Sunday, 25 January 2015

Baroness Warsi: 'Muslims will speak up for British values only when they know they will be heard'

The Observer has published an extremely important and perceptive article by Baroness Warsi, former Minister of State for Faith and Communities ('Muslims will speak up for British values ...'). When few British politicians and members of government - representing whichever party - have little understanding of the basic principles of communication, public diplomacy and the need to engage with aggrieved and marginalised communities, Baroness Warsi reveals herself an astute critic of current policies towards the UK's Muslim population.

The first problem she identifies is 'non-engagement': '

For nearly six years, firstly under Labour and then the coalition, governments have adopted a policy of non-engagement with a wide range of 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.
In other words, there is not only evidence of a clear policy of exclusion, thus dividing further the very communities one wishes to reach out to, but what are the criteria for exclusion? Who decides which organisations are beyond the pale and according to which criteria? This should only be decided in consultation with members of the Muslim communities themselves. Only they will know which groups should and should not be included in dialogue, and by involving them in a conversation the government would be increasing the legitimacy of their policies.

Baroness Warsi then uses two words that are the core of any credible and successful public diplomacy  strategy: friendship and trust. As we know, building trust among your audience is crucial for both credibility and legitimacy. Baroness Warsi refers to friendship and trust when recounting the response to a letter sent by the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles (whom I remember very well as the leader of Bradford City Council when I was growing up there in the 1980s) to more than 1000 mosques:

A letter out of the blue to a mosque that is potentially affiliated to an organisation like the Muslim Council of Britain - with whom the government has refused to engage - creates a climate where even the most benign of correspondence can become toxic.   
She then uses another word that is familiar to all of us researching and teaching public diplomacy:

It makes it appear as if the government is neither listening not genuine in its intentions. And it provokes a negative response, irrespective of the true motive. 

Listening is the key activity in any communication strategy. For one thing, listening to the very communities you wish to engage means you have a greater insight into how the members of those communities think and form opinions which can then inform your own communications with them. Listening also provides the basis for empathy and understanding that might make for better policy-making. It helps build trust, but unfortunately Baroness Warsi sees the persistence of a 'trust deficit':

We needed to bring more people into the fold rather than increasingly adopt positions which pushed groups and individuals out to the fringe. We will fight extremism better if we all feel like we are in the same team, where communities feel listened to, where answers are found collectively and where engagement with communities is broad and deep.      

I have written previously on the need for a more inclusive approach to relations with the UK's Muslim communities, and the urgency of downplaying the belligerent knee-jerk reactions that have encouraged the creation of a military-sounding 'taskforce' to 'confront' extremism (British Taskforce to confront extremismA Marked Man in America). Baroness Warsi's perceptive understanding of the problems - residing mainly within government, rather than within the Muslim communities - and her approach to their solution, based on engagement, inclusiveness, listening and building trust, suggests that she is best placed to form a new strategy towards Islam in the UK.


  1. Although I'm a lifelong leftist, I find myself agreeing fully with Saeeda Warsi's refreshingly direct perspective on social inclusion and Prof Rawnsley's clear and helpful explication of her article.

  2. Good article, but in my opinion - formed from experience in one of England's bigger cities, Birmingham - it is flawed by three significant factors.

    One, at a national level very few elected politicians want to engage with the issues, let alone with the Muslim communities. They simply stay away from the issue, it is time-consuming, divisive and dangerous to reputations.

    Two, if there is to be dialogue which aims to create partnership who are the real, credible local voices? They certainly are not locally elected politicians, most councillors for example refrain from open involvement in these issues. Too much of local activity under the 'Prevent' banner has been and remains police-led, reducing its credibility amongst those most likely to be involved - as partners.

    Three, there is widespread acceptance of 'British values' and the need to counter extremism. I doubt there is much of a concensus beyond that, notably over foreign policy. How will our opponents react? They are the third significant factor, much of it is online - where there is very little apparent response.

  3. Really enjoyed this analysis. I've lived in Bradford for 15 years. I work in Faith and Belief in Further Education so have cause to relate to differing faith communities.

    One question: if you were to engage seriously with the Muslim communities (accepting the plurality of interpretations and approaches) could you genuinely expect there to be 'internal' consensus on who should or should not be included in dialogue?

    Who within the more 'moderate', 'progressive' reps would have the legitimacy to 'decide' which of the regressive, non-British voices should be excluded?

    Genuinely wondering.