A debate in a vacuum
Sayeeda Warsi is not a woman known for pulling her punches. And, in giving her a new role at DCLG – with responsibility for faith and religious communities – the Prime Minister presumably hoped that she would channel her passion into fighting for groups with whom conservatives have much in common but often little in the way of mutual trust.
So did I – in fact, I wanted him to go one step further and make her the Chair of the EHRC. But today, in a speech about Islamophobia and intolerance towards British Muslims, Lady Warsi has perhaps demonstrated that fierce enthusiasm is not (on its own) sufficient when wading into difficult and potentially toxic territory.
Lady Warsi notes, rightly, the rise in hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims (a blight, plain and simple, on British society). But she then goes on to extrapolate from these too common but still reassuringly rare incidents a wider narrative about British intolerance. Only a quarter of British people, apparently, agree that Islam is compatible with the British way of life.
She makes this assertion on the basis of an as yet unreleased piece of work conducted by external experts but not yet published. This is problematic.
Of course, if these findings are true - and if they correspond to a set of attitudes that are more broadly hardened towards Islam and Muslims - we have a real and scary issue to confront. But, and it is a big but, we do not have the work to look at in context, to probe, to ask questions of and to critique (if a critique is needed). Asserting that the British people are intolerant of Muslims risks undermining the good work that Lady Warsi is doing, distorting a complex and nuanced picture.
There are many people who, when asked about homosexuality, might say that they disapprove of 'the gay lifestyle' or that, in the controversial words of David Davies, they'd 'rather their child didn't grow up to be gay'. Expressing such opinions might be ugly to some of us, but it doesn't equal hatred of homosexuals themselves.
And in the same way, I wonder how many of Lady Warsi's supposed super-majority of hate really have a problem with the individuals who practice Islam - with Muslim neighbours, friends and colleagues. I also wonder whether the researchers have compared attitudes to the religion of Islam with attitudes to other non-majority faiths.
How many of us believe Catholicism to be entirely compatible with 'British values'? Many do not - as made clear by the frequent use (by the DPM and others) of the word 'bigot' to describe practicing Roman Catholics of the orthodox tradition. Surely this raises a question about whether it is Muslims that are the subject of growing mistrust amongst the British public or practicing people of faith in general. Perhaps the researchers know the answer to this - I would hope it would form part of this study - but, as I say, we thus far have no real way of knowing.
Because the work has not yet been released, Lady Warsi has started a debate in which the rest of us are left guessing. That isn't conducive to a sensible conversation - it creates a vacuum of sorts and it undermines efforts to really and fully understand the roots of some of the tensions of modern, diverse societies. She is right to want to confront intolerance - but doing so without providing the context of evidence is unlikely to help.
Note: this blog was edited to reflect the fact that the research was carried out by external experts, and not DCLG.