‘I want a city of peace and love’

Abdool Gooljar, President of the Islamic Society of Britain.
Abdool Gooljar, President of the Islamic Society of Britain.
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TWENTY years ago it attracted 30 people.

On Monday the launch of Islam Awareness week in Sheffield pulled in 350 with 70 others turned away.

What was then an idealistic splinter group is now part of Sheffield’s mainstream culture.

Most of that growth is down to one man – though he would be embarrassed by being given the credit, even as the event celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Abdool Gooljar is President of The Islamic Society of Great Britain, a tireless worker for community relations and a man who knows, first hand, the pain of racism.

Thirty years ago racists almost drove him to take his own life.

He had been abused, threatened and vilified by staff at his workplace in Sheffield Council’s social services department to such an extent he seriously contemplated suicide.

“When I first got the job my manager said he was delighted to offer me the post but that I might have a hard time with it,” said 52-year-old Abdool, of Crosspool.

“I thought he meant in motivating the team or organisationally but it was terrible. I was called a bastard and a Paki and people would say: ‘bloody hell can you smell curry,’ when I walked into the room.

“I was told I would be killed for taking a white person’s job,” said 52-year-old Abdool.

“I was very low. I was threatened and I was always looking over my shoulder when I was outside work.

“I had a very, very tough time. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. If it was not for my beliefs I would not be here to talk to you today.

“Only my faith stopped me from taking my own life. “It would have destroyed me but there were two women who helped.

“They told the management that I was going under because of racist abuse and that I was on the verge of cracking up. There are always one or two people who will speak up for humanity.”

Two men were disciplined for their part in the harassment of Mr Gooljar.

Rather than let the racists destroy him Abdool set about trying to improve relations between races and religions. He is President of the Islamic Society of Great Britain and a man with interests in all areas of public life.

He is on first-name terms with rabbis, bishops and politicians, speaks on Islam in Christian churches, clubs and schools, and works tirelessly for religious tolerance and harmony.

“We still have to break down the fear of the unknown that exists on both sides of the community,” he said.

“You can still go in to areas of the city that are anti muslim and people will abuse you and call you terrorist and tell you that you are responsible for bombing innocent people. We need to keep telling people that Muslims hate violence and that terrorism is an act of evil and goes against all we believe in.

“We need to reach out to such people rather than just having dialogue with those that accept us.

“We are making some progress but there is a long way to go.”

Abdool arrived in Britain in the early ’70s from Mauritius where his family often struggled to find one meal a day. He wanted to make a difference and improve his life.

He worked in Colchester, Essex, for 10 years and qualified as a nurse, then came to Doncaster to work in a hostel for the mentally ill. He later joined Sheffield social services and went on to similar jobs in Manchester, then Rotherham, before working for Mercy Universal, a London charity.

The progress made in the last 20 years is not lost on the man largely responsible for building bridges between faiths and communities, bridges that were severely tested by the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the London Underground bombings of July 2005.

“Islam awareness week is very important to me and to many Muslims and other faiths in the city,” added father of five sons Abdool.

“When I look at my past and what I have been through – the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings, working against racism and Islamaphobia I am grateful for the chances I have been given and for the help I have received from other faiths and particularly the bishops of Sheffield.

“There is much more to Islam than the images and reports of conflict that we see from around the world. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people. Islam is about peace, the word Islam derives from the word peace.

“The past 20 years have brought a lot of happiness and some pain but Sheffield is my home and will live and die here. I want to help build a Sheffield of peace and harmony where people feel at ease with one another.”