British minister attacks 'acceptable' Islamophobia

20th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

The first Muslim woman to sit in the British cabinet warned Thursday that discrimination against Muslims in Britain has become socially acceptable and must be tackled.

"It has seeped into our society in a way where it is acceptable around dinner to have these conversations where anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry is quite openly discussed," minister without portfolio Sayeeda Warsi told the BBC.

Warsi, a member of the unelected House of Lords and co-chair of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party, will make her argument in a speech later Thursday at the University of Leicester.

According to extracts in the Daily Telegraph, Warsi, who is of Pakistani origin, will blame the media for fuelling misunderstanding with labels such as "moderate" or "extremist".

Warsi will also call on Muslim communities to speak up more against Islamic extremism, an issue which has preoccupied governments here since four home-grown suicide bombers attacked London in 2005, killing 52 people.

In the latest sign of the sensitivities of the subject, Britain refused entry Wednesday to firebrand US pastor Terry Jones, who caused controversy last year by threatening to burn the Koran, accusing him of "extremism".

In her speech, Warsi will say that those engaged in terrorism must face the law but also "face social rejection and alienation across society, and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims."

A spokesman for Cameron said Warsi "is expressing her view. He agrees that this is an important debate".

Earlier this year, Cameron said Britons must question "how we are allowing the radicalisation and poisoning of the minds of some young British Muslims who then contemplate and sometimes carry out acts of sickening barbarity".

Research published this month by the US-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found the Muslim population of Britain was now 2.9 million, or 4.6 percent of the population, up from 1.6 million in 2001.

Warsi will say in her speech that prejudice has grown with the numbers, and blame "the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media".

The notion that all followers of Islam can be described either as "moderate" or "extremist" can fuel misunderstanding and intolerance.

"It's not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of 'moderate' Muslims leads; in the factory, where they've just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: 'Not to worry, he's only fairly Muslim'," she says.

"In the school, the kids say: 'The family next door are Muslim but they're not too bad'.

"And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: 'That woman's either oppressed or is making a political statement'."

Defending her comments in a BBC television interview, she said her speech would place this criticism within historical context, citing how Britain had struggled to deal with its Catholic and Jewish minorities.

She said it was up to society, religious leaders and the government to change things, adding: "We have faced these challenges before, we have worked through it and I'm confident that as a nation we can work through it again."

However, right-wing Conservative lawmaker Norman Tebbit criticised her comments and suggested they should be directed at Muslim communities.

"I would have told her that the Muslim faith was not discussed over the dinner tables of England, nor in the saloon bars, before large numbers of Muslims came here to our country," he wrote in a blog on the Telegraph website.

"Then I would have told her to go to our Christian churches and listen to what was said about her religion and those who practise it, then to the mosques to hear what is said in some of them about the Christian faith."

© 2011 AFP

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