Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:18 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Conservative 7:18 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Many years ago we both stomped around universities trying to deal with the very challenges which sadly still persist, and about which she has spoken. Faith is an informer of debate as a driver of good works, as a convenor, as an enabler and as a deliverer for policy. It was the reason I announced many years ago as a retort to Alistair Campbell that a Conservative Government would “do God”.

Much has changed since 2010. I had the privilege of being part of much of that change: from an idea that started life as an active faith project which became the Near Neighbours programme, to the Church of England using its network to convene and deliver interfaith action, to campaigning for the rights of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, to making the case for faith to have a seat at the Cabinet table, to bringing religious literacy training to the heart of government, to establishing stronger and more meaningful relations with the Holy See, to chairing the international forum on freedom of religion or belief, to launching Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish and Muslim women’s network, to establishing the Big Iftar, to reforms of and support for faith-sensitive non-invasive post mortems and to becoming the first non-Muslim country in the world to issue a sovereign sukuk—the list could go on and on. It is endless and I am proud of the records of both the coalition Government and the Conservative Government in engaging faith.

I particularly pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon who, following my resignation, ensured that the work continued and is now playing a vital global role as the Prime Minister’s special adviser on religious freedom. We could not have asked for a better advocate. I also want to put on record the tremendous contribution that the Minister has made in this area. His commitment to equality and his desire to engage has not gone unnoticed in communities. Rarely a week passes without someone praising him to me in the warmest of terms. He is walking the walk, and he is walking many miles.

Today we are debating religious intolerance and bigotry. I am sure that we will hear about the nature of the problem, what has been achieved and what more needs to be done. From the speakers’ list it is clear that we will be hearing about the impact on specific communities. We have already heard about Christian communities and Jewish communities and I am sure that we will hear about Sikh communities, Hindus and others. I will focus on a community that I know well, the British Muslim community.

I want to start with a little history. If we are to succeed in making good policy on where we want to be, I am sure it is important that we talk about how we got here. In 2010, when the coalition Government formed, it shocked me that no formal structure had existed under the last Labour Government to discuss, monitor or challenge Islamophobia. We had no definition, no policy, and no statistics. My then PPS, Eric Ollerenshaw, helped to establish the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia. It was to be a vehicle through which we would hopefully instigate an inquiry that could lead to a specific policy on how to deal with the issue of islamophobia. However, that is where it ended. A row about the secretariat meant that parliamentary colleagues from both this House and the other place eventually worked towards having that secretariat shut down. No inquiry ever started and no work was ever done. I therefore decided to bypass the inquiry and speak about this issue in government.

In 2011, I made a keynote speech in which I spoke about Islamophobia having passed the dinner-table test. It was criticised by large sections of the media; I think that it hit too close to home. They probably realised that it was their dinner tables I was talking about. There was very little support for it politically. What started thereafter was first a series of arguments about why this speech was necessary. The case was made to me that there was no evidence to suggest that we had Islamophobia. There was a fight to set up a cross-government working group on anti-Muslim hatred and until a few years ago—with one or two exceptions—my colleagues refused to engage with it. What became Tell MAMA was an idea hatched at Conservative headquarters. There were rows about the funding of that organisation, which my noble friend Lord Pickles will probably remember as he was Secretary of State. When he was not convinced, he discovered the error of opposing a tenacious Yorkshire woman. I am pleased that we are still friends.

There was a refusal to acknowledge the need for the remembering Srebrenica programme. Today it is a nationwide programme with cross-parliamentary support, delivering hundreds of visits, schools training materials and commemoration events. There was a battle for the police to disaggregate and record Islamophobia as a separate crime, as we did with anti-Semitism. These are all projects which the Minister referred to in his opening speech.

Why do I raise this? It is because every programme and initiative that we celebrate today was a lonely battle for which I carry a scar. Each scar is a reminder that many parliamentary colleagues were simply not prepared to accept that there was a problem, the extent of it, the right response and the urgency with which we needed to act. I refer to the past because today, sadly, we are still having those battles. The reluctance to tackle Islamophobia, the refusal to listen to the warning siren and the inconsistency with which we fund tackling other forms of hate is deeply worrying.

The anti-Semitism row within the Labour Party has had many facets. It has festered as a sore damaging politics and politicians and it has left a British Jewish community fearful about its space in Britain. We have heard that today. What concerned me most, however, was the way in which many British Jews were not able to determine their destiny. Their concerns about what they experienced—how bigotry felt to them—were simply dismissed. The prevarication about adopting the IHRA definition was the most visible manifestation of that. A community being able to determine its own destiny and set its own standards on how it feels protected must be a given.

However, for British Muslim communities this is not a right we afford them. The policy of disengagement, which I discussed in some detail last week during the Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, has meant that British Muslims are not able to choose who sits at the government table. Officialdom, not community, determines who is and is not an acceptable Muslim voice. The community, some 3 million-plus strong, is diverse ethnically, theologically and politically. It cannot possibly be represented by a single organisation. No community can. It is why, despite being a community of less than 300,000, the British Jewish community in its Jewish Leadership Council ensures that a wide range of organisations and issues—from the Community Security Trust to the Board of Deputies; from social to political, and domestic to international issues—forms part of the dialogue and engagement with government. I had the privilege of being part of that in government. British Muslims, however, do not have such a privilege. They have much to admire and to learn from the British Jewish community. The JLC, I felt, could be replicated: it was, in the form of the Muslim Leadership Council. It included a wide range of organisations, but the Government refused to engage with it. Often when a Government take partners, they seem to seek out individuals and organisations that, at best, are not mainstream and are neither connected to nor respected by the community they seek to influence. At worst they have a track record of attacking and briefing against British Muslims rather than speaking on the issues that concern that community. This creates unease and mistrust and is not the way to deal with hate.

The hate crime action plan is clear. Hate crime is up by 17%; race crime is up by 14%; religious crime is up by 40%. Of that religious hate crime, 52% is targeted at Muslims, 12% is targeted at Jewish communities, and 21% is unknown. The EHRC statistics are clear: 70% of Muslims have experienced religious-based discrimination. It is important to note that not all hate crimes against Muslims are recorded by religion. Many are also victims of race-based hate crime, so it is important that we make sure that the recording of these crimes is accurate. I would be grateful if the Minister detailed how many police forces are recording religious hate crime, how many disaggregate religious hate crime data and whether the Government would consider disaggregating race to get a more accurate picture.

I would like to focus a little on the positive in the hate crime action report. It has moved on from the 2016 terminology of anti-Muslim hatred and now uses the term Islamophobia, on which the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims has been taking evidence for the past six to eight months. We found overwhelming support for it in the evidence and consultations that have taken place. It is the widest and deepest form of consultation that has taken place since the Runnymede Trust report of 20 years ago. The report, which has been done with the communities and by the communities, will be out soon. We hope the Government will adopt the working definition that it proposes and that it will be applied across government and statutory agencies such as the police, criminal justice agencies, CPS, education and health. We cannot tackle what we cannot name or number.

I urge the Government to use this moment, as they describe in their hate crime plan, to end their policy of disengagement and make this a truly inclusive and meaningful process. The issue is crucial because when government does not engage, it sets a precedent for all other agencies such as the CPS, the police, and the police and crime commissioners. This is disengaging Muslims at all levels and from all available avenues to have their victim experiences addressed by the relevant agencies. The latest hate crime figures should be a wake-up call. The unfortunate victims, as ordinary Muslims up and down the country are, should not pay the price for the Government’s disengagement policy.

Racism, bigotry and intolerance can come in two forms. I grew up when it was overt: being chased by racists after school and being called the P-word were part and parcel of my growing up. But then I was a social mobility success story—I probably no longer hang out in those places where such terminology is likely to be used. But what has concerned me more and more is covert racism, covert discrimination, “respectable” racism—at the dinner table, in the media rooms and among the think tanks and commentators—the dehumanising of a community, the decontexualising of religious texts and lack of collective accountability for the actions of the few.

I said that Islamophobia had passed the dinner-table test. Today, I say that it is Britain’s bigotry blind spot. The statistics prove that. It is not a Muslim problem; it is our problem. It is why I hope noble Lords will speak to this issue. It is not a challenge that should be left for the likes of me to fight. My interventions on challenging the persecution of Christian minorities in places such as Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan have been my most powerful because I spoke for the other on an issue of principle. Today, I ask my colleagues to do the same. We must fight bigotry collectively in this country and in our political parties.

I hope that my colleagues on these Benches will tackle Islamophobia within our ranks as vociferously as we, quite rightly, tackle anti-Semitism in the ranks of the Labour Party. It is an issue that I was reluctant to go public with, but three years on from those initial concerns and complaints—which came long before the appalling anti-Semitism row on the left of politics—it is still not being dealt with. It saddens me that, once again, I fight a lonely battle.

When I was growing up, there were two conversations that my parents would have. My dad would dream of having a home in the north of Punjab—in the way that many people might dream of having a house in the south of Spain. He felt that he would “go back home” one day to that beautiful house. My mum on the other hand, being a cynical woman, said, “We don’t need to have a dream of this great house. We need to have the necessity of this house, because the day we have to leave and go back home, we will need a home”. I used to argue with both of them, saying to Dad that this was probably the most stupid investment that he would ever make because nobody would ever live in that house and it would therefore be better for him to invest here, a place which for my family has been home for 60 years—my grandfather came in 1958. I was even more vociferous with my mum, because I thought that her ramblings about having to leave were ludicrous and that the direction of travel in the UK was such that we would never be made to feel so uncomfortable that we had to up sticks. Today, in my late 40s, in 2018, it shocks me that I dream my dad’s dream and worry my mum’s worry. This debate gives me some hope.