19 March 2017

In Britain we have a complicated but comprehensive set of laws and rules on rehabilitation. We believe in giving people a second chance. In fact, in 2013 we changed the law to enable more people with longer sentences to be ‘officially rehabilitated’ more quickly.

In politics, the principle of rehabilitation applies too. I’ve yet to meet a colleague who hasn’t at some time in his or her life done something, said something, been somewhere or met someone and lived to regret it. Politicians can be self-righteous, moralizing individuals who expect the public to accept their change of view and their apology and to acknowledge that they, like most Brits, are on a progressive journey and thus can be, and indeed are, rehabilitated. And yet politicians will merrily, for political advantage, hang the past around the necks of others.

Yet time and time again, the message from government was that if you as a Muslim have ever believed, thought, said or even flippantly commented on an issue which could be seen as ‘extreme’, there is no road to rehabilitation. There was no redemption, no possibility for meeting, speaking to, sharing a platform, being associated or simply having a connection, however tenuous that might be, with someone who had believed, displayed, thought or suggested he or she had the aforementioned ‘extremist’ views.

This policy, which I term the policy of disengagement, started under the last Labour government. It continues to be applied today.

But a decade into this approach, I’m yet to be convinced that not engaging and not listening to a community gives us the best insight into ‘them’, and that not speaking to ‘them’ is the best approach.

The Coalition years saw regular battles in government about this policy, and the divide wasn’t just along party political lines. Many a one-nation Tory with a strong commitment to civil liberties felt deeply disturbed by this policy, not least because names of individuals they considered friends and associates started to appear on the ‘beyond the pale’ list. I recall a specific conversation with a  senior cabinet minister about a young man with whom he had worked for a number of years, but about whom the Home Office had concerns as someone with ‘extremist views’.

Sayeeda Warsi article

Policy-making which should have targeted the harm of ‘terrorism’ is increasingly simply targeting ‘the Muslims’. I say this very specifically because I saw it at first hand.

The ‘beyond the pale’ list was a list of organizations and individuals who had said and done things which we felt were ‘extremist’, although not illegal, and thus were individuals and organizations that could not be engaged with by officialdom. So no meetings, no sharing of platforms with them, no photographs and certainly no funding or partnerships.

The challenge was finding agreement amongst ministerial colleagues on both the make-up of ‘the list’ and the evidence that was used to support inclusion on ‘the list’.

There  were numerous occasions where one department would consider an individual or group persona non grata, whilst another government department would engage. The annual Remembrance Day event in November at the Cenotaph on Whitehall was one such moment. The Muslim Council of Britain, an organization that ministers did not engage with, would still attend the Remembrance Day event at the invitation of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to lay a wreath on behalf of British Muslims.

The quality of the Coalition government thinking on who was acceptable and who was not was, at best, amateur, and at worst, dangerous.

Some ministerial colleagues who would have been incensed that they should be held accountable for the comments and actions of their ministerial mates were quick to impose ‘whole group accountability’ on others.
 

A culture of paranoia

Politicians make policy in a ‘paranoid state’. Policy-making which should have targeted the harm of ‘terrorism’ is increasingly simply targeting ‘the Muslims’. I say this very specifically because I saw it at first hand.

A number of religious festivals are celebrated in No. 10 Downing Street each year: from Christmas through to Easter, Diwali to Vaisakhi, Hanukah to Eid. And yet it was the Muslim-focused events, such as the annual Eid reception, that had to be double-checked and cross-referenced. Invitations would often be held up until the last minute, causing much embarrassment. The potential political fallout of us getting it wrong was played out in an environment of frenzy and farce. An unacceptable view on the Middle East, a religiously conservative view on gay marriage or a historical less-than-PC approach to minorities could result in a ‘no invite’. On a number of occasions an invite was issued and then ‘revoked’.

In 2007, when he was leader of the opposition, I arranged for David Cameron to visit a mosque in the UK. It was six years before he returned to one, in 2013, as a confidence-building measure after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, when mosques up and down the country were targeted by far-right activists. My office was instructed to find a ‘safe’ mosque, one that was ‘politically uncontroversial’, one that was not theologically aligned to the more conservative elements of the community, one that was Barelwi or Sufi in its teachings and definitely not a Salafi, Deobandi or Tabliqi Jamaat mosque – in other words, one that fitted the description of the government’s version of acceptable Muslim belief. I didn’t argue against the stupidity of the request, I was simply grateful that the prime minister had finally agreed to visit a mosque: a show of solidarity in those troubled times was, for British Muslims, long overdue.

We chose the mosque where the imam and spiritual leader was the father of an ex-civil servant whom we had also recently contracted to deliver a flagship anti-religious hate crime project. We agreed to visit the day the mosque was holding a community event called the ‘Big Iftaar’.

The mosque visit was a great success, and the prime minister managed to combine good photo opportunities, such as frying samosas in preparation for the iftaar, with substance - hearing directly from women who had been victims of anti-Muslim hatred. And yet a few months after the visit I was hauled in to No. 10 and rebuked for my ‘choice of mosque’. The prime minister’s chief of staff, now Lord Llewellyn, told me, ‘It was your job to protect David.’ When I asked about what the concerns were, none were forthcoming. Frustrated by this cloak-and-dagger approach, I asked for concerns to be put in writing. Nothing was ever sent back. The issue was pushed around various political appointees within No. 10, each one ‘unsure’ what the concerns were and ‘where’ the concerns had been raised. This paranoid government-within-a-government approach was something that I’d come across over a number of years, and it wasn’t just restricted to ministers and advisers employed by government.

These were harsh personal experiences of an approach to policy-making which I consider dysfunctional and dangerous. This paranoid approach to all things ‘Muslim’ was, in my experience, and to the best of my knowledge, not practised for any other community.

So the questions I ask are these: Are we defending our values per se , or only defending our values against Muslims? Is an illiberal view only unacceptable when that view is held by a Muslim? Are historic statements on gender and sexuality only unforgivable if made by Muslims? Is collective guilt reserved for Muslims? Are conservative religious practices only problematic if the practitioners’ faith happens to be Islam? Are we genuinely making policy ‘where everyone plays by the same rules’?

Now I know that there may be extremists out there whose life ambition is to convince Muslims there is no place for them in Britain, and who will seize on these comments and use them to poison young minds. To you I say this: I value and defend the values of freedom of speech, democracy and the rule of law, I want my nation to genuinely assert these values, I would defend them whether they worked for me or against me, unlike you, who simply use them as a convenient tool when it suits. It’s because Britain has these values that I can make these difficult arguments so publicly.

To my colleagues in government I say, as I’ve argued for years: we must have transparency in policy-making and consistency in application of policy. There is nothing that feeds victimhood quite like treating some people differently from, and worse than, you treat everybody else.

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