Man to Man: Why friendship and community are key to greater inclusivity
My first experience of the great outdoors came when I was 15 years old, on a school trip to Snowdonia in Wales. I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape. Soon after, I joined a hike in the UK’s Lake District arranged by my local mosque.
We didn’t have the right kit and we ended up getting lost in the dark. But it was also the best experience to be together on a mountain with my dad, my brother, my friends and my community.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I became aware of a lack of diversity in hiking. I remember coming down a Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak, and seeing these small brown faces in the far distance. I realised that it was a group of Muslim women hikers wearing hijabs. We got chatting and they told me they were hiking for a cause.
I found myself on my first ever charity trek
Something hit home for me at that moment. Charity and fundraising are a huge part of my faith as a Muslim and I realised I could combine that with my love of hiking.
Soon enough, I found myself on my first ever charity trek to Everest base camp in Nepal. I had the most incredible time and raised £20,000 in the process. Next up, I went trekking in the Andes region of Peru, took on the National Three Peaks Challenge in the UK, and climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Since sport, and hiking in particular, isn’t very common in the Muslim community, I’ve always tried to be a role model. So, I started to encourage people to hike with me.
I decided to put my running shoes back on
This took on a different dimension in 2012 when I started a job offering therapeutic support to young people with cancer at UCLH hospital in London. I found myself signing up to the London Marathon to fundraise for the ward. I had such a horrible, painful experience; I barely remember anything beyond mile 18 as I had so many cramps. I pushed through but vowed I’d never do it again.
However, the following year, my life was turned upside down when I lost my father in a tragic car accident. It was the most difficult part of my life. I decided to put my running shoes back on just to get outside and deal with the grief.
As a result, I got seriously into marathon running, as well as mountaineering. As before with outdoor landscapes, it struck me that it was really strange to be running among 20,000 or 40,000 runners and not see anyone who looked like me.
I began getting my friends, family and community involved
I felt alone, the odd one out, which was shocking when you think how diverse London, Birmingham and some of the other cities I was competing in are.
So, just as I did with hiking, I began getting my friends, family and wider community to take part in runs with me. It made it more meaningful and, of course, it was a great opportunity to raise money for good causes.
Around the same time, I started a dream job working with a British Muslim humanitarian charity. I took 34 people hiking to Everest, which was unheard of at the time in the Muslim community. I also led a group of marathon runners in Bethlehem where we also visited nearby refugee camps. I did the same on the Turkish border with Syria, as well as organising an expedition in Gambia to launch water projects and education initiatives.
It was the most beautiful thing to unite Muslim hikers
It was a very rewarding role but then Covid arrived. I pivoted to take part in the 2.6 challenge, designed to help the UK’s hard-hit charity sector. I decided to run 260 kilometres while fasting during Ramadan – a feat that raised £55,000 and made national headlines.
During this period, I also set up the Muslim Hikers Instagram page. Our communities couldn’t physically be together due to lockdown, so I created it purely for the purpose of sharing positive vibes in the face of widespread loneliness. I also wanted to use it to normalise the presence of Muslim people in sports and outdoor environments.
The account quickly attracted a huge amount of appreciation, with hundreds of people following from all over the world. In July 2021, we led our first event – a group hike up Snowdon – and it was the most beautiful thing to bring together Muslim hikers.
Being outdoors is crucial for bringing people together
Our monthly walks now attract around 200 people at a time. Under the umbrella of the Active Inclusion Network, we’re the biggest community in the world for Muslims interested in the outdoors. We also have non-Muslim friends join us, too. Anyone and everyone can come along. We get people taking part from all over the globe.
Being outdoors is crucial for bringing people together, whatever your creed or colour. For me, it’s mental therapy. Often, people are reluctant to join our events at first because they’re anxious about what to expect. To see them overcome that struggle and have an incredible time is special.
The friendship element is central, too. The concept of brotherhood and sisterhood is massive in the Muslim faith – we’re all part of one big family. It’s wonderful to see people connecting, especially after the isolation of lockdown. Our hikers come with friends, in couples or alone, all the while growing relationships and networks. We’ve even had our first marriage take place.
The Muslim Hikers movement demonstrates the importance of community
It brings a sense of safety, too. One of the barriers to Muslim people getting outdoors is the ongoing presence of racism and Islamophobia. It makes people feel less empowered to go hiking alone. Being in a group helps provide security and solidarity. It also gives confidence, showing that we, as minorities, can achieve anything that we want.
Above all, the popularity of the Muslim Hikers movement demonstrates how important community is. Whatever your age, gender or background, friendship is something that people yearn for, thrive off and need.
Man to Man is a SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices each month, including Haroon Mota, marathon runner, mountaineer and founder of the Muslim Hikers and Active Inclusion Network, writing during Islamophobia Awareness Month.
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Images: Courtesy of Haroon Mota