SHAFAQNA – Ghanum Jawad is the Director of the Salam Centre in London and a pioneer of many social cultural and religious community development initiatives in Britain. He has also worked with the Al Khoei Foundation and many other prominent Iraqi institutions. Currently he leads in the management and programme development of one of the few exclusively culturally focused Iraqi centres in the United Kingdom.
The power of culture is undeniable and Hollywood and Bollywoods media industries bear testimony to how culture is arguably one of the most powerful tools for shaping identity. Islamic culture in the West has been caught relatively cold by the advance of secular neoliberal cultural narratives amplified through global social print and electronic media, but can Islam in the West fight back to claim its place as a genuine counter narrative to the march of an increasingly rapacious secular hyper consumerist culture. Alternatively should Muslims in Britain explore a broader cultural agenda in which they present themselves as a non homogenous and diverse set of communities prepared to engage pluralism through the celebration of the collective heritage of their places of origin? Ghanum Jawad is the architect of a unique cultural centre called Salam House in the heart of London that aims to do the latter. The Charity he runs is called the Human Dialogue Foundation and its Chief Patron is Ayatollah Hussein Al Sadr, who thinks that ‘the importance of civil society institutions, and the education and nurturing of communities at a grass roots level’ is vital.
The organization was formed in Baghdad in May 2006 as a response to the spiralling sectarian bloodshed that was tearing up Iraq’s communities. Ghanum Jawad explains that the HDF “work to promote a vibrant, free peaceful civil society in Iraq” and many large scale social welfare projects have been delivered out there helping the poor and the orphans. That work continues but three years ago he presided over the opening of the Salam Cultural Centre in London. He says he persuaded Ayatollah Sadr to do something different for the projection of positive image of Iraq and a cultural institution was the answer. His rationale was straightforward “the centre was needed to balance the plethora of Iraqi academic political and religiously focused institutions in the United Kingdom, and would be effective in telling the story of Iraq in a more creative and interesting way“
Ghanum confirms that their focus at the venue is “on using a diverse cultural expression which he hopes will help to detract away from images of war and suffering which have become inextricably linked with perceptions of Iraq whilst also exposing the unique beauty of Iraqi culture and heritage to the many people who have not witnessed it first hand”.
The Salam centre prides itself on hosting arts exhibitions, film screenings, conferences, weekly culturally oriented lectures. Mr Jawad says they also remain committed to the inclusion of peoples of all Muslim schools of thought, ethnicities, creeds, and denominations. As evidence he cites their encouragement of the participation of Iraqi Jewish communities settled in Britain who have also organised cultural events at the venue.
To get a further idea of the broad range of recent events at the Salam Centre one needs to look at just two of the hundreds of eclectic events they have successfully staged – one a documentary about the famous Iraqi ‘Poet of the Quill’, Mohammad Al Sakar, on the second anniversary of his death. The other, a workshop on ‘Science Fiction and Digital Destiny’ by Professor Tahseen Al Khaleeji.
The success of the Salam Centre is, according to its Director, manifested by the number of regular attendees to its events, the various dignatories who have supported it and their broader reach to wider audiences through media podcasts and videos.
At a time when the overwhelming branding of Muslims in Britain is one that portrays them as a dogmatic threat to Western culture, perhaps the Salam Centres approach carries merit. Some religious purists would say, however, that Muslims should only focus on projecting and developing an already under resourced expression of Islamic culture. One that is true to Islamic principles and contextually relevant and pertinent to the Western psyche instead of projecting or reproducing Arab ethnic heritage initiatives. This would be harsh though, and in defence of the Salam Centre’s approach it demonstrates that Muslim run cultural initiatives can be mature enough to allow debate and diversity of opinion in their cultural spaces. The debate about what a western ‘Islamic culture’ nonetheless lingers.
What is beyond dispute is that young Iraqi’s, and indeed Muslims in London, need to be encouraged to tell their stories and to use their cultural heritage as a means to understand their identity. They should be encouraged to express this culture within the ethical parameters of Islam and to connect with their neighbours through it. The Iraqi institutions and philanthropists also need to invest far more seriously in their creative intellectuals to advance the narrative of the ethnic and spiritual cultures of Muslims and Islam in Britain.
There are signs that the communities are waking up to this necessity and the Salam Centre is one institution that gives us hope for the future, but there is a long way to go and some would say time is running out amid the growing pressure for Muslims to assimilate into the melting pot of secular neo conservative liberalism. It’s their lobbying in the corridors of power for the religious-cultural engineering of Muslims through political policy – making, Hollywood storytelling and corporate advertising that pose the greatest threat to the independent development Muslim cultural identities in Britain.