Digital Associate Editor for Policy & Politics
Policy & Politics was delighted to welcome the Rt Honourable Baroness Sayeeda Warsi to speak to audiences in Bristol last night on her topic of being Muslim in Britain.
Baroness Warsi was the UK’s first Muslim Cabinet minister and has become a leading voice in the British debate on Islamophobia, not least within the Conservative Party.
Baroness Warsi began her lecture by saying that the recent shocking Islamophobic terror attack in New Zealand highlighted the importance of ‘having an open conversation’ to dispel the myths about what it means to be Muslim. In the current environment, where Islamophobia has become acceptable in so many areas of society, the Christchurch terrorist attack, she says, neither shocked nor surprised her. This conversation about the relationship between Islam and Britain is what Sayeeda Warsi seeks to promote in her book The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain. This is a relationship stretching back to the 7th century that has suffered over the last couple of decades. She asks, ‘How do we reset this relationship?’
Warsi grew up in a working-class Pakistani-British family in Bradford. What made her feel different was the colour of her skin. Looking at her white neighbours, the symbols of belonging became the greenhouses in their gardens and their caravan holidays to Great Yarmouth. Greenhouses and caravans then became symbols of belonging that Warsi wanted because she wanted to matter. Influenced by her childhood experiences, Warsi went on to become a Human Rights lawyer fighting for racial equality.
The terrorist attacks on September 11 changed her sense of being different from being non-white to feeling different for being Muslim. Warsi tells that ‘I was told I did not belong, that I was part of the problem’. After 9 months in Pakistan, escaping the post-9/11 Islamophobia, she decided that running away was not the answer. She needed to play a part.
Sarah Ayres (Co-editor), Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Oscar Berglund (Digital Associate Editor) and Alex Marsh (Chair of the P&P Board).
Baroness Warsi has since come to play a major part in British politics and the Muslim Britain that she speaks about. When running for MP of Dewsbury in 2005 she experienced many obstacles as a Muslim woman. When canvassing, she was faced with responses such as ‘I vote Tory but I can’t vote for a Paki’. Even Muslims and other Muslim women felt that they could not vote for a Muslim woman as MP. Warsi lost the election but became introduced to the House of Lords in 2007 as Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and later Chairman of the Conservative Party and Senior Minister in David Cameron’s Cabinet.
As a politician, Baroness Warsi tries to live by the motto of ‘Are we saying what we believe and are we doing what we say?’ As an ex Human Rights lawyer, she felt that she had to resign from the Cabinet (‘the best job a girl like me could hope for’) over the British Government’s position in relation to the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.
A pivotal moment in Warsi’s campaign against Islamophobia emerged from the tragic killing of Lee Rigby, after which Warsi was on the special taskforce on the National Security Council. This was met by one newspaper columnist asking ‘How can we deal with the War on Terror when we have the enemy at the table’. So, despite both her grandfathers fighting for Britain in the war, and despite her family being hard-working and law-abiding, she still did not belong; she still could not be trusted.
Writing this book became Baroness Warsi’s way of owning that insult, the enemy at the table, the enemy within. Her message at this lecture was one of living up to her previous portfolio of Community Cohesion. She encourages her co-religionists to live out their faith in the community in a positive way, whilst highlighting that Muslims are not the first minority group in history to be treated as a monolithic enemy within. As such, Warsi remains optimistic in her efforts to show the multidimensional character of Muslim Britain and challenge Islamophobia wherever it appears.
View the blog post from our previous annual lecture: