Sayeeda Warsi: Violent sectarianism is not inevitable, as history shows

Muslim women out doing their shopping wearing the Niqab.
Muslim women out doing their shopping wearing the Niqab.
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AS the first ever Minister for Faith, and the first Muslim to serve as a British Cabinet Minister, I have made religious freedom my personal priority: promoting and protecting people’s right to hold a faith, to manifest their faith, or indeed to change their faith This is something which I believe is not only integral to personal identity but also leads to fairer, more secure and more progressive communities.

My own faith – Islam – has been shaped by my upbringing, coloured by the country I was born in, shaped by my experiences as a lawyer, a campaigner and a politician and my personal experience as a daughter, a wife and a mother.

In Britain, for a politician to talk honestly and openly about faith, especially one’s own faith, is not particularly fashionable. As Tony Blair’s adviser famously said: “We don’t do God.” But back in 2010, when we came to government, the first major speech that I made was to state that we would “do God”.

What I meant when I said that was that the way in which faith was being sidelined and marginalised was wrong, and that it had to change That faith should be an important informer of public debate and that the role of faith charities, voluntary organisations and individuals motivated by faith to serve their societies would be supported.

I said that we would tackle head on, the tough issues like the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. In the UK I felt the bigotry of Islamophobia had increased, so much so that sentiment against Muslims had become acceptable – even in the most civilised of settings.

I felt that it was time for government to respond. I’m delighted that this Government has done so. I said that we would reach out to new faith communities as well as revive and restore some of our oldest relationships.

In 2012 I had the privilege to lead the largest ever British ministerial delegation to the Vatican, where I argued that Europe should be stronger in its Christian identity.

Why?

Because minorities are most welcomed and accepted in places where they are sure of their own identity, and that militant secularism creeping across our continent was alienating minorities rather than welcoming them.

I said that we would not shirk from our responsibility as a staunch defender of religious freedom. And it was right that last year, when I spoke at Georgetown University in Washington, I warned about religious persecution, especially against Christian minorities in parts of the Middle East. That is a tragic global crisis and it demands an international response.

These are difficult and complex subjects, which have the potential to arouse passionate and emotional responses. But I hope my approach is from a position of hopefulness and optimism for the future.

I also feel it is a responsibility – a responsibility to use my privileged position in politics to highlight injustice and encourage tolerance.

I am a proud Muslim. I am patriotically British. Despite the oft asked unanswerable question as to which I am first – whether I am Muslim first or British first – I see no conflict in these parts of my identity. My patriotism and my faithfulness are both strong, positive forces which drive me.

But I want to focus on an aspect of my identity that I have rarely mentioned publicly: my Sunni-Shia upbringing. In the past I have argued that faith forms the fault lines of modern conflict, something which has come into stark relief in recent years. But these cracks are as present – and often deeper – within faiths as they are between them. This infighting is rarely confronted; but it is something which, I feel, poses a great danger to faith and to our world.

Now of course, sects, denominations, factions – in religions as in life – are nothing new. Cliques and rivalries are part of human nature. I should know that – I work in politics!

But while people have always defined themselves by a whole series of characteristics – I describe myself as British, as working class, as Muslim, as a mum – today, sadly, one’s sect is becoming the dominant identifier.

The hatred that can exist between sects – between people who follow the same God and share the same holy book – disturbs and saddens me.

The fact that their version of their faith does not replicate yours is no longer seen as an inevitable, healthy difference of opinion, but is seen as an insurmountable difference – to the point where sectarian difference is used as a way of justifying acts of religious extremism.

Around the world such violence is reaching an all-time high. The fact that terrorists use sectarianism as a basis for their actions shows how deep and dangerous this problem has become.

It reflects an attitude that underpins a world-view that states you are only acceptable if you follow my version of my faith.

This Takfiri world-view, which rejects the longstanding Islamic tradition of ikhtilaf – of difference – is deeply worrying to me, where the faithful appear far more concerned with others’ faithfulness than with their own.

I’ve been a victim of this judgmentalism myself; a few years ago attacked on the streets of Britain by a gang who accused me of not being a ‘proper Muslim’.

They didn’t approve of my involvement in politics and they didn’t approve of me appearing in public with my face uncovered.

They reduced my faith to a list of ‘don’ts’, defined only in the negative, defining their faith in terms of what they are against, rather than what they stand for. Stripping out the soulfulness and kindness of spirit that sits at the heart of Islam.

I believe that this approach is at odds with the teachings of Islam, and leaves the faithful vulnerable to extremists who justify violence in the name of Allah.

For I have always been taught that faith is at its strongest when people find their own way to the Almighty. And as Oman’s Religious Tolerance website so wisely states: “Everyone must answer for himself before God.”

But there’s a deeply disturbing political element to sectarianism when negative political forces exploit these differences. And this approach takes on an even more sinister tone when sect is equated with nationality or loyalty to a particular country – where Shia Muslims in Sunni majority countries are seen as loyal to another country, and vice versa.

We need to point to history to show violent sectarianism is not inevitable. We must look to times when different sects within Islam worked together and worshipped together. All of us, believers and leaders alike, must reclaim the true meaning of Islam, and focus on the things that unite us, rather than those that divide us. And in reclaiming the true meaning of Islam we must also reclaim the language of Islam, much of which has been distorted and usurped for political ends.

• Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of Dewsbury is a Tory peer and Foreign Office minister. This is an edited version of a speech that she delivered at the Sultan Grand Mosque in Muscat on religious tolerance.