The Right Honourable Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is Britain’s highest profile Muslim politician. At the sidelines of an Islamic conference in Dubai recently, the UK’s Senior Minister of State for Faith and Communities told Joanna Andrews about the power of faith and politics - and how through sheer determination she aims to improve ‘brand Islam’, build stronger communities in the UK – and beyond, and promote the UK as the preferred choice for Muslims to invest in.
Baroness Warsi was appointed Senior Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities at the Department for Communities and Local Government in September 2012. She was previously Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio. She is a Conservative member of the House of Lords – and upon being appointed in 2007, was the youngest at just 36.
On a fleeting visit to Dubai to attend the Global Islamic Economy Summit 2013, the Baroness took time out of her busy schedule to tell Al Shindagah about her passion for her job. She has achieved so much in such a short time but says there is a lot more work to be done to achieve her personal goals, “I have a list of things that I want to do in politics and am thoroughly ticking my way through it,” she says. “I am working to a timescale.”
She admits she couldn’t do it without the backing of her husband and their five children and says, “I have a fantastically supportive other half and very understanding children. There are large parts of their lives that I miss… but I absolutely believe in what I am doing and my family believes in what I am doing and that makes it easier.”
Since Prime Minister David Cameron came into office Baroness Warsi's career has gone from strength to strength.
“When we first came into government I was privileged by being appointed Conservative Party Chairman, that in itself, to serve as the Chairman of this amazing party, which as a child I was watching Mrs. Thatcher, was a real privilege. Then in 2012 I was asked to take on a Foreign Office role with the specific responsibility for Afghanistan, among other areas.” She has since visited the war-torn country many times and is driving the UK's long-term commitment to Afghanistan after the final UK combat troops leave at the end of 2014, including maintaining the UK’s current development assistance of £178 million per year until at least 2017.
But her remit doesn’t stop there. In a speech to the World Islamic Economic Forum in London in October 2013, David Cameron unveiled a plan for the UK to become the first country outside the Muslim world to sell a Shariahcompliant bond. “For years people have been talking about creating an Islamic bond - or sukuk - outside the Islamic world, but it’s never quite happened,” he told the conference. “Changing that is a question of pragmatism and political will. And here in Britain we have got both. This government wants Britain to become the first sovereign outside the Islamic world to issue an Islamic bond,” he said.
The Prime Minister had just the person in mind to change the mindset – the pragmatic and willful Baroness Warsi. So what’s her reaction to this ambitious goal? “I started from a position of zero, but I brought myself up to date as to what the challenges were,” Warsi says. “We have a great story to tell on Islamic finance, we have large number of investment and retail banks; we have a thriving legal sector, an insurance sector, education qualifications on Islamic finance. And almost anywhere you go in the world there is almost some connection that goes back to the City of London and the UK.”
The Shariah-compliant Islamic bond is valued at about £200 million ($320 million). This is in addition to the London Stock Exchange's plan of creating an Islamic market index.
Baroness Warsi doesn’t take her job lightly, and isn’t one to let opportunities vanish into thin air, “Maybe it is downright Yorkshire doggedness that I thought I was not prepared to let this one go, and we finally got agreement just before the World Islamic Economic Forum.” She continues, “I think it sends a flare out to the Islamic world saying ‘we are open for business, we should be your partner for choice on trade and engagement,’ and because the City of London is the leader and financial centre of the world.”
“Brand Islam is huge, but it is broken,” Warsi says. “Brand Islam is broken because those that have defined Brand Islam have been a minority who have chosen to do it for negative reasons. The underlying principals of Islamic Finance are about shared risk, it is about not selling something you don’t have, it is not about debt, it is not about taking advantage of people who may be economically excluded, or vulnerable. The world is absolutely ready for this more so since the financial crisis in 2008.”
About 20 per cent of the Minister’s time is spent on the issue of faith and communities, looking at how faith can and should play in the public sphere and how to create a better understanding between communities in the UK. But the challenge comes at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise. “I have the scars on my back for the way in which I have fought the challenge in relation to the rising tide of Islamophobia,” she says. “A few years ago I coined the phrase 'Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test,' because unfortunately anti-Muslim senitment was being found in the most civilized of settings such as British dinner tables.”
However, since then the government has put in place a number of policies to counteract this rising tide – including a working group on anti-Muslim hatred and MAMA (Monitoring Anti-Muslim Attacks).
“We have also started to highlight those moments in European history where Islamophia - taken to a extreme - led to the huge kind of bloodshed such as found in the genocide in Srebrenica during the Balkans War, but also to highlight the positive elements of Muslim contribution across the world, but specifically to Britain.”
She gives an example dating back to the 1st World War, “As we are approaching the Centenary Commemorations, one of the things I have been focusing on is highlighting the contribution of the Commonwealth soldiers of which a large number were Muslims, the youngest were not even men, some of the youngest were 15-year-old boys who gave their lives during the war. I think it is important to highlight those stories.”
So how do you tackle extremist views that have reared their ugly head, I ask. “First, you make sure you are aware of the situation and by vocalizing what the situation is - which I did back in 2011. We now have monitoring groups and the police are much more on top of gathering data looking at religious hate crime, and they are clamping down on hate crime. We also have community groups who are working to try to bridge some of the divides. It is also about highlighting the positive contribution that communities have made, pushing back on some of the myths around Islam, and that’s why the global Islamic economy drive is so important.”
Warsi’s role extends well beyond the UK borders. She has called on politicians around the world to ‘set the tone’ for religious tolerance. She fears that if governments sit by and watch, Christianity in ancient homelands is at risk of extinction.
“Christians are being driven out in regions such as Syria and Iraq, places where the religion first took root,” Warsi warns. “I am incredibly concerned as what I see as dwindling Christian communities in places where the faith was actually born. There is a real advantage to pluristic society," she says. “Not only is it the right thing to do to protect minority communities and to fight persecution in minority communities around the world but actually economically countries do better when they are pluristic societies.”
A contentious issue currently being debated in the UK is over restrictions on wearing the veil - such as the niqab or burka - in public places. Warsi warns against following the example of France, which banned veils in public places. “That is not the British way,” she says. “It is an issue of personal choice and I rail just as strongly to those who force women to wear veils as I do against those who force women not to wear veils. As long as the women who are making these choices are doing it purely out of their own choice, and as long as there is no issue in relation to practicality around health and safety, security, or identity, then we should butt out.”
She concludes with, “It wasn’t that long ago that men were telling us that our skirts were too short and now they are telling us our veils are too long! At what point are they just going to stay out of our wardrobes.”