Baroness Warsi: instrument of policy or policy-maker?

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Speaking in rather fraught Urdu at a public meeting in Pakistan: mai nay abhee apnee tareef kee hay, apnay mulk kee tareef kee hay – an obvious slip up “[I have just praised myself, praised my country”].

Baroness Warsi added that “a single woman can freely go anywhere even at night in Britain”, and that Pakistanis should learn from this.

The narrative runs like this: ‘look at me, the daughter of a labourer [mazdoor]; Britain has given me the opportunities to become a cabinet minister; there are more Islamic values to be found in Britain than in other Muslim countries’.

The Baroness could do well to remember that Muslims have both a sense of self-respect and history. While it is all very well to bat for Britain while abroad, some humility would have been in keeping at a time when British newspapers are revealing details of complicity in civilian killings, torture and rendition and British Muslims are subject to surveillance and discriminatory, draconian anti-terrorism laws.

Moreover any enthusiastic talk of Britain ‘standing by Pakistan’ is hollow to an audience that remembers how the partition of the Indian sub-continent left the Muslim homeland at a strategic disadvantage because of Mountbatten’s last minute changes to the boundary line in Punjab giving water heads in Ferozpur, Gurdaspur and Batala to India.

It may well be that Sayeeda Warsi is feeling her way, having been tasked by the new Conservative-Lib Dem government to manage the ‘Muslim problem’, both domestically and internationally. On the domestic front she is the gatekeeper between the Muslim community and Government circles, deciding which Tory ministers can and should attend Muslim events.

She has also been given a list of Muslim opinion-makers in different sections of the community, whom she now contacts in order to advance government interests or justify actions. It is a cross-departmental brief, calling on her to liaise with the Home Office, CLG and the FCO – she is Britain’s prestigious ”Special Representative’to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Notwithstanding her patronising remarks in Pakistan, the Muslim community’s response to this potential important role model is one of wait-and-see. After all, she is not the first politician to describe herself as a ‘daughter of the East’. There will be a number of litmus tests to assess whether she is an instrument of policy, or a policy-maker in her own right.

For a start, she could do well to consider how the community has responded to other Muslim political heavyweights in recent years. It should then be clear that politicians enter dangerous territory when they seek to create divisions in Muslim civil society in the pursuit of government interests.

Sadiq Khan MP lost a great deal of goodwill when he became part of a government PR campaign to defend policy after Israel’s invasion of Gaza in January 2009. Muslim emissaries in the Labour Party put pressure on a range of persons perceived as opinion makers to attend special briefings. When the Young Muslim Advisory Group expressed criticism of government indifference, they faced a tirade. Sadiq Khan argued for the need ‘to be fair to both sides’…I think we [British Government] can be an honest broker’ and defended the granting of weapons export licences. The FCO line to be relayed was that one should not ‘pander’ to ‘the Muslim community’s prejudices about Israel’. Government’s attempt was to fracture Muslim civil society by rewarding those elements prepared to support this official line.

There is the temptation for the Tories too to exploit fault-lines in Muslim civil society in a similarly opportunistic manner. One wonders why the Baroness invited a delegation of the great and good from the ranks of the British Muslim Forum to the House of Lords recently? Was it to convey a message of thanks for their press release backing the Home Secretary’s exclusion order on Dr Zakir Naik? Who else is being similarly drawn into a spider’s web?

There are similar lessons to be learned from the political career of former MP Shahid Malik. He too conveyed a condescending and patronizing attitude, ridiculing major community organizations. Malik blotted his copybook by showing some disrespect towards the community’s elder statesman, Dr Aziz Pasha. Writing in a national paper, Malik said, “other members of the Muslim community I am sure would have cringed as I did when listening to Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, secretary-general of the Union of Muslim Organisations of the UK and Ireland, who explained his demand for sharia and more holidays. If you don’t like where you’re living you have two choices: either you live elsewhere, or you engage in the political process, attempt to create change and ultimately respect the will of the majority”.

Secondly, Malik was patronising about the Muslim Council of Britain, like a blustering school prefect admonishing a junior in the Head’s presence: “Ruth Kelly, the Communities Minister, has set down the rules for engagement with government. Attending Holocaust Memorial Day is a prerequisite. The MCB cannot enjoy the privileges of partnership with government without shouldering responsibilities.”

It is well known that Baroness Warsi has a rapport with Lord Nazir Ahmed, a Labour peer notwithstanding rumours of defection. The two of course achieved particular prominence over the Sudanese ‘teddy bear’ saga, when they travelled to Khartoum to seek the release of teacher Gillian Gibbons.

Her link with Lord Ahmed is important because he is one of a handful of British peers who reflect British Muslims’ concern for the injustices inflicted on Palestinians.

Lord Ahmed could also offer her some words of warning on the darker side of British politics. He might well tell her how his phone had been bugged and he was under surveillance because of dissent to Blair’s military misadventures. He might also describe his experience as chairman of one of the key working groups convened by the Home Office in August-October 2005, only to be unceremoniously side-lined later after the community contacts had been established.

The Baroness should remember that the Tory Party can be heartless and that in the long-term her legacy will be the work done for solidarity and cohesion of Muslims in Britain. The challenge is to be a policy-maker on the top table, not an instrument of policy.