BN Magazine interview: Baroness Warsi Talking Global Politics
Published in BN Magazine, February 2011
Interview by Ozan Adan
Baroness Warsi has successfully become the first ever female Muslim member of the cabinet. Her role in the cabinet and as Co-Chairman of the Conservative party is significant, not just as an advocate for women but also, for the Muslim community.
Baroness Warsi balances her many roles as a mother, wife, party Co-Chair whilst maintaining her influencial position within British politics. Her position and her roots gives her a unique advantage in understanding the current multi-ethnic spectrum of Britain today. The Baroness holds a vast amount of responsiblity on the socio-political front, and has risen to the challenge admirably by facing extremists on both sides of the multi-culturalism issues. Her defence of a tolerant society embracing differences in race, religion and culture has caused some stir within her own Muslim community as well as others who oppose and even confront her.
The Baroness is one of the most important faces of the modern day Conservative party. The youngest female member of the House of Lords personifies the Conservative Party’s attempts at presenting an energised and inclusive image to the public, and thus aiming to increase the support for the party amongst voters traditionally associated with the Labour Party.
Baroness Warsi’s appointment is also significant in that it comes at a time when the issues of multi-culturalism, diversity and globalisation are seen as an important socio-economic issue, and one that is the focus of a lot of public and political deliberation. While many positive elements have come from the multi-culturalism debate, it has also lead to destructive flares such as the Islamaphobia movement across the UK and parts of the EU. The Baroness has worked to tackle this issue prefusely, by both proving to the nation that cosmopolitan notions surrounding multi-culturalism is not a failed experiment and helping ease the increasing feeling of unease and unrest amongst various communities of the UK.
What are your views on greater inclusiveness of all religions in the UK?
I think faith has always been an important part of conservative thinking and religion has always been a part of this landscape. When we talk about the big society and that you have to do your part, we see people in faith groups, churches, mosques, synagogues and so on, and who are doing good work because of their faith. I think the government has to recognise this. Before we said “yes you are doing good things”, but we wanted to hide the fact that people did good work because of their faith. It is wrong of us to deny that people are driven by faith to do good work. Of course there are people of no faith who are also doing good work. But you have to have an acknowledgement of where faith is in Britain and what role it has. If people of faith have created a better level of understanding of each other because they open discussions rather than ignoring each other, then we will clearly support that. It’s not for government to support people to go out and promote their religion, but it’s absolutely the role of a government to support people that are doing good work, and if they do the good work because they are inspired by faith, then so be it.
In a recent speech you talked about the dangers of an increasing casual attitude to Islamaphobia. What do you think should be done as a governmental to tackle a situation like this?
What I said in the end of that speech was that there is not one solution which can deal with this. The response has to be on three levels. Firstly, we need a positive response from society. The British Muslim community especially have to step up to this challenge and deal promptly with those who commit criminal acts and preach hate. As well as that, we have some practical solutions and I gave the examples of the British Jewish community, specifically the community security trust and specific things that as a community they responded to in terms of security, law data and anti-Semitic incidents responding in terms of service prevision and so on. There then has to be a response from faith leaders and the role they have to create better understanding. Which I also put forward to his holiness the Pope, as this is an issue not just in the UK but also parts of the EU. The third is the role of government, whenever there is a level of hatred towards any community whether that is gender based hate or whether it’s homophobic based hatred or anti-Sematic; government has always in various times in history responded by measures which tackle these issues.
As you mentioned this is becoming a problem within the EU whereby more right-winged parties which carry a more Islamophobic rhetoric or target a specific race have emerged. What would you say about this disturbing increase?
If you look at the British National Party and more recently the English Defence league There is no doubt as to whom their target is right now, they don’t talk about community about their races, colour, they don’t even attack the British Jewish community anymore. But now it is especially the British Muslim community and I think some of that is because of this level of misunderstanding, some of it perpetuated by the media and incidences from around the world that play to the kind of sentiment within Britain and how people are viewed because of individual terrorist activity where people start to do things in the name of a religion. I think it fits into the level of misunderstanding and what I call ‘the uneducating’ of the public.
The Recent bill which is being discussed in Parliament suggests that any decisions imposed by the EU Parliament will be put through a national referendum. This seems like a very clever way of Cameron saying – “unless you run everything by me, I will put everything to a referendum in a country where you are not so popular”.
I don’t think he is saying that. I don’t think this is a message out to Europe; it is actually more about our acceptance as a nation. We are a very proud and independent nation, we are absolutely a part of Europe, we have always been in Europe, and we want to play our part in Europe. But I think we have been clear that we do not want to be run by Europe, and if we do pass more powers to Europe then people whose future we are dealing with have the right to say something in that process. This is an interesting government because it is a coalition government where there are things that we campaigned for which we won’t be able to implement and there are other things we didn’t campaign for which we will be implementing as we are bringing two manifestoes together. But I think with what we had with the Lisbon treaty, I think it is absolutely right that people have the right to make that choice when we are giving further powers to Europe, because if people buy into a process and buy into EU institutions, they are more likely to support them.
I just want touch on your charity: The Savayra Foundation; I understand that you are a trustee?
I used to chair the charity when I founded it back in the 2002. I chaired it for many years then I came off and became a trustee because there is so much work going on and we have great guy who’s chairing it now.
It says, I quote – “Aims to empower widows, girls and other financially destitute women by skills and education in private areas of Pakistan and Kashmir” could you possibly elaborate on some of the projects?
I’m still heavily involved actually; one of the recent things that the charity has been involved in is the response to the floods in Pakistan. We had flood fundraisers over last summer and we were involved in the flood relief program. Women run this charity predominantly and it is for women. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is one of the more conservative areas in Pakistan and it is male dominated, and they were interested to see women in a charity who work with women. We had to form the local committee which was made up of women so the women in the community were suddenly becoming the decision makers and were having to determine the needs of that community. We went in and spoke with the women, because we knew that the women were running the homes, we spoke to them and their need became very specific and generally ideal for their situation. All of this helped us do aid with the community, rather than give aid to the communities.
Generally if we look at that region and if we also take into consideration in Middle East and Central Asia it is generally quite difficult for women to enter politics. What would you say is the future role for female politicians? What would you say that should be done to give them more representation and support to go into politics?
First of all I think every country is different and if you look at Asia there have been developments with Benazir Bhutto and before that you had people like Fatima Jinnah who helped with the Independence of Pakistan, Indira Ghandi in India, Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. Also the speaker of the national assembly in Pakistan is a woman. The number of bills being brought forward in the legislative work is done by a high number woman in Pakistan. So there is a phenomenal amount that is being done. I met the president of Turkey when he was here with his wife and she is impressive, she is a phenomenal powerhouse. Not just women who are breaking through in their own political career, but who are very much alongside people who are in politics. So I think there is hope, I don’t think that we in the West have the high moral ground on any of this. If you look at places like Rwanda for example you have more female parliamentarians than you have here. So I think every country is having its own experiences. What I think does matter in females going forward in politics is that they have to be taken seriously, they have to feel that they are playing an equal role, we must have appointments which are quota filling, and we must absolutely make sure that these women have a central role to play in some serious decision making.
So the quota like in some Scandinavian countries?
I haven’t got enough experience with those countries to be able to comment, but I think it has to go beyond that. I met a minister from Afghanistan, she has achieved ministerial status, but she felt deeply disempowered about what she was trying to do, and so what we don’t want is women there who are not empowered, what we want is women who are going to make a real difference and what I want to see in this country is other women from different minority backgrounds coming in. But the great day would be when somebody doesn’t get terribly exited when a woman gets appointed for something.