It is wonderful and a privilege to be here to be asked to speak to you this evening.
Not least because I am able to celebrate the work of the Muslim Council of Britain, but also because I was asked to speak about the Muslim Community’s contribution to our economy. As requested, I will speak about the economy and our future, but first I would like to speak more broadly.
Many members of the Muslim community – my constituents – tell me about their perception of increasing Islamophobia within our society. I hear it every time I visit the wonderful South London Islamic Centre which – along with other Mosques – I am proud to have in my constituency. There is a rising sense of fear and victimisation. Let us be frank: too often stories of crimes reach headlines far more rapidly if the perpetrator happens to be Muslim than if from another religion. And even if the story reaches the headlines when the perpetrator is a white person, the description rarely mentions their faith.
Perpetrators should be defined by their crimes; crimes shouldn’t be defined by the faith of their perpetrators. If that becomes the norm then your faith becomes defined by one perception.A false perception only encouraged when media channels invite people who claim to represent your community but simply distort your faith – and have no mandate to speak on your behalf.
I have had many advantages in life, but I – and my family – have known discrimination – not just in people’s actions towards us, but also their attitudes. I know how dark and overbearing that cloud of intolerance can seem. But I hope my very presence here today shows that in the grand scheme of things, Britain has managed the increasing diversity of our society successfully. But we can never be satisfied – we can never be complacent, as the increase in Islamaphobia has shown. Moving beyond intolerance to tolerance; then beyond tolerance towards respect and appreciation toward one another. That must be our goal.
So you have my commitment – and that of my Party – to work with you to ensure that our society, in its ever increasing diversity, always seeks to build a future in which all people, with their unique talents, heritage and beliefs, are both valued and free to pursue their dreams, to make their contribution.
Because a friend of mine, who is here today, once said it to me beautifully: “I’m sick and tired of people telling me to integrate – I’m here to contribute”.
And that should be the measure of every person in our society. How they contribute.
And if that is a measure we go by, then the British Muslim community is a community we should be exceptionally proud of – with so many people and organisations in this room who should be celebrated and championed. Not just the financial contribution – though that is significant: adding £31 billion to the UK economy – but far more importantly, the human contribution.
Consider the contributions of people like my friend Sadiq Khan – the first Muslim Minister to attend Cabinet and a former head of legal affairs of the MCB; people like Mishal Husain – one of my frequent interviewers! People like Nazir Afzal at the Crown Prosecution Service; Labour’s own Lord Gulam Noon; sports personalities such as Amir Kahn and our Olympic hero Mo Farah; and so many others. I know you had Rushanara here last year, who spoke about the British Muslim community’s contribution to international development. She now uses that same passion and expertise as part of Labour’s Shadow education team.
So there are the people and then there are the countless organisations that fall under the Muslim Council of Britain’s umbrella – and actually the MCB itself. The MCB plays a major role in the UK’s society and economy. I think of when the MCB organised the World Islamic Economic Forum in London, the first one to be held in a Non-Muslim country. It was the MCB who worked with Ken Livingstone to lobby the Muslim world to back London’s bid for the Olympics. We were able to host the best games in history due to that contribution and so many others. The country is grateful for it.
So the MCB and Muslim community should not only be celebrated, but serve as inspiration to all of our society. Let me give you just one of many examples of this. Take the example of the Better Community Business Network. A group of businesses got together to support local causes, to give back and use their skills to better the communities and societies around them. I know they’ve raised well over a half a million pounds on programmes such as mentoring children and preparing prisoners for release. When this government cut support and counselling for Domestic Violence on the NHS, they stepped in to provide it. That is inspiration for all of us – and a powerful contribution to our society.
And for us in Labour, that is the meaning of One Nation. Some in British politics seek popularity by encouraging division. Divide and rule. Setting up different communities against each other. That is not our way. It is not something that we will tolerate. It is not the spirit of One Nation – which recognises that it is our diversity that makes us stronger and makes our future one of enormous potential.
As our recent race equality strategy sets out, “Labour believes in a vision of One Nation where people of different backgrounds and communities don’t just co-exist, but each share in the successes we build together”.
Because if we build our future on the talents and contributions of all our people – with their varied experiences, perspectives and skills – then there is nothing that we cannot do.
And it is to that end that I launched our Agenda 2030 at the start of March. It is our plan to build a more balanced economy that delivers sustainable and inclusive growth for all communities, for all people.
It is based on four pillars:
1. liberating the talents of all;
2. securing our future through innovation;
3. an active government supporting business; and
4. an outward-looking and open approach in the world.
I sadly don’t have time to explore each in detail, but I just want to elaborate briefly on two of them.
The first is to liberate the talents of all. We will only succeed as a country if we make the most of the potential of all our people. We need to boost the creation of more high-skilled and better paid jobs in this country. As well as investments in education and qualifications, such as ensuring all students study English and Maths until they’re 18 and improving the quality of apprenticeships, we must also take some practical, common sense steps. For example, I know that there is currently a consultation paper out to consider methods of creating Sharia-compliant student financing. We simply must find a way to make this happen. Rather than being a barrier because we haven’t been creative enough in our thinking, your faith should be an inspiration for education.
The fourth pillar is to have an outward-looking, open approach to the world. This is where the defenders of the status quo have got it so wrong. They are frightened by our increasing diversity. Yet just think of how it strengthens us. Our ability to secure long-term success for all of our people will be reliant on how well we trade and engage with the rest of the world. Your community strengthens us because of its deep connections with other communities around the world. Not least the burgeoning emerging market economies such as Nigeria, Indonesia and Turkey. That is a source of potential that we must explore and celebrate. How we build on those existing links is something that we want to work on in partnership with you.
Because what matters is what and how we contribute to our society. Together, we have a common future. Together, we have to relentlessly think about how we can shape that future – to make it one where all of our people have the ability to live fulfilling lives.
Every single one of us has something different to contribute and if we can create a platform for every person to make the most of their talents – then we are richer for it; as an economy, as a society and as a country.
As the old African concept of Ubuntu says – I am who I am because of who we all are. And we are better for it.