Prejudice against Muslims has “passed the dinner-table test” and become socially acceptable in the UK, that was the top line from Baroness Warsi the Conservative Party Chair at a speech at the University of Leicester’s annual Sir Sigmund Sternberg Interfaith Lecture. Even before the lecture extracts of the speech were published in the Daily Telegraph, which highlighted “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. Most of the criticism she received for her honest analysis came from right wing politicians like Lord Tebbit and blog sites like Harry’s Place who either are in denial or the truth may have hurt a bit.
I attended the lecture where Baroness Warsi outlined her views, most of the audience were academics, community workers and the odd self-appointed community leader who decided to use the questions and answer session to project the sound of their own voice.
The minister without portfolio warned that describing Muslims as either “moderate” or “extremist” fosters growing prejudice, which is a recruitment tool for all extremists. Faith for her should encourage debate while at the same time inspire people. “The patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”. The peer described how prejudice against Muslims has grown along with their numbers, partly because of the way they are often portrayed.
The notion that all followers of Islam can be described either as “moderate” or “extremist” can fuel misunderstanding and intolerance, she went on to say that “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 burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.
She highlighted that the media were partly responsible for this swipe at Muslims, in 2002 Muslims students on campus were granted Halal food in one of twenty-seven canteens of the campus and halls. However, some parts of the media distorted the facts with the story of how “Muslim students demanded the removal of Pork on campus.” This particular incident brought back memories as I was one of two people who lobbied the University to provide Halal meat in 2002, and I didn’t recall ever asking for Pork to be removed.
Britain is a tolerant society, but throughout history certain communities have been subjected to an unlimited scorn. The 1828 Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, but during that era the British Catholic community were seen to be a non-integrationist sect who were disloyal to the State but blindly loyal to the Papacy and the Catholic brotherhood. The same argument can be used in 2010 vis-a-vis the British Muslim community. Lady Warsi quite rightly stated that “those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say. They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.”
The way to deal with the issues of anti-bigotry is to firstly provide political leadership, secondly the media, politicians and academics should think harder about language and terms used, as British Muslims are British Muslims and nothing else. Labels such as “moderate” can only be decisive. Finally society itself should create a means of engagement between the wider community and the British Muslim community.
The lecture by Lady Warsi according to a friend who attended the lecture pointed out facts which most sane minded British Muslim had on their mind but weren’t in an influential position to get their point across.
Of course the responsibility also lies with British Muslims to speak out against extremism and more should be done, but generally at the same time more should be done to empower the community as well. The difficulties involved were summarised during the question and answer session one self-appointed Muslim leader failed to read the script and rather than ask a question he merely gave statement of denial and failed to grasp what Lady Warsi had said. I for one feel that there is a crisis of leadership within the British Muslim community, some of these self-appointed leaders need to give way to a generation of British born Muslim activists, thinkers and leaders who are in touch with public opinion.
Overall the lecture tackled the thorny subject of anti-Muslim bigotry but also provided solutions to overcome the problem; Lady Warsi highlighted publicly what many Muslims privately complain about, prejudice opinions against the British Muslim community does not attract the stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.