Definition of Islamophobia — [Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:19 pm on 9th September 2021.

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Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe 3:19 pm, 9th September 2021

I begin by referring to my unremunerated interest as advisory board chairman of Conservatives Against Racism for Equality.

I am grateful for the opportunity to follow Zarah Sultana, who made a very moving speech. I am very sorry indeed that she has been treated so very disgracefully. There can be no place at all in our society for the way she has been treated. We can all see how she has been affected by it, and I do not mind admitting that I am affected by watching her report what she has experienced. It is just a disgrace, and absolutely every one of us has an obligation and a duty to stand against such intolerance and hatred in our society. I certainly will do everything I can to stand with her, despite our occasional differences, to make sure she is secure and safe in her identity and valued for it. For what it is worth, I often agree with her anti-war views, too—even as a former member of the armed forces—but that is for another debate on another day.

I am very proud to represent Wycombe. According to the last census, about one in six of my constituents are British Muslims. Some of my very best friends and supporters in Wycombe are British Muslims. I am very proud to have their support, to knock on doors with them, to go to mosque with them, to have meals together and to share and celebrate their faith at all appropriate moments. They are people who have very often taught me even about my own Christian faith.

We have a wide and rich variety of institutions in Wycombe. Let this be understood: in a Conservative, home counties seat, our largest religious institution is the Wycombe Islamic Mission and Mosque Trust, which runs a number of mosques across the constituency. We have the Wycombe Islamic Society, the Imam Ali Islamic Centre, the Karima Foundation, which educates young people, Seerah Today and Jamia Rehmania. We have many imams, people whom I regard as the most godly and dignified people, capable of teaching us all how we should relate to one another in community. We have the Council for Christian Muslim Relations, which has worked extremely hard over many years to make sure that our churches and mosques come together and share values, friendship and fellowship across a broad range of issues. The council helps us, crucially, to listen to one another when things are difficult, when there is a matter of international relations or security and so on. The Wycombe Muslim Communication Forum is always keen to give us its views, and I am always grateful for them.

This is the crucial point: if we are willing to listen to one another in good faith, we can make progress. That is what has happened in Wycombe over many years. I am extremely proud of the level of integration and the very flourishing relations that we have. They are the products of a great deal of effort. I want to make something very clear. We have moved far beyond what one might call tolerance, where one agrees to disagree and to go separate ways. We have moved into deep integration and friendship, and that is something of which I am very proud.

There is, however, something that we cannot tolerate in our society: the kind of anti-Muslim hatred that the hon. Member for Coventry South has so powerfully described today. That is why I need to say the following to my hon. Friend the Minister. As a Conservative Government, we have been in power for 11 years, and we will go into the next election having been in power for 14 years. One in six of my electors are British Muslims, and thousands of British Muslims voted for me. That is why I am here. I am quite sure that, if I lost the Muslim vote in Wycombe, I would lose the seat—and I can assure him that people tried extremely hard to dislodge me in that way. Minister, we have to represent, value and respect the votes of those thousands of people in Wycombe, in Peterborough and elsewhere who have put their faith and trust in Conservative representatives. To do that, we really must define anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia. We must have a working definition, one that we can be proud of, that is not susceptible to exploitation for political purposes and that also—it has to be said—respects the equal worth of Muslims.

Around the world there are conflicts based, I am afraid, on religious grounds. Like Christians, Muslims around the world are persecuted for their faith. I think of the Rohingya; I think about Xinjiang. And it has to be said that Israel-Palestine is very often seen through a prism of faith. I just say in passing that we must not forget the plight of Muslims in Gaza and on the west bank as we move between periods of conflict.

Something that we can do that would be really meaningful, particularly for young people in constituencies such as mine, is to say, “We not only value you; we respect you. We respect the dignity of your identity in Islam, and we are going to define what it means for people to express Islamophobia. We are going to say, very loudly and clearly, that we absolutely will not tolerate that form of prejudice and hatred.”

I have probably spoken for long enough. I will finish where I began, by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Coventry South. I know she is not a huge fan of Conservatives, but wherever we have disagreed I would have thought that every Member of this House would agree that every person should be secure in their identity. Islam is one of the world’s great faiths and no Member of Parliament should suffer anything approaching what she has suffered. I, for one, am extremely grateful to her for speaking as she has done today. I am very humbled by it. And I am very sorry, once again, that she has ever suffered anything like that.