Sayeeda Warsi on Muslim Britain
Former Tory cabinet minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi discusses her new book, “The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain”, with political columnist Miranda Green. She talks about growing up in the UK as a Muslim, Islamism and counter-terrorism strategies.
Filmed by Steve Ager and Petros Gioumpasis. Produced by Josh de la Mare. Stills courtesy of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. Other stills from Getty.
Sayeeda Warsi was Britain's first Muslim cabinet minister. Now out of government, she has written a book. And caught up with her here at the House of Lords to discuss this mixture of personal memoir and a combative argument about how the UK should tackle counter-terrorism.
I called it the enemy within because, first of all, it was something that I was called when I was at the cabinet table. I was referred to as the enemy at the table. But because it's a phrase that has been used throughout our history to describe various people who we feel do not belong or cannot be trusted, whether it was the Catholics or whether it was the Jewish community or whether it was the LGBT community, more recently, socialist, miners, communists-- so many people who we have used this term for. And what I explain in the book is that the Muslims are just the latest to be given and be subjected to this insult.
When you were part of David Cameron's new coalition government in 2010, there was a feeling that, you know, Cameronism was this much more modern conservatism in which everyone was welcome and in a way you became a symbol of that. Then, of course, David Cameron famously made a speech in 2011 where he declared multiculturalism to be a dead project and a failure.
What I tried to inject in 2011 was some sort of balance into that speech. What I argued was that people's understanding of multiculturalism is very different. Look, for some of us, it's that Chinese take away at one end of the street and the Balti House at the other end, it's what we wear, it's the music we listen to. It's such an integral part of our lives.
But state multiculturalism, where local government and national government policymaking specifically sets out in a way which divides communities further had to stop. But to trash the whole multiculturalism project, which I think has been a huge success for why people feel they can comfortably have multiple identities in the United Kingdom, is something that we all need to still continue to champion.
You start with this really vivid account of you as a little girl growing up and literally looking over the fence into the neighbouring gardens and realising that your family was not necessarily like the other families in your street. And what I wondered reading the book is that whether you think that actually for generations of British Muslims growing up now that that might be very different?
I hope it isn't. Certainly, I grew up in a much more mixed community and not everybody has the privilege of living in those mixed communities. I say integration is a middle class pastime. If you live in a nice part of town, in a nice house, and your kids go to the same nice schools, and you ski in the same nice resorts, then, of course, you're not going to have an issue and you're going to feel that there's lots of culture and experiences that you share.
But not everybody in this country is lucky enough to be able to choose where they live. They're given where they live and, unfortunately, sometimes they can be surrounded by people from exactly the same communities and they don't experience anything other.
I was very lucky that, in the sense, I could look over the fence and see a completely different way of life and that yearning, that real desire to belong and to matter. And I genuinely felt that at that time, certainly the attitude of my parents and the family, was a real desire to take the best of what Britain had to offer, as well as maintaining lots of culture and values from the societies from which my parents came. And this concept of having it all, which I call multiculturalism, was something which I think, unfortunately, is not available to everybody today.
For generations growing up now, British Muslim young people, as you say, quite a lot of how they are perceived by the rest of society has to do with this prism of anti-terror. And you are very, very critical in the book the way that what was supposed to be a hearts and minds operation, with the Muslim community so that everyone could work against terrorism together, has turned into something that's alienated Muslim youth. But that's not an uncontroversial point of view.
It isn't. And, look, you know, the question I ask in the book is, if it was so easy to spot a terrorist, it would be great because then we could stop a terrorist. And it's because it's not that easy that we, despite the great work that our intelligence services do, a few still manage to get through. But to try and suggest as some newspapers and do some politicians do that somehow British Muslim communities know who these people are is such a false view. There are a number of telltale signs as to what makes a terrorist. It shocks me that government policy focuses on one ideology. And therefore, my argument is if through our policy we are effectively making outsiders of insiders, then we're making the job of dealing with terrorism so much harder.
So do you, in a sense, dispute the idea, which is shared by probably quite a lot of people in the UK, that there is a strand of conservative Muslim opinion which has a very difficult overlap and sometimes not overlap with democratic values? I mean, you seem to in some way almost reject the whole idea that there might be an ideology that was difficult to live with in a democracy.
I don't reject that. I absolutely believe that there are people-- not just in this country, but around the world-- who do the most vile, criminal, terrorist acts and they justify them in the name of Islam. My concern is that we focus only on the ideology. And when you have all these other issues that we should be looking at too, we're missing the telltale signs.
Sayeeda Warsi, thank you.