Weekly Zaman: “Extremists that do such things are not supported by Islam”
|HAVVA MURAT, KATE O’SULLIVAN, LONDON|
“Every religion has extremists and terrorists who will do things and will somehow find a religious basis upon which to do it, but what you do not do is tarnish the entire community off the back of it.” These are the words of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, minister for faith and communities and senior minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Islamophobia is a key area of concern in the UK. This was highlighted in the recent tensions following the brutal murder of British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby, when anti-Muslim groups took to the streets of London in protest. There have been concerns that the attack may cause a surge in anti-Muslim violence and create conflict between community groups. The English Defence League (EDL) and the British National Party (BNP) have used the attack as an opportunity to promote their policies, which are widely believed to be discriminatory against Muslims and other ethnic minority groups. In response to the attacks, Baroness Warsi told Weekly Zaman: “Terrorists and extremists will fail in their objective to divide us. We will emerge a stronger and more united country from this tragic event and will not be divided by those who seek to cause unrest. It is heartening that we saw a resolute voice from the British Muslim communities to condemn these attacks and show their support for our armed forces.”
In 2011, Warsi said that Islamophobia in the UK had “passed the dinner-table test” in that it had become “socially accepted” in the most civilised of settings. Today she says that tragically statistics suggests that she was right. A key spokesperson for religious communities in the UK, Warsi told Weekly Zaman what the UK government is doing to combat religious bigotry and highlights the role of both the media and Muslim individuals in portraying the true face of Islam.
Ten years after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the UK has made some positive steps towards tackling racism against Britain’s black communities, do you think that Islamophobia has become a new, more “socially accepted” form of prejudice?
When I was growing up, what really focused much of the equalities debate was around the colour of your skin, so I always defined myself as black British or Asian British. But I think in many ways, following 11 September and the events that followed, and possibly I think even before that, there was a culture that was starting to develop where people were beginning to be defined by their religion rather than by their race. I stopped being British Asian and I became British Muslim and there was a whole new kind of battle all over again. In 2011, I said that Islamophobia had passed the “dinner-table test” and what I meant by that was that even in the most civilised of settings, in dinner parties, it was acceptable to say things about Muslims in the way that you wouldn’t say about other communities. Now early statistics from the police show that actually [in terms of] religious hate crime, hate crimes against Muslims [make up] one of the largest [groups affected] and so we’re starting to kind of uncover the extent of the problem I think there is still a long way to go, but we’ve now started on the right path.
What differentiates Islamophobia from racism? Do you think that there is genuine fear born out of a lack of understanding and education about the Muslim faith?
I think there’s much overlap. Racism or any kind of bigotry is a fear of the other and much of that fear of the other is based upon the unknown and the less you know about people, the more likely you are to be bigoted about them. What we found is that sometimes extremist groups flourish in those areas where there aren’t that many ethnic minorities, so they don’t have that much day-to-day contact and experience of minority communities. I think if people do feel concerned about Islam and what that means for Britain, it’s important to have a debate on those issues. There’s also responsibility on Muslims to project a face of Islam which is the true face of Islam. I have great admiration and love for my faith, but I don’t always have a lot of time for the followers of that faith because of the way in which they do things in the name of faith which are completely against the teachings of Islam. We’ve seen extremists which resulted in the tragic consequences of 7/7 who do this in the name of their faith, but actually it’s not in any way supported by the faith of Islam. Each and every one of us is an ambassador in the way in which we conduct ourselves in public life and the way in which we conduct ourselves in private life.
What are your thoughts in regards to the UK’s acceptance of the headscarf? There aren’t currently any parliamentarians in the UK government that wear a hijab. Would the Conservative Party welcome a prospective member who wore a headscarf?
If you go onto mainland Europe, in some front offices you can’t even wear a headscarf. I think here in the United Kingdom there is no mainstream political party that has called for the banning of hijabs. In fact, [Home Secretary] Theresa May and my other colleagues have come out very strongly defending the right of women to be able to wear what they want. Britain is a very tolerant, very accepting society, and I think that the hijab is actually a very elegant garment as well. Salma Yaqoob is a frontline politician who has worn the hijab and she does a lot of media. I do not think that wearing a hijab should stop you from getting on in life and I also think that you have to be true to yourself, you have to do what’s comfortable for you and I’ve said that telling women to wear the hijab and cover up is exactly the same as telling women not to cover up and not to wear the hijab, and ultimately, as women, I think we need to fight the battle and make sure that men stay out of our wardrobes.
Do you think that the British education system nurtures a positive attitude towards a multi-faith, multi-cultural society? What role do faith schools play in this?
I think the way in which the Conservatives have supported the academy programme and the free schools programme very much puts this back into the hands of the head teacher. A good head teacher will look at the make-up of their school. In terms of faith schools, I think this depends on individual parental choice. In the past, the only reason why parents have sent their children to faith schools was because that was the only place where their children would get a decent education; the faith element of faith schools is not always the reason why people go there. There is a fantastic Jewish faith school in Birmingham and 70 per cent of the kids that go there are Muslim. So they’re not going there to be Jewish. They’re going there because it’s just a great school. My daughter is Muslim and she spent most of her primary education up till the age of 11 at an Anglican convent school, she wasn’t there to become a Christian but actually it was a great school which provided a good education.
Do you think that as Britain becomes increasingly secular in terms of its culture that there is an increased lack of tolerance for religious groups and faith communities in general?
Britain needs to be sure about its own Christian heritage. I believe that there is an aggressive form of secularism, unfortunately not just in Britain but across Europe, which somehow supports the view that there has to be no concept of faith in the public domain. People do not leave their religion on their doorstep as they leave home. It is something that makes them: It’s what they eat; it’s what they say, it’s what they wear, it’s who they are. It is about being able to have a religion and also about being able to not have a religion. That’s fine, but there are very few people of religion who I meet who say, “You’re not allowed not to have a religion”, but there are a lot of people who are not very religious who spend a lot of time telling people that they shouldn’t be.
Do you think that the recent success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the local elections — considering the party’s focus on immigration — is suggestive of a growing racial tension in the UK?
No, I think that the growth of UKIP is because it’s not the other parties. I think people always in mid-term feel the need to protest and feel that they want to have their voice heard. But I think there is also an underlying sense of unease about the pace and change of some of our communities. I think it’s important as mainstream political parties we do say that in this country we have to be quite analytical about what we need at any one time, the skills that we need at any one time, where we can go out and get them from and how we actually make sure that communities change in pace with how we can meet the demands of those communities.
Does the government have to be careful with reducing the immigration figures to make sure that it doesn’t have a negative impact on Britain’s multi-faith communities? Creating an “us and them” attitude?
No. I think actually having a strong policy on controlled immigration which is frank and open will do more for community relations than actually impact [negatively] upon them. If you talk to many ethnic minority communities, what you’ll find is: Who are the children who find it hardest to access a decent education? They’re usually from the black minority ethnic communities. Who are the people who usually find it the most difficult to access work? It’s usually women from the black and minority ethnic communities. So the challenges of mass immigration and uncontrolled immigration impact just as much upon minority communities as they do on white communities. So, I think being very honest to say, look, immigration is not a racial debate; it’s not about the colour of your skin. If you look at most of the recent concerns about immigration, it has been about people from Eastern Europe who are white. So it’s not about race, it’s not about religion, it’s actually about resourcing and what at any one time the country needs and what at any one time the country can sustain. The more frank and honest we are in that debate, the less room we leave for extremist parties to use it to propagate their own agendas. Do you think that the media’s portrayal of Islamic extremism in the form of terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda, the connections frequently made between terrorist organisations following the tragedies of 9/11 and 7/7 and the current conflicts in Mali, Syria, Somalia etc., add to the British public’s distrust of the Islamic faith? People who do violent acts in the name of a faith of course bring that faith into disrepute and that’s why when I’ve challenged extremists as a Muslim. Sometimes I feel a bigger responsibility to challenge extremism because I know their behaviour leads to direct consequences for me and my family. And every religion — Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhists in Burma — every religion has extremists and terrorists who will do things and will somehow find a religious basis upon which to do it, but what you do not do is tarnish the entire community off the back of it. You cannot say that British Muslims are defined by al-Qaeda any more than you can say that British people are defined by the British National Party or that English people are defined by the English Defence League.
In the same light, what effect do you think that the media’s portrayal of Abu Qatada has had on the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim British communities?
For many, many years, long before even the government tried to get Abu Qatata to leave our shores, people within the British Muslim community have been asking for him to be thrown off our shores because what they said was that his preaching was having a detrimental effect on community relations. It was young Muslims who were being led astray because of his preaching — mothers who would lose their sons and their daughters because of what they were hearing from this man. And so I think we are united: Muslims and non-Muslims, people of all backgrounds are united. Anybody who tries to divide us as a nation is not welcome here and I completely support Theresa May’s efforts to get him to leave.
What effects do you think that this week’s attack in Woolwich will have on the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim communities?
Terrorists and extremists will fail in their objective to divide us. We will emerge a stronger and more united country from this tragic event and will not be divided by those who seek to cause unrest. What is heartening is that we saw a resolute voice from the British Muslim communities to condemn these attacks and show their support for our armed forces.