Baroness Warsi has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The bitter truth: the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour

It won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from Baroness Warsi, a Tory politician.

I am from the Iraq War generation. I was 13 when 9/11 happened, and watched the War on Terror unfold throughout my teens. The viciousness of the Iraq War became synonymous with Tony Blair, and thus with the Labour Party. I was 17 in 2005, and I remember trying to convince my father, a first generation Bangladeshi migrant, to vote for anyone but Labour. He wouldn’t relent; Labour supported him when he first came to the United Kingdom, and that support won a lifetime of loyalty.

After Gordon Brown took office in 2007, I looked again at the Labour Party. The shadow of Iraq was still there, but I recognised the values Labour stood for at home – a welfare state, support for the poor, and a belief in the power of the collective. These all resonated with me and my personal ideals, shaped as they were by Islam. I voted for Labour in 2010, something I couldn’t imagine myself doing in 2005.

When the Conservative Party, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, took power, I was worried. This was the party of the white elite I had been told, racist to the very core, and bad news for the economy. In retrospect, I’ve had to face up to a bitter truth - the Tories have done more for Muslims than Labour.

David Cameron has played his role as Prime Minister incredibly well, and is visibly more comfortable with religion than Ed Miliband or even Brown and Blair. “While I am Prime Minister of this country, halal is safe in Britain,” he announced to warm applause at the Muslim News Awards dinner. In an act of public relations genius, he popped in for a casual Nando’s in Bristol during the height of the halal hysteria, telling reporters later “I’m happy to eat halal meat”. On the wall of my local mosque is also a letter from the Prime Minister himself, congratulating Muslims on the beginning of Ramadan and highlighting the contribution of Muslim soldiers to the First World War. After the Woolwich murder, Cameron was equally clear in announcing the killings as “a betrayal of Islam”, stronger words than ever used by Blair, whose speeches on Islam while in office often blurred the line between religious conservatism and violent extremism.

On the other hand, Ed Miliband has had little success engaging with British Muslims. He called the Iraq War “wrong”, but has seldom discussed the issue since. His relationship to religion of any sort seems awkward at best – he announced a desire to become Britain’s first Jewish Prime Minister, while also proclaiming himself an atheist, and having images of him biting into a bacon sandwich slathered over the internet. He has made some efforts to connect to a British Muslim demographic however, most recently with an Eid reception on the 31 July that was described by one attendee as “naff”.

What does stand to Miliband’s credit amongst many British Muslims is taking a strong position on Gaza – an issue incredibly close to the heart of many Muslims. Yet even here, he has been outdone by a Conservative. Baroness Warsi’s resignation may have harmed the Tories in the run up to an election, but in the past four years she has done much to endear the Conservatives to British Muslims. She has campaigned against Islamophobia, balanced out Michael Gove’s ideological opposition to Islam, and even publicly challenged the white, Eton-dominated elite of the party. And it won’t be quickly forgotten that the strongest condemnation of the killings in Gaza came from a Tory politician.

It isn’t too late for Labour however. Ultimately, most of Cameron’s success with Muslim voters has been on superficial issues. A powerful antidote to this will be through a commitment to the values that made Labour successful amongst my father’s generation– namely the welfare state, opposing racist anti-immigration rhetoric and supporting ethnic minority candidates. Mayor Luftur Rahman’s success in Tower Hamlets is an example of all three. Yet all this isn’t enough. Iraq is not something which is confined to history but is absolutely contemporary. ISIS’s rise today in cities like Mosul is a result of the Iraq War; George Galloway is still riding a wave of anti-war sentiment as MP in Bradford. If Miliband is to win back the Iraq War generation, and truly free himself from the Blair legacy, he must condemn the War on Terror entirely and make penance for the sins of New Labour.

Getty
Show Hide image

How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.  

0800 7318496