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The Guardian interview: Sayeeda Warsi takes on critics in the rightwing press

Published in The Guardian, Thursday 23rd June 2011

By Nicholas Watt, Chief Political Correspondent

Sayeeda Warsi rolls back in her chair and bursts out laughing. “I don’t read her, actually. I call her Mad Mel,” Lady Warsi says of Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who has denounced her as “stupid”.

Warsi, a proud Yorkshirewoman, rarely pulls her punches. As the first Muslim to sit as a full member of the British cabinet, she fell foul of Phillips in January after she declared in the Sternberg lecture that Islamophobia had “crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability”.

Phillips’ barbed response was to describe Warsi, the Tory co-chair, on her Spectator blog as “at best a stupid mouthpiece of those who are bamboozling Britain into Islamisation, and at worst a supporter of that process”.


Warsi had a mini falling-out with Downing Street after No 10 became alarmed that her lecture appeared to place her at odds with David Cameron on the highly sensitive subject of British Muslims and extremism.

A few weeks after Warsi’s speech, Cameron laid the ground for a review of funding for Muslim groups when he asked whether it was right to support groups which “present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community” while doing little to combat extremism. Cameron’s speech to the Munich security conference in February was interpreted as an endorsement of Michael Gove, the education secretary, who called on the west to wake up to the threat posed by Islamist extremists in his book Celsius 7/7.

Warsi, whose father left Pakistan for Britain in 1960 with £2 in his pocket, is seen to hold a different view, warning of the dangers of distinguishing between moderate and extremist Muslims. In her Sternberg lecture, she said: “We should be careful about language around religious ‘moderates’… When it comes to extremism, we should be absolutely clear. These people are extremists, plain and simple, because their behaviour has detached them from the thought process within their religion.”

Warsi admits there was robust debate within government in the runup to the publication of the review of the government’s Prevent strategy earlier this month. In a break with Labour, the coalition is refusing to fund Muslim groups that promote extremist views even if they eschew violence.

“The Prevent review has taken so long because it’s been thought through, it’s been argued, it’s been debated. There have been people around the table who’ve had views, and I think we’ve come to a comfortable place where we can all now sign up to it.”

Warsi, who next week will be the first British minister to address the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, highlights the complexity of addressing extremism. In some areas she is in total agreement with Cameron; in other areas they differ.

Warsi and Cameron agree that extremists are distorting Islam which is, as the prime minister said in February, “observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people”. Warsi says: “I don’t think there’s a difference between what myself and the prime minister says. What he says is what I said: if you are an extremist you are by its very nature detaching yourself from the faith. And what he’s saying is that if you are an Islamist extremist you are by its very nature following a distorted, detached version of the faith. You’re not actually of the faith.”

But Warsi does express some unease with the central thrust of the new Prevent strategy: that Islamists can reject violence and still be extremist. The prime minister said in his Munich speech: “Move along the spectrum and you find people who may reject violence but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, including real hostility towards western democracy and liberal values.”

Is it possible to be an extremist and not believe in violence? She pauses, then says: “You probably could.” Then she adds that non-violent extremists would be shunned and could still fall foul of the law.

“The great thing about our democracy is people believe in all sorts of things, including the fact that there’s a man on the moon and they’d like him to be coming down and governing us. The great thing about democracy is you can engage in a democratic process. We have the Monster Raving Loony Party, don’t we?

“There is a difference between inciting hatred and intolerance towards other people without actually being violent yourself. You can actually say: ‘I don’t believe in going around killing anybody’ but you can incite so much hatred and intolerance that it’s being done. Pastor Jones was a typical example in America.”

Warsi says she feels uncomfortable with the word ‘Islamist’ though she says she understands why the prime minister used it in Munich.

“Islamist is an academic term, which I think is broadly understood in academic circles and people who are deeply interested in this subject. The problem that I have always had with this word is … in ordinary campaigning terms Mrs Smith and Mrs Hussein probably don’t get it. The worry I always had was that Mrs Smith probably thinks you’re talking about Mrs Hussein, and Mrs Hussein probably thinks you’re talking about her without actually understanding the academic background to it. And sometimes we in Westminster, we in politics and we in academia, become so familiar with terms that we do take it for granted that people understand what these terms mean.”

Warsi gained greater prominence after pictures of her wearing a salwar kameez were published, but says she understands the “genuine interest in my background in terms of my race, my origins, my religion. You only have to take a look at the photograph of the cabinet and you can see it looks slightly different.”

Warsi laughs again as she describes the garment’s greatest benefit. “On a very warm day a grey suit is probably not the best thing to be sweating in.”

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