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Britain: our values, our responsibilities

Speech by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly to Muslim organisations on working together to tackle extremism. Held at Local Government House, London, on 11 October 2006.

Checked against delivery.

Thank you for coming today. 

I want to start by saying how proud I am to have been given the job of making our communities healthier and stronger. 

It’s a job, of course, with many challenges and obstacles to overcome - and I’ll come onto some of these in a minute.

But I’d like to start by talking about the successes of our diverse society.

This is a country where those of all backgrounds, races and religions overwhelmingly live side by side in tolerance and friendship.

Where your colleagues at work, your fellow students at college, your friends will have many different backgrounds.

It is a society where over centuries and decades the contribution of those who have come to live in the UK has enriched it in every possible way. 

And that remains the case today. It is the very diversity of Britain which underpins our success, our dynamism and our international reputation.

There may be challenges - the sorts of rapid changes at a local level I have asked the Commission on Integration and Cohesion to consider, for example.

But Britain is a country where discrimination on the grounds of race, faith, gender or any other kind is outlawed.

It is a country where all have the opportunity to practice their religion freely - whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew or Sikh.

It was this government that introduced legislation to protect people from discrimination on the basis of faith at work and in their day to day lives.  

And the creation of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will give support to all faith communities in tackling discrimination and building good relations between communities.

This respect and recognition of different faiths isn’t about government being politically correct. Examples of the sensitivity of British society in supporting religious freedom are everywhere.  Whether it is employers with prayer rooms; faith schools; Kosher and Halal food in work places and public services like hospitals; or the provision of financial products that fit with religious beliefs - we should not  let short term headlines swamp the many positives. 

This is something which all our communities have helped shape and which we should all celebrate.

And let me repeat something that is said privately to me frequently by British Muslims but not often said publicly. Britain is a good place to be a Muslim. British Muslims are central to our political, business and social life. There are an increasing number of Muslims in the Armed Forces, in the Police and in Parliament. They are there, in positions of great influence, because of their skills, their talent and their commitment to creating a better and fairer society for everyone.

And for Muslims our record stands comparison to any western country and to many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But none of this means that the UK is perfect or we can afford to be complacent. It isn’t and we can’t.

We have a great deal more to do to extend opportunity and prosperity to all - to all parts of the country and all different communities.

It isn’t about preferential treatment. It is about equality. But above all about ensuring that as a society our economy doesn’t waste the talents it has.

And that goes for improving education, reducing unemployment, tackling poverty. 

We have to do more to tackle discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, and to change attitudes and cultures as well as the law.

And where there are stresses and strains we must be able to rely on the overwhelming majority of decent families in all communities to help us find a way through them.

And it is this help - from the Government and society as a whole - I want to talk about today in assisting the fight within Muslim communities against extremism.

There is no doubt that in this current climate anything that touches on the integration of Muslim communities raises complex issues and will provoke passionate debate. But I am certain, as well, that trying to sweep disagreements under the carpet will ultimately be more dangerous than discussing them openly.

The debate on the veil over the last week is an example of this. How should we respond when some feel uncomfortable when they see British women wearing Bhurkas or the veil?  As I made clear at the weekend, this is ultimately an issue of informed personal choice. No-one is suggesting that in a free and democratic country the state should decide what its citizens can and cannot wear, except in certain settings such as schools.

But on one thing we can be clear. There is more that holds us together than divides us. I believe there are some cultural aspects we should share - speaking English and having a sense of British history and traditions for example.

And all of this needs to be grounded in a set of non-negotiable values. They belong to us all. They are found in Islam as much as in Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish and other traditions:

  • respect for the law
  • freedom of speech
  • equality of opportunity
  • respect for others and
  • responsibility towards others.
  • And these values need all of us to defend them.

And crucially these values - non-negotiable values to which we must all adhere - are distinct from political issues where robust debate is needed. Freedom of speech, of opinion, after all is one of these key values.   

But I think even here there are dangers that differences become exaggerated and exploited.

For example, I would defend staunchly the right of anyone to disagree with government policy, including foreign policy. 

I think it is right that we should support the newly elected governments of Iraq and Afghanistan but respect the right of those, including some of you in this room to disagree.

So we need a full and frank debate. But where I think there is a danger is if in debating them, that is used to suggest foreign policy here is anti-Muslim overall.

For this ignores the fact that Britain led the international community in intervening militarily in Kosovo to protect Muslims from ethnic cleansing, that Britain was among the biggest donors to Pakistan following last year’s devastating earthquake or that Britain is spearheading the drive for Turkey’s membership of the European Union.

It was this Government, of course, that also brought in the Religious Hatred legislation. It was necessary and right to do so despite the controversy it caused.

But it is designed to tackle those who incite hatred, not just those who cause offence. If we value free speech and freedom of religious expression, we will all have to accept that from time to time we will feel insulted or offended by other people’s actions or comments.  As a politician, I know that better than most.

There are also some people who don’t feel it right to join in the commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day even though it has helped raise awareness not just of the Jewish holocaust, but also more contemporary atrocities like the Rwanda genocide. That’s also their right. 

But I can’t help wondering why those in leadership positions who say they want to achieve religious tolerance and a cohesive society would choose to boycott an event which marks, above all, our common humanity and respect for each other.   

When society’s core values are transgressed, it can, as a minimum, lead to resentment.  But at worst if we fail to assert and act to implement our shared values this makes us weaker in the fight against extremism and allows it to flourish. 

And this means extremism of every kind. I attended the celebrations on Sunday to mark the 70th Anniversary of East Londoners standing up to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

While there I reflected on what was an example of the triumph of British values over extremism. And we need the same unity, courage and commitment to these values now.

The Far-right is still with us. Still poisonous, still trying to create and exploit divisions.

Their aim this time is to drive a wedge between British Muslims and wider society. We need to stand together to expose their lies and challenge their hate fuelled message.

But we also have to stand together to tackle those fomenting divisions and extremism within Muslim communities.

As the Prime Minister has consistently argued, this is not a problem which has its roots in our intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. International terrorism affects many countries, many with foreign policies different to our own, and many with majority Muslim populations.

And Al Qaeda’s political ideology was being used to radicalise and groom vulnerable young people long before. Take Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, for example. 

And since the July 7 attacks - an attack on Muslims as much as anyone else - there has sadly been evidence of a sustained terrorist campaign.

The Police and Security Services have disrupted a number of further attacks. And we know that followers of Al Qaeda are planning others. The scale of the threat means great urgency. And this can produce mistakes.

But these mistakes have sometimes been seized on by some to falsely suggest that the Police are the enemy rather than the terrorists. They aren’t - they deserve all of our support. A serious and tough security response is inevitable for all of our safety.

But security responses alone will not be enough. There is a battle of ideas here - it is all about us reasserting shared values and winning hearts and minds. 

All of us must play a part. That means government. And it also means communities and individual citizens themselves.

So I do not come here to say that tackling extremists is your problem as Muslims alone. This is a shared problem. It is a shared battle for the kind of society we want to be and the values that we all hold dear. 

But I do say that without you fully on side we will fail. Your voice is more powerful than mine. And your actions can be more effective. As Gordon Brown said yesterday,

“Unless moderates can establish themselves at the centre of their communities and faith, extremists could grow in strength and influence”.

So I promise we will increase our commitment to work in partnership with you and communities throughout Britain who show through their words and actions that are determined to take on the extremists and defend values that the vast majority of us share.

It is not good enough to merely sit on the sidelines or pay lip service to fighting extremism. That is why I want a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on. Since taking up my post, I have actively sought to develop relationships with a wider network of Muslim organisations, including those representing young people and women. 

In future, I am clear that our strategy of funding and engagement must shift significantly towards those organisations that are taking a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values. It is only by defending our values that we will prevent extremists radicalising future generations of terrorists

Because we know that some things that you are doing are making a difference. 

Good quality teaching of and about Islam in schools for all faiths; Imams and Mosques who are in touch with young people; strong leadership programmes for young people; projects that engage and empower women; deradicalisation programmes and diversionary activities; programmes that build bridges between communities, learning and sharing from others; active civic and democratic engagement; and voices within Muslim communities taking on the extremist messages, undermining their twisted interpretations of Islam.

All these are taking place within Muslim communities across the country. All can reduce our vulnerabilities to extremists.  

We want to help you spread this good practice.

We will support more projects like those you will be hearing a little more about in a few minutes.

I know this message will be challenging for some. 

I make no apologies for that. The scale of the threat means doing any less would be a dereliction of our duty. It would be letting down those within your communities who are leading the fight against the extremists. It would be ignoring our shared values.

But I am equally clear this is not a just a problem for Muslim communities. It is one for all of us. And we must all play our part in responding to it. 

It is too important a battle for any of us to sit on the sidelines.

Speech by Ruth Kelly MP on 11 October 2006.

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