At the end of last year, the response of hiking group Muslim Hikers to racism it had received on social media went viral, generating a flurry of media attention and tripling the group’s following. The group’s founder, Haroon Mota, talks to us about this experience, and the wider struggle to make the outdoors more inclusive.
Haroon Mota is a 36 year old marathon runner and mountaineer. In 2020, he founded the hiking group Muslim Hikers as a way of encouraging other Muslims to keep active during lockdown, which has since led hundreds of people on walks across the UK.
At the end of last year, the group posted photos of its Christmas Day walk over the Great Ridge in the Peak District. Its response to some of the racist and Islamophobic comments it received across social media went viral, leading to a wave of media interest and headlines in TV, radio and the national press. Haroon tells us about his personal journey into hiking, why the recent abuse has backfired on the people who doled it out, and his hopes for a more inclusive outdoor culture.
Main image: Haroon Mota on Ben Nevis. Photo: Muslim Hikers
Tell us how you got into hillwalking and the outdoors?
Aged 15 I went on a school trip to North Wales. That was my first experience of hiking and visiting a National Park. I absolutely loved it. A couple of years later, an elderly man from our Mosque community was bringing people together for a hike of Scafell Pike, in the Lake District. I joined with very little hesitation. I got hooked and then couldn’t stop hiking. I ended up signing up to trek to Everest Basecamp for my first charity hike in 2008 and I’ve been on a journey ever since.
When you first started hiking, did you notice the lack of diversity in the hills and countryside? What kept you motivated to keep hiking despite that?
It just seemed so strange all those years ago when I first started hiking, how little I’d see people that looked like me in the mountains. Our cities are diverse places, but get to suburbs and we’re nowhere to be seen. Ever since, I’ve been doing lots of charity hiking and fundraising mainly through Muslim charities, and this enabled me to build my passion for the outdoors whilst also championing social good. There were very few people doing what I was doing and I wanted to be a role model for others.
Why did you decide to start actively encouraging other Muslims to get outdoors?
It took me three years of hiking before I bumped into Muslim people in the hills. I was on my way down Snowdon, and I honestly thought my eyes were kidding me. I made a pledge that day that I wanted to be part of a solution to help bring greater diversity to the outdoors. Our communities are often affected by the greatest health inequalities so getting outside more to improve wellbeing and increasing physical activity levels in general is so vital for us. I studied Sport and Exercise Science at university, so I think inspiring communities to be better and more healthier has always been part of my DNA.
When and why did you found Muslim Hikers? How many walks and events have you led so far?
I set up the Muslim Hikers Instagram page in September 2020 for the purpose of creating an online community to help people who were struggling during lockdown. The idea was to help motivate Muslims to get outside more and help tackle loneliness and isolation. We just grew so quickly and people started asking for events, so we organised our first hike last July with 80 people up Snowdon. We’ve since had autumn and winter Hikes with over 100 people signing up to each.
What sort of responses have you had from people taking part in walks with Muslim Hikers? Have they found it has changed or enhanced their lives?
The feedback from our hikes have been incredible, especially for people who we’ve managed to help get outside and find community for the first time. Community is so important and it’s one of the greatest things people appreciate about our hikes. Being somewhere where you feel safe, confident, and amongst people you can relate to. Even those who haven’t joined our events simply love the platform for how much inspiration they get from seeing our posts and finding role models to connect with. This is so important in terms of inspiring change.
How does it make you feel when you read comments like the ones you received after your Christmas Day hike?
Some of the comments are extremely ridiculous and very laughable, whilst some make me really question the motives of people saying these things. I’m not the sort of person to become upset or disheartened at such comments, it only motivates me more to do what I feel passionate about. We will carry on getting outdoors, there is not stopping us.
Why do you think some people react that way to those images?
We know racism exists in a minority of people in our communities, and I’m not saying everyone who commented horribly is racist. There were plenty of hateful comments and some were definitely racist, whilst others might originate from ignorance and even some of the snobbish comments can have consequences. Suggesting we’re not “proper walkers” – that is awful.
Are these kinds of comments typical of the wider response you receive from walkers you meet, or the wider outdoor community?
These comments are only from a minority. The mass majority of people have so much love and respect and it’s important that we remain positive because over the past week we’ve surely been reminded of the true spirit of the outdoors and community. We’ve had such an overwhelming amount of support and solidarity. It’s so heartwarming. I’d like to thank everyone for the love and support shown during these times.
Your response to those comments generated a huge media interest. What has that been like?
It’s been rather hectic as I’m struggling to keep up with media requests and all the social media interactions at the moment. We’ve been on TV and radio and made countless headlines in the mainstream press, which is great in helping us raise the profile of our organisation. We’ve just gained an extra 20,000 followers across our social media pages in one week alone. That’s just insane. I can’t complain about the horrible comments, because it seems to have worked out well for us!
Have you noticed a surge in people wanting to come on your hikes as a result of the coverage?
We’ve had hundreds of messages and enquiries for events. It’s hard to keep up with the communications but we expect demand for events to be even more greater now that our following has more than tripled in the space of a week.
How central is your faith to both yourself and the people who join the walks?
We called the group Muslim Hikers because we wanted to be clear in portraying that we are here to accommodate the Muslim community. Identity is important and it is central in our beliefs that faith comes before everything else. We get people being critical saying we shouldn’t bring faith into everything but for us faith IS everything. During our hikes we will make consideration for prayer breaks, and as an organiser I have to be aware of any other religious or cultural sensitivities, that may help make our events more accommodating.
Can non-Muslims join your hikes?
Yes, absolutely. We welcome people of all backgrounds, all faiths and no faiths. I love that non-Muslims feel comfortable joining our events. We can’t claim to be promoting inclusion if we don’t have an open door policy. Everyone is welcome.
It’s great to see so many new groups emerging. We’ve seen a surge in these groups since the BLM movement and so many during lockdown particularly. I think the future is certainly promising but there’s so much more work to be done if we want to see long term systemic change.