Muslims will speak up for British values only when they know they will be heard

Guardian: Former Tory chairwoman accuses government she served of undermining the fight against religious extremism

Baroness Warsi says the British Council of Muslims is unrepresentative, but not extremist.
Baroness Warsi says the British Council of Muslims is unrepresentative, but not extremist. Photograph: Paul Cooper /Rex Features

There has been much controversy over the letter from the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, and Lord Ahmad to more than 1,000 mosques. The Muslim Council of Britain appeared to react most negatively, criticising Eric for what they saw as his suggestion that somehow British Muslims were “inherently apart from British society”. But disquiet about the letter was much more widespread.

I’m more inclined to agree with the columnist Matthew d’Ancona, who described the letter as not so much a hand raised in warning as a hand stretched out in partnership. The letter contains some profoundly positive and inclusive sentiments, among them that “British values are Muslim values” and that Britain is a better place because of “its strong Muslim communities”.

Having worked with Eric for over a decade, I know he wants to reach out and help create better communities. So why the controversy? The problem was the letter’s timing, and that when government stretched out its hand in friendship there was no response from the other side.

For nearly six years, firstly under Labour and then the coalition, governments have adopted a policy of non-engagement with a wide range of Muslim community organisations and activists. Many groups and individuals have been defined as “beyond the pale”. Indeed, the coalition even set up a high-level committee to decide whether a group or individual was someone ministers could engage with.

Both the setting up of this committee and its less than impressive non-evidence-based submissions divided colleagues in the cabinet. My view has always been clear. While there are many groups that government should not fund or take as partners, I do not believe government should disengage from large sections of any community.

So while in government I decided, to criticism from within, and sometimes from the media, to continue engaging. That decision was completely justified during the aftermath of the brutal and tragic murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, when so many of those whom government had formally disengaged with stepped up to the plate and, in their unequivocal and unconditional condemnation of the actions of the extremists, became part of the solution.

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