Sayeeda Warsi/ On Islamophobia & being Muslim in Britain

May 20, 2019

From Georgetown University, this is Voices on Islamophobia, a podcast by the Bridge Initiative. I’m Mobashra Tazamal. The Conservative Party in the United Kingdom has been accused of having an Islamophobia problem, as evidence of anti-Muslim comments made by MPs and incidents of anti-Muslim rhetoric continue to pile up. The party has failed to take any considerable action in tackling this issue, as it has ignored calls to carry out a formal inquiry. Additionally, it has not adopted a formal definition of Islamophobia, and this is all occurring during a time of increased hate crimes against Muslims. 

Today, I sat down with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a former co-chair of the party who served under former Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet. We discussed her efforts in publicly calling on her party to address the problem of Islamophobia within its ranks, and the responses — or lack thereof — she’s received.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi: There was no response. And that was the challenge. I first started raising this with Andrew Feldman, who was a Chairman at the time, and then with Patrick McLoughlin, then I wrote to the Prime Minister, and then more recently with Brandon Lewis. And I was sending them screenshots, information, details of Islamophobic discourse from people who were professing to be either members of representatives of the Conservative Party. Probably the most high-profile case at the time was Bob Blackman, member of Parliament who was retweeting Tommy Robinson. And what I found was there were lots of nice words and I got a lovely, waffley letter from the Prime Minister in which she said all the right things, but absolutely nothing was done. And I think there was a genuine sense of “We can ignore this, this isn’t really an issue for us to be that vexed about.” And I think for me, I suppose the turning point really came when I saw how, quite rightly, the Conservative Party were challenging the Labour Party on issues of racism and anti-Semitism within their ranks. I just thought the hypocrisy of this position from my party, knowing full well that for years before any of that came to light, they had a problem in their own backyard which they had failed to deal with, and that I had given them ample opportunity to deal with, that I felt that actually this had to be now fought in the public domain.

Mobashra Tazamal: Do you think they think there’s a problem, or do you think they don’t see it as an actual issue?

BSW: I think that their leadership know there is a problem, and the reason they won’t have any independent inquiries is because they are aware of the extent of the problem. I think there is a concern that if there was an inquiry and everything in this area was looked at, that they would open up the floodgates and that this pernicious form of Islamophobia racism that we have within the party is far more widespread. And it isn’t just individual —every organization will have individuals who say crazy things, and who have appalling views. It’s not about individuals. This is about the climate within the party, and so it’s about the people we associate with, it’s the people who we share platforms with, it’s the people we think are acceptable to support and show support for, organizations like Turning Point, for example. It’s our associations with organizations like the Henry Jackson Society, individuals like Douglas Murray, who believe they have real traction within the Conservative Party. It’s the retweeting of Islamophobes like Tommy Robinson by Members of Parliament. It’s the sharing of platforms with people like Tommy Robinson — Mark Francois, for example, a Member of Parliament, shared a platform with Tommy Robinson recently. And it’s the general sense that Muslims are fair game, that we can try and rationalize this kind of bigotry as being acceptable. You know, the comments by Boris Johnson. I just feel that, at best, this is a party that doesn’t really take Islamophobia seriously, and at worst this is a party that thinks “Well, actually, this kind of underbelly of Islamophobia might not put us in a bad position electorally, because it attracts a certain kind of vote,” and my job is to really make sure that, even if it’s on a daily basis and we get a person a day suspended, that slowly, methodically, we root out these individuals from our party and hopefully start to send the message that this isn’t the kind of home you should be looking for. 

MT: And you’ve given so many examples of Islamophobia within the party. Have you experienced it within your role?

BSW: I think for me, the higher up you go and the more successful you become, the more respectable the racism. And, when I was growing up, if I was chased down a street and called “P*ki,” it was obvious that was racism and you could see it and it was blatant, it was violent, and it is in some ways easier to deal with, because you knew what you were dealing with. The people usually arrived, looked in a certain way, behaved in a certain way, used certain language. But when people end up in suits and end up in the corridors of power, and they couch their racism in respectable terms, and they rationalize it in academic thought, that’s much harder to deal with. And there are moments where I’ve sat at tables thinking, “Has that just been said? Are they genuinely arguing this?” So, there have been moments that have taken my breath away, and I’ve muttered and I’ve spoken out. Including occasions in government. But, I think that if you make this personal, then— this isn’t actually about me and my experience. This is the projection of my party to a community of three million and beyond, as to the kind of people that we are. And so, therefore, I’ve tried not to speak about my personal experience within the party, but actually try and focus it on the experiences of others, including people who are not even Muslim. I mean, we had a chairman recently, Ajay Jagota, who was called a “Muslim c-word.” He’s not even Muslim, he’s Hindu. And he tried to get the matter dealt with, at the end ended up resigning. But this is why the work that I’ve done with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims to define Islamophobia, we’ve made it clear that this isn’t just about Muslimness, but actually it’s about perceived Muslimness as well, and there are many, many people who have been subjected to Islamophobic behavior and comments within the party who aren’t even Muslim. 

MT: Again with the racialization of Islamophobia—

BSW: Well, of course, Islamophobia is a racialization. It is rooted in racism. It’s a form of racism. It’s got nothing to do with the color of your skin. Lots of white Muslims, converts, suffer terrible Islamophobia, and you couldn’t say it was because of the color of their skin. I think it’s important that when a whole community’s grouped together and then certain stereotypes and tropes are then placed upon them, and they are racialized through that — I mean I always say, for a young, British Muslim man, as a teenager growing up, what is already superimposed upon him before he starts his life? Well, he’s a misogynist, he’s probably some sort of a pedophile, has some sort of tendency to behave in that way, he’s violent and attracted to terrorism — all of these tropes are superimposed upon young men, before they even start expressing who they are. So that is a racialization of a community. It’s been done to Black communities in the past, it’s been done to Hispanic communities, and so we have to fight this as we fought racism.  

MT: You talked about the definition. The Labour Party has adopted it, but Conservatives still have not adopted it, and I think the Muslim Council of Britain has urged the party to carry out an inquiry, and you’ve urged the party, and there’s been no response. There’s kind of been deflection, or just, ignoring it and hoping it goes away. Why do you think that is? Why not adopt the definition, acknowledge there’s a problem, and [say] “Hey, we have a definition, we can now go and tackle this issue?” Because once you have a definition, it makes it easier — what is and what isn’t Islamophobia?

BSW: How can you tackle something when you can’t say what it is? So we must have a definition. And every single party in Westminster has adopted a definition, except for the Conservatives and UKIP. And every single party in Scotland, including the Conservatives, have adopted the definition. So clearly there is not an issue with the definition, because our party in Scotland have adopted the definition. And so the only people holding out now are the Conservative Party in Westminster and UKIP, and we haven’t even bothered approaching UKIP. And so, in that sense, I think that says a lot about where my party is. Why will they not have an inquiry? Well, I think because there is a real fear that that inquiry will reveal a terrible, ugly underbelly that is festering within our party. And my argument is, deal with it now. Because not only is it morally right for us to deal with this issue now, but electorally we are committing suicide by effectively sending out a message that this community, this growing community, increasingly young community, increasingly moving out to the areas where the seats are marginal and where we’re going to have to hold on to them to form a government — we’re increasingly alienating an important electoral base. So even in the issue of self-interest, I mean the moral argument to deal with this issue is important, but even on an issue of self-interest, this is wrong for us to be not tackling this and dealing with it now. 

MT: So you talked about, you know, young Muslim men and the tropes that are placed upon them. And I want to talk about young British Muslims who are interested in getting involved in politics right now, and given how hostile the environment is, given the rising anti-Muslim bigotry, what would you say to young British Muslims who want to be involved or who want to be socially active, but within this climate, there is a fear of being attacked and facing hostility?

BSW: Well, when it gets tough, you have to step up. If during the seventies and eighties, when we were fighting racism, we felt like keeping our head down was the right option, we wouldn’t have made the progress we made then. And I would be saying to young British Muslims, you’ve got to play your part. We can’t have any more bystanders. There was a time when some people would say, “Well, it’s not my kind of thing.” I think it’s everybody’s kind of thing. This is the challenge of our generation, of your generation, in many ways, those of us now who are nearly fifty have messed up and have left a much more challenging British Muslim space for the younger generation. And they have to, first of all, define what it means to be British and Muslim, and I think you’re much better equipped to do that than we were. But secondly, absolutely say that the mentality of keeping your head down and being grateful for being allowed to come to Britain is not something we should be talking about in 2019. My grandfather came here in 1958. We’ve been here for over six decades. Both of my grandfathers served in the British Indian army. We gave our loyalty and were prepared to give our lives before we even hit these shores. I was born here, my kids were born here, my grandkids were born here. How long before we have to stop taking the loyalty test? How long before we are part of the fabric of this society? And I’m no longer prepared to be apologetically Muslim, I’m no longer prepared to be tolerant of inequality, I’m no longer prepared to accept that we’re a different or a second form of citizen. I’m certainly not grateful any more than anybody else should be grateful for the fact that this is their country. I feel that I have achieved a huge amount, and also contributed a huge amount, so I think we have to have a generation which is confidently Muslim and comfortably British. And they have to play their part in politics. But the advice I would give them, which is the advice I give to everybody who is entering politics, is go wait, first, get a first career and a bit of money, sort your life out, and then come in. Because it is a brutal world. It is not an easy world to inhabit, and I think we would be naive to say to people who are coming into this world that it’s going to be an easy ride. But I do hope that people come into politics being authentically themselves. What worries me more than whether or not we’ve got enough young British Muslims entering politics is, have we got British Muslims entering politics who feel they can’t be Muslim? And that self-denial form of politics which is creeping in, where people almost have to deny who they are and their origins and their background as a way of being a more acceptable form of politician, I mean if that’s who you are, so be it, but I just think we need to have an authentic form of politics where people do feel like they can bring all their identities to the table and are genuinely rooted in an understanding of, and reflective of, the communities from which they come. 

MT: Given how, you’ve stated how pervasive the problem of Islamophobia in the Conservative party is, would you tell young British Muslims to join the Conservative Party?

BSW: I would ask young British Muslims to join the Conservative Party for a whole host of reasons, in term of, if you’re a center-right politician, if you believe in a small state, if you believe in a low-tax economy, there is no other space for you but that. But if you ask me the direct question, “Can I, as a Muslim be absolutely myself and feel comfortable and feel that I’m going to have equal worth and value in the Conservative Party, I would say, ‘No, you’re not.'” And so, be ready for that battle. And as long as you go into it ready for that battle — is the Conservative Party responding to the needs of British Muslim communities? Absolutely not. It’s not even engaged with large sections of British Muslim communities. Does it apply a different set of values and judgements about British Muslims than it does to other communities? Absolutely. I mean I explored this in my book two years ago. I saw this in terms of policy-making. And so I think there is a — does the party take the issue of Islamophobia as seriously as it would take other forms of racism? No, it doesn’t. And, therefore, until we get to that point, I think I’m going to be prepared to say, “Look, I am nothing but Conservative, I voted Conservative in the last local elections, I’m a Conservative member, I’m a center-right politician. There is no other place where I could make my home.” But, I will continue to call out the faults within my party. 

MT: So, given Islamophobia around the world, and given we’ve seen its manifestations in China, with Uighur Muslims being detained in concentration camps, with Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, what do you think the long-term and short-term effects of Islamophobia in Britain are, given the global climate right now?

BSW: Well, we have to start by dealing with things here. I think as a young British Muslim you can become quite overwhelmed when you look around the world. But it’s no different to racism when we were growing up. You looked around the world — South Africa was still an Apartheid state, the Black civil rights movement was still fighting hard and not particularly winning in the U.S., there were riots happening in estates with large black communities in the United Kingdom, there was police brutality, there was institutional racism in many organizations in the United Kingdom. And it could have been easy to say, “Oh, it’s too much, it’s too overwhelming.” And yet, we fought those battles. And so I would say that you have to start by fighting them at a local level. And what you’re saying is —people say to me, “What is it that you’re asking for?” and I always say, “I want what you want.” I want to be treated like you’re treated. I want to feel like I have equal worth and value. I want to know that I’m not going to be stigmatized and demonized simply by the name I have or the religion I was born into, or the way in which I practice my faith. Is that too difficult to understand? I want to be as mediocre as a white man and get away with it. Is that too much to ask for? And why is it that the judgement and the expectation that is placed upon me is so much higher than what is placed upon you? And so, you know, I think that this has got to be the generation that says equal worth, equal value. But also is tolerant and attributes equal worth and equal value to other peoples’ lifestyles as well, which is why the debate has to happen within British Muslim communities as well, to say, just like you do not like to be judged, then do not judge others. Just like you do not like to be demonized, do not demonize others. Just like you do not like to be rejected, do not reject others. And I think this period is not only a good time for young British Muslims to show great leadership, but also show great understanding and tolerance in the tradition of classical Islam of debate, discussion, and valuing diversity. 

MT: You had previously mentioned Conservative MPs retweeting Tommy Robinson or being on the same platform as him. We’ve seen with UKIP recently, they have a new MEP Carl Benjamin, who has said some really, really horrendous things. What do you think will be the long-term effects of mainstreaming such far-right voices, because we are seeing not just in the UK, but across Europe, with the rise of far-right parties, this mainstreaming of this rhetoric that is quite dangerous. What do you think the long-term effects of this would be?

BSW: This has been many years in coming. 2011, I did a speech where I said Islamophobia had passed the dinner table test. What I meant by that was that it was found in the most respectable of settings. That it was no longer the preserve of the thug on the street, actually this was found in thinktanks and policy circles and editorial rooms, and it was couched in respectable language. This is the manifestation of it. We have allowed it to grow. We haven’t challenged it — in fact, we have fed it, respectable, inverted commas, newspapers have fed this, respectable, inverted commas, politicians have fed this, and we have created a climate where we have greenlighted bigotry. And the way in which we stop that is by showing good, strong political leadership, and that has to come from the top, and send out a very clear message that this is unacceptable. And I think the hypocrisy of people like Nigel Farage, who now professes to say, “Oh, UKIP is a racist party,” knowing full well he and others were associating and courting Tommy Robinson and the far-right. It was only a question of time — they always wanted a street movement alongside the political movement, and that street movement was deeply racist and Islamophobic, and thuggish and criminal. And so, therefore, this is a consequence of many, many years. And, you may recall that David Cameron said years ago that UKIP was, I think he calls them, a bunch of loons and closet racists or something. Nutjobs, loons, and closet racists. I mean, he was absolutely right. And it might not have been the best terminology to use, but he sent out a very clear message that you are not the kind of people that we would associate with. And I think that message needs to go out. We have UKIP members of the House of Lords. We have members of this upper chamber who host Tommy Robinson for tea in our great democracy, and that should send a chill down our spine. Because that is when we start to make fascism so respectable, that it starts to get its hands on the levers of power. 

MT: It’s getting a seat at the table, basically. 

BSW: It’s getting a seat at the table. 

MT: Speaking of media, you mentioned — media has definitely played a role, in expanding Islamophobia, whether it’s on social media, whether it’s mainstream newspapers, whether it’s tabloid newspapers, and we really saw that here with the refugee crisis, coming out from Syria, and the way the newspapers framed this argument. How do you think the media can be held accountable, because you always face the issues of, “There’s free speech, and we have free speech rights.” But what the media is putting out is having an effect; it’s causing violence within society. How do you hold the media accountable?

BSW: Well, look, we’ve never had absolute free speech. Free speech has always been curtailed, for the mere fact that we have crimes that are framed in a way that effectively curtail free speech. You can’t go around saying anything about anybody at any point. So, this is a nonsensical argument. But free speech doesn’t mean the freedom to create hate and insult and to demonize and create disharmony. Free speech is about creating speech and understanding — it’s clearly about creating better understanding, and if what your free speech is doing is misunderstanding, creating misunderstanding and hatred, then you’ll have to question whether you’re using your right to free speech in a responsible way. The media in this country — we had an opportunity through Leveson to hold it accountable for its actions, not just in the area of Islamophobia but the way in which it operated generally. And we failed. Despite every government giving the commitment to deal with it, Leveson has practically been shelved and the media have gotten away with it. There was an inquiry before the Home Affairs Select Committee last year or the year before, on Islamophobia and hate crime and hate reporting within the media, and many of the editors had to admit that there was problem. The Daily Express has been a clear example of where an editor has taken hold and taken over and said, “I’m not prepared to do this. My paper is anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and this is not the kind of climate I want to create.” And the question I was asked was, if the media reported more good-news stories about Muslims, alongside what it reports at the moment, would you think that would be better? And I said, I’d just settle for accurate news stories about Muslims, I’m not asking for the media to be a public relations campaign for Muslims, just like I don’t want them to be a demonizing campaign against Muslims. But just accuracy, and the biggest challenge that we have at the moment in the media in reporting about Muslims is not the fact that they’re reporting bad stories about Muslims. They’re reporting lies about Muslims, and consistently they’re being found to report inaccurately, report in a way which can’t be substantiated, and when the apology comes, it doesn’t come — it’s buried away somewhere deep in the paper. The Times was an example, it ran three front-page headlines of the same story which turned out to be completely untrue, and the journalist kind of survives unscathed and carries on writing vile pieces. So I think there has to be a challenging of the media, in terms of its own journalists’ code of conduct. Are you acting in a way in which journalists are supposed to? Do you have an accurate source? Do you present that appropriately? Do you present things accurately? Do you go in and challenge and make sure your sources is solid? And all of those basic things that they should be doing is not being done. 

MT: Was there an incident or was there a specific event that made you decide to go public about the issue of Islamophobia within the party?

BSW: I don’t think there was an incident. I think it was months and months of my party pretending to be the arbiters against racism when they were receiving regular cases of racism internally and not dealing with it. And I think it was the hypocrisy — for me, it has always been about the hypocrisy in politics. I always had these two really very simple questions that politicians should ask, and they’re simple questions but incredibly difficult to answer. The first is, am I saying what I believe and am I doing what I’m saying? And at that moment in time, I realized my party wasn’t saying what it believed, it was saying, absolutely, it was objecting to racism and was a party that believed in equality, and actually, that’s not what it believed. That’s not what I was seeing from within. And secondly, are we doing what we’re saying? Well, we were asking other parties to root out racism and take these issues seriously, and we weren’t doing that. So it was hypocrisy of the highest order, and I fundamentally believe that there is an element of cynicism when you choose to deal with an issue from a principle of moral high ground, but when that issue presents itself in your own home, you choose not to deal with it. That to me suggests that actually you’re weaponizing the issues of racism, and the issues of racism, whichever community is being faced with it, are far too serious for it to be weaponized for political purposes. 

MT: So there’s been a lot of criticism about — the party has been suspending MPs, MEPs, who they found are saying racist stuff on social media and whatnot. But the criticism that I’ve read and that I’ve seen online is that the process isn’t transparent. There’s no transparency in how many people have been suspended, why they’ve been suspended, there’s even been emails leaked of — “Oh, within six months you’ll be welcomed back within the party.” Why not be transparent about the process? Why do you think there is a reluctance to do that, at least?

BSW: Because we’re hiding behind bureaucracy and process not to deal with the issue. And where a party will not say, how many complaints have been made, how long those complaints have taken to be dealt with, what is the basis that we judge those complainants against, what the process is in judging those complainants, what are the outcomes of these cases are, how long people are suspended for, whether people are suspended and then expelled, if they’re expelled are they let back in, what is the basis from which they’re let back in — these are basic questions. And when an institution fails to answer these questions, and hides behind bureaucracy, it is a symptom of institutional racism, institutional bigotry, which is why I made that claim. Everything I have seen clearly shows to me, that of course we have individuals within our party who make these vile comments, but the reason why they remain and we have so many of them is because institutionally we have a problem in the way we deal with it. And the only way, really, to win back trust and win back control really of challenging this bigotry is by having an independent inquiry. And, despite my attempts to give the party the space to be able to do that, give them the opportunity to deal with this internally, they’re still being opaque and they’re still — which suggests to me that clearly this problem is much, much deeper than originally anticipated, and people right at the top are involved in it.

MT: What message do you think this is sending to British society if the leading party has a problem and is failing to acknowledge, what message is this sending? Do you think it’s even enabling people, do you think it’s emboldening people, into carrying Islamophobic attacks, because then they won’t be reprimanded?

BSW: I think at its most cynical, the party is sending out the message that there are votes to be gained by having an Islamophobic undertone. That’s what we did with the Zac Goldsmith mayoral campaign. We actually thought there were votes to be gained by being Islamophobic. It didn’t work, and it is a terrible, morally bankrupt, short-term strategy, and losing 1300 seats maybe might have made us think again, I’m not sure, maybe we need to lose even bigger for us to finally come to terms with the fact that this is a challenge that we need to combat.

MT: Do you think it will take that, it will take the political side of it, of losing power —

BSW: I think so. I think so. What I’m now seeing is that the current leadership is too entrenched and too, I think, maligned by all of this now to want to deal with it. I think people are scared to deal with it because I think they too feel they will be implicated in all of this. And I think it’s going to take a change in leadership for all this to hopefully be looked at with fresh eyes. 

MT: What actions do you think society as a whole can take, or are needed from society in curbing rising Islamophobia?

BSW: So, in the final chapter of my book, I call it, the rest of us, and I point out the very, very small things you can do. Ask the question — I always say, if you have a Muslim friend, ask them that question that you would ask them in a sensible, grown-up way, if you have a misunderstanding. If you don’t have a Muslim friend, go make a Muslim friend. I say to Muslims, each one of you is an ambassador for the label that is attached to you, and try to be the best ambassador that you can be. Create spaces where people can learn about each other. Always try to find —  you know, why is it that we clutch to the most aggressive, harsh aspects of our faiths to judge each other. Focus on the positive, and focus on the inclusive elements of our faiths. Take the Quran experiment, that’s always one of the things I say to people. You might know about this experiment, where two pranksters took a copy of the Bible, put a sleeve of the Quran around it, and then read out various passages on women’s rights and gay rights, and all these Europeans said, “Oh, this is why it’s such a deeply misogynistic, homophobic religion. It has no place in our society at all.” They’re told it’s the Bible. I think, you know, contextualize religious texts and see things consistently across different faith communities. Any religious context taken out of context, and any religion detached from reason, ofcourse will start to sound illogical in our times, but that’s why it’s important to have those considered views. And, just try to treat others as you’d like to be treated yourselves. And I think if we all adopted that policy, whatever you are, Muslim or non-Muslims, we would, ultimately, think twice before we vented our hatred and bigotry, whoever we are, against someone else, because would we want somebody to vent like that toward us? But I kind of leave it with an optimistic tone, to say that, ultimately, generation change, and I see this increasingly, young people will reject these extreme ideologies and viewpoints, and we will end it with a you know super-connected, interrelated world where we have no option but to be much more inclusive and tolerant of others. 

MT: To stay informed on this topic and other issues related to Islamophobia, follow the Bridge Initiative’s research on its website, If you liked what you heard today, be sure to subscribe to this podcast, Voices on Islamophobia. Thanks for listening, and tune in next time.