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Baroness Warsi condemns UK's Prevent strategy as 'broken, toxic'

Warsi, the first British Muslim woman to hold a cabinet post, talks about 'brutal' realities of being a Muslim in public life
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, pictured here in December 2014, has condemned the Prevent strategy (AFP)
Par MEE staff

Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative Party co-chair and the first Muslim woman to hold a British cabinet post, has called on the government to rethink its controversial Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, describing it as a "broken brand".

In an interview with Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times newspaper ahead of the publication of her new book, The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain, Baroness Warsi also called on British Prime Minister Theresa May to publicly condemn Islamophobia and described being a Muslim in public life as a "brutal" experience.

Warsi, who quit then-prime minister David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government in 2014 in protest at its failure to condemn Israel's assault on Gaza, minced no words about Prevent, which she said was focused too narrowly on the development of extremist ideology.

“I think Prevent, as a brand, is broken. I think it's toxic," she said. "I think Theresa May needs to pause, she needs to reassess what Prevent is about, and they need to have clarity of whether it’s counterterrorism or counterextremism."

'We were trying to be the intelligence services and the police in a process determined by a couple of politicians and their ideologies'

- Sayeeda Warsi

Under the Prevent Duty, which the government introduced in 2015, all public sector workers including teachers and doctors must have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

Prevent, which was originally introduced by the Labour Party in 2003, has long been criticised by many British Muslims who say it is discriminatory and even counter-productive by potentially alienating those whom it sets out to help.

Those concerns have been highlighted by human rights watchdogs and advocacy groups and parliamentary committees. However, the government has suggested that it plans to extend and expand Prevent despite admitting that it has still not settled on a legally robust definition of the "extremism" that it has set out to tackle.

Shipman wrote that while Warsi was "Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister, spending four years at David Cameron's top table before resigning in 2014 over the government's policy towards Gaza," and was admired by some as a "gutsy and outspoken trailblazer," others viewed her with suspicion, as "her views on how to deal with extremism and terrorism were  seen as dangerously at odds with her colleagues".

Warsi criticised her former colleagues in government, labelling it a “crazy, paranoid state," telling Shipman: “We entered this weird cloak-and-dagger phase where we had no process, there was no transparency. We were trying to be the intelligence services and the police in a process determined by a couple of politicians and their ideologies.

I said: ‘The way we’re starting to operate now with the Muslims is McCarthyistic.’ One of my colleagues would refer to the crocodiles in the swamp and we had to drain the swamp, but all the policy ever did was grow the swamp.”

Warsi told Shipman that of those who turn to terrorism, many "have previous convictions," are alienated from their families or have confused sexuality. "What makes a violent terrorist or a jihadi are all these factors, and what do we do? We focus on one single ideology. If it's not all ideology, it's stupid to keep saying it's all ideology."

While she had many positive things to say about Prime Minister Theresa May and her vision for Britain, Warsi said she wished that May would publicly condemn Islamophobia.

'It is sad that I'm the only politician who has ever done a mainstream speech on Islamophobia. I think Islamophobia is Britain's bigotry blind spot'

- Sayeeda Warsi

"It is sad that I'm the only politician who has ever done a mainstream speech on Islamophobia," she told the Sunday Times. "I think Islamophobia is Britain's bigotry blind spot. It's a form of racism still rationalised by the respectable. I would like a prime minister or home secretary to stand up and say, 'We all want to fight the war on terror, but Muslims are not fair game'."

Warsi also criticised her Conservative Party's smear campaign against London Mayor Sadiq Khan during the last year's election in which it was suggested that he had shared platfoms with alleged extremists. Cameron was subsequently forced to issue an apology to Suliman Gani, a London imam whom he had wrongly suggested supported the Islamic State (IS) group.

'"It's brutal being a Muslim in public life. We ran the most nasty campaign, which was actually beneath us. We shouldn’t have done it. If mainstream politicians think that they can get away with saying certain things about certain communities, then we greenlight bigots," she said.

Although Khan won in spite of the Tory tar brush, Warsi went on to express uncertainty about the future of Muslims in Britain:

"Muslim Britain has taken so many bad turns in the past 15 years, so many mistakes have been made on all sides, that I'm not as confident these days. I know that conversations are taking place in middle-class Muslim homes about where else they could be."

Despair at Trump

She also believes there should be more criticism of Trump ahead of his arrival in the UK later this year.

“I despair so much when I think of the Trump visit,” she said. “ Here is a man who has very little regard for women, who thinks he can control women, who thinks that he can do what he wants with women — and we don’t call him out on it. What message do we send to the conservative, misogynistic Muslim man in Bradford who thinks the same as Trump?”

Warsi said that her husband, Iftikhar Azam, is often stopped by US immigration and “gets to sit in the little room with all the other brown people.

“He never books a meeting if he’s got an internal flight because he knows he’ll always miss his first internal flight. He loves travelling with me because he gets no grief. I must be flagged up somewhere as an awkward Yorkshire woman.”

The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain will be published by Allen Lane on 30 March.

Middle East Eye contributor Peter Oborne has described the book as a "hard headed, well-informed and intellectually coherent analysis of policy towards British Islam. Much of what Baroness Warsi reveals is deeply shocking.

"Again and again it turns conventional wisdom on its head. It deserves to promote a public debate on this subject which has been needed for more than 20 years."

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