The Tablet Interview
Slaying the secular dragon
This week Sayeeda Warsi, the first woman Muslim Cabinet Minister, stepped on to the global stage with a speech at the Vatican about “militant secularisation”. But first she spoke to Tablet editor Catherine Pepinster about faith in the public square and why she gets on with Catholics
Visiting the House of Lords is rather like stepping into a living tableau of contemporary history: a prominent QC here, a former diplomat there, old political hands everywhere. As I idle away the time, awaiting the summons to the office of Cabinet Minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, along come two other women life peers – Conservative Virginia Bottomley and Labour’s Helena Kennedy. There are no divisions between them today: both start talking critically about the Catholic Church and its attitude to women.
Kennedy, a Catholic, has just penned a piece for the Radio Times on the need for the Church to ordain women; Bott omley, an Anglican with Catholic in-laws, is polemical in tone too: how can a Church which opposes birth control and refuses to treat women as equals appeal to the younger generation? “Something must be done. What about a debate in the Lords, Helena?”
There could be no grea ter contrast with Baroness Warsi, who speaks warmly of “the value that the Catholic Church brings to mankind all over the world”. Since she came to prominence on the national stage, Sayeeda Warsi has become the chief political champion of faith’s role in public life, regularly blasting critics of religion, and never more than this week during her trip to Rome, speaking of secularism being “deeply intolerant”.
Just two days before Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in September 2010, the Minister without Portfolio – not only the first Musl im woman member of the Cabinet but also the co-chairman of the Conservative Party – made her celebrated “This Government does do God” speech, a dig at the New Labour years when Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, wanted religion strictly off limits.
This week Baroness Warsi headed an unprecedented seven-strong British ministerial delegation to the Vatican. And speaking to The Tablet the day before she left, she made it clear that problems with the place of women or sex in the Church was not on her agenda.
“Whenever we talk about faith, the debate always comes back to religion versus sexuality. But when we go to the Vatican that is not the important issue. There are so much more pressing ones,” she said. So forget the hot-button issues of the domestic agenda such as samesex marriage. Instead she and her delegation spoke about climate change, poverty in the developing world, the environment and inter-faith dialogue.
But above all, Baroness Warsi was using the two-day visit to express her conviction that religion must have a clear role in public life and must not be pushed to the sidelines. In a speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the school for papal diplomats, sh e endorsed Pope Benedict’s call for religion to have a place in society’s discourse. But the language she used was far more sensational than his, talking of “militant secularisation” gripping Europe. The day before, in her office at the House of Lords, though, her language was a little more thoughtful when she said: “I’m arguing for faith to have a seat at the table, for it to be a voice amongst other voices. More and more other voices are heard and the voice of faith is not heard.”
Some would argue that a country with an established C hurch, bishops in Parliament, and national holidays that still mark the major Christian feasts, hardly excludes religion. So what is her critique about? Is she claiming the voice of faith is somehow not heard? Or maybe people of faith don’t have enough guts?
“It’s a combin ation. Aggressive secularism is pushing faith out of any public place. Europe would not try to erase the church spires on our horizons; then why would you try to erase our religious history or the role of Christianity in the development of values of our nations? Europe needs to be more in tune with its Christian identity.”
The Vatican visit reflects the warmth that has developed between the United Kingdo m and Rome since the 2010 papal visit to Britain, and marks 30 years of the restoration of full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. While the Coalition Government pushed the boat out with its large team of Minis ters, Rome responded not only by according Sayeeda Warsi the honour of being the first foreign Minister to address the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, but by hosting a dinner for the delegatio n and accommodating it at the Santa Marta, an official residence normally used by visiting cardinals.
“Britain and the Vatican are global players with a global voice and I felt it was i mportant to widen that relationship. And bring to the table what I feel is important – inter-faith dialogue and the place of faith in the public sphere,” said Baroness Warsi.
The visit also included a private audience with the Pope – the second time that Baroness Warsi had met him. The two talked briefly during the papal visit. It seems she received the papal thumbs-up. “The Holy Father had been briefed on my speech on doing God. He congratulated me on my defence of faith and asked me to continue,” she said.
So is she at one with him on religion in the public square? “The Holy Father is a spiritual leader; I am a politician who is of faith. I am not speaking as some kind of proxy grand mufti of the UK; I’m a Cabinet Minister. My disc ussions are not theological
4 | THE TABLET | 18 February 2012 but there are some real practical outcomes. Unless your religion is part of good deeds, what is it?” Warsi’s outspokenness on the subject of religion comes, she says, from her own confidence about her place in the world. The 40-year-old daughter of a Dewsbury businessman of Pakistani extraction, she grew up in West Yorkshire, studied law at Leeds University and then worked as a solicitor, often on immig ration cases. That confidence helps her be at home with ordinary people – aided by her broad, down-to-earth Yorkshire vowels – and at the heart of government.
I t was her father who was most responsible for teaching her the Islamic faith. “It was all about interesting stories and values that underlined them.” So does she find that Christians don’t stand up enough for their beliefs or is it difficult to be religious today? “The Christian community needs to take a stance. People of faith can be defined as ‘oddities, foreigners, and minorities’,” she said, quoting the Archbishop of Canterbury. “It is the practical outcome of what most churches do every day that matters, looking after the sick, the aged, the homeless. People say take faith out of the public sphere, and I think, who would come in and do the work – the National Sec ular Society?”
Her own values, she says, have led to her strong connections with the Catholic Church.
“I have a very good relationship with the Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Westminster,” she said, and often finds she takes the same view as Catholics in the House of Lords, mentioning her friend, Conservative life peer Patricia Morris. “If I am ever late for a vote on issues o f conscience or morality then as long as I can find Trish I can follow her into the lobbies.”
Baroness Warsi’s enthusiasm for religion no doubt plays well with many people of faith. But how much does the rest of the Government really care? What about the decision not to make religious education an obligatory subject for the EBacc? Does she regret that? She concedes she was at odds with Education Secretary Michael Gove: “I would like it to have been part of the EBacc but I am not the Secretary for Education.”
She believes that in a society where there is demonstrable ignorance about religion, people could learn more about faith. Her own daughter attends an Anglican convent school. “Too much faith isn’t a problem. My daughter’s own Islamic faith is strengthened by a Christian influence in her schooling. Sh e says the Lord’s Prayer, she knows all the hymns and Christmas carols.”
For some Muslims, though, that kind of inter-faith solidarity is anathema and Baroness Warsi herself has been subject to abuse from Muslim extremists. “We can work through it; in Britain we are way ahead of other countries on faith relations. But the response to it – the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment – isn’t good for Britain. ”
Baroness Warsi’s own integrated approach to being a Muslim in Britain has sometimes put her in the frontline in her own commu-
‘Sabotage campaigns are subject to the law of diminishing returns’
Israelis have a saying: “Those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk.” As the speculation over an Israeli strike on Iran designed to disable the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities grows more intense, it’s worth bearing in mind the truth behind that adage.
When the headlines carry stark warnings of possible war, remember that if Israel is going to dispatch its bombers, no decision-maker will ta lk about it in advance. They would want any attack to come as a bolt from the blue, suggesting that the greater the public chatter, the less the real likelihood of conflict.
In addition, every year since at least 2008 has been described as the critical moment when Israel and the West will confront their impossible dilemma: bomb Iran, or accept that Iran will have the means to make the “Bomb”. So no great sur prise that 2012 has been similarly labelled. With all those caveats in mind, however, there are grounds for believing that this year could be different. Yes, previous warnings turned out to be false, but there is a reason for that. Iran’s nuclear programme has been successfully delayed by a covert campaign of sabotage and assassination.
We know that Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz has been the princ ipal focus for these efforts. Machinery has mysteriously exploded, spare parts have been supplied that were not only defective but turned out to destroy whatever equipment they were fitted to. The most extraordinary setback of all came in 2010 when the Stuxnet computer virus, the most powerful cyber weapon ever devised, was mysteriously infiltrated into the Natanz plant.
Centrifuges, the machines used to enric h uranium, are delicate instruments that must rotate at certain speeds. Stuxnet made them spin out of control and tear themselves to bits. Iran duly lost hundreds of centrifuges and was briefly forced to shut down the entire process while its scientists worked out what was wrong.
This single blow probably delayed the nuclear programme by anything up to a year. And no human being was hurt. If that was a testament to the genius of whoever is behind the campaign, another element of their effort has been more brutal. Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated since 2007, while another was seriously wounded by a bomb attached to his car. One more has disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
Meanwhile, the head of the country’s ballistic missil e programme died in an explosion at a base outside Tehran last November.
Leaving aside any moral considerations, the drive to rob the nuclear programme of both machinery and brainpower has clearly had a real effect. As for who is responsible, it is impossible to say. On balance of probability, the assassinations are likely to be the work of Mossad, Israel ’s external intelligence agency. As for the sabotage, Am erican, German, British and French intelligence could well have a hand at some level.
But sabotage campaigns are subject to the law of diminishing returns. In the end, damage can be repaired, machinery replaced and countermeasures developed. Iran is now transferring its uranium enrichment to a new and previously secret plant located in the Great Salt Desert outside the holy city of Qom. The aim is to develop a secure location where its scientists can achieve nuclear weapons capability.
Not only is the new plant free of sabotage (so far), it could also be immune to conventional military attack. The enrichment halls at the old installation in Natanz are located underground and shielded by heavy air defences.
That made them a tough target – but not an impossible one. The new plant is actually dug into a mountainside beneath hundreds of feet of sheer rock. As such, it might be indestructible.
This installation – known as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant – will probably be completed this year. And that is what makes 2012 different. Soon Israel and the West will have to take a decision: are they willing to allow Iran to concentrate its nuclear capability in a place where it cannot be destroyed? Or should they take pre-empt ive action before that moment arrives?
No one can predict what their answer will be, but it’s a fair bet that they will be compelled to confront the dilemma this year.
■ David Blair is chief foreign correspondent of The Daily Telegraph.
18 February 2012 | THE TABLET | 5