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Saturday Interview: Extremists are not part of my beautiful religion

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Sarfraz Jamali of Jersey’s Muslim community delivered an impassioned speech following the Paris attacks. He spoke to Tristram Colledge

SINCE he arrived in the Island a little under 18 years ago, Sarfraz Jamali has worked tirelessly to bring together the Muslim community.

In the Royal Square on Monday night, with his impassioned speech condemning the terrorists who devastated Paris three days earlier, he touched a chord with the people of Jersey.

His message: one of unity.

Standing side by side with the Island's religious and political leaders, against a backdrop of the States building illuminated by the colours of the Tricolore, the 55-year-old father-of-three conveyed a spirit of solidarity and empathy with the people of France.

A few days on, he speaks to the JEP in a town café – a relaxed environment that he notes is chillingly similar to that which many of the Paris victims were enjoying on the night of the attacks.

'It is completely incomprehensible,' he says.

'These people killed indiscriminately – whether the people were white, black, Muslim, it didn't matter, they just killed.

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'Anyone who takes life is not right. I repeatedly say that life is a sacred thing and you must respect it. Any life lost is sad and something that I will always condemn.'

Unfortunately, it has not been the first time that Mr Jamali, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, has been left shocked by extremists claiming to be acting in the name of Islam – individuals that he says are in no way representative of the peaceful faith.

'Islam is a beautiful religion, but the followers – the Muslims – can be good or bad, like any other society.

'In a football match there are some hooligans who want to cause trouble, but it doesn't mean the whole crowd is bad.

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'Muslims by and large are all good, but there are some with extreme elements and they have a different mindset.

'I don't know what they are thinking and I think it is difficult for anyone to understand.'

When Mr Jamali came to the Island in 1998 with his wife Mehtab and three children to take up a post at the General Hospital, there was no Islamic congregation.

Safraz Jamali (right) with Senator Philip Ozouf & Honorary French Consul David Myatt

Over the next few years, Mr Jamali worked with a small group to bring together existing and new families to pray as one community.

Initially it was meeting in carpet and kebab shops, but as numbers grew, so did the difficulty of finding a space large enough to fit their needs.

'I started visiting different restaurants and people and asking them to come together and pray.

'I remember saying "You don't need to be shy or afraid to pray – it's our religion, why can't we at least fulfil our basic religious requirements to pray?''

'We started praying as a group of three and then we grew to five, 11, 15 and 17 and at the time we were praying in the back of a kebab shop.'

When the Island's planning authorities ruled that the location was a fire hazard, the Catholic Church offered the group the use of St Thomas's Church – a location they used for the next four years.

In 2004 Mr Jamali helped found the Jersey Islamic Trust with the aim of bringing the Muslim faith more centrally into the Island's community – and soon some of the Island's key figures started to take notice.

'I am grateful they have recognised us as part of the Jersey community and gave us an opportunity.'

The current congregation, which usually varies between 35 and 65 people and includes both Sunni and Shiite Muslims – something that Mr Jamali describes as similar to the Catholic/Protestant Christian division – now have their own place of worship after the trust bought the Aquila Methodist Church in late 2013.

It has required extensive refurbishment and the project is still ongoing, but Mr Jamali, who is himself a Sunni Muslim, says the building will be ready soon.

'What I did was to put everyone in one place and I'm proud of it because we made history in a way.

'It was previously used by the Methodists so it has gone from one place of worship to another, but the purpose of the building has more or less remained the same. At one stage part of it was used as a youth centre, so we want to make part of it a community centre where we will welcome everyone.'

Candlelight vigil in the Royal Square for the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks

One of the centre's key purposes is to act as a centre of worship.

Services are led by a variety of individuals in the community depending on who is available – and occasionally that person is Mr Jamali.

'Catholics, Protestants, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, we all support each other and help each other and live together in harmony.

'I feel very proud to live in Jersey'

'The Imam is the one who leads the congregation but for us it's not like many mosques in the UK which have designated Imams.

'We haven't got that far and we are still in our infancy, but we hope to have someone in the future.

'I try and be in the background. I don't try to lead the prayers, I try and give someone else that role. I look after the community, their needs, the media and organising burials when people die.'

Unlike Christian burial, Muslim graves are narrow because when a person dies their body must be turned on its right side with the face pointing towards the holy land of Mecca.

In Jersey seven Muslims are buried at the Islamic cemetery in Sion, St John.

Apart from burial and prayer, another change has been the availability of Islamic food.

In the past only Russell's butchers sold Halal products – meat that is prepared in accordance with Sharia law, but now many of the Island's butchers and eateries offer the food.

'We lead our lives comfortably and follow our faith, in terms of food wise, burial wise, religion wise.

'We are living in Jersey – a small beautiful island and we are living in an integrated community in peace and harmony.'

But with reports of Islamophobia growing around the western world, is their any ill-feeling in Jersey towards Muslims?

Pausing for a few seconds, he shakes his head, 'I don't think so.

'When there was the recent meeting in the Town Hall about refugees, we were given the impression that there might be at a very small level, but not anything that I have been aware of since I moved here.

'We are happy and we consider ourselves as part of the community.'

Aside from his religious role, Mr Jamali is passionate about two other things – his family and his profession.

He is an associate specialist in general surgery.

On Christmas Day this year, he will celebrate 30 years of marriage to Mehtab – over half of which the couple has spent in Jersey.

'I came to Europe for an education. I work passionately and have job satisfaction and I decided to stay.

'I do miss Pakistan – both my family and the culture, but my children call Jersey home and we are very lucky to feel part of the community with the freedom to practise our religion.'

Throughout the interview the subjects of unity and togetherness – those feelings that he spoke so poignantly about in the Royal Square – are never far away – and it is something with which he concludes our conversation.

'Catholics, Protestants, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, we all support each other and help each other and live together in harmony. I feel very proud to live in Jersey.'

9.20 pm - The first suicide bomb is detonated outside the Stade de France as France play Germany. A second went off ten minutes later and a third at 9.53 pm.

9.25 pm - Shootings at Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge, Rue Alibert. Around 14 deaths.

9.29 pm - Gunfire and more deaths in the area of the Avenue de la Republique. Five deaths reported at the Casa Nostra pizzeria.

9.38 pm - Shootings at La Belle Equipe bar, Rue du Charonne. 19 deaths.

9.43 pm - Explosion at Comptoir Voltaire, Boulevard Voltaire. One death.

9.49 pm - Four gunmen storm the Bataclan theatre and start killing hostages. Police raid the building at around midnight. At least 89 deaths reported.

10 pm - Shootings at Boulevard Beaumarchais. Four deaths.

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