cyprus a try. Hence, even though I was born in England, my childhood years from the age of five were spent in Cyprus. In 2008 we returned to England, more specifically Harlow. This was a big transition for me. Even though I was brought up speaking English and Turkish, the culture in England for a soon-to-become teenager was markedly different. I enrolled and started secondary school as a Year 8 student, by which time friendship bonds had formed among the other students – which took me a while to penetrate. For the first week I just wandered around like a lost sheep. With time my confidence grew and friendships developed. Other students were curious, but never judgemental, about my background – especially as I didn’t fit the stereotypical (if there is such a thing) ‘Muslim’ appearance. All this at a time when the Islamic faith was under the media spotlight like never before. But that wasn’t a reason for me to not be open about my religion; I’m a Muslim and I’m rightfully proud to be one.
Islam, just like any religion you truly believe in, takes commitment, especially during your teenage years in a non-Muslim country. My faith has never been forced upon me. My father offers me encouragement and guidance, but my decision to follow the words of Allah is of my own free will. Belief is of great importance, because a prayer, if made under duress, won’t actually be accountable if you don’t truly believe in what you’re saying. I’m expected to pray five times each day, with Jumu’ah, on a Friday, being an opportunity when everyone meets at the mosque for reflection, readings and prayer. Being a Muslim is a lifelong journey of learning; personally I’ve many years ahead of me before I can profess to be a good (or pious) Muslim.
Islam is such a misunderstood religion. The media doesn’t often care to push the truthful side of our faith to the masses. Instead we are labelled by the actions of a few misguided individuals who take readings from the Koran (our holy book) out of context and twist them to uphold their radicalised beliefs. The justifications behind this warped minority are quite the opposite of what a true peaceful Muslim believes. I’ve never read in the Koran that non-Muslims must be harmed; it’s so wrong – it’s just not true. After all, Allah promotes that we should assist and wish peace on everyone, regardless of faith. And I, as do the vast majority of Muslims, respect the values of other faiths and don’t indoctrinate Islamic beliefs to change others.
Harlow, despite what you might hear, is a tolerant town. On the few occasions when the Harlow Islamic Centre has been maliciously vandalised, our community gathers to make amends. When faced with these struggles we work harder within the community to break down misconceptions and instead show the positivity within Islam – such as the holy fasting month of Ramadan. This month-long event of fasting between dawn and dusk gives those who follow the Islamic faith an opportunity to better understand those who have far less than us. Aside from no food or water, we give up things considered bad for us. We curb negativity, increase gratitude and do more for others, the objective being that it makes you more mindful and humble.
I have to say that on the whole we live in a very multicultural society – that’s such a great thing about this country. Sadly there will always be a few who will try to create rifts, but I sense a change that many are now waking up and finally realising the truth and peace behind Islam.