Sayeeda Warsi: EISCA Lecture, Faith is a force for good in our country
Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here. Let me start by thanking James Arbuthnot and Denis Macshane for inviting me.
I know in the past Jim Murphy has given this lecture on behalf of the Labour Party. And two years ago, you had Nick Clegg representing the Lib Dems. So I take very seriously that you’ve invited me to speak for the Conservative Party.
When I was appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party last year, I realised that the Party had changed for the better when I heard that my Co-Chairman was Andrew Feldman.
A Jewish man and Muslim woman running the Party.
We have been given a great opportunity to send a clear signal to the communities we originate from and to the wider community…
….that people of different faiths share the same values and can work together to advance a common cause, a common interest: the interests of the Party and the interests of the country they love…
…respecting and enjoying our differences but recognising the importance of what binds us together.
I am privileged to have a long and close relationship with the British Jewish community.
Whether it’s with the Coexistence Trust…
….the Jewish-Muslim Roadshow alongside Parry Mitchell and Michael Howard…
…the launch of the Campus Ambassadors programme earlier on this year…
…my visit to Yad Vashem in Israel…
…my subsequent trip to Auschwitz as a guest of the Holocaust Education Trust…where I saw the horrors of what happened under the Nazis – horrors which have a unique place in modern history.
Whether it’s my regular visits to Stamford Hill…
…my close connections with the Orthodox Community…
…my ongoing discussions with Gerald Ronson of the CST…
….or – how can I forget? – my dinner with the Chief Rabbi…
….who didn’t throw me out when I asked if his chicken was kosher!
Why does this relationship matter so much to me?
First, because I profoundly believe that faith is a force for good in our country.
That’s why in September last year I went to the Anglican Bishops’ Conference and said that this government would do God.
I said that faith inspires charity.
… it shapes behaviour…it strengthens our society.
Just look at the British Jewish community.
For over 150 years, since the Jewish Board of Guardians was set up to help the poor…
…the Jewish community has been giving back to society…
…it’s been the Big Society in action…
…whether it’s the extraordinary work done by Jewish Care…
…literally from the cradle to the grave…
…or the high standards and sense of community I see when I visit Jewish faith schools across the country.
I strongly believe government needs to understand and appreciate this work.
But as I explained last year, in the last few years we’ve seen the rise of what I call secular fundamentalism…
…fuelling a sense of suspicion about the role of faith in our country.
This is one of the biggest threats we face in faith communities
And I am absolutely committed to defeating it.
It’s a matter I’m committed to, it’s a matter I keep returning to…
…and I realised I was making progress when a Cabinet colleague told me that one of my articles about faith had been quoted by his vicar during Sunday prayers!
The second reason I value my relationship with the Jewish community is because I deeply admire and respect their ongoing fight against bigotry.
I fundamentally believe no community has had to fight the battle as strongly and for as long as the Jewish community has.
All my life, I’ve fought and campaigned against racial and religious discrimination.
As a teenager I marched against Apartheid.
In my students days I campaigned for racial equality.
I helped launch Operation Black Vote.
And more recently in Government I’ve done the same thing.
…I’ve spoken out against those who persecute Christians around the world…
…I’ve highlighted the rising tide of Islamophobia across Europe and in the UK…
…and, not for the first time, today I am addressing the challenge of anti-Semitism.
And in all these campaigns, the lesson I’ve learned all boils down to this:
If we really want to defeat racism and bigotry…
…if we’re serious about social harmony…
…and if we’re actually going to destroy the scourge of anti-Semitism in this country….
…then we need all faiths and none to stand up against it, united.
And that’s the main point I want to make today.
ISLAM AND JUDAISM
But first, let me step back a little bit.
Now, I have always believed there is far more which unites religious communities than divides them.
And I take comfort from the fact that in my own religion and the Jewish religion, there is much that brings us together.
Whether it’s the father of our faiths…
…in Judaism, it’s Avraham…
…in Islam, it’s Ibraheem….
….Whether it’s the covenant with God…
…our dietary requirements…
…or our shared values, which place the family as the bedrock of our society.
What’s more, if you take the last two thousand years of history, at times there has been a stronger relationship between Jews and Muslims than between other communities.
For part of Moorish history, Jews in Spain enjoyed a golden age.
For many years, Jewish cultural and economic life thrived.
Later, under the Ottoman Empire, many Jewish communities prospered.
Jewish immigration was welcomed by many Sultans.
As one Rabbi put it: “Is it not better to live under Muslims than under Christians?”
You may wonder why I’m giving you a history lesson:
Because it deeply concerns me that so much of modern Jewish and Muslim relations are defined not by what happened historically.
…but by a revision of history based on current events.
The ugly strain of anti-Semitism found in some parts of the Muslim community arose in the late 20th century.
The point is that there’s nothing in our history which suggests that hatred between Muslim and Jews is inevitable.
Instead we should learn from history that there’s a slippery slope with discrimination….
…when one community is attacked, it’s only a matter of time before another is.
As the Chief Rabbi said in 1993:
Hatred laid the groundwork for the Holocaust in the 1930s.
It paved the way for the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
It led to the massacre in Bosnia in 1995.
As he put it:
“we have too much knowledge to ignore the line that leads from hatred to holocaust”
And that brings me to the state of anti-Semitism in Britain today.
It’s appalling that anti-Semitism even exists in today’s Britain.
What’s even more abhorrent is that some people actually believe that it does not.
But on our streets, in our schools, on the internet…
….anti-Semitism is still a sad reality in today’s society.
According to the CST there were 283 anti-Semitic attacks in the first half of this year.
41 violent assaults.
35 attacks on Jewish property.
As well as threats, abusive behaviour, graffiti, hate mail and literature.
Despicable and deplorable.
Only recently a colleague of mine, Mike Freer MP was branded a ‘Jewish homosexual pig’ when he held a constituency surgery at his local mosque last month.
He was attacked by a group formerly known as Muslim Against Crusades, Islam 4 UK, and Al Muhajiroun.
…a group of hate-filled individuals, whatever name they choose to adopt at any time…
….whose single aim is to divide communities…
…who attacked me with eggs in Luton…
…and whose leader tried to shout me down on Newsnight for not wearing a face veil.
My colleague, the Home Secretary banned them last week.
My response is even less sympathetic:
It’s probably the same response as I gave to their leader, Anjem Choudry, in 2009:
If you can’t live by our values, get off our island.
Today’s anti-Semitism comes in various forms.
First, there are the thugs who attack synagogues and people in traditional dress.
As the CST put it: ‘random, spontaneous, verbal…abuse, directed at people who look Jewish while they go about their business in public places’.
Then there is the far left.
Those who think shadowy Jewish financiers cause all the problems of the world…
…control the media…
…run the money markets…
…and dominate our politics.
Third, there are the fascists, people like the British National Party, who add racial hate to the mix.
And finally, there are the religious fanatics.
The people who claim faith drives them to acts of hatred….
…but who in reality are nothing more than bigots, who hijack their faith to justify their acts.
It’s ironic really.
The Jewish people are at once targeted by the far left and the far right.
And they are at once branded superior and inferior by those who seek to attack them.
It just shows how serious this problem is.
Now I’m delighted that this government is so front-footed when it comes to dealing with anti-Semitism…
… building on the work done by the previous government .
We are pledging more money to protect Jewish schools.
Police are now recording anti-Semitism separately rather than as a catchall ‘hate crime’ category.
The CPS is improving in its prosecution of hate crime.
The last government supported the London Conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission for Combating Anti-Semitism.
There is also a strong, cross-government working group, on anti-Semitism, bringing together community leaders, politicians and senior civil servants.
And in specific areas where we know there is a problem, like higher education, progress is being made.
Our Business Innovation and Skills department has established an Anti-Semitism and Higher Education group.
Universities UK has established an academic freedom working group.
And the academic community are doing more to live up to their responsibilities.
But the problem is that government will always be a blunt instrument when it comes to dealing with problems like this.
This is a social problem – and so society has to be involved too.
We have to reach deep to root out this poison.
And we all have a role to play.
We don’t just need zero tolerance from government – which you will always get.
We need zero tolerance from society too.
That means Parliamentarians and the All Party Parliamentary Group continuing the work they’re doing.
That means every community speaking out against anti-Jewish hatred.
I want to see a sort of broken-windows policy applied.
Where we stop anti-Semitism at the thin end of the wedge…
…highlighting every possible example of discrimination.
That’s why I’m glad we have organisations like yours studying anti-Semitism.
That’s why I have such respect for the Community Security Trust.
But we also need to do something even more fundamental.
We need cross-community campaigns.
And that brings me to the main point that I want to make.
PROTECT THY NEIGHBOUR
When I was a teenager, I didn’t march against Apartheid because of my skin colour.
My grandfathers didn’t fight for Britain in the Second World War because they were part of the British Empire.
They did it because of a fundamental belief:
Persecution somewhere is persecution everywhere.
Oppress my neighbour and you oppress me.
Of course it’s right that individuals take the lead to expose problems their communities are facing.
Because for them – it’s real, and it’s personal.
That’s why, as a Muslim, I have been working to establish a similar group to the CST for British Muslim communities.
But what we really need is for our communities and these organisations to work together.
In the words of Rabbi Hillel, which capture this point beautifully:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am not for others, what am I?
And if not now, when?”
So, when Christian employees are put under pressure for wearing a cross.
When Jewish children are heckled for their traditional dress….When Muslim women are demonised for donning a headscarf.
Isn’t this the same thing?
An attack on freedom to express one’s faith?
Shouldn’t we therefore, as communities, unite?
I’m pleased to say that Jewish community is already taking the lead at this.
Take the Jewish Board of Deputies, who condemned the banning of minarets in Switzerland.
… condemned the EDL for its anti-Muslim rhetoric…
…and condemned the attack on a mosque in Israel.
This sort of cross-faith unanimity sends out a clear message.
It says: if you discriminate against my faith, you are discriminating against all faiths.
Because you are stifling people’s right to believe.
In the way that straight people march through Brighton during Gay Pride.
In the way that able-bodied people fight for disabled rights.
In the way that men are feminists too.
All faiths need to come together to tackle the scourge of religious bigotry.
That means Muslims condemning anti-Semitism.
It means Jews fighting Islamophobia.
It means an attack on a gudwara is an attack on a mosque, a church, a temple, a synagogue.
Because an attack on one faith is an attack on all faiths.
It’s an extension of the principle love thy neighbour:
Protect thy neighbour too.
…as the first Muslim to serve in the full Cabinet…
…as the first Muslim Chairman of the Conservative Party…
…I want to send an unmistakeable message to every community:
We must drain the poison of anti-Semitism from our country.
As a Muslim, for me, Islamophobia is personal.
But for me, Anti-Semitism is just as important.
I know that many have issued this call before me.
But I make this argument now because I believe it is urgently needed.
And I want to end by reading a statement we all know to illustrate my point:
It is about ignoring the persecution of your neighbour at your peril…
…because eventually the persecution will knock at your door too.
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
This was true during the Second World War.
And it’s just as true today.