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Community Relations: Muslims

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve relations with the Muslim community in the United Kingdom.

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.

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?

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.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that British Muslims and others should be free to make political criticisms of military occupations and regimes, where these occur, without automatically being labelled as extremists?

My Lords, we certainly agree with that. Our work to prevent extremism is simply to build up the resilience of local communities to deal with distortions of the faith. That is why we are working at civic and community level and with faith groups to put into practice some of the opportunities, for example new activities for young people and leadership programmes for women and young people, which can help to challenge such distortion.

My Lords, while acknowledging the efforts which the Government are making to improve relations with the Muslim community, is the Minister aware that other faith communities in Britain, such as the Sikh and Hindu communities, believe that they too deserve more attention and support, particularly in capacity building?

Yes, my Lords, that is a very proper use of the argument. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate because I can tell him, as he will know, that we recognise the contributions made by all faith communities and the need to build up capacity. With DIUS, for example, we are funding a community leadership qualification for all leaders from all faiths. Our Inter Faith Network is growing. Over the past few years, we have had 183 new interfaith groups. We aim to promote side-by-side engagement—not face to face—as that is the way to make the real difference.

My Lords, is there a danger in lumping people together into different communities, such as the Muslim community, the Sikh community and the Hindu community? People within those groups are individual human beings with very different positions. If we classify them in that way, will we not create a divisive rather than a united system?

My Lords, there is an issue about how we describe communities. The practical work which we do recognises that there is much diversity within communities. We are certainly not blind to that. Some highly innovative work is being undertaken by local authorities, for example, at ground level with grass-roots funding to ensure that all groups are supported and helped.

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?

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.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that all these consultations would have more validity as regards social cohesiveness if they included representatives of those with no faith who have other values?

Yes, my Lords. We have had many debates in this House about the work which we do with people of no faith. Of course, they are included. We have regular engagement with such groups.

My Lords, in January we saw the appointment of 19 women to the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group. In August that was augmented by 20 young people becoming Cabinet advisors to Ministers Byrne, Blears and Balls. Without getting stuck on the Bs, can the Minister tell us, in the interests of equality, why a Muslim men’s group has not been established to work with the Government, as that might be part of the problem?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness well knows, we work with women because they are underrepresented as leaders in the community. They have a great deal to give and have a great reach into those communities. Our leadership programmes concentrate on women for that very reason. She will know that men in the Muslim communities—this is a rather mischievous question—are very well represented. Of course, we engage through NMWAG and through our interfaith work with all members of the community, and having young people helping Cabinet Ministers is an extremely progressive way forward.