My speech at the Islamophobia Awareness Month launch:
Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to Parliament for this event to mark the launch of Islamophobia Awareness Month. I’d like to thank Sufyan for all his hard work and dedication in making this evening possible, and to congratulate him on taking this important initiative from strength to strength.
This year has been unprecedented in modern times in respect of the horrific terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and following these we have seen a rise in hate crimes to levels beyond the spike seen during and shortly after last year’s EU referendum. According to Home Office data published earlier this month hate crime offences rose by a record 29% in the year to March 2017, and the majority of those offences were racially or religiously motivated. Islamophobia, similarly, is also rising, with the Metropolitan Police recording a 13% rise in Islamophobic hate crimes from 2015/16 to 2016/17.
Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM) seeks to promote greater awareness of Islamophobia by organising events involving the police, local councillors, universities, schools and community organisations.
IAM is a commendable initiative, which aims to build dialogue within and between communities, and I therefore welcome the fact that IAM 2017 is being launched here in Parliament.
I am also delighted to be joined this evening by the Football Association, the Metropolitan Police, Lord Paddick and my good friend and colleague, Wes Streeting.
Ladies and gentlemen, as your host for this evening, I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about what this event means for me, both personally and in broader terms.
I have always believed that one of the most important choices that we have to make in politics, and indeed in life, is between protest and persuasion.
The life of the protestor is certainly the more straightforward of the two. You just stand on the sidelines, waving your flag or your placard and shouting at everyone you disagree with.
The persuader, on the other hand, has a far more onerous task. He or she has to listen, to engage and to find the common ground. The persuader must identify long-term solutions to deep and seemingly intractable challenges, and then build consensus for change.
The protestor is a populist, the persuader is a radical, in the true sense of the term.
The protestor feeds on grievance, the persuader harnesses hope.
The protestor seeks the sugar rush of the easy sound bite, whilst the persuader understands that the world is a complex place.
The protestor divides, the persuader unites.
I hope that everyone in this room this evening is a persuader.
I hope that every last one of you understands that in order to re-unite our deeply divided country we must all learn to engage, and to build trust through dialogue that is based on respect.
And so to address the elephant in the room. All of you here know that Wes and I have come under a lot of attention for taking part in this event due to some of the things that have been said by individuals connected with MEND. They were brought to our attention before the articles went out.
I have to make clear that I could not disagree more strongly with the content, tone or beliefs expressed in some of what was said.
And I would hope and expect that all of us here in this room feel the same.
The views expressed were completely antithetical to the organisation that MEND claims to be.
And this is not about being more measured in the words we use, no, it is about condemning and disassociating ourselves, individually and collectively, from hatred, from individuals, views and statements that are unacceptable, that are contrary to our shared British values, or that defend or seek to excuse violence, extremism hate or prejudice.
And I say this not for the sake of perception, I say it because it is the right thing to do.
Prejudice begets prejudice, and so unless we, all in this room tonight, can stand together as one to condemn and disassociate ourselves from all of those comments we would not only be acting in an immoral manner, but would also risk making the exercise of Islamapobia Awareness Month redundant.
One cannot try to overcome one division by stoking others. Hostile, aggressive, reactionary language that is self-defeating and counter-productive because it serves only to provoke precisely the reactions that Islamophobia Awareness Month is intended to combat.
It had nothing to do with trying to persuade, but only to incite.
I’ll be blunt: I seriously considered telling Sufyan to find a new host. And yet Wes and I made the decision to continue and so we are here tonight. Let me tell you why.
First – it is not the only thing I know of MEND. Of people I have spoken to, lots tell me that your programmes are good and valuable and speak to your stated ambitions: to bring people together. I am not yet willing to give up on those efforts, which – with Islamophobia being a very real problem – are desperately needed.
Secondly, if we immediately give up on those people who have occasionally said things we disagree with, then we will never come together as a society. We will simply create echo chambers and comfort zones, when we so urgently need to be re-building communities, shared values and civic pride.
Every one of us can be wrong, mistaken, foolish in what we say and how we say it. The determining factor is whether it becomes a pattern; when one is shown the full impact of one’s words and persist anyway.
No organisation should know that better than MEND – after all, that’s your job in tackling Islamophobia. Dealing with people who have said, thought and done things that are deeply divisive and offensive and trying to show them to a better, more compassionate, more tolerant path.
It is vital – if it is to further the cause of fighting Islamophobia – that MEND embodies that same vision and approach in all that it says and does. Your responsibility is even greater than that of others to be above reproach in word and deed: because you know what a lightning rod the area you work in is. There are many people who will want you to fail and make mistakes. There are people that will not join your cause because they have been put off.
It is MEND ‘s choice on how it addresses and deals with what has been said and done. But I hope that you see my and Wes’s being here as a sign that we believe in the importance and power of your programmes. But also let the absence of others be a sign of your responsibility to be above reproach. To honour your own mission by embodying it in regard to every person and group.
Division begets division. Unity begets unity.
And there is the purpose of this evening:
As we stand here in Parliament this evening, in this building that is seen by many as the cradle of modern democracy, let’s reflect on how important it is that we move forward as One Nation, united around our shared values.
For me, and I hope for all those who have gathered here this evening, those values are rooted in equality, pluralism and community. Now, those are very generic and abstract terms, so it might be helpful to provide a few examples.
First, we must recognise that men and women are equal. There is no role in society or in the work place that should be off-limits to a woman, and indeed we should be actively seeking opportunities for women to realise their potential, across all walks of life.
Second, every one of us has the right to love whom we want to love. Sexuality is an entirely personal matter, and nobody should ever be judged for their private choices.
Third, there is no hierarchy of race, religion or ethnicity. We are all equal regardless of the colour of our skin, the God that we worship or the history of our people.
Fourth, a country can only function if it is rooted in a sense of community. This means that we must all commit to a set of shared values, and to the law of the land. And must all be ready, willing and able to meet each other half way. There are currently deep and damaging divides within and between communities across the length and breadth of our country. Now is the time to decide whether we wish to integrate, or whether we wish to fragment.
History does not always make that easy. But as history tells us of deep divisions, of hatred and prejudice, it also tells us that we can make progress. That individuals and groups of people can create change and what a wonderful opportunity and responsibility that is.
I believe that one of my most important duties as a Member of Parliament is to actively seek opportunities to engage with people with whom I disagree. The founding ethos of our democracy is that we resolve our differences through respectful, robust debate, and Parliament is a forum where principles, ideas and policies are scrutinised, and where common ground is sought.
If we are serious about re-uniting our deeply divided country, then surely we must also reject the notion that ‘no-platforming’ is the answer. If we wish to win hearts and minds, then we must start by being prepared to engage constructively with people who hold a range of opinions – refusal or failure to do so simply fuels the narrative that the establishment is not listening.
Today I am therefore asking everyone in this room and beyond to re-affirm their stated commitment to the pluralistic values upon which our Parliament and country are founded. To be aware of each of our responsibilities to embody the society we wish to live in.
Let us focus on what we have in common, rather than on what divides us.
Because Islamophobia is not just a problem for Muslims, it is a problem for us all, and it is incumbent upon us all to tackle it together.