Client Conversation: Faith, Hope and Familiarity - Networking icon London’s Whitehall is bustling even on the weekend. Linking squares Trafalgar and Parliament, and festooned with government departments on both sides, it remains one of the UK capital’s great thoroughfares.

It’s also the final stretch of my commute.

My destination, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), is one of the great departments of state. Sandwiched in between Downing Street and the Treasury, its main building alone employs thousands of staff and stands proudly at the epicentre of a global network offices more than 500 years old.

I’ve been working there for nearly four years, supporting the department’s IT programmes and platforms. It’s richly rewarding, a role that enables me to deliver real impact by helping deliver the technology that has become such an important thread of today’s diplomatic tapestry. But it’s not my only professional priority.

I also chair Understanding Islam, an Employee Resource Group at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, which enables all our company’s employees to learn more about Islam, and helps Muslim employees practice their religion at work. In a little over 18 months, it’s gone from having six members to about 230 around the world, and has a newsletter that has also attracted 15 civil servants – including Naveed and Alishba, who head up the FCDO’s informal Muslim Network.

Our collaboration, both individually and at group level, is rooted in the sad reality that to be a Muslim (or any person of faith) is not without its challenges. Unfortunately, Islamophobia, just like antisemitism and other forms of stereotyping, still lingers. Misinformation can flow and misunderstandings do sometimes take root. And that’s exactly where our respective groups come in.

“The FCDO Muslim Network was founded about 14 years ago,” recalls Naveed. “Think of us as group of brothers and sisters – which is what we call each other – who came together and started to consider the type of things we could raise awareness of the type of challenges that exist and so on. We’ve now got about 150 members – mostly London and wider-UK based – but a fair few from overseas as well.  We’re part of the wider FCDO Religion and Belief Group and so we work on these issues alongside colleagues from other faiths too.”

Much like Understanding Islam, the FCDO’s Religion and Belief Group, and within it the Muslim Network, seeks to raise awareness more generally about faith and belief, identifying and breaking down the barriers which might make people uncomfortable to bring their religious identity into their place of work.

But the network is not the only thing they are focused on – what about their ‘day jobs’? What other priorities are Naveed and Alishba juggling?
“The FCDO Muslim Network was founded about 14 years ago. Think of us as group of brothers and sisters – which is what we call each other – who came together and started to consider the type of things we could raise awareness of the type of challenges that exist and so on” Naveed and Alishba of the FCDO’s Muslim Network
Embracing diplomacy
Client Conversation: Faith, Hope and Familiarity - Embracing icon Neither Naveed nor Alishba are civil service newbies. Both became civil servants after graduating from university, and both have been based at the FCDO for some time – 15 and four years respectively. And it’s clear they harbour no plans to move on any time soon.

“For me, the best thing about being a civil servant is the sheer extent of opportunities available,” reflects Alishba. “I’ve been able to move between different roles as one of the many great things about the FCDO – and the wider civil service – is that you don’t have to stick to the same job for ages. We have a rotation system and I’m the type of person who likes doing something new, as it just keeps things nice and fresh.”

Naveed is also a fan of the variety on offer. “The FCDO has its overseas footprint with embassies and missions and we’re encouraged to move around,” he points out. “Within my own career I’ve worked in so many different teams – from consular, HR to protocol, e-learning to finance – so you get a real breadth of roles to choose from. There’s always something new to do and this helps keep you motivated.”

Alishba is also keen to stress her support for the department’s approach to individual annual performance objectives. “Part of mine have been to work with Naveed to help support the network,” she explains. “It gives us a formal way of showcasing the initiative to wider colleagues, including those who might not be involved in the network. I just find it great that it is officially appreciated like this.”
Network architecture
So, what does the Muslim Network actually do? Well, like its BAE Systems’ counterpart, much of its activity is focused on overcoming the lingering patchwork of myths and stereotypes which falsely portray what our life is like. In other words, it is a place where Muslim and non-Muslim employees come together, develop greater knowledge and build relationships.

A good example is generating awareness around some of the obligations which underpin the Muslim faith. For instance, we may take 10 minutes for ablution and prayers and require access to a small private room – this could be up to three times between 12pm and 6pm in the winter. Some men attend Friday midday prayers so they’ll need to take a full lunch break and may need to arrange meetings outside of this time.

Then there’s Ramadan – a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community – as well as the celebrations of Eid-ul-Adha / Eid-ul-Fitr, which may require time off. There is also often some uncertainty about which day Eid-ul-Fitr will fall on, because it depends on moon sightings, and this may impact when Muslim colleagues can work and how much notice they can give.

“We’re a fairly informal network but whenever we have taken things forward there have been other benefits of doing so as well,” explains Naveed. “So when we established a prayer room, others also benefited as they can use that space for their own prayer and meditation. Likewise with the food, we have talked to staff in the canteen about the importance of accurate labelling and this really helped Jewish colleagues, as well as people with allergies.”
“There is still a lot of mystique about what Muslims are all about… So it’s important to explain to colleagues why we do this. And it allows us to be comfortable in our own skin, bring our whole selves into work and not worry about being prejudiced against or come across as a hindrance to our career progression” Naveed and Alishba of the FCDO’s Muslim Network
The importance of inclusivity
Client Conversation: Faith, Hope and Familiarity - Importance icon So, what does inclusivity mean for you?

For me, it’s about being open to everyone and breaking down barriers in the workplace and society. To be discriminated against just because you come from a certain background or follow a certain religion or belief is simply unacceptable.

But why should the FCDO, BAE Systems – or any organisation for that matter – care about inclusivity? Well, there are a lot of benefits that stem from an inclusive approach. Having a mixed community offers a diversity of perspectives, approaches and thinking that contribute towards improved performance. Diverse teams help encourage innovation and new ways of problem solving.

More than that, it’s simply the right thing to do – a stance firmly embraced by both Naveed and Alishba.
“Look, I have a beard and Alishba wears a headscarf,” says Naveed. “Some people might have questions about why we do certain practices. There is still a lot of mystique about what Muslims are all about – such as why we starve ourselves of food for a month during Ramadan. So it’s important to explain to colleagues why we do this. And it allows us to be comfortable in our own skin, bring our whole selves into work and not worry about being prejudiced against or come across as a hindrance to our career progression.”

Alishba is also keen to stress that inclusion is a vital force for good when it comes to an organisation’s HR policies – with the FCDO no exception. “A little while ago we were asked what we might like to include in updated line manager guidance for recruiting new people or setting up interviews,” she explains.

“One of the things we identified was not to do interviews on a Friday afternoon as this would clash with weekly prayer time. As an individual, I might not be comfortable with going up to a future line manager and saying that time isn’t good for me – it might damage my chances of getting that job. It is much easier to highlight this sort of thing as a group, rather than an individual.”

Another example she cites is when requests were made by HR for feedback on extended leave policy – what the FCDO refers to ‘Special Unpaid Leave’. She explains how people might like to take up this option for when they do a pilgrimage, for example, but this was something which hadn’t previously been considered. “So, again, it is about awareness raising amongst all of our colleagues – not just those working on policy development and delivery but also those who work on governance and HR matters too,” she says.

But of course, it’s not just about raising awareness amongst non-Muslim colleagues, it’s also about making new Muslim colleagues feel more at home. “This is something that I benefited from when I joined the department four years ago,” adds Alishba. “On my first day I needed to find somewhere to pray and I had no idea if there was a prayer room or who to ask. Just having that information on the intranet was so important as it made me feel immediately welcomed.”
“On my first day I needed to find somewhere to pray and I had no idea if there was a prayer room or who to ask. Just having that information on the intranet was so important as it made me feel immediately welcomed” Naveed and Alishba of the FCDO’s Muslim Network
Points of impact
Client Conversation: Faith, Hope and Familiarity - Impact icon Alishba’s points are well made. After all, there’s little point in creating a network, undertaking a smörgåsbord of activity and then not much happening as a result. When asked if there has been a visible increase in awareness about the Islamic faith across the department, Naveed pauses – for the first time in our conversation – and admits that evaluation and measurement are not always straightforward.

“It’s a really difficult one because it is such a large organisation and there is a high churn of staff as well,” he admits. “You’d hope that those people who have been made more aware and have left the organisation will take these learnings with them. Equally, when new colleagues arrive it’s important to bring them up to speed. But generally speaking the vibes I pick up in the office are positive. I haven’t experienced any discrimination, for example. Finger in the air, it feels like we’re in an upward trend but there is always more to do.”

Alishba agrees, pointing out that while there are challenges such as different time zones and the geographic dispersal of the workforce, the signs are broadly positive.

“Anecdotally, I have seen during my time here an increase in the number of line managers who would actively ask me about aspects of my faith,” she points out. “For example, during Ramadan I have been asked if there is anything the team could be doing to support me and if I needed to flex my hours – all without me needing to say anything beforehand.”

That said, when asked if there was one thing they could change by a mere wave of a wand, both Naveed and Alishba, quickly come up with areas still ripe for improvement.

Alishba pinpoints the potential for improving not only the department’s internal policies, but supporting its external ones too. “The FCDO could make even greater use of its diverse workforce,” she suggests. “We have staff in London who have ethnic minority backgrounds and are descendants of people who migrated to the country from overseas. Some of us speak several languages at home – this is such a rich resource to be able to tap into for colleagues who work overseas.”

And Naveed argues for greater nuance in foreign policy. “The thing with diversity is it often gets conflated into one thing,” he observes. Sometimes it would be good for policymakers to be more cognisant of any changes in a country which might adhere more strictly to religious faith.”

Whatever happens, though, it is already clear that the work of the Muslim Network, has already succeeded in shifting the dial. Naveed, Alishba and their colleagues should take great solace in the knowledge that their efforts have contributed towards making the FCDO truly open to everyone, regardless of race, colour or creed.

It doesn’t get much better – or more important – than that.

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About the author

Fathima Rahman is Business Analyst and chair, Understanding Islam at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

Further reading
  • Moving Cyber into the Diplomatic Mainstream. What’s cyber got to do with diplomacy and development? Actually, a huge amount. Miriam Howe sits down with Will Middleton to hear about life as Cyber Director of the UK’s Foreign Office, and why cyber is now firmly entrenched on the frontline of national security
  • The art of digital diplomacy . How can governments use cyber to strengthen their diplomatic reach and heft? Jo Massey spotlights this evolving field and considers how the UK is seeking to move from steps to strides
  • Setting Sail for Gender Equality - Navy Style. The Royal Navy’s Captain Steve Prest tells Mivy James why everybody deserves an equal opportunity to thrive and maximise their potential
  • Delivering diversity in tech . Theresa Palmer is on a mission to help more women into the tech industry. She explains what we need to do to create a gender balanced workforce
  • How companies can drive inclusion . Organisations have overcome all manner of challenges over the last couple of years but why is gender equity proving so problematic? Theresa Palmer says it’s time to move from talk to action