The resignation of Britain’s most senior Muslim politician puts spotlight on its Israel policy

August 7, 2014

The British Conservative Pary's Sayeeda Warsi, shown giving a speech in England in October 2010, was the first Muslim woman to sit in the British cabinet. She resigned Tuesday, citing the British government's policy on Gaza. (2010 AFP  File Photo / Ben Stansall/Getty Images)

Sayeeda Warsi, better known by her peerage title Baroness Warsi, was once something for the British Conservative Party to be proud of. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she worked her way up from a relatively humble Yorkshire background to become the first Muslim woman to serve in the upper echelons of British government, the cabinet. 

For the Conservatives -- a right-wing party often criticized as being too posh, too white and too male -- Warsi was an emblem for their new, modern, perhaps even multicultural viewpoint. She won praise in 2009 when she appeared on the BBC's "Question Time" and took the far-right British National Party leader Nick Griffin to town ("I want to ask Nick Griffin what about me isn't British," she defiantly said). Two years before that, she had traveled to Sudan to successfully mediate the release of a British woman accused of blasphemy. The left-wing Guardian reported it as "Tory peer's triumph delights Cameron."

This week, however, Warsi became the face not of the Conservatives' triumph, but of the rifts in the party – if not in Britain as a whole.

On Tuesday, Warsi dramatically announced her resignation as senior Foreign Office minister with a tweet. She explained that she could no longer support the British government's position in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians:

She later tweeted her resignation letter.

For the Conservatives, it was a difficult blow. The party had traditionally been the most pro-Israel of Britain's political parties, and Britain has generally been an important political and economic ally for Israel, with millions of dollars of arms traded each year and the country abstaining from votes on Palestinian recognition at the United Nations, for example. The problem is, this viewpoint appears to be increasingly incongruous with the actual views of the British public. In the United Kingdom, as in a number of other European nations, Israel is losing support. One recent poll found that around two-thirds of respondents believed Israel was committing "war crimes" in its Gaza offensive.

Warsi's position was clearly complicated by the fact that she was a British Muslim, and, like many British Muslims, she felt sympathy for Palestinians. “People would have been saying to her, 'How can you be part of a government which is so pro-Israel?'” Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Muslim Conservative Forum, told the Financial Times.

Britain on a whole has a strange relationship with its Islamic minorities, both embracing them in multicultural moments and freaking out over things like halal pizzas. For the Conservatives, that relationship is especially strained: Just 16 percent of England's minorities voted for the party in the last election, and British Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't make things better when he says things such as Britain is a "Christian country."

Warsi seemed to understand the position she was in: In 2012, before a cabinet reshuffle, she explained her appeal to the Conservatives in an interview with The Daily Telegraph: "'I’m a woman, I’m not white, I’m from an urban area, I’m from the North, I’m working-class – I kind of fit the bill." Even before this current situation, however, Warsi's relationship with the Conservatives was strained. In 2010, Cameron told her not to attend an Islamic conference because of a "conflict of opinion on how extremists should be dealt with"; Warsi later became known for her "gaffes."

Since her resignation, the knives have come out for Warsi. The Daily Mail called her "Baronness Blunder" and said that her "tragedy was her ability didn't match her ambition." The Spectator argued she was "over-promoted, incapable and incompetent." Even George Osborne, the Conservative Party chancellor, dismissed her resignation as "disappointing and frankly unnecessary."

Warsi was quick to respond, saying that "George is a very good friend of the Israeli government" and he should have done more to stop the Gaza war. There are signs that she may do more damage to the Conservatives, with talk of a "diary" detailing her time at the center of government.

If nothing else, Warsi has highlighted the fact that the British public is far more conflicted about its support for Israel than its government would like to admit. And if everything Warsi says is true, that split may lie beneath the surface of the British government, as well.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
Comments
Show Comments

world

worldviews

Most Read World
Next Story
Anup Kaphle · August 7, 2014

world

worldviews