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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle