Preston's interfaith Light Foundation bringing communities together: 'We're all human beings and that's beautiful'

In her maiden speech in the House of Commons, Jo Cox - the former Labour MP who was murdered in 2016 - said something which resonates to this day: “We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Thursday, 31st December 2020, 7:00 am
A Light Foundation meeting prior to lockdown

It’s a truth which can easily be forgotten, but for one dedicated group in Preston, it encapsulates their entire ethos.

Founded in the early 2010s, The Light Foundation is a non-profit which works tirelessly to build bridges of peace, understanding, and tolerance between communities regardless of faith, ethnicity, or creed. It also offers people the chance to learn more about Islam in an open and welcome setting, providing information to those seeking it.

“The Light Foundation brings people together and allows anyone to talk honestly and sincerely about things which affect us,” says Nadeem Ashfaq, who co-founded the organisation with his colleague Dr Arfan Iqbal. “As humans, we have differences of opinion but coming together in solidarity and with respect allows us to have those conversations with courtesy.

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Nadeem Ashfaq (centre) with The Light Foundation meeting Catholic nuns

“A difference of opinion can lead to hatred and intolerance, so we wanted to channel difference positively, which is where the inspiration for the organisation came from,” adds Nadeem, who is a peace activist and interfaith advisor. “We wanted a public show of people coming together because when people see a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, and an atheist together, that sends out a powerful message.”

Prior to the pandemic, the group held monthly interfaith gatherings attended by around 30 to 40 people from all walks of life. Taking place at the Quakers Meeting Hall on St George’s Road, Nadeem says the meetings gave people from myriad backgrounds the invaluable chance to communicate with one another on a more personal and human level.

“When people start talking, it’s like they’re best friends, which is just what we want to achieve” says Nadeem, 34, from Preston. “And we feel like we’re making a real difference: a guy once came in and said he didn’t like Islam but he really liked us, so we explained that perhaps the Islam he’d learned about was misrepresented: we were Muslims, not what he’d seen on extremist YouTube videos.

“When you can talk openly to people and host some really qualified worldwide scholars who can give really eloquent answers to people’s questions, it helps people overcome ignorance,”

The Light Foundation at the 2018 Fusion Awards

Nadeem continues. “Having to dispel extremist myths can get frustrating, but when people ask repeated questions on certain things which could be construed as uneducated, we honestly look at that individual as our dear brother or sister who sincerely wants to learn.”

Talking to people on a human level is a powerful thing. On one occasion, a vocal supporter of the far-right attended a Light Foundation event, ‘shouting and screaming’ as Nadeem puts it.

But the group let him speak and then invited him to join them for a meal and continue the conversation.

“At one point, he started crying and said ‘all my life I was taught to hate Muslims, but you guys have been incredibly nice’,” says Nadeem. “We just explained that we’re all human beings, which is the main ethos behind The Light Foundation. Retaliating with anger and defensiveness is pointless.

“I’ve met people who have sworn at the Prophet Muhammad to my face but after an hour we’re having tea and coffee together and they’ve got a completely different mindset,” he adds. “A woman once said to me ‘I take it you have four wives’ and I just replied ‘no, one’s quite enough, thanks’. Dealing with it with humour and calmness can break so many barriers.”

Nadeem absolutely loves the work he does with The Light Foundation.

“It’s fascinating,” he explains. “Often, what we do isn’t necessarily about changing someone’s mind - sure, we want to challenge misconceptions - but it’s about making friends. When you connect with someone and it becomes more than just labels, that’s beautiful.”