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A Conversation on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Speaker: Sayeeda Warsi, Senior Minister of State, United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Minister for Faith and Communities
Presider: Katherine Marshall, Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University
November 15, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations


MARSHALL: Well, good morning and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Conversation on Freedom of Religion and Belief with Baroness Warsi. I think we're in for a treat this morning. Baroness Warsi is known as charming and outspoken and fearless. She's a lawyer. She's a politician. She's an activist. And she's a businesswoman. She was the youngest peer -- I don't know if you still are -- in the House of Lords...

WARSI: No, there's younger than me now.

MARSHALL: ... and the first Muslim in the British cabinet, among her other activities. So what we will do is we'll have a conversation between us, and then we'll open up to questions from the floor.

So, first, why don't you tell us what brings you to Washington? What are you hoping? And perhaps even go from there as to what's taken you to the position that you're in right now.

WARSI: OK. Well, good morning. Good morning. Thank you very much for having me at the Council for Foreign Relations.

What brings me to Washington, really, is, I suppose, years and years of thinking about the relationship between faith and the state, faith in the public sphere, the relationship between minority religions in majority religious countries. And for a number of years, starting in opposition and then again when we came to government in 2010, I've been making the case for an easing of the relationship between faith and politics in the United Kingdom.

The last archbishop of Canterbury put it incredibly interestingly when he said that faith was being seen in the U.K. as the preserve of minorities, oddities, and foreigners. I've been described as all three. And I, therefore, felt that we needed to change that and really needed to have a much more gentle relationship between faith in the public sphere and also acknowledge, I think, the role that faith communities play, the good that faith communities did in the United Kingdom, and from that, then we started a conversation about how we protect faith in the United Kingdom, how as a British Muslim, what my place was in British society.

I grew up thinking very much that what defined me really was the color of my skin, so certainly when I was at university in my 20s, I defined myself as black, because what -- to use a much often used word -- what radicalized me was really the color of my skin, because what was happening at the time in the world, from South Africa, to what was happening here in the U.S. was really that I felt that people had a problem with the color of my skin.

But things started to change, and certainly I think in my late 20s and early 30s, what became the defining issue was my faith. And, therefore, in government, one of the areas that I've been incredibly active on is the issue of what I see as a concern of rising tide of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain, in Europe, and, of course, here in the U.S. It wasn't incredibly popular. I did a speech back in 2011 when I said that Islamophobia had passed the dinner table test. I got a little bit of a knifing, still bear the scars from the wonderful media, if there's any media here.

But subsequently, I think it was a positive experience, because we now have a very clear policy on dealing with anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia in a way that we have had and have developed over the years on the issue of anti-Semitism.

But it cannot be right that as somebody who sees a positive role of faith and sees the importance of freedom of religion and belief -- and by freedom of religion and belief, what I mean is the freedom to have a belief, the freedom to manifest that belief, the freedom to collectively worship, the freedom not to have a belief, the freedom to change your belief. These are all kind of varieties, the basis of freedom of religion and belief.

It cannot be that I could be as vociferous and vocal about the issue of minorities within the U.K. and not be as concerned about minorities around the world. And so last year, when I was appointed at the Foreign Office, as the Foreign Office minister, with responsibility, amongst other things, for human rights. I made the issue of freedom of religion and belief a priority within that brief for me.

And so today, at Georgetown later today, I'll be speaking about the concern and the rising tide of what I see as an exodus of Christians in lands where that faith was born.

MARSHALL: Where do you see the principal instruments of a country like the U.K. or the U.S. in its foreign policy for making a difference on these issues?

WARSI: I think, first of all, it's about political will. And anybody who's involved in diplomacy or in politics where they're engaging with countries overseas constantly has to strike a balance between what are the issues that matter to you and what are your interests, what are the issues that matter to the country or the person that you're speaking to, and what can you realistically deliver in what is usually quite a limited timeframe when you have these bilateral meetings.

And I think one of the things that concerned me is sometimes in diplomacy we see the issues of human rights and issues around freedom of religion and belief as part of that, as an add-on. And I don't know how it works in the U.S., but in the U.K., we have a list of things that our civil servants prepare for us before we go into a meeting, to say these are the deliverables. And the ministers are expected to land these at some time during the meeting.

And saying to somebody as you shake their hand on the way out, to say, "I'm really concerned about the way you treat Christians," or, "I'm really concerned about the persecution of Bahais," or, "I'm really concerned about the persecution of Shias," is enough to say you landed that. I don't think you actually did. So one of the concerns -- one of the issues that I have is, as ministers, we either do this properly and seriously or we don't do it at all, so that we can either come back and say to our officials, no, we can't write out to people saying we raised this issue, because actually I mentioned it for about three seconds, or we can genuinely say I did raise this issue.

And, you know, if I take an example -- for example, recently at the U.N. General Assembly meeting, I had -- I have responsibility, amongst other countries, for Pakistan. And I met the president of -- I met the prime minister of Pakistan in New York. And we spent 80 percent of the meeting dealing with the issue of minority rights.

And I felt that was important. I'm sure it was exactly how we'd set the meeting out to be, but I just felt that if we're going to do this, let's do this properly, and let's make sure that we have the political will, we have the strength of belief to be able to raise these in the meetings, in the important bilateral meetings, and then we over time support, cajole, you know, push politicians from around the world to take this incredibly seriously, as well, and do it not from a position of -- I think sometimes we can be quite hesitant in the West, because, you know -- take Britain for an example. You know, our history sometimes stops us from being as front-footed because of the way we will be seen, and sometimes we get push-back. You know, you can raise this issue. I mean, I raised this issue, for example, in a part of Indonesia, and the push-back was, well, you know, you Westerners come over here, tell us how to live our lives. You don't understand us.

And we kind of got about 30 seconds into this conversation, which is quite familiar in some places. And I just -- well, hold on a minute, you know? One, you know, it's not "us Westerners," because I don't kind of classify myself in those crude terms. Secondly, this isn't a kind of an Islam versus the rest of the world issue, because, again, as a British Muslim, I don't think Indonesia has -- or, you know, parts of Indonesia have the mandate of speaking for the faith of Islam. It's as much my faith as it is theirs.

But, actually, this is from a human rights perspective. It is in all of our interests, wherever religious background we come from, to speak up for minorities. And what is most powerful is when, you know, Christians speak for, you know, Muslims, you know, Jews speak for Christians, Muslims speak for Christians. You know, it's when you speak for what is perceived as the other that I think that can be much more powerful than speaking for what instinctively you would do, which is, you know, a faith group that you belong to.

MARSHALL: How do you see differences between the way the United States and the United Kingdom approach these kinds of issues. The United States has just very recently seen the appointment of a person in the State Department, Shaun Casey, whose responsibility is basically to be the link with religion and also, I think, to improve religious literacy, which is something we've talked about, the lack of it.

Is your position the first time that this has been framed the way it is? And how much stir has there been around that?

WARSI: I think it's important that countries don't just make appointments because they feel there's a response to certain faith groups or lobby groups, that it is a genuine engagement. And with my appointment as minister for faith and community, the first time we've had this appointment in the U.K., and to sit around the cabinet table, you know, what I say is faith sits around the top table.

And we could be discussing -- I mean, I'll give you an example. We had -- some of you may recall the horse meat scandal that happened earlier this year, where horse meat was being found in what was considered to be, I think, beef at the time. And so there was a discussion around environment and food and food labeling. And the fact that I was actually sat around that table meant that I could say, well, actually, guys, have we thought about the consequences of this for shechita? Have we thought about the consequences of this for halal? And have we talked about how this will impact on faith communities, not just the fact that actually we've been feeding, you know, horse to people when they think they've been having beef, but actually we could have been feeding horse to people for whom horse is fundamentally against their faith, not just not a very nice thing to -- because they didn't expect to eat it.

So I think it's about making sure that every aspect of policymaking is sensitive to and understanding of its impact on faith communities. And by that, I don't mean faith has some sort of a unique position or a privileged position or a veto voice on policymaking. There are lots of things that are happening in the United Kingdom which faith communities wouldn't be wholeheartedly in support of.

But the fact that we've had a fair hearing means that democracy is working. And I think what I find interesting is, sometimes when people from a secular position say that there should be no faith around the table, there should be no faith-based, faith voice in the public sphere -- and, you know, a phrase that I use -- this doesn't go down incredibly well -- is that, you know, I call it secular fundamentalism, because I think, you know, there's very few people in terms of, I think, religious communities who say there should be no secular voice around the table. But I regularly hear from secular voices who say there should be no faith voice around the table.

I think that, you know, both have a role to play. And it's about looking at -- looking at ways in which faith could be an informer of the debate. It's been an informer of the debate for centuries, so why should it suddenly stop becoming an informer of the debate, not making the final decisions and having, like I said, the veto voice, but actually being an informer?

MARSHALL: Many of the issues that come up around the role of faith, including in some religious freedom issues, but more broadly, is the approach of some religious communities to the contemporary roles of women and men. How do you find that this surfaces in your discussion?

WARSI: I mean, looking out at the room and seeing the fact that the majority of people in here are men, I'm just going to annoy kind of 80 percent of the audience, but I think that -- look, when you leave men to interpret the great faiths, you know, they do go horribly wrong. And...


You know, somebody was telling me that, oh, well, you know, the prophet has always been the prophet and every religion has always been a man. And I said, look how many the almighty had to send down to kind of keep telling us we weren't getting it right.


But it's -- so I think, in terms -- I mean, kind of joking aside, I think when you don't allow women in that space to interpret, develop, debate a faith, then over time it is going to be taken down a route which is going to be seen from a certain perspective. I mean, the argument about having women in politics, the argument about having women in the -- in the workplace has always been -- you know, the argument about having women on boards, which we keep having a discussion about, because it makes for better decision-making, it's exactly the same in faith.

And I think it's about getting that balance, not just about having the kind of visible, you know, women bishops or, you know, different religions that have different kind of theological views about the role that women can play in terms of leadership roles within religions, but actually, you know, before we even get to that point, being involved in the interpretation of the faith, and taking Islam -- and taking my own faith as an example, the number of times, you know, I've been asked the ignorant question about, you know, how can you possibly follow a faith which is so terribly awful to women? And you think, well, there are lots of intelligent, articulate, you know, very successful Muslim women who follow that faith because it fundamentally chimes with their values and much of the rights that they feel they apply in their lives are based on that.

And I think it's important from a foreign policy perspective that when we talk about the issue of women's rights, we don't talk about it from the perspective of, you know, the West from the last 100 years. I mean, if I take, as a -- you know, in Britain, women were given the right their property in the late 1800s. You know, in Islam, women were given the right to own their property 1,400 years ago.

And so I'm not going to use the kind of right to own property from a Western perspective as a basis to smack somebody over the head with who is from a different part of the world. And I think it's about being understanding of that.

I also think that, as far as women are concerned, we've become incredibly obsessed with clothes. You know, I know when the women's rights -- you know, when feminism was kind of taking hold, we've kind of obsessively focused on clothes and huge debates about, you know, mini-skirts and whether the length of women's skirts were now too short -- and, you know, the world was going to fall in as the way we know it. And now, you know, even again from a religious discourse, we're having this debate -- and I'm not sure if you're having it as much in the U.S., but in Europe and the U.K. -- about veils. And the percentage of women who actually wear the veil is so limited, you know, it's a minority of a minority of a minority. And for us to become so -- and I don't wear the veil. I mean, my mom doesn't wear the veil. You know, my grandmother never wore the veil. But I would absolutely defend the right of a woman to wear it, providing she was choosing to wear it, because for me, I think oppressing a woman to wear a garment is as oppressive as, you know, telling a woman that she cannot wear a certain garment. You know, it actually takes away women's choice.

And, you know, I've said this before. You know, we won the argument of getting predominantly -- sorry, guys -- the men out of our wardrobes many years ago. I'm not going to let them back in. And I really think we've got stand firm on this. You know, however uncomfortable or, you know, however much we dislike a particular garment personally, we absolutely have to stand firm in terms of our values in supporting the choice of women to wear what they want in their private lives.

MARSHALL: Well, you clearly are a spokesperson for doing God in British foreign policy, but also in British domestic policy, but you also have a history and must be faced with some of the more difficult issues, forced marriage, crises with stoning. You were involved in the release of the teacher in Sudan. Could you tell us something about how you see those issues today?

WARSI: Well, I mean, the case of Sudan was incredibly interesting. The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, who was a -- for those of you who don't know -- was an English teacher who went to teach out there and got involved in what happens in some of our schools, where you have a teddy bear and, you know, each child takes the teddy home and goes to picnic or does various things and then comes back in and says, you know, I took teddy to the park or I took teddy to the beach. It happens in schools across the world.

So she used this teaching method in her school. And she asked the class what they should name this teddy bear, and there were two children -- one was called Muhammad, one was -- I can't remember his name now -- but these were the two popular boys in class, and they both said, "No, name it after me, name it after me." Muhammad got more votes than anybody else, so the bear was named Muhammad.

Anyway, this then became an international crisis, because -- as these things do, and you had -- you know, you had parts of the Muslim world saying, "This is the West insulting our religion, and calling a teddy bear Muhammad, this is so appalling," and, you know, calls for her to be kind of stoned and all sorts of things. And then you had -- you know, you had the Western world saying, "Oh, this is the kind of, you know, crazy Muslims again, can't take a simple issue like a bear being named Muhammad."

And we ended up with this huge kind of issue, which was running as breaking news. And at the time, there was a suggestion that if -- that they may release her, as is tradition, actually, Islamically, a prisoner, to a Muslim woman. And so, you know, we talked about this in politics. You know, I was probably one of about one option.

And so I really didn't have much of a choice than to actually say, well, if this is what they'll do, it's worth going across there and seeing if they would release her. And the conversations were in Sudan what -- incredibly interesting, because, you know, it started off from this premise that they have insulted our religion, at which point you kind of say, well, who's they? And which is ours? Because, actually, I'm they and I'm ours. And therefore, can we kind of get off the high, you know, top-line grandstanding and let's just deal with the fact that this is a teacher who actually hasn't done anything wrong and this is being politicized?

So we were successful in getting her released and took her back to the United Kingdom. But it's just an example of how polarizing these positions can be, and that's why one of the things that I'm going to be saying this afternoon is that it shouldn't just be for Christians to speak for Christians and Muslims to speak for Muslims and Jews to speak for Jews, that actually some of the most powerful work has been -- I mean, one of the references I will make is that there was a fantastic exhibition in the United Kingdom called "The Righteous Muslims." And these were Muslims who during the Holocaust assisted European Jewry in escaping the Holocaust.

And, you know, there are moments like that or moments when, for example, the -- you know, the British Jewish community made a huge contribution post-the Balkans war and the genocide in Srebrenica in terms of rebuilding the lives of the returning Bosniak Muslims.

You know, it's important to highlight those moments and, I think, those -- those incredibly powerful statements. And that's why, you know, despite probably Fox News having a slightly skewed version of the world, it will -- I will, you know, hopefully not be questioned about why as a Muslim I'm talking about Christian issues. I think that's what Fox News referred to it as, don't they?

There was an interesting interview, wasn't there, recently, where some guy was asked why as a Muslim he was interested in Christian issues. And I kind of felt, how ignorant can you be? To be a Muslim, you have to be a Christian first. Actually, he came -- you know, Jesus came before Muhammad. They are both prophets, and it's all part of a journey. You know, the fact that actually this is even a question shows a huge level of religious illiteracy. Fox News needs training on religious literacy. Oh, did I just say that openly?


MARSHALL: Well, we're going to turn in a minute to the audience, so I hope you'll prepare your many questions for Sayeeda, but just -- can you come back a little bit? You're only here for 24 hours, and you had some messages you want to deliver, and I'm sure you have a lot to accomplish. What would you like to see the United States do differently in the way -- what it's doing now, in terms of addressing these issues? And what is possible? It's, again, the question I started with. What are the tools? What -- how can you really make a difference?

WARSI: I think -- look, it would be wrong for me to, you know, lecture the U.S. about their whole kind of policy on this area, but I think what all of us can do is we can have the political will, we can be brave enough to raise these issues, we can be more religiously literate in our own department. There's work that we're doing with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to increase the level of religious literacy.

It's about building political consensus with like-minded people, so one of the things that I do is chair a meeting of ministers from Foreign Minister Baird in Canada through to the foreign minister of Indonesia. Ambassador Suzan Cook used to sit on that group, as well. We've had two meetings, and it's about building a political track to the Istanbul process and the implementation of Resolution 1681 at the Human Rights Council.

It's about contextualizing history. It's not about going for a quick headline, which sometimes I think those politicians are guilty of. It's just -- it's about being nuanced. It's about understanding. It's about running it through the filter of how this will be interpreted. It's about making the case for the benefits of pluralism.

You know, when we used to talk about women and in developing worlds, we used to say women need to be involved in, you know, the economic life of the country, because it's good for GDP. It's good for their health outcomes. It's good for education. It's good for, you know, the level of sexual violence against women. All of those things then started to have an impact, because women became involved in -- in the public sphere.

And, actually, we made the economic case for women's rights, not just that it was the right thing to do, and I think we need to start making the economic case for religious freedom. I think what would be fantastic to see eventually is, you know, an internationally recognized indices of religious freedoms and the impact that that has then on those economies. I mean, we have an indices for ease of business and -- you know, businesses can look down a list and say, "Well, actually, you know, it's easier to do business in Country A than it is to do it in Country B."

And I think, you know, the way in which religious minorities are treated should become a factor, I think, for the way in which people invest and engage in those countries. And let it be something that countries are embarrassed of the fact that they are at the top of.

So I think there -- it's not an easy issue. It's an incredibly complex issue. There isn't a single lever. But we need to start that process, and I hope, you know, my discussions this afternoon are part of that process.

MARSHALL: Well, just one last question. When you look at sort of human rights issues, which is something that you approach, and religious freedom issues, how do you see the distinctions? And do you favor the idea of having a separate voice, a separate category that touches on religion? Or would you tend more to see it as part of a common trunk?

WARSI: Where you find that religious freedoms are being abused, you find people are being persecuted for lots of other things, as well. So it is a general kind of human rights wraparound.

But I think -- and therefore, it's important to raise the issue of human rights. But if you say to a -- you know, a foreign minister or a prime minister or a president that you're meeting, "I'm concerned about the issue of human rights in your country," that actually doesn't mean a lot until you actually say I'm really concerned about Person X, who you've got locked up in that place for that long, because they've apparently done that.

I mean, you've got to make it really specific when you raise these issues, because some of this is about making people feel slightly uneasy about the positions that they're taking. You know, diplomacy is about moving views, not in a clunky, "We will demand" -- you know, this is why I actually think saying, you know, we won't be engaged with you on an aid relationship unless you do -- well, that's transactional. You know, I don't want people to do something because they have a threat hanging over them immediately if they don't and they need the aid to -- because ultimately, all it will do is impact on the poor.

I actually want people over a period of time -- and it may take longer -- but actually to fundamentally change the basis upon which they do things. You know, that's a maturing of that relationship, and that's certainly where I would like to see it.

And it's where, you know, America, the U.S., this amazing set of people from all across the world who are by their very nature the best ambassadors you're going to get, you know, it is much more -- you know, there are -- I probably say it completely incorrectly, and people who aren't from the U.K. won't understand this example, I presume, at all -- but there's an advert for Heineken and beer, and it's called, you know, "Reaches the Parts that Other Beers Cannot." You know, and I always say, you know, I'm like the equivalent of the Muslim Heineken minister, you know? You reach parts that other ministers cannot.

And you have people in this country, which (inaudible) completely politically incorrect, since it's alcohol -- but, you know, you have people in this country who are like, you know, that Heineken. And they can reach out and touch places and understand places in a way that maybe, you know, white America might not be able to, might not have been able to, and therefore use the assets that our countries have to reach out and create that better understanding.

And one of the things that I've said is that, you know, I think some of the biggest solutions to this challenge will not come by Christians in the -- in the West and Muslims in the East, but actually will be Muslims in the West and Christians in the East, both of whom come from a minority perspective, a minority experience perspective.

MARSHALL: Thank you. Well, we're going to open now, so please indicate if you have questions. And I think all of you know the drill here. Wait for the microphone to come, please stand, state your name and affiliation, and please try to keep it short and to ask a question, so we have the opportunity to hear from several people.

So let's start over here, first hand I saw.

QUESTION: Perry Cammack with the State Department. Thanks for a very interesting discussion. Maybe I'll start with the Heineken diplomacy principle. I guess my concern is that, obviously, you have enough credibility in raising this issue, these issues. Shaun Casey kind of came up. I think he has such a unique background, he, as well.

But I think, as you said, the kind of -- the messenger is as important as the message. And I guess my concern is, if we take a case like Egypt and the constitutional process that they're undergoing, that these are such delicate issues that obviously they're issues that America and the West needs to raise, religious protections, minority protections, human rights, et cetera, et cetera. But if they're not done with the sophistication kind of you're describing and kind of the Heinekens are able to do, that it can actually backfire, and that we actually can generate a backlash and end up kind of doing more harm than good and are seen as interfering in the ways you also alluded to.

So just if you could kind of drill down on how you see that working in practice and kind of how to protect ourselves against kind of doing what you're saying, kind of in an awkward, clumsy manner? Thanks.

WARSI: It's a really important point. Look, we all come with our histories, and we come with our own baggage, and therefore, we will always walk into a relationship or a conversation where it will be easy for people to hit us below the belt and take those easy wins in terms of why we're taking certain policy positions.

But I think being upfront about our interests and the implications of why we're taking certain positions helps. But I think just being nuanced -- and I'm going to -- I'm probably going to say this and get into a lot of trouble -- but it's -- I think Britain is quite uniquely sophisticated in its understanding of the world, I would say, in a way that probably the U.S. is not. And I think that comes from much of our own history and much of our own connection.

So if I take, for example, my own -- you know, my own history, my parents migrated to the U.K. half-a-century ago, but my grandparents served in the British Army 30 years before that. And, you know, their grandparents served, you know, during the British Raj 20 years before then. So even before my parents kind of hit the shores of the U.K., they had over half-a-century's relationship, and Britain had half-a- century's understanding.

Now, some people would say, well, that colonial past is something we shouldn't -- well, I don't think so. I think it's what nuances our understanding. And on regular occasions, you know, I can't -- you know, I actually do hear this in terms of -- you know, you're from the State Department, so this -- you know, I need to be completely frank with you on this. I regularly hear this when we go around the world to say, you know, you're not like the U.S. You kind of get us in a slightly different way.

And I think, therefore, if I were sat in the U.S., I'd say, well, why is that? Why are we not kind of as nuances and as sophisticated? I think the -- I think in more recent times, you probably have been, and I think, you know, certainly some of the stuff -- and, you know, Secretary Clinton has been fantastic on this, in terms of the way she's handled some of -- you know, some of the most incredibly difficult situations. I think the tragic murder of the ambassador and the way she dealt with that last -- it was last year, wasn't it? Last year. At a time when she could have been -- at a time of an election, actually, as well, where she could have been under incredible pressure to have gone down a completely different route, I think that is what I call kind of leadership.

And leadership actually is not about -- I mean, just the other thing about politicians -- you know, we've got to get ahead of things sometimes and be prepared to take those knocks in foreign policy, because, you know, leadership -- to state the obvious -- is about leading, not about following. And, you know, we -- I think if people judge our intentions and our -- and think we're sincere about something, I think we can have the tougher conversations. And I think the advantage is that when you build that relationship, if people think you're sincere, then I think we can go further and not be concerned about raising those difficult issues.

QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you for being here. It's very...

MARSHALL: Please introduce yourself.

QUESTION: Oh, sorry, Laurie Fulton, Williams and Connolly, former ambassador to Denmark. So I thank you for being here, because I think these are issues that are important for understanding amongst all people. But I want you to expand on a comment you made relatively early. You had an observation about Christians experiencing an exodus from the countries where the religion was born, and I'd like you to talk a little bit more about that. You said it in a way that seemed it troubled you. Why does it trouble you? Are there things -- do you think this is something we should be involved in? If so, how? Thank you.

WARSI: It deeply troubles me, because we're seeing Christian communities who -- you know, who are in places where biblical stories are based, where the religion was born, where they've been since the time of the Apostles, where, you know, the -- the traditional Christian language is still being used in prayers. I think what concerns me is that these communities who have helped to shape the cultures and the communities where they live are now being seen as outsiders.

So there's almost a sense of -- so something happens which they -- which, you know, the local community may not approve of, whether it's Western foreign policy, or whatever it happens to be. And they therefore feel the local Christian community is fair game and that somehow collective punishment can be meted out against this community for what they see as the perceived actions of their co-religionist.

And that is fundamentally wrong, because we're affecting a kind of -- a natural order where those areas have in the past been successful because of that pluralistic existence. And I know that there have been talks sometimes -- say, some of the European countries, Canada, where should we give asylum to Christians who are fleeing from these lands? It's an incredibly -- I think that's an easier option. It's -- but the better option is to make sure that those communities remain there and remain protected there.

And, you know, it would be horrific for me to even start to imagine that, you know, a century from now, my great-grandkids would suddenly feel they had to leave Britain because it was no longer a place for them to live in. I mean, this is their home. This is where this religion, you know, was born. So it just -- it deeply, deeply troubles me, and it also troubles me what those societies would look like when they lose -- I think there is something about intra- religious conflict which is tempered when you have many religions there and there's a development of communities which happens in a completely different way.

What can we do? I think there are kind of various things I was outlining. I don't think there's a single policy issue, but, you know, one of the things, for example -- I've been looking on social networking this morning -- is the number of British Muslims who have come out and supported me in taking this position and saying they want to go further. There's an interesting initiative between British Muslims of Pakistani origin and Pakistani Christians who are trying to use the -- their origins in terms of being Pakistani as a way of bridging that gap, but from outside the country, and British Pakistanis have been much more, I think, powerful at doing that than, say, you know, Christians, white Brits, from -- from talking about the issue of Christianity. So I think there are interesting ways in which we can start to push back on some of this.

QUESTION: Virginia Farris with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. You mentioned that you have been working to implement the Istanbul Process, but I guess it's my understanding that the Organization of Islamic Conferences continue to promote resolutions that would, in essence, undermine that process. How do you deal with that issue?

WARSI: I mean, those of you who are not entirely familiar with this may not know that this is a debate that's been going on for ages, where some people think you should protect -- you know, there are certain parts of the world who say, "You must protect religion, per se, and Islam." That was predominantly what they were talking about. And then you'd have other parts, including the U.S. and ourselves, who would talk about freedom of expression, and we'd kind of butt up against each other, and we'd keep kind of hammering our heads.

And we actually finally -- three years ago -- came to a resolution -- came to an agreement on Resolution 16/18, which was kind of a halfway house, which talked about minorities, faith, tolerance. And the Istanbul Process is about implementing 16/18. Now, and the consensus has held up to now, but as you said, it's quite tenuous, and we keep -- every time we come to renewing it, we almost feel like it's going to be renegotiated, and there are the awkward frequent fliers who we know will bring this up. And we would need to work with the awkward frequent fliers, but it's been difficult, for example, in places like Egypt, where there's been so much transition.

But I think we have a consensus, but the fact that we're -- we still have problems when we come to renewing means it needs political will, which is why I started this political track to the Istanbul Process to say, actually, as politicians, we need to be much firmer with our civil servants who are negotiating this on the ground, to say, look, we have a consensus now. Let's now get on with implementation.

And, again, the challenge appears to be that certain bits of the world want to talk about Islamophobia in the West and other bits of the world want to talk about freedom of expression and persecution of Christians, so it is very polarizing, and it's about trying to find that middle way.

And in a way, I suppose me chairing that, from the United Kingdom perspective, but being a British Muslim, makes it much easier, because I don't feel like I come down on either side and don't have a particular kind of position to take on it. And I'm therefore, I think, seen as quite kind of neutrally positive on this area.

But it's got to go beyond that. I mean, one of the challenges we have is we have, you know, articles on freedom of expression, we have 84 percent of countries with more than a 2 million population have constitutions which protect -- I mean, North Korea has a constitution which protects freedom of religion, allegedly. And therefore, you know, does it mean it actually happens on the ground? No, it doesn't.

So, for me, I'm more interested in what's actually happening, rather than do we just get the consensus? That's a really great start. We have to then translate it into something real. And so, you know, what we're doing is hopefully building that political will.

And I do think that the OIC sec-gen, secretary-general, Professor Ihsanoglu, has been very positive on this. It was actually -- has been under his stewardship that we've managed to get this consensus. And now that the secretary general is changing at the end of the year, I sincerely hope that the new secretary general, who's from Saudi, can maintain this and take it forward, because it would be -- you know, that's the bit that I just really need to be -- to be clear about, I think, in terms of making sure we still have the OIC support, because we can't do it without the OIC support.

QUESTION: Good morning. Jim Schear, formerly deputy assistant secretary of defense. Thank you very much, Minister, for your informative remarks. Question. If you're sitting around a cabinet table in Whitehall, and your colleagues who work counterterrorism engage you, and the discussion turns to counter-radicalization, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, what can we say about the counter-radicalization endeavor? Are there cases out there in the parts of the world that are the main focus of Western audiences? Are there cares out there that are positive? Are there -- is there a strategy of emulation that could be not with a heavy-handed Western hand, if you will, but within various communities, including faith- based communities, as well as governance and the economic sector, to pursue counter-radicalization in a way that helps us long-term deal with this terrorist problem? Thank you.

WARSI: Well, we've sent you one of our best experts in Ed Husain, so we've kind of -- you know, the U.S. has Ed, and so, therefore, hopefully he's somebody who's a leading thinker on counter- radicalization.

But we're actually doing this at the moment in the United Kingdom. We're looking at this whole area again, because after the tragic murder of Drummer Rigby in Woolwich earlier this year, the prime minister asks a simple question of all of us around the cabinet table. We've set up an extremism task force, which will be reporting at the end of this month, actually, at the end of November, where he said, what are the practical steps we could have taken which could have potentially stopped this incident from happening?

Now, if you speak to, you know, the intelligence services, they will tell you that there's no single kind of guillotine that can come down at a specific point which will stop that person from becoming a violent extremist in their process of radicalization and, therefore, there are lots of different strands as to how people get there.

So I don't think we will ever be able to stop completely people not getting to that point. There will always be the individual. And what we're finding more and more is the context of the lone actor, the person who can actually sit in their bedroom, watching stuff on the Internet, and deciding they're going to do something without any connections to a wider network, so even if we deal with the networks issue.

What does it boil down to? Look, there are many theories about what this ideology is that radicalizes people. And we can give it a term. We can give it -- we can attach it to a theology. I think all of those areas, personally, are not particularly helpful, because the issue of group dynamics dictates that if you -- for example, the term Islamist is used regularly. And one of the arguments I have when I kind of sit around the table is, OK, you and I may academically know what that means, but actually, you know, little Mrs. Jones who sat in Manchester actually thinks you're talking about Mrs. Hussein next door. And Mrs. Hussein thinks you're talking about her.

So, therefore, immediately, you've affected a kind of an identity and a group dynamics issue, which because we've even started to resolve the issue, their use of terminology has taken us down that route. So one of the terms that we've started using much more is extremist Islamist ideology. We kind of keep trying to find the word of what this -- you know, what the word is.

What it effectively means is that there's a group of people out there who think that the world -- you know, the world is at war, that the West and Islam can't coexist, that somehow there's -- you know, there has to be this, you know, bloody battle, and there's kind of a fight for, you know, people's place and supremacy.

And so if we start to -- on -- if we start to deconstruct that narrative, so those people who say you cannot be British, and you cannot be Muslim, need to have lots of examples of where people are, British and Muslim. And interestingly, if you look at the far right narrative, it is exactly the same. You cannot be -- those brown people over there and those black people over there aren't really British, and those Muslim people over there are slightly odd, so they can't be British.

So on both sides, the extremists actually feed off this view of the world, which is not true, and it's the job of those of us in the middle to actually show them through practical examples that actually that is not true in terms of what is actually happening.

And what we saw, for example, in foreign policy recently was that when the issue in Burma and the Rohingya community started to come on to the public consciousness, that we saw an underlying thread of interest within extremist networks and extremist websites on the issue of Rohingyas.

And one of the things I said in the Foreign Office is, well, let's get on the front foot. You know, our ambassador's been one of the first guys to go in there. We've had one of the first ministerial visits down to Rakhine province. You know, we have history with this particular community 200 years ago. You know, we actually were connected to these communities. We have paperwork which shows that the Rohingya community have been there for over 200 years. They're kind of opening up. We have Aung San Suu Kyi, who's a huge kind of darling of the West, who should be kind of raising this, amongst other issues.

And let's get out there and kind of make the case of what our foreign policy positions are and what we've actually said on this issue and, therefore, not allow the extremist narrative to say, here we go again, Muslims are being persecuted in these lands and the West stands by. I said, as we reduce sanctions, let's explain what that means, because it looks like, again, from a very clunky perspective, West take off sanctions while Muslims get slaughtered in Rakhine.

And so I think we need to be much quicker at getting the message out, much clearer about what our message is, using the networks that those extremists would target, and also deal with the issue of discrimination, as well. You know, Islamophobia is a driver of radicalization. There are young men and women who feel, if they can't get a job because of their name, if they've been treated in a different way, where we're obsessed about what they wear, you know, we don't want people to feel like they don't belong. You know, what is it that we're saying which makes people feel part of the camp, rather than outside the camp?

So we're still doing lots of thinking on this. Look, you've got to do the tough stuff. You've got to do the protect, the pursue, the prevent, the kind -- you know, you're going to do all of that. But I think what's missing in the CONTEST strategy, which you may be familiar with in the United Kingdom, which is protect, pursue, prevent, and prepare for extremist and terrorist incidents, is promote. At what point do we actually say, well, this is who we are, you know? West -- the "West," inverted commas, is this. And this is what we have done. And actually, it was "the West" who actually came to the aid of, you know, for example, the Balkans. If you ever watch extremist videos -- you know, I don't spend my time watching extremist videos, by the way, if there's anybody here from the State Department...


It's -- you know, if you ever go back and watch an extremist video, much of the narrative starts from the Balkans. Here were Europeans -- because the argument at the moment, for example, is about, well, the reason we kind of think Muslims in Europe are slightly -- kind of don't belong is because they don't integrate and they don't look like us and they don't behave like us. Well, actually, here we saw in the Balkans absolutely integrated, inter- married white European, blonde hair, blue-eyed Muslims, and they were still treated in that way. So the extremist narrative is, therefore, you can never belong, therefore, you can never coexist, therefore, we're at war, therefore, we have to do these things.

How do you deconstruct that extremist narrative? Actually, by, first of all, going back to what the U.S. particularly led on this in terms of the Balkans, but also on commemorating Srebrenica, we, for the first time, the British government this year commemorated Srebrenica. It was funded by the -- supported by the Foreign Office, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government. And it was an incredible powerful of actually saying, no, actually, you know, the West was in the right place on these issues.

And so I think we're not -- you know, we're not going to get everything right. And why should we? We have our interests. You know, the parts of the world have their interests, and let's just be frank about those. But let's also get out there and tell the true story, rather than just the rhetoric, which we allow extremists manipulate for their own end, but it's an ongoing thing, and we're still kind of working on it.

But also, I think closing down the space as much as we can, where people are vulnerable, so places like prisons, where people are vulnerable to the extremist message, and they feel like they belong, people like -- places like some of the kind of youth centers.

Because I think another phenomena that we've seen is, you know, if you are -- if you are completely off the rails and, you know, you're taking drugs and you're involved in criminality as a young British Muslim, you know, you're pretty much ostracized from your community. But if you suddenly start turning up to the mosque, you know, forget 5 times a day, but 10 times a day, and start wearing robes, you might still have the same criminal intent and the same destructive nature, but suddenly you've become respectable. So we need to kind of deconstruct that element of it, to say, you know, why do people go down this route? Is it a way of being acceptable? It is a way of having moral authority for criminality? Is it about -- and I think some of the most powerful words I felt from David Cameron were immediately after the Woolwich tragedy, where, yes, of course, we've had some backlash for British Muslim communities, where he said that this is a betrayal (inaudible) for Britain, but this is a betrayal of Islam.

You know, take away from the extremists their moral high ground. Do not allow them the faith. And anything that allows them to take the faith as their mantle, I think, empowers them. And we've got to take that away from them.

QUESTION: Dick McCormack at CSIS. About 20 years ago, one of my former colleagues wrote a book. It was called "Religion: The Missing Element of Statecraft," where he talked about what might be done in that general area. Do you have any additional thoughts on that subject, you know, on which you've already talked to us this morning?

WARSI: I think every country kind of sees it in a slightly different way, and if you look across Europe -- you know, France sees a kind of role of faith and state in a completely different way. We see it in a -- you know, we have an established church, but actually, you know, Anglicanism in the U.K. is practiced in a completely different way. Kind of the discussion of faith and state in the U.S. is, again, on a different journey and a different trajectory.

So I think it's very country-specific. And what works in one place doesn't necessarily work in another. And, of course, you know, would expect me to say nothing but. I actually think the British system is the best system. And I think we get it kind of right in a good way.

We don't have religion as part of the discourse during elections, so, you know, we don't have these kind of big moral differences between political parties at the time of elections and make them campaigning issues. You know, that hasn't happened in Britain for decades, and I can't imagine it ever will be. But at the same time, we don't have that aggressive form of secularism where we say no aspect of it should form any part of the state. So I think it's kind of an interesting middle ground.

But I spoke earlier this week, actually, about the Conservative Party's history on religion and how Churchill referred to religion -- even though he was agnostic -- but how he referred to religion and the role of faith in the public sphere. And then, of course, the late Lady Thatcher, who, you know, when people talk about her as being the daughter of a grocer, but you forget that she was daughter of a minister, as well -- minister, as well. And she kind of -- she brought all of that religious basis and teachings to much of what she -- she kind of felt state was an add-on to what she saw as a -- you know, as a faith basis and principle upon which the state -- rather than state being there and then religion being a lock-on on the end of it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) statecraft (OFF-MIKE) meant diplomacy.

WARSI: Oh, right, OK.

QUESTION: As a tool of diplomacy.

WARSI: Oh, right, OK. One of the things, for example, we've looked at recently is the issue of the death penalty, which we, of course, oppose on any basis. You know, we just oppose it in all circumstances in the United Kingdom. And we looked at how the death penalty was -- the push-back we were getting from countries that we were asking to apply a moratorium or an abolition, where they said, well, there was a religious basis for this, so I said, well, it would be interesting to engage with them on a religious basis, then. You know, is there -- are there theological beliefs which say, well, you know, OK, you can hang people, but you shouldn't be hanging pregnant women or, you know, you can do this, but you shouldn't be -- you know, you shouldn't be doing it in this particular format.

You know, which is not great, because I would like people not to do that at all, but it's kind of a first step towards moratorium and abolition. So how do you use different theological strands to question the basis upon which states feel that they need to act in a certain way, so on things like stoning or death penalty?

But that's quite difficult, because you're getting to a place where you're effectively theologians, rather than politicians. And that can be quite a dangerous area, as well, because then you get like a state-sanctioned version of that faith, and that is incredibly dangerous.

So we keep exploring ways in which we can take it further. But we decided at the end of that particular paper that I had, after having done all the research, and I thought maybe this wasn't the kind of position we could take. We could maybe deploy some of the lines in very specific circumstances, but it couldn't be a generic thing that we could -- we could start to use.

And we have an advisory group -- the foreign secretary has an advisory group at the Foreign Office, and there are people who are religious experts who are on that advisory group who help us in terms of how we can use faith as a basis.

I mean, the Catholic Church do it incredibly well in so many different places. You know, they have a reach which is wider than most people's -- most countries' diplomatic services. And -- but it's based upon -- you know, a lot of it is based upon development, rather than on just, you know, diplomacy.

MARSHALL: We have time for one more question. I would like to remind all participants that this meeting has been and is on-the- record. So let's take right in the middle there.

WARSI: Oops. Now you tell me.

(LAUGHTER) QUESTION: My name is Paul Miller. I'm a political scientist at the Rand Corporation. Thank you for your presentation today. On the subject of state-sanctioned religion, I read in your biography here that you've called on Europe to strengthen its Christian identity. And I'd like to ask if you think the United States should do the same thing. Why or why not? What advantages do you think might flow from that? And how could Europe or the U.S. strengthen a Christian identity without alienating non-Christians?

WARSI: OK. I think -- again, I think Europe and the U.S. are different. And I -- the basis of that speech was, look, there's a -- there's a discussion around multiculturalism in Europe. What does multiculturalism mean? And have we over time, because of multiculturalism or state multiculturalism, as it's called, therefore, dumbed down most things?

So there was a drive under what I would see as the kind of left of politics, which said that, you know, if you celebrate Christmas in its kind of tradition way, then you're excluding these are the children who are in schools that may not be Christian and, therefore -- you know, there's even some schools where, you know, a couple of schools and local authorities felt that they needed to go down this route of Winterville, which would kind of make everybody feel included.

And I thought, well, actually, you know, as a young Muslim child, you know, my daughter wanted to play Mary every year. I mean, she's got -- she's like her mom. She's got this huge booming voice, so she was always the narrator. And she never got to play Mary.

But, you know, she never kind of thought, "I don't want to be Mary, because I am a Muslim child and, therefore, I feel somehow excluded." And her -- she went to -- her junior school was an Anglican convent school, and she -- she said something really powerful to me, which I don't -- you know, clearly as a child she didn't accept this, and she was saying, well, we go to chapel every day. And I said, "What did you do?" "And we do prayers." And she says, "It's my prayer, you know, Mommy." And I said, "Well, how is that?" And she said, "Well, we do the Lord's Prayer, and at the end of it, I say, Ameen, because then it makes it mine."

And therefore, her strength came from the fact that she said, well, this is Britain, this is a Christian school that I go to, this is a Christian heritage, I understand that. I also have my Muslim teachings, and I can kind of draw comparisons from a really early age and realize that there are differences.

But actually dumbing everything down to a point where nobody actually really believes in anything or stands for anything, and we all have this kind of mushy version of identity, means you have no identity. And strong open identities, I think, create for better relationships than lots of very weak, because you find those people who are, for example, at the far right of politics in Britain who kick out against the other. They feel that somehow their identity is under threat. If they had a strong sense of who they were, they wouldn't feel like their identity was under threat by the other. So what I was saying was that -- let's not kind of dumb down everything in Europe to a point where actually it feels like there isn't really a basis upon which the heritage of those countries are based, but actually accept that and accept and embrace this new pluralistic society that we have.

And that's what I meant by that. I mean, I think the U.S. is in a different place, in terms of -- you know, faith in the public sphere is much more pronounced than I think Europe is. I mean, you know, like I said, it forms part of your political dialogue during elections and the political discourse during elections. So I'm not sure whether that example would apply here in the same way.

MARSHALL: Well, unfortunately, we've come to the end of our time. Thank you all very much for your active and thoughtful participation, and thank you so much for your, as promised, wise, thought-provoking, and engaging presentation.

WARSI: Thank you.


More on This Topic


A Conversation on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Speaker: Sayeeda Warsi
Presider: Katherine Marshall

Baroness Warsi, the United Kingdom's first Muslim cabinet minister and minister for faith, discusses her work on faith and foreign policy.