Sayeeda Warsi on new UK counter-extremism chief: “She’s not going to change hearts and minds”

The former chair of the Conservative party on why she disagrees with the Home Office’s latest move. 

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“The debate has very quickly gone into you either support this appointment, and you’re a good Muslim, or you don’t and you’re a bad Muslim,” says Sayeeda Warsi. “That is a very dangerous road to go down.”

Baroness Warsi, as she is also known, is a former chair of the Conservative party, who on one occasion was pelted with eggs by Islamist protesters. She has long been a role model for Muslim women, and a mentor to others. So for some it may be surprising that this week she has been outspoken in her criticism of the Conservative government's appointment of a Counter Extremism Commissioner, Sara Khan.

The Counter Extremism Commission is, according to the Home Office, designed to “support the government, the public sector, civil and wider society to identify and challenge all forms of extremism”. It described Khan as having “extensive experience” and a determination to challenge extremism that “makes her ideally suited to this role”.

Khan made her name through Inspire, a non-governmental organisation focused on gender equality. According to Inspire’s website, the organisation was set up in 2008, due to frustration with the inaction of many male-led existing Muslim organisations. Among the public roles Khan has played, she has condemned the tolerance of gender segregation and attended memorials for members of the armed forces. Inspire received funding from the Home Office for a 2014-15 anti-Isis campaign, but says it has not received any more from it since then.

However, Warsi says Khan is “not independent of the Home Office.” Khan’s sister, Sabin, Warsi notes, is a senior civil servant who works for the Home Office. “Sara sadly comes into this role from a position of distrust,” she tells me. “She is already in a position where certain sections of the community aren’t prepared to trust her. That automatically makes her ineffective in that role and she is not going to be able to change hearts and minds.”

She is not alone in her criticism. Labour MP Naz Shah told the Independent that Khan was “widely seen as the creation of the Home Office”. A hundred Muslim organisations have signed a letter asking for her to be removed. Warsi has spent the days since the appointment on the phone to disgruntled civil servants, police and activists. “I also spoke to a senior Prevent worker on the ground and she said this has made her job a whole lot harder.”

Khan has not taken the accusations lying down. Asked if she was a mouthpiece of the Home Office, Khan told the BBC: “I don’t accept that.” Her defenders also question the relevance of her sister’s role, given she obtained her position through the normal civil service procedures, and the Home Office said Khan won her position after “a rigorous and transparent competition”.

The attacks on a Muslim women’s activist by other prominent Muslim women can seem rather personal. But Warsi points out her own history of mentoring Muslim women and says the idea she is motivated by personal animosity is “ridiculous”.

Indeed, talking to Warsi, it becomes apparent that the two women have become this week’s faces of a wider debate within the counter-extremism community: what exactly is extremism, and how worried we should be about it.

Warsi is concerned by the instinct among some in government to “criminalise thought rather than act” in a way that runs counter to the liberal traditions of Parliament. There needs to be an allowance for more than one interpretation of faith, she says. Khan is the signatory to a letter condemning the trend for girls attending state-funded primary schools to wear hijab (although Inspire has also used an emblem of a Muslim woman wearing a Union Jack hijab). Warsi has fought against the idea of a monolithic concept of British Muslims, and in an interview with The New Statesman’s Anoosh Chakelian, she has previously noted that the government itself struggled to define extremism. “I don’t wear the hijab, my mum doesn’t, my grandma didn’t but I will always fight for the right to wear it,” Warsi says.

Correspondingly, she believes that those countering extremism need to be prepared to engage with conservatives in the community. The Home Office, she argues, has spent the last ten years doing the opposite. Khan herself, from the platform of Inspire, has singled out Muslim groups like Cage and Mend for undermining the government’s Prevent strategy.

The fact that these groups oppose Khan’s appointment is therefore perhaps unsurprising. But Warsi, who has challenged misogyny, polygamy and sectarianism in the Muslim community, also worries about Khan’s disengagement with such groups. “When I was in the government, we would have lists of organisations people were not allowed to engage with,” Warsi says. “I would argue, get into trouble for saying ‘I can’t live like that.’” She observes that in other areas, engagement is not taken as endorsement: “Just because we sit down with Donald Trump doesn’t mean we agree with everything he says.”

In an article in The Guardian, published shortly after I speak to Warsi, Khan pledged to make the Counter-extremism Commission “impartial, transparent and open”. She added: “To those who recognise the harm and threat that extremism continues to pose in our society, I am eager to collaborate and engage.” Khan said in a statement to me that she wanted to hear from victims and those standing up to extremism. She added: “The aim for this first year is to listen, look closely at the evidence and make recommendations.”

The fact that Warsi, a former Conservative government minister, has been so outspoken over her appointment, though, suggests that Khan will have a long way to go to convince her sceptics. “There are two schools of thought,” Warsi says, when I ask her why she thinks the appointment was made. “One, the Home Office just didn’t think and it was a cock up by the government, or two, is that this is the Home Office way of saying ‘We actually don’t care what large sections of the British Muslims think and we are going to do it anyway.’”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital night editor at the Liverpool Echo, and the former digital news editor of the New Statesman. She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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