The Colourful Conservative
Issue 79 April 2011
The Baroness of Dewsbury has taken on the media, Islamophobes, her own party and extremists all within a year of taking office. Sarah Joseph and Aisha Mirza catch up with her following her bold headline grabbing speech on the rise of anti-Muslim diatribes.
Upon entering the Conservative Campaign HQ, where we are due to interview Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, our crew—a mix of Pakistani, Indian, Bengali, Jamaican and English heritage—brings a certain noise and colour to the otherwise unremarkable offices at Millbank. Silent workers in neat suits look up curiously from their screens to watch us pass. There are no glamorous works of art, just a few pictures of the cabinet. No sign of the plasma screens or the blue colour scheme we had envisaged. In fact, we are the most striking things there, until Sayeeda Warsi arrives bringing more colour, a northern accent and shalwar kameez.
In her 2006 emel interview, Sayeeda was extremely positive about the changes taking place among the Tories, namely greater inclusion and better understanding of the issues facing the non-Etonian members of society. But now, with 18 millionaires in the cabinet, whether the party has succeeded in this aim is arguable. What is clear though is that Sayeeda has risen to the forefront of the party, and established herself as a prominent and independent-minded person who at times speaks for women, Asians, Brits and Muslims alike.
Ranked by the Daily Telegraph as the 23rd most influential right-winger in Britain, Sayeeda has travelled to Sudan with Lord Ahmed to help negotiate the release of a British teacher who was bizarrely jailed for naming a teddy bear ‘Muhammad’; she has been pelted with eggs in Luton by members of Al-Muhajiroun; met the Pope; led a British delegation to Hajj; and was named as the most powerful Muslim woman in Britain by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. She also appeared alongside Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, on an episode of Question Time that saw her widely praised for the way she took him down. Sayeeda is now a Minister without Portfolio—a “unique role framed by me and the prime minister,” and co-chairman of the Conservative party, which “takes up 80% of my time.” She is very keen to point out that this makes her the first Muslim full-cabinet minister regardless of gender, and offers her a platter of responsibilities that does not leave her much time to “take loo breaks… or do my eyebrows,” as she puts it.
She describes the endless meetings that leave her with “no time to think or read,” and the “gruelling” schedule that often leaves her “sleep deprived” and feels she is “trading away some sort of normality.” Her description is such that you wonder whether a politician’s lot makes for effective government. However, she is still finding time to cause a stir. We meet Sayeeda in the aftermath of her speech in Leicester addressing inter-faith dialogue. “Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table test,” she declared. “A phobia is an irrational fear. It takes on a life of its own and no longer needs to be justified. And all this filters through. The drip feeding of fear fuels a rising tide of prejudice.” Her speech caused a furore and generated a thousand articles.
For some of us, the notion that Muslims have increasingly been the targets of prejudice and misrepresentation by the press and the public is not novel or particularly shocking. We’ve seen the headlines: ‘Muslim students back killing in the name of Islam’, ‘Muslim plot to kill Pope’, ‘Muslims force Brits to eat Halal meat’. But as Sayeeda’s speech made headlines of its own, and the comments from the public reached their vitriolic frenzy, it became obvious just how important it is for a prominent politician to be making the point, fearlessly and articulately, using her platform to bring into public discourse something that is important to her and the communities she wants to reach out to.
“I wasn’t shocked by the furore… I was shocked by how many people wrote about it without reading it!” Sayeeda exclaims. Indeed, many opinion pieces chose to divert attention to the idea that Islam is not open to debate or criticism, and until that is achieved there will be no tolerance of it. This is something that was addressed directly by Sayeeda, and she stands by her thoughts. “Islam is a religion and everyone has a right to question, criticise, disagree with, and object to other people’s religions… but where you have an approach of hatred towards a community because of the religion they belong to… that’s what I am saying is wrong.” She laughs at “the back peddling” once people had begun to read the actual speech, but there was some notable lack of fulsome support. David Cameron himself only offered the contribution that it was “important to debate”, as Sayeeda was torn apart by columnists and the blogosphere; and no other cabinet member publicly expressed any support. If she was disappointed by this, she does not let it show. “These are issues which David and I have discussed and debated for many years now. He is supportive, but this was not a big announcement of government policy; this was an academic lecture given at a university where I was going through the arguments, posing questions and challenges. It is not an end point. We are on that journey. David is on that journey.”
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