In defence of Baroness Warsi: the sequel

The Tory peer is spot on about bigotry and Islamophobia.

In my last post on Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party chair and peer, I wrote:

I have a soft spot for Baroness Warsi. Before the Islamophobic and racist trolls arrive "below the line" to claim it's because she shares my faith or ethnicity, let me clarify: it has nothing to do with that.

But let me be clear in this post: I am delighted by her latest intervention precisely because I share her faith and am a co-religionist. Why wouldn't I be? Like every other Muslim I know, I've been waiting years for a leading politician to speak out against the growing, depressing and nasty anti-Muslim bigotry that has disfigured our public and private discourse. If that politician happens to be a Muslim herself, as Warsi is, then so be it. (And there's a lesson here for British Muslims of the Hizb ut-Tahrir/segregationist variety, who argue that Muslims should stay out of politics and public roles. The words "ostriches", "head" and "sand" come to mind.)

So what will Warsi be saying, in her speech at Leicester University tonight? From the Telegraph:

Islamophobia has "passed the dinner-table test" and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial, Baroness Warsi will say in a speech on Thursday.

The minister without portfolio will also warn that describing Muslims as either "moderate" or "extremist" fosters growing prejudice.

. . . Lady Warsi will blame "the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media". The peer will describe how prejudice against Muslims has grown along with their numbers, partly because of the way they are often portrayed.

The notion that all followers of Islam can be described either as "moderate" or "extremist" can fuel misunderstanding and intolerance, she will say.

"It's not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of 'moderate' Muslims leads; in the factory, where they've just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: 'Not to worry, he's only fairly Muslim.'

"In the school, the kids say: 'The family next door are Muslim but they're not too bad.'

"And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: 'That woman's either oppressed or is making a political statement.'"

The baroness will also be offering some "home truths" to sections of the Muslim community:

. . . she will also suggest that some Muslim communities must do more to make clear to extremists that their beliefs and actions are not acceptable.

"Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law," she will say.

"They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims."

On a side note, I'm amused that her comments have attracted such headlines -- it was the lead story on the Today programme, no less! -- when she made exactly the same points to me in an interview in the New Statesman last year:

She is surprisingly frank and forthright about the rise of Islamophobia in Britain. Citing the conservative commentator and columnist Peter Oborne, who has written extensively about the demonisation of Muslim communities, she tells me: "When Peter says that anti-Islamic sentiment is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in Britain today, that's absolutely true." She adds: "If you have a pop at the British Muslim community in the media, first of all it will sell a few papers; second, it doesn't really matter; and third, it's fair game.

"If you go back historically -- [and] I was looking at some Evening Standard headlines, where there were things written about the British Jewish community less than 100 years ago -- they have kind of replaced one with the other."

But I couldn't resist blogging on her latest comments for one very simple reason. Prove me -- and her -- wrong. Prove that there isn't Islamophobia or anti-Muslim bigotry by keeping the comments below the line, on this particular post, civil, tolerant and non-bigoted. I suspect the trolls won't be able to. And, in doing so, they'll prove Warsi's point. How deliciously ironic . . .

Ready, steady, GO!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The honours system should be for heroes, not David Cameron's mates

These things are meant to be our brightest and best, not an Employee of the Month award for Cameron's chums. 

People feel differently about the honours system. Some people – many of them New Statesman readers – see them as a pointless relic of our imperial past. But the fact remains that for a lot of people, they remain a genuine honour: something to feel proud of.

Take Dr Nigel O’Connor,  a haematologist who worked for the NHS for close to 40 years, and founded the Shropshire Blood Trust, a charity that has raised enough money to set up a dedicated cancer treatment facility. He received an MBE, the same honour today bestowed on Margaret Binks, Nick Clegg’s constituency manager, Andrew Sangar, Nick Clegg’s election agent, and Phillipa Rudkin, George Osborne’s constituency manager.

Successfully electing a Liberal Democrat in 2015 may have been rare, but I’m yet to be convinced it was an act of heroism on a par with O’Connor’s. Electing a Conservative in Tatton, however, is neither heroic nor rare: with the exception of 1997, they’ve managed at every election since the seat’s creation. It is, however, more difficult than electing a Conservative in David Cameron’s constituency of Witney: his constituency manager, Caroline Balcon, receives an OBE.

For comparison, that’s the same honour that went to Jonathan Clegg, the “White Zulu”, an anti-apartheid musician and campaigner, and – to declare an interest – to my grandfather, for services to the treatment of HIV and Aids. I regard the whole thing as a somewhat strange affair – but I know it meant a great deal to him.

As of today, he shares this award not only with Balcon, but with Ramesh Chhabra, Osborne’s former spinner, and Hilary Stephenson, the deputy chief executive of the Liberal Democrats.

Now, yes, of course, all of these people work exceptionally hard. It is worth pointing out, however, they are all paid for these efforts and, when they leave post, they can, like Rupert Harrison, now the proud owner of a CBE, and formerly of the Treasury, pick up a hefty pay cheque in the private sector afterwards. (It is worth noting that Downing Street’s catering assistants, who also work exceptionally hard but are unlikely to leverage their long hours into a lucrative slot on the speakers’ circuit, have been given a lesser honour, the BEM. Never let it be said that class hatred isn’t alive, well, and in Downing Street with a majority.)

And look, you can say that the honours system is an anachronistic joke, and that parties of all stripes hand them out to their mates. But parties of all stripes hand out honours to their friends and the process is always fairly grim, but this is a particularly ugly list – where the main requirement seems to be “I successfully came into work for Nick Clegg, David Cameron or George Osborne for more than a year”.

 No fewer than three sitting special advisors, including David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff, receive life peerages.  In total, six gongs have been given to former Liberal Democrat SpAds, and 10 have gone to Conservatives.  It feels more like an end-of-season set of awards for a pub football team (“Lad of the year goes to Big Rupe!”) than an honours system.

Which is fine, if, like me, you think the whole thing is an anachronism. But Nigel O’Connor doesn’t think that. Jonathan Clegg doesn’t think that. My grandfather didn’t think that. And really, shouldn’t the honours system work for them, not Cameron’s mates? 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.