Lord Renton of Mount Harry used to be MP for Mid-Sussex, and is a former Chief Whip and Minister for the Arts. Now in the House of Lords, he asked the Government yesterday what it is doing to improve relations with the Muslim community:
"The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, our community relations approach, as set out in our community empowerment White Paper, aims to give control and influence to local people and covers all faith communities. We have continuing good relations with all faiths, as highlighted
in our interfaith strategy in July this year, including the Muslim community, with whom we work bilaterally, and through the Faith Communities Consultative Council.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that, following, and against the background of, the tragic events in Mumbai, this is a particularly appropriate and necessary moment to strive to find wise and sympathetic relations with the Muslim communities in our country? Does she recollect that in July the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, mentioned that there was a proposal for young Muslims to be taught citizenship in school so that they could see that there was no necessary conflict between Islam and British life? That is a difficult task, but has the process started and is it succeeding?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I start by saying that our sympathy goes out to all the innocent victims of that indiscriminate terror attack in Mumbai. We monitor the effect of such events on our communities in this country, and it is worth telling the House that the Secretary of State has today called together a parliamentary round table, the aim of which is to meet parliamentarians to update them on the situation and to get their understanding of their communities. However, so far nothing significant has been reported in our communities by way of a response.
The noble Lord used some very positive and encouraging words, such as “wise and sympathetic”. That is exactly what we try to do in our work to promote cohesion and prevent extremism by building up the resilience of the local communities. Young people are critical in that. It is encouraging that an increasing number of mosques are choosing to teach citizenship, and of course young Muslims in our schools continually have the opportunity to access the citizenship curriculum, so it is a very positive movement."
One thought: although the practice is widespread, does it make sense and is it helpful to talk about "the Muslim community", "the gay community" or "the business community" etc.?
Certainly the word "community" can be applied to people who don't share a geographical location. But are we sometimes clumsy in assuming that people who share a given characteristic have a great deal in common? Do we sometimes risk seeing people as no more than a member of a "community"? Are there communities out there whose very existence we ignore?
And on the specific issue of the Government's relations with Muslim people, what more do you think they could usefully do?
Update: Baroness Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, asked a follow-up question:
"Baroness Warsi: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that British Muslim communities are part of the general communities which make up Britain? If that is so, can she explain why the British Muslim engagement unit is based in the Foreign Office?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that, of course, they are part of our national community. I hope that, increasingly, our work together will strengthen those communities and help them to become productive and resilient. I do not know much about the work of the unit, but I shall find out. I presume it is in the Foreign Office because it engages with Muslim communities abroad. That would seem to be logical."
In a subsequent press release, Baroness Warsi said:
"It is clear that this Government does not understand that British Muslims are part of British communities, and should not be engaged with under the auspices of the Foreign Office. Yet again we see this Government treating minority groups as separate interest groups rather than as part of Britain."
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