Sunday, 25 August 2013

Merlin Entertainments Group

BFTF recently purchased a set of "Merlin Annual Passes" for the BFTF family. These passes allow pretty much unlimited entry to the UK attractions owned by the Merlin Entertainments Group, including Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Sealife, The London Eye and Madame Tussauds.

Lots of reasons for making this purchase, but the reason for mentioning it here is that BFTF expects some related bloggage to emerge, which is listed below:

Great Staff - are they paid a "Living Wage"?
Great Staff at Legoland
Great Staff at Thorpe Park
The Environmental Policy and Sustainable Paper.
FSC paper at Alton Towers?
Related Content.

A big spider at Legoland!

Great Staff - are they paid a "Living Wage"
Following visits to Legoland Windsor and Thorpe Park, BFTF sent off the following to Merlin Entertainments :

"My family and I have recently purchased Merlin Annual Passes. Our first outings with these were to Legoland Windsor and Thorpe Park - and I wanted to say, via yourselves, a big thank you to the helpful, hardworking and cheerful staff who made both trips so enjoyable for us. These team members, many of whom are teenagers or young adults, were great ambassadors for their generation, and I wish them all the very best for the future.

I note from the Wikipedia entry for Merlin Entertainments that it has had a complicated history, with many buy-outs and ownership changes. Indeed, it appears to have been treated as something of a corporate plaything over the years.

I'm not too worried about the top dogs who are running the organisation - I am sure they are looking after themselves perfectly well. But I do care about the staff operating on the front line and wonder whether their pay and conditions are a fair reward for the effort and goodwill they contribute to the business.

You will note that I used the work "fair" and not the word "competitive".

I believe that the front line staff at Merlin Entertainments should be paid at least a Living Wage (currently £8.55 per hour in the London area, £7.45 elsewhere) and would like to ask whether Merlin Entertainments is currently doing this, and if not, provide some evidence as to why they can't adopt this policy.

I would also like to ask how Merlin Entertainments knows that the suggestions and views of its front line staff are given the attention and priority that they undoubtedly deserve.

Hoping you can respond to these two points."

Update Aug 2013:
Received a response from Merlin which said:
"With regards to your question on pay, this is not something that we would be able to or even required to provide you with"

"The Swarm" at Thorpe Park, against a setting sun.

Great Staff at Legoland
The email below was sent to the Legoland Windsor feedback email addresss:
"We visited Legoland on 24th August and was impressed by the way in which the front-line staff stayed cheerful and friendly despite having to work in almost constant rain. I hope you can pass on my thanks to them - their dedication really made the day for us.

In particular, I noticed the team member on the "Boating School" ride, working hard to wipe down each incoming boat, and still managing to greet the people coming off the queue in a friendy manner and then help them into the boats - all while working in the open in the rain.

I am not sure I would have kept my composure in similar circumstances!"

The finale of the Pirates show at Legoland,
with the pirates jumping from several stories high into the lake below

Great Staff at Thorpe Park
The email below was sent to the Thorpe Park feedback page:

"Hoping you can pass on my thanks to Luke and the team on the Flying Fish ride (25th August) who made the experience so enjoyable for my youngest son (who rode the ride 13 times!) and for me as a spectator. Luke, in particular, went the extra mile to really engage with the customers in a characterful way (as opposed to just "going through the motions" of providing the instructions to the roller coastees.)"

BFTF would dearly like to know the history to
this ride restriction statement on a ride at Thorpe Park

The Environmental Policy and Sustainable Paper.
The following sent off to Merlin Entertainments :

"As an Annual Pass holder, I am starting to note that Merlin Entertainments must be printing an awful lot of maps of their various attractions - and wonder what kind of paper they are being printed on.

I note that the "Our Environment" section of the Merlin website states that Merlin takes the time to understand "How to develop our products in line with broad environmental needs." and would like to ask whether, in keeping with this philosophy, the paper used for the maps of your attractions is recycled or genuinely sustainably sourced.

Please note that "recycled" means made using post-consumer waste and that "genuinely" means FSC certified or equivalent and not standards such as ISO14001 or PEFC, which are very weak."

FSC Paper at Alton Towers
Inspecting the map given to visitors to Alton Towers, BFTF noticed that it had a FSC logo on it, denoting that the paper had been made from sustainably sourced wood.

This is A GOOD THING, so BFTF sent off an email to Alton Towers to say that this was important to me and also to say thank you for acting in a sustainable manner rather than just talking about it:

Just wanted to say thank you for "walking that walk" about sustainability by printing your resort maps on FSC paper. This means a lot to me and I really appreciate you doing this. To me, it is a more powerful way of generating positive goodwill than any number of flashy TV adverts. Thanks again and looking forward to visiting Alton Towers again soon.


Riders on Oblivion - going into the ground at a great speed

The Smiler is a...complicated... bit of engineering

Happy Memories from the '80s

Related Content
Positive Muslim Stories
Challenging Halfords on Wages
Sustianable paper at a local mosque
Praising ASDA on stocking recycled paper noteboooks

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Eid ul Fitr 2013

Fid-ul-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadhan, was held on Thursday 8th or Friday 9th August this year(the variance being due to differences of opinion within the global Muslim community)

Bobbers Mill Community Centre, along with many mosques in Nottingham, held Eid on the Friday, and the day began with the Eid prayers which were held in the open at The Forest (due to the generous co-operation of the council and other agencies)

The Eid Prayers
Coconut Macaroons and the Far Right

The Eid Prayers
The weather was kind to the assembled congregation of men, women and children, with the the Imam (Dr Musharraf Hussein) giving his khutbah (sermon)to a back drop of (seemingly very high definition) beautiful, fluffy, white clouds drifting slowly across the bluest of blue skies.

As the demographics of the Muslim population in Nottingham change from being one of first generation immigrants from the subcontinent to being one of second or third generation young adults who have grown up in the UK, the pracice of giving the khutbah (sermon) in Urdu is something that the Muslim community is having to look at again. At Bobbers Mill, the large majority of the sermons are in English - something that is critical to keeping the engagement of the children and young adults - and the Eid khutbah was no exception to this.

One of the topics that Dr Musharraf mentioned in his wide ranging sermon was that of Islamophobia.

Recognising that the Muslim community needed to accept some responsibility for the devastating attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, Dr Musharraf pointed out that Islamophobic attitudes, fears and attacks had increased dramatically since these incidents.

But, Dr Musharraf asked, how should the Muslim community respond?

The answer, he felt, was NOT to react with the same anger as was sometimes being directed towards the Muslim community but rather to adopt the approaches of engagement, co-operation and friendship.

These practical routes were, Dr Musharraf commented, mandated in the Quran and were a way of the Muslim community demonstrating its committment to positive social values and civil society with actions rather than just words

Dr Musharraf pointed out that British society had many great attributes, adding that:

"It is a great privilege for me to be in this it represents some of the best human values like democracy, human rights, equality and justice. The secular nature of Britain gives Muslims religious freedoms that are unimagined in some Muslim countries"br />
After the prayers, the congregation greeted each other and then went their separate ways to spend the rest of Friday, and probably most of the weekend, seeing friends and relatives.

Incidentally, BFTF says "after the prayers", when a more accurate description would be "after each of the two prayers" as there was not room for everyone the first time round - a pretty routine state of affairs at Eid !

BFTF thought this might be a nice place to share two small Ramadhan and Eid related anecdotes to round off this post...

50 pence
One of the traditions of Eid is that grown-ups give small presents of money to children they meet as they visit friends and family, so, when BFTF arrived back home and noticed four young children (three asian and one white), BFTF grabbed a bunch of change from the car, walked over and, with a greeting of "Eid Mubarek" (Blessed Eid), gave each of the kids 50p (any Muslim readers with feel this is a bit on the stingy side, but it was all I could get my hand on quickly, honest!).

One of the asian kids looked puzzled and then, pointing to the white child, said "But he's not Muslim!".

BFTF said "Yes, I know, but today is a celebration for everybody!", and, turning to the equally puzzled looking white kid, said "That's your 50p youg man - you spend it on any sweets you want!"

Coconut Macaroons and the Far Right
During Ramadhan, Muslim households will often make an extra large meal or dish and share it with other Muslim households that are close by - aiming to deliver the food a little before sunset so that it is just in time for the Iftar breaking of the fast.

Thus, dusk can result in figures (usually children) scuttling to and from delivering small plates of food.

BFTF has long since wondered how this looks to the local non-Muslim community, perhaps they ask themselves why they are so pointedly left out of this foodiness by their neighbours.

So, in the BFTF household, things are done a little differently. While Mrs BFTF does the standard food-to-the-Muslim-neighbours thing, BFTF made a huge batch of coconut macaroons & mini-muffins and distributed them to the closest five houses (irrespective of the faith of the occupants) to the left and to the right of BFTF's home (on both sides of the street).

No3 delivered a plate of said macaroons and mini-muffins to one (non-Muslim) house and, on returning a minute or two later with a plate for the next house along, found the lady from the first house talking excitedly to her neighbour saying "There is a little boy delivering biscuits for Ramadhan - OH LOOK HE'S AT YOUR DOOR NOW !"

Incidentally, BFTF does this a couple of times a year, just to try and bring people a little closer together.

And the far-right? Well, thinks it would be rather funny if, when accused by someone from the far-right of not wanting to integrate with society, BFTF retorted by asking them when THEY had last made biscuits for all their neighbours...

Coconut Macaroons and Mini-Muffins,
ready for delivery on Mrs BFTFs bestest plates
Related Content
Positive Muslim Stories
The Himmah Foodbank

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Volunteers and the Masjid

Having written a post with comments and suggestions for masajid on the topic of working with volunteers and community engagement, it seemed fair to also write one for volunteers hightlighting some of the ways that volunteeers can help make projects run successfully.

But firstly, it is worth mentioning that volunteering is a great activity. By definition is ensures that you get to work with people who have a good heart and are interested in actively helping people and making good stuff happen. Often these good people have fascinating stories to tell of from other projects they, or their parents, have been involved in. And often these good people are very intelligent and have interesting jobs or education.

Frankly, money can't buy this kind of environment.

And of course, voluntary work is great stuff to put on your CV and to talk about at your job interview. It shows that you are not a selfish person, that you can see beyond the end of your nose and they you are prepared to go the extra mile just because it is the right thing to do.

To get the most out of your volunteering experience, there are a few points worth bearing in mind...

If you say Inshallah, mean Inshallah
Sadly, BFTF often hears people say that will do a particualar thing "Inshallah" when it is perfectly clear that what they really mean is "No" - this has a bad effect on activities as organisers simply can't rely on people to turn up and do what they said they would do. Perhaps it is better to be clearer about what you mean, perhaps saying "I'd like to participate, but I can't commit for sure" if you have are not sure whether you can make it, or "I'm afraid this event really isn't for me" if you aren't interested.

BFTF cannot emphasise strongly enough how important it is to turn up on time at events and to actually undertake whatever actions you have taken on.

Are your suggestions practical?
BFTF can recall being at a meeting some years ago when the atendees were asked what this particular organisation could do to improve. There was no end of suggestions. But when the chairman asked who was going to do the work to implement these ideas everyone went all quiet.

Tumbleweeds rolled across the floor.

Clouds raced across the sky time-lapse stylee.

You get the picture.

The policy BFTF adopts is to only suggest small actions that BFTF will actually do, but needs the organisations support for (and perhaps mentioning at Friday prayers) such as challenging the government on cvilian deaths in air-strikes - or at least to do some of the work and be clear about what the rest of the org needs to do (e.g. draft up a volunteers policy and ask organisation to implement it)

Do not be afraid to say "No"
Volunteers can easily be swamped with too many activities, or be asked to do something that it not particularly effective. BFTF's view is that volunteers are precious and should have no hesitation in saying "No" if they do not wish to take on a particular job.

Be adventurous
As a volunteer, you have access to many people (councillors, academics, local government, police etc) who would not pay you much attention if you were just an ordinary person - you may wish to think what information or work you would like these bodies to do for your organisation, and engage with them to make it happen. Your CV will thank you in due course. Your organisation should thank you right now!

Can you be the source of a positive story?
The Muslim community badly needs positive stories about it to be publicised - it would be great if you could make such a story happen.

Related Content :
Mosques and the community

Friday, 2 August 2013

Mosques and the Community

There are many ways in which a masjid can interact with the community and undertake social action, without needing to spend much in the way of time, money or human resources. This post tries to highlight some of these and make some comments based on BFTF's experience as a volunteer.

1) Introduction
2) How much should a masjid spend on social capital?
3) Avoid abdication of responsibility
4) Avoid "not asking the question"
5) The Imam and the Friday Khutbah are key
6) Volunteers are precious
7) Leverage Wider Society
8) Co-operate with other Muslim orgs
9) You can do more than one thing at a time
10) Opportunity costs and framing
11) Start Building Capacity NOW!
12) Can you be the source of a positive story?
13) Six problems and partial solutions
14) Back to those examples...
15) Update : An email

BFTF has been involved in a couple of discussions recently relating to the ways in which mosques can engage with the community, where "community" can mean any or all of the following :

i) Muslim teenagers and young adults
ii) The local Muslim community as a whole
iii) The local non-Muslim community
iv) The local community both Muslim and non-Muslim

One of the purposes of starting the BFTF blog was to provide concrete example of simple actions that a miosque could do to engage with the community, with a particualar focus on those actions that had an element of "common ground" with the wider society and/or where the Muslim community leadership was failing to practice what it preached.

And BFTF is heartened to see that, by the grace of God, this has worked out pretty well and it is now possible to pull out a bunch of posts to provide exactly the kind of practical examples that BFTF wanted to highlight.

A number of examples of these can be found at the foot of this email where the responses BFTF gave to some questions that a Muslim org was asking its members and friends.

But first, it is perhaps worth covering a number of other points relating to engagement by masajid and what can go wrong.

How much should a masjid spend on social capital?
All masajid have a budget to spend on building and activities, the question that they should, perhaps, ask, is how much of this budget should they spend on the social capacity of the community - i.e. how much on buildings and how much on people?

5%, 10%, 40%....1% ?

Whatever that number is, perhaps the masjid should ring-fence that amount of money and use it to train (really train, not send on "courses") and support volunteers, undertake social action activities and on engagement with the local non-muslim community.

Avoid abdication of responsibility
There can be a tendency for senior masjid staff to adopt an attitude of "yes, it would be great if you formed a community engagement group , it is something that is badly needed. But don't expect us to change the way we behave in the slightest or to practically help you in your work".

This kind of attitude is, in BFTF's view, unacceptable and represents an abdication of the responsibility that senior staff have to lead and support engagement efforts. Most damagingly, this kind of effort can leave volunteers trying to encourage the community to adopt a particular practice rooted in Islamic teaching (say, buy free-range eggs rather than those from caged hens) without any support from senior staff, and sometimes with senior staff doing the exact opposite!

Imams and mosque committees have a great deal of power, authority and responsiility. They can have a profoundly positive effect when they support (by actions and words) a particular course of action. When they choose, and it is a choice, not to support volunteers, that are actively harming the chances of success - often at the same time as they are wringing their hands saying that they need people to help solve the communities problems!

Avoid "not asking the question"
Perhaps the most frustrating obstacle to improving the strength of Muslim civil society that BFTF has come across is organisations who recognise a problem, recognise which organisation is key to solving the problem, may even hold events regarding the problem...but refuse to actually engage or challenge the key organisation directly, often giving excuses along the lines of :

"They won't listen to us"
"They aren't ready for this kind of change"
"I don't think they will give a positive response"
"We talked to them before, but nothing came of it"
"They don't like Muslims"
"They are the ones causing the problem - it's pointless talking to them"

Firstly, we are all lucky that The Black Civil Rights Movement, the people of the Arab Spring, William Wilerforce, AVAAZ, 38Degrees and Himmah did not take this view, or the civil rights and civil society victories they achieved would never have happened.

Secondly, failing to challenge organisations means that, at best, they are unaware of what they are doing wrong or, at worst, are fully aware of what they are doing and can now say "Well, it can't be that big a problem, no one has complained to us".

Thirdly, and in the context of talking to masjid committees etc, fear of rejection should not be an obstacle to asking for committees to support an action. If they reject a simple, low cost, beneficial proposal, and provide reasons, fine. So be it. Send another proposal, on a different subject after a couple of weeks. If they reject that too, fine. So be it. Send another proposal after a further two weeks on a third subject. . . eventually, inshallah, the committee will realise that they are digging themselves a very big hole and start to support their volunteers suggestions properly.

The Imam and the Friday Khutbah are key
Islam is blessed with a built-in "newswire service" in the form of the Friday congregational prayers where, as well as the sermon, the Imam can pass on important items of community news.

The community, rightly, puts great weight on what the Imam says, and public support by the Imam for community engagement actions is a powerful means of persuading the congregation that this is something they should support too.

It is particularly effective if and Imam practically supports an action (e.g. by sending an email to protest against civilian airstike deaths, or switching to buying free-range eggs for animal welfare reasons (as manadated by Islam))

Volunteers are precious
They really are, and they should be treated with respect at all times. They want to help, and it is the job of the masjid to make it easy and enjoyable for them to give that help. Specfically, masajid should ensure that volunteers :

Have a clear point of contact - and that they get a timely response.
Are asked for their views
Are given support if they have suggestions - especially if those suggestions cost nothing to implement

Leverage Wider Society
Muslims represent only a small fraction of the population - and it can be worth looking at which organisaitons in wider society can help a masjid implement actions, events and programmes. Many organisations such as Greenpeace are acutely conscious that they have a low presence in ME communities and are desperate to work together with masajid and community centres.

Co-operate with other Muslim orgs
It breaks BFTF's heart to see that, despite all the talk of wanting "unity", masajid often fail to co-operate with existing projects at other local muslim orgs but, instead, choose to set up their own project instead.

You can do more than one thing at a time
An excuse that BFTF often hears is that a Muslim organisation cannot undertake some action or other because it is not the "priority". In BFTF's experience, and assuming that the action is small and easy to do, this kind of excuse is ALMOST ALWAYS lame nonsense. We all can, and do, undertake more than one thing at a time. We spend money on groceries and still find cash to pay bills. We go to work and stilll find time for TV. And so on. And trotting out this "not a priority" excuse is even more disheartening to hear when the organisation agrees the issue is important - its just that they "can't find the time" to actually do anything about it - no matter how much help a volunteer wants to give. Please do not let your institution be one that behaves like this.

Opportunity costs and framing
Ideas and suggestions can sometimes be dismissed by masjid committees or Imams without any real achnowledgement of the consequences. One way of dealing with this is to explicity say what the opportunity costs of a particular course of action are. When framed in this way, the rejection of new ideas and suggestions often looks very unwise, and commitees may change their attitude accordingly.

For example, if a committee rejects a request for the Friday khutbah to be made in English, saying that it needs to be in Urdu for the elder (1st generation immigrant) section of the congregation, this may be countered by (accurately and truthfully) framing the argument in one of the following ways

"Many of the younger generation are already leaving the mosque because they simply cannot understand what is being said. Some of these young people are falling victim to crime and drugs, others are vulnerable to conspiracy theories, whilst some are leaving Islam altogether. Does the commitee feel that that the needs of this young generation, the future of Islam in the UK, should be sacrificed for the benefit of the elder generation?"


"An increasing section of the congregation comprises young Muslims, including converts, from many countries around the world - they have no chance of understanding Urdu, but can all understand English. Does the committee feel that these young people should be left unable to understand the Friday khutbah - or any of the announcements - just so the elder generation can continue to hear the khutbah in their preferred language"

Start Building Capacity NOW!
A problem that masajid sometimes find is that, on starting a social action project, they suddenly find that many of their teenage or young adult volunteers are unreliable or do not have the skills to participate in a group project.

So it is recommended that masajid actively look for small, well defined projects that they can give to these young volunteers so thta they get some experience of being on time, delivering on their commitments and interacting with other people. Examples of such projects might be to undertake a small survey of namazees, or to contact an organisation to challenge/praise them on some point. Aside for becoming a more effective volunteer (and indeed a more reliable person in the workplace), these activities also give the young person something to put on their CV. It really is a win-win scenario all round.

Can you be the source of a positive story?
The Muslim community badly needs positive stories about it to be publicised - it would be great if you could make such a story happen.

Six problems and partial solutions
Projects such as setting up a youth club take money, time and significant amounts of reliable peoples time. But there are many other activities that can be done at low or zero cost, take hardly any time and can have a positive effect on the Muslim and non-Muslim community. Often, these are in areas where masajid are not currently active at all. Here are six examples, in each case a quick and cheap, albeit partial, way of tackling the issue is described :

1) Problem : Rhetoric about Muslims caring for the enviroment / ethical trade but no correspoding action. Leaves youngsters with no direction on how to incorporate Islam into their daily lives. Makes Muslims look like hypocrites. Allows far right to say Muslims are cruel.
Solution : Imam and committee to commit to buying Free Range Eggs at home. Publicise in Friday Khutbah and explain why this is important. Potential good news story. Perhaps do something similar for Fairtrade chocolate and FSC/recycled paper.

2) Problem : Educational underachievment and mismatch between rhetoric of Islam's Golden Age and lack of engagement with science and technology (other than to disparage or to prove a theological point) today. Allows far right to say Muslims do not contribute to society. Leaves Muslims educationally and economically disadvantaged.
Solution: Support University Open Days, invite academics to talk to madrassa / youth club.

3) Problem : Failure to recognise "Islamic" organisations in the wider society. Allows far right to say Muslims do not want to integrate and only ever complain. Allows extreme Muslim orgs to paint British society as being completely evil and that Muslims should segregate themselves.
Solution : Mention NHS in a Friday Khutbah, ask congregation to support this institution, say how it implements many Islamic values

4) Problem : Islamophobic BNP leaflets. Portray Muslims as evil and untustworthy - disturbingly similar to 1930s Germany
Solution : Engage with Police and MP, challenge them on acceptability, publicise response, encourage community to act too.

5) Problem : Muslim community only complains, never praises. Allows far right to say Muslims do not want to integrate and only ever complain
Solution : Mention at a Friday Khutbah,explain how only complaining makes Muslims look like whingers.Get Imam to lead by example, and send letter of praise to a non-Muslim organisation for their policy/action on some specific issue. Encourgage comunity to also send positive messages

6) Problem : Prevalence of belief in false conspiracy theories amongst young people especially. Makes Muslim look foolish when they debate with wider society. Results in Muslims being apathetic and believing there is nothing they can do to help improve the situation.
Solution : Mention in a Khutbah, describing one case (e.g. moon landings) where conspiracy theory is false, and explaining how youngsters can use critical thinking to identify false conspiracy theories.

Back to those examples...
Remember those practical examples that BFTF said could be found at the foot of the post? Well, here they are (they do overlap somewhat with the "Six problems" described above) :

Org Q : How can we encourage our youth to attend and support our Masjids (Mosques)?
BFTF A: Firstly, speak English. Secondly, talk not only about the theoretical aspects of Islam - but also about how they relate to the practical lives of the community. Thirdly, give concrete examples of Islamic behaviour that YOU ARE ACTUALLY PRACTICING:

Combating Islamophobia :
The environment :
The environment :
Giving praise :
On misinformation :
On "Islamic" orgs (e.g. NHS) :
Engaging with the arts :
Challenging Muslim orgs :
Showing how activism works :
Positive Muslim Stories :

Org Q : How can we use the skills of practical dawah to support our local communities?
BFTF A : Before you get to Dawah, you need to convince the wider society that you are human. You need to combat the accusations (which have some truth in them) that the Muslim community is only interested in a narrow range of issues that affect it (e.g. halal food), that it is intolerant and that it is anti-reason and anti-science. Some practical ways of achieving this are :

Supporting Notts Uni’s:
Supporting Notts Uni's:
Interviewing researchers :
On the "common ground" :
Engaging the arts :
Not narrowly "Islamic" issues:

Update Oct 2014
Happened to send an email earlier this year so someone asking about broadening engagement at a mosque. These were the examples BFTF suggested as a starting point:
A talk about trees:

A talk about sustainability, ready to give to kids (I did this for a scout group):

The page of the 92nd Nottingham Scout Group, showing some of what they get up to:

With the strong Arab history in astronomy, you may wish to ask kids to have a bash at contributing to real research at Zooniverse:

You may wish to set up a Mums and Tots group, as Sr Saema has done in Nottingham:

Some information here on combating the defeatism that has infected our community:

And an example of how just one person can get the Daily Mail to change an inflammatory headline:

All my thoughts on how masajid can interact with the wider society condensed into one post:

With this being the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1, you may wish to look at the Muslim contribution to the UK military, here is an example from WW2: