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Today’s Zaman interview: Islamophobia is a challenge

Published in Today’s Zaman, Sunday 21st August 2011

“We must learn the lessons of history.” Defying Conservative Party leadership, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi gave a speech on the extent of Islamophobia in Britain. “You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table test,” she said.
Speaking in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Baroness Warsi defended her speech, saying: “I think that Islamophobia is a challenge; a challenge, which I felt, needed to be raised. And I raised it in a fairly wide-ranging speech.”

The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Baroness Warsi entered the political scene in 2007 with a storm and became the first Muslim woman to serve as a British government cabinet minister. She is also co-chair (Warsi is keen on avoiding use of the term “chairman”) of the Conservative Party.

While it is true that Warsi’s strong conservative views do not strike a cord with everyone, she has broken some of the barriers that face Muslim women entering British politics. “It was a real novelty for a Muslim woman to be in politics,” she said.

Warsi stressed that for British society to progress and mature, a resurgence of faith, inter-faith dialogue and the building of community links are imperative. She believes that David Cameron’s much criticized “Big Society” program is already in action. She stated, “People from my own Conservative headquarters were out yesterday in Clapham helping clean up, so what you saw was a small part of the community causing havoc and a larger part of communities coming together and saying ‘this is unacceptable.’”

Commenting on the recent UK riots, Warsi said those “odd, slightly left voices like Ken Livingstone — who has, let’s not forget, his own political campaign to run for London mayor” do not represent the voice of mainstream politics, which condemned the riots and looting.

Warsi also spoke to Sunday’s Zaman about her own experience of politics.

I asked Baroness Warsi about her life in politics so far.

“I’ve always been involved in politics, right from my college days. I was the vice president of the Students’ Union. And as far as in terms of front-line politics, my career has not been as long. I stood as the candidate in Dewsbury in 2005. But I suppose throughout my life, political issues have always interested me and I spent a lot of my life volunteering. Whilst I was working as a solicitor I spent some time with the local Registration Council and I volunteered at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. I spent years mentoring younger people into careers, so politics loosely has always been a part of my life. But in terms of front-line party politics, it’s probably been much more recent.”

What is the importance of being a visible Muslim in the public eye?

“Well, it’s true [about being a visible Muslim] and [is] important for Muslims in all aspects of public life and professional life, whether that’s doctors, lawyers, accountants, and civil servants. The thing in politics is that you become much more visible because of being Muslim. And I think at a time when there is so much derision about faith, and particularly Islam, it is important to have people who are going about their ordinary lives but who happen to be Muslim. I think it takes away the lazy stereotyping, which is used by some communities.”

What about the challenges you face as a Muslim woman in politics?

“The challenges you face for going in to politics as a woman is the same for women from whatever background you come from. Predominantly, I think it is harder for women to go in to politics; women find the culture around politics much more difficult. I think more and more women coming in to politics will change that culture and that ethos. I think the Conservative Party has made true strides from moving from having nineteen female MPs to having 49 today. I think having Muslim women elected to Parliament, as well as appointed to Parliament, in the House of Lords, will help increase [bring] others because women will then look at those women and think, ‘that’s a career that I want’. Whereas in the past, if I look back at maybe six or seven years ago after I stood for election in Dewsbury, it was a real novelty for a Muslim woman to be involved in politics. Now, it’s less of a novelty, and the less of a novelty it becomes the more likely younger women are to take part.”

Recently, Baroness Warsi visited Bosnia on the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. “Srebrenica is a name that now resonates around the world as a lesson in the consequences of unchecked evil,” she said in a speech. At the start of this year, she defied the Conservative Party to make a speech about the extent of Islamophobia in Britain. In her speech, she claimed that racism towards Muslims had become “socially acceptable” and had “passed the dinner-table test.”

Commenting on this event, she remarked, “We must learn the lessons of history. I think that Islamophobia is a challenge; a challenge which I felt needed to be raised. I raised it in a fairly wide-ranging speech.”

What do you think about the debate surrounding the burqa, especially regarding its being banned in several European countries?

“You see, I have a very clear view in relation to what women can and cannot wear. Ultimately, I think it is a choice for women. Women can choose to wear what they want. That is the society that we live in, and if that offends — whether they think women don’t wear enough clothes or they think women are far too covered up — then that’s really not a matter for other people to make judgments about. And it’s not for governments to intervene and legislate on. What the most important thing is, are these women making the right choice? I think we can get too hung up about what people choose to wear.”

Baroness Warsi commented on the recent UK riots during the course of our discussion.

Much of what Baroness Warsi does is based on working to build stronger relationships within communities. When we spoke with her she was on her way to Birmingham, where three men had been killed in a hit-and-run incident while trying to protect a gas station from looters. When discussing the rioters, the Tory’s “tough on law and order” line can be seen in her views, but so too can her belief in strong communities and the roles individuals must play in them. Warsi continued:

“If you listen to what many of the council leaders have been saying, many of the people who are engaging in the acts were not connected to youth clubs in the first place. Many of them had criminal records in the past. This is not a protest and at no point have I heard any young people saying, ‘I’m here because my local youth center may or may not be cut because of its funding.’ To look for a justification of this criminality, burglary and looting, I think it is in the interests of the politically opportunistic.

“The leader[s] of the Labour Party and Lib Dems have come out and made it very clear that this is a case of criminality. In terms of mainstream politics and politicians, they’re absolutely united on this. Now you maybe hear the odd slightly left voices like Ken Livingstone who has — let’s not forget — his own political campaign to run for London mayor. But if you listen to Dianne Abbott or David Lammy and people from all sides of the political spectrum, it is very, very clear: this is criminality.”

What is your position on immigration, especially given that your parents are immigrants themselves?

“My position on immigration is that any country at any time needs to divide how many people it needs from outside its own country to resource what our needs are in Britain [its own needs are]. At the time fifty years ago when my father came to the country from Pakistan, the mills in the northern towns needed workers. He came here to fill that need and also to make a better life for himself. But I think that we have to judge carefully. When we have people who are unemployed — and actually what you’ll find is that predominantly those people who find it most difficult to get jobs are actually second and third generation [descendants of] immigrants — you have to make the decision to work for the people in this country [first].

“If there is one job and there is a young British Turkish person and [a] person in Turkey who both want that job, then I’m going to think about the British Turkish person because he is British. Or if there was a British Pakistani and a person in Pakistan going for the same job, then again I’m going to choose the British Pakistani. However, we are always committed to ensuring that we have the best people from around the world whether they’re scientists and pioneers or skilled workers here in Britain to make this country a great place to live in.”

Here is probably the most anticipated question for a Turkey-based newspaper: should Turkey join the EU?

“I would be delighted for Turkey to join the EU. Britain is Turkey’s main supporter for joining the EU and we continue that support for them. We look forward to working with Turkey in the future as an EU member.”

Warsi also expressed wishes to work more closely with the Turkish community in Britain and said she looks forward to establishing these new links.


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