UK Minister On Keeping The Faith At Home And Abroad

Whether tackling Islamophobia in her home country or Christian persecution worldwide, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi - the UK's first ever Minister of State for Faith and Communities - has a lot on her plate. She speaks with host Michel Martin about her duties in office and balancing the tightrope between church and state.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, football fans might be talking about the big game last night, but it's the president's fumble of the health care rollout that's the talk of the Barbershop. The guys take the field and take on the issue in a moment.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith, religion and spirituality. We often talk about the connection between politics and faith. Today, we hear from a woman who connects these two in her home country, and she's a pioneer in doing so in several respects. In 2012, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi became the United Kingdom's first ever minister of state for faith and communities. A former co-chair of Prime Minister David Cameron's conservative party, she previously made history as Britain's first Muslim Cabinet member when she was first appointed without a specific portfolio back in 2010. We're catching up with her on a visit to the U.S. where she's talking about the international role in promoting religious freedom around the world. Baroness, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

BARONESS SAYEEDA WARSI: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Your official title is Senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Community. So the the first thing I wanted to ask is, what does that mean? What do you do? What is your responsibility?

WARSI: Well, in the foreign office, I have responsibility for certain parts of the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Central Asia. And then I also have responsibility for certain institutions like the U.N. and the International Criminal Court. But thematically, I'm responsible for the human rights portfolio, and it's part of that that I've been heavily involved with the issue of freedom of religion and belief.

MARTIN: In this country, in the Department of State - and obviously the systems are different - but there is a special advisor for faith-based and community initiatives who, as part of his portfolio, this person advises the secretary of state on these issues. And they deliver a report every year on the status of religious freedom around the world. I take it that you, number one, owing to your stature, and, number two, owing to the fact that this office is newly created, I take it that you see your job in a sort of a more proactive fashion. Can you just give me an example of what it is that you hope to achieve, or what will we be able to look to say, this is different as a result of your service in this role?

WARSI: Well, I think domestically what we will see is that, I think, there was a sense when we came in that somehow your faith didn't really form part of your public being. And so therefore, there were many, many, many faith institutions and organization who did currently good work, but felt that when they interacted with government or sought funding, for example, from government, they somehow had to leave their faith at home. So I think the last Archbishop of Canterbury actually put it incredibly well when they said that sometimes faith in the United Kingdom is seen as the preserve of minorities, oddities and foreigners.

And therefore, I think there needed to be normalization of that faith. As a British Muslim, as somebody who is from a minority faith within a majority Christian country, I feel that my faith is strengthened and easier to practice if the sense of identity - the Christian identity within Britain is also clear. I don't feel people that people have to be less Christian to accommodate my Muslim belief. But in terms of the Foreign Office, I think this concern about the way in which minority communities are treated - and specifically what I will be focusing on here in the U.S. is the plight of Christian minorities across the world - where I will be saying that, look, we need to have an international response to what I think is a global crisis. It cannot be right that Christian communities in the birth of the place of this wonderful faith somehow now are made to feel like outsiders.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk a little bit more about that, but I also wanted to talk about some incidents that I think will be well known to Americans. And one was - I think a lot of people around the world remember the violent attack in London this past summer when a man viciously attacked a soldier with a hatchet. The man said on video, which was recorded by passersby, that this was in retaliation for the British military presence in Muslim countries. And then it's been reported since then that there have been a number of sort of retaliatory attacks on Muslims and sites important to Muslims. What is your role in addressing this? I mean, you have a sense, really, that there is a lot of anger and fear, you know, on both sides. Is part of your job to alleviate that, and if so, how?

WARSI: Yeah. A big part of my job is to actually make sure that we develop and respond to tackling hate crime, religious hate crime being a large part of that. We have an incredibly good history of tackling anti-semitism in the United Kingdom. And the issue of Islamophobia - the rise of Islamophobia in recent times has been a worrying challenge. But I'm delighted to say that actually we've been - the government has dealt with this issue more than any government before. As I did a speech, which was actually quite controversial, back in 2011 when I said that Islamophobia had passed the dinner table test. And what I meant by that was, unfortunately, this creeping form of bigotry was being found in the most civilized settings, for example, our dinner tables.

MARTIN: So it had become accepted in your view?

WARSI: It had. And therefore, we needed to respond. And we've responded in a number of ways, both proactively and reactively respond to challenges that may arise. And the backlash towards the British Muslim community after the tragic murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, the murder that you mentioned on the streets of London, was exactly one of those cases. And what we found, interestingly, after that tragic murder was that we found a unified British Muslim community who was unequivocal in its condemnation of this attack. But we also had a prime minister, David Cameron, who stood outside Downing Street and spoke after this tragic incident. He talked about this being a betrayal of the people of the United Kingdom, but also a betrayal of Islam. That actually, this was individuals distorting the faith of Islam to further their own divisive agenda.

MARTIN: But what about the people who do feel that their country is changing in ways that they don't like? I mean, for example, the whole question of full-face coverings, veils. I know you've spoken about that issue. I know that, you know, France has taken the position that these kind of full-face coverings should just not be permitted in the public sphere, particularly in public places. You've taken a different perspective. But what about people who say, look, I don't want to deal with a bank teller whose face is covered? I don't to deal with a school bus driver whose face is covered? I don't want to deal with a teacher in my children's elementary school whose face is covered? I don't want that.

WARSI: Well, first of all, Britain isn't France. And I think that's a good thing.

MARTIN: Well, that's been established. I understand that. I know I'm an American, but I do know that. I just meant by way of contrast...

WARSI: But I think...

MARTIN: ...Because those are things that have been well in the news, you know.

WARSI: I think what I meant was that actually it's a good thing that we are different, in a sense that, I think we have a very different approach to faith in the public sphere. Generally, I mean, in respect to its approach towards Islam. But I think, you know, sometimes we can get hung up on what I call symbols and clothing. You know, it's - I have never walked into a bank in the United Kingdom and seen a cashier with a face veil. I have never got on a bus and seen any bus driver with a face veil. It is worn by a tiny minority of a minority. And I therefore think that sometimes the opposition to that is just a rejection of the other because somehow that clothing is a threat to the person's identity. And what I'm saying - and what I have said and what I will be saying here in the U.S. - is that your own identity is not strengthened by rejecting the identity of another person.

Look, I don't wear the face veil. My mother never wore the face veil. My grandmother never wore the face veil. I can't imagine that my daughter will wear the face veil. But I do, as a woman, absolutely defend the right of a woman to wear what she wants. And as I said, you know, having kind of fought the battle on being told by men that our skirts were too short, I'm certainly not going to be told that our veils are too long. And look, if there's an issue of security, absolutely the veil should be removed. If it's an issue of health and safety, the veil should be removed. If it's an issue of identity, the veil should be removed. If somebody's giving evidence in court, they should be asked to remove their veil. These are very practical approaches in everyday life, and nobody's saying that that shouldn't happen.

Of course that should happen. You know, you wouldn't go in and work with, say, food products and not, you know, be able to kind of work with coverings either on your hands, arms, you know, face. But I also feel that people who reject this are not doing it for those reasons. There isn't a rejection of the other. And that is, I think, deeply dangerous because where do you stop in terms of saying, well, I don't like that about you, and I don't like that dress, and I don't like what you eat, and I don't like what you say, and I don't - and it's a creeping bigotry, which I think we've got to fight.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, it's our weekly Faith Matters conversation. I'm speaking with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She is the United Kingdom's first-ever minister for faith and communities. And she's also made history previously as the first Muslim to serve in a British cabinet. We caught up with on a visit to the U.S. Talk to me if you would about your initiative around the persecution of Christians around the world. Do you mean in predominantly Muslim environments, or do you mean other places as well? And why have you taken this on?

WARSI: I think it's all around the world. And I think a large part of it is in places where there is a majority of Muslim community. But if you look, for example, in India where, you know, there's been a Christian community since the time of the apostles, there's still a persecution of Christians. And what really kind of worries me is that one, I think we're not making the proper historical case of where religions have coexisted incredibly well. Yes, of course, there've always been moments in history where religions have been at each other. But there have been great periods of history where religions have coexisted. And we need to make sure that it is a contextualized approach to history, and that full history is put before people rather than selectively.

MARTIN: But how effective - given that, you know, this government - going back through previous governments - I mean, the U.K. - going back before Mr. Cameron's tenure - has taken policy positions that are often in support of United States' positions, which many of these countries are offended by. I mean, do you really feel you can be effective in sounding the alarm about, you know, tolerance when there are so many policy issues in which people are already angry at the U.K.? I'm just asking how effective do you think you can be?

WARSI: I think you can be. And I think that, you know, what we mustn't do is allow the world to creep into the sense of collective punishment. I mean, one of the challenges that we have, for example, in places like Pakistan, is that, you know, what is perceived as U.S. or U.K. or Western policy is therefore seen as an opposition to that. It's seen as a legitimate reason to persecute their own Christian community. I think, tragically, we see some of that in the West as well, where some, you know, idiot in name of Islam does something appalling, and then somehow, British Muslims or U.S. Muslims are held - somehow have to stand up and be accountable for and apologize for the actions of their co-religioners.

So I think the concept of collective punishment we need to move away from. And I also want to make the case that, look, you know, the persecution of Christians should not be a Christian issue. That actually, as a British Muslim, it should offend me and stir me as much as it would a British Christian. And therefore, it's only when people start speaking up, not for their own grouping or their own co-religioners, but actually speak up - you know, I have spoken up, sometimes to much criticism, on the issue of Islamophobia in the West. And I feel, therefore, it is as much of my duty to speak up in relation to minority committees around the world as it is to speak up for Muslims in the West.

MARTIN: That was Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She's the British minister of state for faith and communities. And she's visiting the United States, and was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios straight from the airport. Baroness, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WARSI: Thank you for having me.

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