Warsi’s Wasted Opportunity

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is a life peer, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, and Minister without Portfolio in David Cameron’s cabinet. She is also a Muslim.

In a recent controversial speech, Warsi has put forward a number of arguments, centred around the claim that bigotry towards Muslims has been mainstreamed in British society. In this article, I do not wish to take issue with that claim, which I think has some merit, especially when it comes to the often egregious manner in which stories relating to Islam and Muslims are presented in Britain’s popular newspapers. Indeed, I have recently published a report which looks at paranoia about the supposed ‘Islamisation’ of Britain and highlights the way in which sloppy ‘journalism’ is fuelling this myth.

My concern with Warsi’s speech, and previous statements of hers, lies not in that issue. Instead, my concern lies with Warsi’s ongoing insistence that the British Government should ‘do God’, and the way in which she misrepresents secularism and seems to be demanding some kind of special status for religiously inspired discourse.

In Warsi’s 2009 Conservative Party Conference speech, she set out an argument that has re-appeared in her most recent speech, namely the claim that religious people in general – not simply Muslims – are currently the victims of some kind of far-reaching, bigoted, anti-religious campaign. In her Conference speech, Warsi claimed that there is in Britain ‘a growing intolerance and illiberal attitude towards those who believe in God’, a ‘secular agenda’, an ‘ideology’ and ‘agenda’ ‘driven by the political-elite’, and a ‘scepticism against faith communities and in some case outright hostility’ that is ‘both wrong and dangerous’. In her recent speech, Warsi returned to this theme, claiming that there is a generalised ‘rising tide of anti-religious bigotry’, that ‘we’re [being] fed anti-faith phobias’, and that ‘[w]hat we need now is for more faith leaders, and more faith communities, to stand up and speak out in defence of faith’.

Such arguments are of course far from unique to Warsi, far from unique to Britain, and far from unique to Islam. In fact, this notion that there is an aggressive secular conspiracy against ‘faith’ and ‘people of faith’ has become something of a rallying cry in recent years for those seeking to demand that religious belief should be given some kind of special status, a special status that is not accorded to any other type of ideology in society.

In her speech, Warsi makes a number of fawning references to the Pope, and seems to be almost boasting about having had an audience with him to discuss ‘faith’ communities in Europe. This is unsurprising, for Ratzinger has claimed that Europe is in the grip of an anti-religious ‘dictatorship of relativism’, an ‘intolerance’ of ‘faith’ that constitutes ‘a new dogmatism’, and argues that secular reason has become ‘an abstract, negative religion [which] is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow’.

Warsi’s fawning praise of the Pope has been more than matched from the Catholic side in various statements on Islam. In 2008, Jean-Louis Tauran, a senior Vatican Cardinal, ‘thanked‘ Muslims for returning religious discourse to Europe, in a speech published in L’Osservatore Romano, saying that Muslims have ‘demanded space for God in society’, and praising them for this. In October 2010, Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini jumped on board the interfaith train, stating in another L’Osservatore Romano article:

Christians also must be able to forge an agreement with Muslims on how to fight those aspects which, like all extremisms, threaten society. I refer to atheism, materialism and relativism. Christians, Muslims and Jews can work together to reach this common objective.

Then there’s Catholic convert Tony Blair, a man who falls over himself extolling the virtues of the supposedly ‘progressive’ and ‘inclusive’ message of the Qur’an, and who claims that religious people currently ‘face an aggressive secular attack’. Not to be outdone, American evangelical Christians have likewise embraced this new sense of victimhood, getting upset about atheist billboards and repeatedly making claims about a supposed ‘war on Christmas’. Pastor George Lucas, executive director of Save America First, Evangelize the World, for example, views atheist activists as people who are ‘trying to tear down … my country’.

Despite all this fear-mongering about the evil power of secularism, there is no real evidence to back it up, and plenty that undermines it. Warsi’s view that religion in Britain has faced a sustained attack in recent years flies in the face of the reality of the situation. She has claimed that under the previous Labour government, ‘the State’ became ‘increasingly sceptical of an individual’s religious belief’ and that ‘the political-elite’ had ‘hijacked the pursuit of “equality” by demanding a dumbing down of faith’. Yet, despite the oft-quoted statement of Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell – that ‘We don’t do God’ – Blair actually spent much of his Premiership doing just that. Blair worked closely with a variety of Muslim ‘leaders’ and organisations, made favourable statements about Islam, and pumped huge amounts of taxpayers’ money into initiatives aimed specifically at bolstering the status of Muslims and Islam in Britain. And none of this stopped when Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister. Under Brown, the Labour government used public money for projects such as ‘building the capacity of today and tomorrow’s leaders in the Muslim community’ and ‘deliver[ing] leadership training courses for younger members of the Muslim community’.

Under Brown, a £4 million funding project called ‘Faiths in Action’ was launched, which sought ‘to help faith communities and others to promote understanding, dialogue and develop strong and sustainable partnerships’. Then there was ‘Interfaith Week’, of which Communities Secretary Hazel Blears stated:

I’m encouraging faith groups and communities to reach out to each other during ‘Inter Faith Week’ and local authorities, schools, and others to host and encourage inter faith events. England’s first-ever ‘Inter Faith Week’ can provide a wonderful  focus for increasing understanding between people and help to shape the new economy that we build together.

Brown was hardly coy about his own religious beliefs. Speaking on Premier Christian Radio, which hosts numerous fundamentalist shows (‘Let the Bible Speak‘, for example, is based on belief in ‘The Absolute Authority and Divine Verbal Inspiration of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God’), Brown opposed the ‘privatisation’ of faith, reiterated the fact that ‘[i]n Britain we are not a secular state’, and stated his belief that ‘the role of religion and faith in what people sometimes call the public square is incredibly important’. He also appeared on the religious television programme ‘Songs of Praise’ and spoke of his ‘Presbyterian conscience’.

Warsi’s claims that the ‘political-elite’ of the previous government were somehow driven by an ‘ideology’ of ‘scepticism against faith communities’ are frankly ridiculous, and now that Labour are no longer in power, she has turned her attention to another elite group she claims is fostering prejudice towards Muslims, and to religious people in general. We learn from Warsi’s recent speech that ‘[y]ou could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test’. So, Warsi claims, it is no longer the government, but instead the London dinner party crowd who are stoking bigotry against the religious.

One piece of Warsi’s evidence is a quote from left-wing atheist Polly Toynbee, who, Warsi notes, has stated: ‘I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it’. Yet no context for the quote is given, and this suggests at best a laziness on Warsi’s part. The quote in question is taken from a 1997 article and as far back as 1998 it was being used (again, out of context) as ‘evidence’ of ‘Islamophobia’ by the Khomeinist ‘Islamic Human Rights Commission’. You can read Toynbee’s article in full here, in which she states:

I am an Islamophobe. I judge Islam not by its words – the teachings of the Koran as interpreted by those Thought-for-the-Day moderate Islamic theologians. I judge Islam by the religion’s deeds in the societies where it dominates. Does that make me a racist?

For I am also a Christophobe. If Christianity were not such a spent force in this country, if it were powerful and dominant as it once was, it would still be every bit as damaging as Islam is in those theocratic states in its thrall. Christianity remains a lethal weapon in Northern Ireland.

If I lived in Israel, I’d feel the same way about Judaism. Everywhere in the world where religion dominates over the state, that is a bad place to live. Religiophobia is highly rational.

Seen in its proper context, this quote is hardly evidence of a growth in anti-Muslim bigotry amongst the chattering classes, and the fact that the article it is lifted from was published 13 years ago makes it essentially irrelevant to any claims about the current situation in Britain regarding Muslims and prejudice towards them.

Once again, Warsi emerges as someone who cannot formulate a proper argument and relies on a tabloid-style disregard for reality. This suggests that Warsi’s real aim is less to oppose bigotry towards Muslims or religious people in general, and more to promote an agenda, specifically an agenda that seeks to force religion and religious people even further into the heart of public debate than they already are. The massive public funding of projects aimed specifically at Muslims, and the long-running governmental support for interfaith initiatives, are not enough for Warsi. Indeed, she wants to see much, much more recognition of ‘faith’ and uses her strawman argument about a generalised prejudice against the religious as the basis of a call for ‘more faith leaders, and more faith communities, to stand up and speak out in defence of faith’.

Yet, who should these ‘faith leaders’ be, and precisely what is it they are supposed to be ‘defending’? Certainly Warsi is not someone I would want to be selecting ‘faith leaders’ to promote, given her friendship with Lord Nazir Ahmed, of whom an article at Harry’s Place notes:

Lord Ahmed, who is inexplicably still a member of the Labour Party, more recently supported the Islamic Forum Europe’s favoured candidate, Lutfur Rahman. The Islamic Forum Europe is aligned with Jamaat-e-Islami. However, this is just one in a long line of disasterous decisions made by this Peer. You can search through the archives for the full picture. However, it was Lord Ahmed who hosted the neo Nazi Holocaust denier and Lukeshenko ally, “Israel Shamir” in the House of Lords. More recently, he gave the now-dead Al Qaeda militant, Abu Rideh a tour around the House. Last year, he signed up for a speaking event with senior Jamaat-e-Islami figures. He also openly supported the banned hate preacher, Zakir Naik.

Yet Baroness Warsi considers this man her ally.

The search for credible ‘faith leaders’ is, as the Blair Government’s foolish cosying up to the Muslim Council of Britain shows, not any easy one, and, given Warsi’s friendship with Ahmed, I would hate to see who she might consider useful as a ‘faith leader’.

The whole strategy of seeking out ‘faith leaders’ is deeply flawed, and if Warsi is hoping to see a greater role for ‘faith leaders’ such as Imams, she would do well to consider the words of former Islamist Ed Husain of the Quilliam Foundation:

Most British Muslims are under 25. When, like me, they have questions about identity, belonging, values, and religion, their local mosque leadership is futile. Britain’s mosques are run by men who are physically in Britain, but psychologically in Pakistan. They retain their village rituals and sectarianism, and prevent the growth of an indigenous British Islam. And for as long as young Muslims are confused about whether they belong in Britain or elsewhere, we risk handing them over to preying extremists in our midst.

By importing cheap imams from poor, intellectually deprived and theologically conservative places mosques put young Britons in the hands of men who do not have the linguistic or cultural backgrounds to deal with modern Britain. Little wonder, then, that many young Muslims turn to radical university Islamic societies, extremist websites, and Hamas-supporting groups in Britain for ‘religious guidance’.

Warsi wants ‘faith leaders’ to ‘speak out in defence of faith’, and has complained that under the previous government, ‘the political-elite … hijacked the pursuit of “equality” by demanding a dumbing down of faith’. So, if Warsi wants to see defence of a non-’dumbed down’ version of ‘faith’, then what might that mean? There is perhaps a clue in Warsi’s contemptuous use of inverted commas around the word ‘equality’, for she is a woman whose 2005 election leaflets contained a promise to ‘campaign strongly for an end to sex education at seven years and the promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life’. Warsi is also quoted in the leaflet as saying: ‘Labour has scrapped section 28 which was introduced by the Conservatives to stop schools promoting alternative sexual lifestyles such as homosexuality to children as young as seven years old … now schools are allowed and do promote homosexuality and other alternative sexual lifestyles to your children’.

This material certainly makes some sense of Warsi’s otherwise bizarre claims about the previous British government promoting an anti-religious ‘ideology’ and ‘agenda’. And by no great coincidence, part of the Pope’s recent complaints about secularism are based on similar themes:

When, for example, in the name of non-discrimination, people try to force the Catholic Church to change her position on homosexuality or the ordination of women, then that means that she is no longer allowed to live out her own identity and that, instead, an abstract, negative religion is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow.

Both Warsi and the Pope seem to be promoting Orwellian doublethink in their complaints about secular ‘intolerance’. As is so often the case, it seems that for Warsi and those of her ilk, promoting tolerance of homosexuality is in fact a form of intolerance, intolerance against ‘faith’, driven by a secular ‘agenda’ that insists on annoying notions of human rights and equality before the law.

In her desire to oppose any ‘dumbing down’ of ‘faith’, Warsi has bizarrely ended up parroting Islamist arguments in her recent speech. Warsi complains that dividing Muslims into two camps – ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ – is a bad thing. But why? Surely the entire basis of the post-9/11 campaign to educate the public about Muslims and to counter anti-Muslim bigotry has been to make such a distinction? The problem, as Warsi sees it, with such an approach again revolves around her disdain for the ‘dumbing down’ of ‘faith’. Warsi states:

We need to think harder about the language we use. And we should be careful about language around religious ‘moderates’. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads:

In the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’.

In the school, the kids say ‘the family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.

And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a Burkha, the passers-by think: ‘that woman’s either oppressed or making a political statement’.

So we need to stop talking about moderate Muslims, and instead talk about British Muslims.

This argument is frankly bizarre, in that it essentially says we must make no distinction between Islamists such as the Islamic Forum Europe and Warsi herself. They are now to be seen as just different kinds of ‘British Muslim’. It suggests that those Muslims who are well integrated into British society, people who may be perceived to be ‘only fairly Muslim’ as a result, are somehow actually betraying their faith; supremely ironic, given that Warsi is a divorcee who doesn’t cover her hair, and by the standards of Islamists and isolationist conservative Muslims is ‘only fairly Muslim’ at best. It is in her comments about the burkha that Warsi tips from mere irony into absurdity, for in defending the wearing of the burkha as being authentically Islamic, and in claiming that it is wrong to see it as a symbol of oppression or of allegiance to Islamism, Warsi ends up taking the side of Islamists.

Taj Hargey of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford has the following to say about the burkha:

For too long a foreign-inspired Muslim clergy that defends female inferiority and gender discrimination has subjected Muslims in the West to virulent indoctrination. This brainwashing stems from the Middle East and South Asia but has no Koranic foundation. It is propagated by nefarious factions, including the hardline Wahhabi-Ikwani-Salafi-Deobandi sects. These currently ascendant sexist groups in Europe peddle the myth that full body covering and face concealment for women is a religious requirement. On the contrary, it is nothing more than a cultural choice, a personal preference. The mullahs fail to tell their flocks that nowhere in Islam’s transcendent text is there any mention of the word burka or niqab. Since the Koran declares itself to be immutable and that nothing has been omitted from the scripture (vi, 38), why is there a need for latterday misogynists to impose a draconian dress code that is not specifically sanctioned by the holy book? Other than calling for public modesty of both sexes, Islam’s sacred scripture does not prescribe any specific sartorial code.

[...]

While Muslim women should be at liberty to decide what to wear, they have to be truthful and say that they are upholding cultural mores and tribal traditions when they veil their faces. They cannot honestly claim that this trendy fad, which evokes understandable fear and negativity in European society, is a koranic imperative or a religious duty.

And Mona Eltahawy writes:

I am a Muslim, I am a feminist and I detest the full-body veil, known as a niqab or burqa. It erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.

We must not sacrifice women at the altar of political correctness or in the name of fighting a growingly powerful right wing that Muslims face in countries where they live as a minority.

[...]

The racism and discrimination that Muslim minorities face in many countries — such as France, which has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and Britain, where two members of the xenophobic British National Party were shamefully elected to the European Parliament — are very real.

But the best way to support Muslim women would be to say we oppose both racist Islamophobes and the burqa. We’ve been silent on too many things out of fear we’ll arm the right wing.

In Warsi’s case, it seems that her response to anti-Muslim bigotry is not to offer a well thought out argument, but is instead to seek to shout down almost any criticism of anything that can be seen as having to do with ‘faith’. An integrated, Western Muslim who doesn’t cover her hair and occupies a position of significant political power finds herself, in a haphazard way, allying herself with the arguments of Wahhabism and Islamism out of fear that she might otherwise arm the ‘secularism’ she so despises. How else to explain her silly use of Polly Toynbee as an example of a bigot, and her defence of the burkha?

Warsi, it seems, is labouring under the illusion that there is some kind of loosely interconnected conspiracy afoot in the West, made up of a strange alliance of human rights advocates, secularists, right-wing tabloids, and left-wing atheists. All of these combined are somehow working together to create an environment hostile to Islam, and hostile to religion in general. The key problem with this view is that it is ridiculously simplistic and results in arguments that are only marginally more nuanced than the kind of rubbish you might expect from a reactionary talk radio host.

Warsi, and many other ‘people of faith’ like her, hold the view that modern society is intrinsically anti-religious, and that the root cause of this is a ‘secular agenda’ which is attempting to suppress and oppress religion and religious believers. In reality, this is an utterly false view of the West today. A significant factor at work here is the widely held misunderstanding of what secularism actually is. For Warsi, secularism is supposedly a philosophy based on a hatred of religion and a desire to see its eradication, yet secularism is actually nothing of the sort.

In very simple terms, secularism is the desire to see a society organised around a common language. Secularism does not banish religion from society, but rather makes common ground for people of all religions and none. Secularism says that a society is most cohesive when certain common rules are agreed and when the running of society is not dependent on belief in one or other purported divine revelation. Secularism doesn’t say that religious people cannot be inspired by their religious beliefs, and cannot seek to enter the political sphere, but rather that when they present their arguments they should do so in a language that is accessible to everyone, making a reasonable case for their positions that does not require an a priori acceptance of certain religious claims. For example, a Christian may believe that helping the poor is a divinely ordained duty based on his or her reading of the gospels, but in a secular society this desire should be expressed rationally, in a language that is universal, rather than through the citing of biblical passages and emotive arguments about their Lord and Saviour. That way a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist can happily get behind the Christian’s proposals regarding alleviating poverty without having compromised their personal beliefs (or lack of them) in any way. Seen in this way, secularism is actually a very positive thing for religious people, in particular religious minorities, for they can continue to practice, and be inspired by, their religious beliefs, and also fully participate in society.

The only area in which secularism can conceivably be presented as ‘anti-religious’ is in the demand that there must be one law for all, and that the rights of all minorities must be protected equally. What that means, for example, is that religious people have the right to tell their children that homosexuality is wrong, but they do not have the right to interfere with gay people’s lives, or to demand that their children should be shielded from knowing anything about homosexuality. Warsi has campaigned against sex education on the grounds that she believes homosexuality ‘undermines family life’, but in a secular society based on human rights, the rights of gay people must trump those of people who, for whatever reason, don’t like gay people or see them as some kind of threat. Likewise, there are those who believe Islam undermines Western civilisation, but that doesn’t give them the right to demand that their child’s school library is purged of books about Islam or that teaching about Islam in RE lessons should be stopped. In this way, a liberal, secular society protects all of its members and frees them to live as they wish, provided they respect the rights and freedoms of others. To keep religion out of the political sphere is not to censure people who have ‘faith’, but rather it is actually a prerequisite for the creation and maintenance of a stable society whose members follow many different faiths, philosophies, and political ideologies, but can unite around a shared public language and shared basic values (the rule of law, the rights of the individual, and so on).

The problem of anti-Muslim bigotry is real, and Baroness Warsi was right to raise it. However, it is a great shame that she wasted the opportunity to make a robust contribution to the debate, and wasted it so spectacularly badly.

About the Author

Edmund Standing holds a BA in Theology & Religious Studies and an MA in Critical & Cultural Theory. His other articles on this website can be found in the articles archive.

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