SHAFAQNA – Britain’s relationship with its Muslim community has become so brittle that it needs to be reset from scratch, according to one of the UK’s most prominent Muslims. Speaking from her home in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack, Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi said: “When things go wrong with an iPhone or a coffee machine, pressing the restart button is usually a good, safe place to start. Right now, Britain’s relationship with her Muslims is within that frozen, overloaded, splurging episode – we need to press the button.”
A third UK act of terrorism in 10 weeks means that a recalibrated discourse among politicians, Muslims and the British public needs to start urgently, she said. She is clear that the Muslim community is playing its part by condemning the actions of the terrorists more forcibly than ever in an effort to demonstrate that there is no place for Islamism. As proof of this, she points to the reaction of the Muslim community following the tragedies.
“The fact that scholars and imams have said they will not perform Muslim burials is pretty unprecedented. Imams and young people have taken to the streets, we’ve seen vigils up and down the country, Muslims have raised money for the victims.”
Warsi, who resigned from the cabinet in 2014 over the government’s policy on Gaza, said she has seen the UK’s Muslim community fearful, but never has she witnessed it as furious. “I’ve never seen as much anger. The language used to describe the terrorists has never been sharper, angrier, and, I would say, the level of anger towards the terrorists from British Muslims is even greater than it is within the mainstream.”
She, too, is similarly exasperated. Her grandparents arrived in West Yorkshire from Pakistan in 1958, with her father originally securing employment as a mill worker. Born in 1971 into a working-class home in Dewsbury, Warsi made history in 2010 as Britain’s first Muslim cabinet member, becoming co-chairman of the Conservative party. Despite such achievements, however, she is aware that her Britishness remains an issue of debate.
“My family has 60 years’ history in Britain, but how long before I have to stop taking a loyalty test?” The enduring debate on multiculturalism alongside the populist instincts that convulse her political party makes Warsi wonder whether her grandchildren will actually call Britain their home.
A group of 2.8 million people are, she said, consistently defined through the lens of a tiny fraction of murderers. “There are far more Muslim doctors in Britain than terrorists, yet the community is not defined by the reputation of its daily life-savers, it’s defined by the reputation of ad hoc life-takers.”
Warsi would like the country’s leading politicians to do much more to counter this. She urges the government to show restraint in its response to terrorism, pointing out that the Muslim community in all three recent attacks had come forward to warn the authorities that the perpetrators had exhibited extremist behaviour. “There’s no point saying we need to go deeper into the Muslim community, because in all cases they reported them [the terrorists]; it was obvious to them who was radicalised.”
Warsi also asks the government to shy away from an ideological response to tackling terrorism, name-checking one former cabinet minister as a Conservative colleague whose instincts helped engender an antagonistic and counter-productive relationship with the Muslim community. One central source of irritation is the broad retreat from dialogue with large sections of the Muslim community.
“The government has got to stop its policy of disengagement. There are a lot of calls saying they should be speaking to more young people, more women, a broader range of people, but since 2007 successive governments have had a policy of disengagement. We have to question whether not speaking to people has actually yielded results,” said Warsi, whose book The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain presents a forensic indictment of counter-terrorism policy. “If we work with the Muslim community we will make this problem smaller. If we introduce legislation that pits us against them, we are going to make it bigger.”
Another thorny issue that needs urgent attention, according to Warsi, is the approach to far-right extremism and Islamism. “There is still no definition of far-right extremism. The only definition of extremism that exists within government policy is Islamism. We also have no definition of what is Islamophobia.”
Even now Warsi – whose multiculturalist credentials saw her placed on an Islamic State “kill list” last year – remains the only British politician to have delivered a mainstream speech on Islamophobia. Yet she is quick to warn that Muslims must take responsibility, in particular by challenging enduring conservative views. “You’re not a terrorist, but are you fit for purpose? That includes everything from their attitude to women, minorities, LGBT communities, education, the child exploitation issue.”
Warsi – who wore a traditional shalwar kameez dress at her first meeting in Downing Street – also believes the British Muslim community needs to work towards phasing out the burqa from British streets, describing it as “not the greatest manifestation of British Islam”.
Another change, she believes, is scrutinising the policymakers’ obsession with integration, pointing out that many of the recent attackers lived, superficially at least, westernised lifestyles at some stage. Instead, says Warsi, the debate on assimilation should focus more on the economics of mobility.
“Integration is a middle-class pastime. If we’re really going to address the root causes of separatist communities, then let’s look at the economics, poverty, life chances. If you have no choice and your life chances are limited, then integration is not a priority.
“Just because you don’t speak English does not mean you’re going to be a terrorist – the majority of terrorists speak good English. Secondly, there’s always a fraction of religious groups that choose to live separate lives and that is not an issue of integration. We have to keep the issue of terrorism and integration seprarate.”
But Warsi is philosophical that Britain’s Muslims will ultimately be embraced, citing the cycle of history to show that the demonisation of minorities in the UK will eventually, inevitably, subside. “The Muslim community might be seen as the enemy within now, but it’s only the latest in a long list of others that have been seen as such, starting with Catholics, Jews, blacks, the Irish, the miners, socialists. We’re just the latest in a long line.”