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UK establishment gangs up on another mainstream Muslim politician

Attacks on Sayeeda Warsi are unfair and unwarranted, ignoring her instrumental role in promoting interfaith dialogue

It's been exactly two years since the Conservative Party joined forces with the big battalions of the British media establishment in an attempt to destroy Sadiq Khan as the Labour candidate for mayor of London.

It was one of the nastiest political campaigns I have ever witnessed, because the campaign against Khan was based around the fact that he was a Muslim.

Now, we are seeing another concerted attempt to take down a mainstream Muslim politician. In this week's Jewish Chronicle, journalist John Ware smears Sayeeda Warsi for her connections with the Muslim advocacy organisation Mend.

Who can speak for Muslims?

Ware writes that Warsi "seems to have held Mend rather too close for comfort, inviting the conclusion that she is either very confused or that she is at heart more Mend than mainstream".

Within hours of Ware's article being published, others were joining in. Zac Goldsmith, who has yet to apologise for the campaign against Sadiq Khan, tweeted Ware’s article approvingly.

Warsi criticised Khan’s appointment for specific reasons: that she does not have the trust of the Muslim community and is perceived, for solid reasons, as being too close to the government

Then Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the Quilliam foundation, entered the fray, accusing Warsi of using claims of Islamophobia to shield herself from legitimate criticism.

It’s easy to see what is going on here. We are seeing a sustained attempt to determine which politicians can speak for Muslims and which can’t.

Welcome to the world of senator Joe McCarthy, with John Ware playing the role of Witchfinder General. His central charge against Warsi is that she is too close to Mend, and has given them some advice about how they should rebrand themselves. Ware is implying that there is something suspicious about this.

I can't agree. I've followed Warsi’s career enough to know that Ware has been selective and unfair in his treatment of her.

'The Whitehall friend'

If he’s going to highlight her relationship with Mend, he should also mention her connections with other Muslim organisations. But he doesn’t mention that she’s worked with the Quilliam foundation, which supports the government’s counter-extremism strategy.

And Ware surely ought also to have mentioned that as minister for faith and communities, she was instrumental in setting up Nisa-Nashim, a network of Jewish and Muslim women that calls itself the largest of its kind in Europe.

As a government minister, Warsi also engaged heavily with Christian organisations, leading the largest-ever ministerial delegation to the Vatican.

Sayeeda Warsi joins people at a vigil in northern England on 17 June 2016 in remembrance of Labour MP Jo Cox (AFP)
Ware left his readers in ignorance of all of this. Nor did he inform them that when she stepped down from government, the Catholic newspaper The Tablet published a leader praising her for “tireless” interfaith work, calling her “the Whitehall friend” church leaders could go to, and saying: “Her resignation leaves a hole at the heart of government and it is difficult to see how Mr Cameron can fill it.”

As for Muslims, she has always felt she ought to meet every part of the community, not just some.

This seems to me to be a defensible course of action, and one that has enabled her to be one of the most outspoken critics of homophobia, anti-Semitism and sectarianism, without being accused of being a government stooge.

A false dichotomy

Ware also said he was puzzled by Warsi's criticism of the new extremism commissioner, Sara Khan, as a "mouthpiece for the Home Office". He asks: "Why would Warsi oppose anyone who stood for human rights and female empowerment in the face of brutal theocratic extremism - with or without government assistance?"

There's a false dichotomy at work here, once again making out that Warsi is somehow against human rights and female empowerment.

How the right-wing press smeared Sayeeda Warsi
Peter Oborne
Read More »

Yet Warsi criticised Khan's appointment for specific reasons: that she does not have the trust of the Muslim community, and is perceived, for solid reasons, as being too close to the government.

And she was by no means alone in making this criticism: 100 Muslim organisations signed a petition calling for Khan’s appointment to be revoked. The Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, said Khan "does not accept the concerns in the community". The Muslim Council of Britain said the appointment would be seen as "a move to placate those small sections of society who see Muslims as foreign, alien, rather than as equal citizens in this country".

Other Muslim groups - including some of the most mainstream, such as the Muslim Women’s Collective - are also concerned that Khan’s unwavering support for Prevent will make it difficult for her to build bridges with Muslims.

One-sided attack

And it is not just Muslims who are concerned. Labour’s shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, has said Khan's "seems to be a very ill-advised appointment".

Ware appears to be suggesting that Warsi’s criticism of Khan’s appointment lies far outside the mainstream. He calls it a “puzzle”. Clearly it is not.

Of course, there is no reason why a journalist such as Ware should not attack Warsi. But I believe his failure to highlight her work across religious communities created the false impression among readers of the Jewish Chronicle that Warsi is a sectarian figure. Such a one-sided attack ironically runs the risk of stoking the very religious divisions that Ware claims to be so concerned about.

As a proud female Muslim politician with her own views, Warsi seems to attract suspicion

Unfortunately, this is not the first attack on Warsi. She is constantly being sniped at.

On the right of British politics, journalist Douglas Murray is one of the most contemptuous. He has called her the "enemy at the table". Another is former Daily Telegraph editor and biographer of Margaret Thatcher Charles Moore, who dismissed her as “self-publicising” and “sectarian”.

And earlier this year, former army officer Richard Kemp's smear in the Jewish News that Warsi has excused the crimes of the Islamic State (IS) led to the newspaper paying her £20,000 ($27,000) in libel damages.

Focus on Islamophobia

As a proud female Muslim politician with her own views, Warsi seems to attract suspicion. As I wrote last year, she has been subjected to relentless vitriol from within the Conservative Party.

This persecution comes at a time when attention is beginning to turn to Islamophobia within the Conservative Party. Last weekend, Warsi herself claimed that there is an Islamophobic incident within the party almost every week. Evidence from the last several weeks confirms this.

John Ware is a fine reporter. I suggest that next time, he pay attention to the very serious and unreported issue of Islamophobia, rather than gang up with the establishment against one of Britain’s most original and vivid politicians.

- Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Over the years, politician Sayeeda Warsi has worked across various religious communities (AFP)

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