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Exclusive interview with Keynote Speaker Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

Below is our exclusive interview for SpeakGlobal Magazine, with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s First Muslim Cabinet Minister:

Why did you choose to join the Conservative Party?

For me it was an active choice rather than being born into the religion of conservatism. I was a convert to the cause. My dad first came to Britain in the 1960s, he worked in the Yorkshire textile mills and joined the trade union movement and by default we became Labour.

In my twenties, I began to realise the value of individual responsibility, by taking the opportunities that present and being accountable for ones actions, a belief in small government, a bigger society and the power of the free market.  Naturally and instinctively my politics lay in the centre-right space rather than the left.

What motivated you to write The Enemy Within and what inspired the striking title?

The debate around British Muslims and Islam is often in black and white terms and yet in reality there are multiple shades of grey. Too often in politics and in the media these nuances are lost and what this book is about is introducing some context to the debate; Who are British Muslims? What do they think? How did they get here? What are their journeys?

The book, The Enemy Within, was given its name because of an article written following my involvement on the national security-council and government task force post the terrorist murder of Lee Rigby.  The article referred to me as “the enemy at the table”.   Both my grandfathers had served in the British-Indian army, my parents had worked their way out of poverty and created jobs, not just for themselves, but for others in local communities and I was serving my country at the top table in Britain, so those comments hurt.  They said to me that you don’t belong and you can’t be trusted. I feel that the best way of dealing with such insults is to field them well. Taking ownership of that insult, unpicking it and proving it wrong through data, polling, evidence and research, was the best way of responding to it, “The Enemy Within” does that.

I wanted to write a book where the false distinctions of “us” and “them” were laid bare. I am “us” and I am “them” an insider in both government and British Muslim communities and sometimes an outsider in both.

The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain by Sayeeda Warsi

Do you ever feel tension between your personal values and those of wider British society?

No I don’t, because ultimately principles and values are universal. Where I do find tension is in the conflict between our “official” stated British values and the reality of the environment in which too many in our country live. British values as currently listed  in government policy is a notion which is neither clearly defined, nor honestly underpinned, nor transparently or consistently applied and it does not stand the test of time and history.

As a senior member of the Catholic Church said to me “British values have increasingly become a stick with which to beat minorities”. If we look at how political discourse is changing around gender, LGBT and other minorities’ rights, I do not think we can take it for granted that the battle for progressive liberal values has been won or that those values are forever enduring. You only have to look at the changing attitudes in the US and parts of Europe to see that challenges still remain.

The language should not be about British values, but British ideals – a forward looking vision at who we want to be as a nation. All of us, whatever background we are from, whatever gender, color or religion we are, need to be part of an inclusive debate to define British ideals. This also means that each generation continues to make the case for equal worth and equal value for all that make up our nation.

Right-wing populism appears to be on the rise across Europe and the rest of the world, what challenges do you think this poses for Muslim Britain?

There’s a bit of meltdown happening in some Western democracies, a questioning of who we are, what we stand for and how we will define our nation’s future identity. Unfortunately there is also a gap between mainstream politics and sections of our own societies.  We must not allow that gap to be filled by people who sell populism as authentic politics. Using a public platform to make vile statements which resonate with some sections of our communities does not make one an authentic politician it just means that some politicians are comfortable in crossing the boundaries of decent behavior.

It may seem now that Muslim communities in Europe are unpopular and under attack but a closer look at the rise of right wing populism shows, as it has done so already in the US, that it may start with the Muslims but will move to other minorities.  It is important for all of us to stand up to this worrying form of politics. More than ever now Martin Niemoller’s poem is true and relevant and I believe that Muslims are simply the canaries in the coal mine.

What are your hopes and your fears for 2017?

Britain is negotiating her exit from the European Union and we are going to be a different kind of nation. I fear the uncertainty this creates but hope for a Britain which forges new and stronger relationships with the rest of Europe and further.

Our relationship with the US is important but I fear it will be tested. I hope sanity eventually prevails in the new White House.

To read more about Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, click here.

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