Faith in Politics: Interview with Baroness Warsi 30 March 2014

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is the first Muslim to serve in a British cabinet. Laura Jones spoke to her about her views on faith, Islamophobia and Tony Blair.

Baroness WarsiFrom humble beginnings, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has come to be one of the most recognisable faces in British politics. From her working-class roots, she excelled in the field of law and then moved into politics and is now the Senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities. She was also previously Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, being the first Asian to hold such a position. Throughout her career she has been an advocate for the importance of faith in society and is aware of the positive effect of her own faith on her work.

“My faith is extremely important to me as a politician. It motivates and sustains me throughout in a high-pressured, highly responsible job, one in which you have to make serious decisions that affect people’s lives on a daily basis.”

Although she is a Muslim, Baroness Warsi feels she acts on behalf of people of various faiths. “[My faith] also helps me to understand and represent those of faith – not just Muslims but people of different religions, enabling me to make the case for faith in society. The fact that I grew up as a Muslim in a Christian majority country has taught me a lot. She attracted headlines for speaking about Europe’s loss of a Christian identity “as I argued in my speech at the Vatican in 2012, countries should strengthen their religious identities and this should not be at the expense of minorities.”

Warsi’s confidence in speaking about faith in the public sphere, and as a politician, contrasts with many other politicians who prefer not to ‘do God’, particularly noted about the previous Labour government. Blair notably kept his conversion to Catholicism quiet until he resigned as Prime Minister, and Brown, the son of a Church of Scotland Minister, often avoided speaking about his religious upbringing. Warsi remarked “I think it is wrong that in the previous government, the two Prime Ministers felt they had to conceal their great personal religious conviction. There is nothing wrong with a politician expressing their faith. After all, we are meant to represent the public, and in the last census more than 90 per cent of people stated a religion.”

As a Muslim, Baroness Warsi has also been very vocal about Muslim issues, particularly Islamophobia. In 2011, Baroness Warsi said that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test” sparking a public debate on the issue. With the recent rise of the EDL, the conviction of Pavlo Lapshyn for murdering a Muslim man and planting bombs in mosques as well as a recent spate of attacks on mosques and Muslims, we were interested to know whether Baroness Warsi thought things had changed since her ground-breaking statement.

“It’s difficult to say whether things have changed or improved, since the recording and monitoring of these sorts of hate crimes is still relatively new. What is undeniable, though, is that anti-Muslim hatred sadly remains a serious issue in Britain.”

The coalition government has been accused by many of stirring up xenophobia. Cameron delivered a speech in May 2011 critiquing multiculturalism and linking it to terrorism. Warsi however argued that “this government has done more than any other to prevent and tackle the problem. For example, we have established the first ever cross-government working group on anti-Muslim hatred and helped set up Tell MAMA, the first national project to record incidents and ensure victims have access to support. But there is much more to do.”

As Minister for Faith and Communities, Warsi regards tackling both religious extremism and far-right radicalism as central to her work. “We need to show people that Islam and Britain are not incompatible, which is what the far-right and Islamist extremists argue. To this end we supported the Big Iftar over the summer, during which mosques opened their doors to the wider communities during the month of fasting, to dispel myths about their faith and forge friendships.

The government has already outlined many of its plans for the centenary of the First World War, with Michael Gove arguing that pride in the war has diminished in recent decades. Warsi has her own plans for the centenary, “we are launching a programme which seeks to educate people across the country about the role played by the Commonwealth during the First World War, including hundreds of thousands of Muslims.” Outlining a British identity that is inclusive of Muslims is important to Warsi.

Baroness Warsi feels that faith communities have unique skills and characteristics that can benefit the government and wider society.  “I am conceived that faith communities can play a significant and vital role in Britain’s economic recovery.” Though the term has quickly gone out of vogue, ‘Big Society’ is an important part of that recovery. “There have been studies done on the economic impact of faith-based volunteering and it is enormous. Communities that are self-confident and tackling their problems imaginatively – and people of faith are always at the forefront of such efforts – will attract new residents and new businesses, and that is good for the economy as a whole.”

With little more than a year left in government (the next British election is mandated to take place in May 2015), Warsi and the coalition government will be busy planning final policy decisions and preparing their manifestos.

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About Laura Jones

Laura researches and writes on religion and Muslims in the UK. She recently completed a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain, has previously worked as a Muslim chaplain, and is contributing editor for On Religion. She has a particular interest in inter-faith relations, mental health and Muslims in the public sphere.

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