We should have seen the Iraq crisis coming

14 August 2014 | by Baroness Warsi | Comments: 2

The appalling killing of Christians and Yazidis and others by an advancing brutal group, Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), has brought once largely academic discussions around religious freedom into our living rooms.

Since my resignation last week I’ve received thousands of emails supporting my position on the Gaza conflict, but I’ve received almost as much correspondence from people who are deeply disturbed about the crisis in Iraq.

Let me start by congratulating the Government for their humanitarian airdrops. Let me also as a Muslim condemn the brutal actions and killings of the so-called Islamic State. There’s nothing in the conduct or ideology of ISIS that resonates with British Muslims, and the vast majority of Muslims around the world don’t consider the Islamic State to be either Islamic or a state.

There is a basic Islamic teaching is that states there is no compulsion in faith. And although there will always be a handful of extremists in any faith – as we saw with the youths on Oxford Street handing out leaflets supporting ISIS – let’s also not forget that in northern Iraq, large sections of the Kurdish Muslim community are providing the first point of sanctuary for the minorities who are fleeing their homes.

I marched in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq but I do feel that the time has now come to stop the IS regime advancing, and if that requires targeted military intervention, then that is something I think the Government should seriously consider. I’m not advocating boots on the ground but I do think we need to get alongside the US and provide whatever support is necessary to protect civilians – perhaps the kind of intervention that we saw in the Balkans.

What we are seeing tragically in Iraq is something that has been building for a number of years.

During my time in Government I regularly spoke about religious freedom and the increase in the persecution of religious minorities. In a speech I gave at Georgetown University in Washington last November I talked about a global crisis of increasing religious persecution, especially in those countries where Christianity was born. I warned that a mass exodus was already taking place on a biblical scale.

We therefore should have seen this current crisis coming.

The Georgetown speech came after years of battling to move the Government’s position away from “all things to do with religion aren’t really part of what we do”. I insisted that this Government would “do God” and as minister for human rights I made freedom of religion and belief a personal priority. I also laid out a pathway to tackle religious persecution around the world, including what we needed to do in the UK.

That meant we had to start by improving religious literacy among British policy-makers. You only have to go back to that awful Foreign Office (FCO) memo written in the run-up to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 visit to the UK [which suggested he could launch a range of branded condoms or visit an abortion clinic while in Britain]. I’m delighted that we now have in the FCO a religious literacy programme which offers training, discussion forums, and access to formidable outside speakers. The most recent was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams; Cardinal Vincent Nichols was the first.

We need a sophisticated and detailed understanding of religious communities around the world. And nowhere has that become more apparent than in the current crisis. So little has been known and said about the Christians in Iraq, who follow some of the most linguistically, culturally and liturgically original and pure forms of Christianity that exist.

Religious persecution should serve as an early warning sign that things are going wrong. We must not be selective in speaking up or religious freedom and religious protection, even if it involves doing so with our allies and partners. We can’t afford to take the view that such issues are too sensitive to raise.

What’s heartening for me is to see support for this approach from all quarters – from religious leaders such as Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Justin Welby, from Clarence House and across political divides. I’ve welcomed the recent interventions by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander.

We need to continue to build political will, we need to ensure that funding is put in place to support relationship-building when we see the first signs of tensions brewing between or within communities, we need to properly resource this work, we need to be robust in our diplomatic engagement and we must strongly make the case that religious persecution is as important as any other human rights violation, and that religious freedom is worth protecting.

Baroness (Sayeeda) Warsi is the former minister for faith and communities and a foreign office minister

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