Michael Gove – 2007 Speech on Integration and Cohesion


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Gove, the Conservative MP for Surrey Heath, in Westminster Hall on 17 April 2007.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) pointed out, my hon. Friend made a brilliant speech in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, in which he outlined the scale of the challenge that our society faces. That challenge is not one of religious separatism, but one of ideological division, and here I must take issue with what the hon. Member for Hazel Grove said in his fascinating, wide-ranging, but in some respects misconceived remarks. He was right to stress the importance of community initiatives. He was, as ever, right to stress the importance of pluralism and to recognise that one size does not fit all when we are dealing with the various problems that we have all had an opportunity to analyse in the debate. However, he was wrong to suggest that the problem is an explicitly religious one, and to draw the historical comparisons that he did.

I should point out that, when the hon. Gentleman said that we no longer believed in one version of British history that saw us moving towards a golden future, he was disavowing a grand Liberal tradition. That version of history, which saw us moving towards a more liberal future, which used to be known as Whig history, and was the product of Macaulay and Trevelyan, used to be the guiding light of his party. It is a pity that it is no longer. One of the insights of Macaulay, Trevelyan and other Whig historians is that what has made Britain great is not just our respect for pluralism and tolerance, but a belief in liberty, rooted in our historic institutions. Those institutions are challenged by the specific ideology outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe.

Islamism is distinct from Islam. Islam is a great faith that has nourished millions for hundreds of years. To this day it contributes intellectually and spiritually across the globe to enriching the lives of a great many people. No one on the Conservative Benches would want to criticise Islam as a faith. Indeed, it has enriched this country. Islamic scholars and tens of thousands of British Muslim citizens make Britain a better and more tolerant place today, but the best of those—in fact, the majority of them—also recognise that those who call themselves, sometimes, Islamists or jihadists, or who use another name, such as Salafists, and who follow the specific Islamist ideology are following a 20th-century totalitarian aberration that is intended to undermine the very tolerance that makes Britain both a safe and a warm house not just for its Muslim citizens but for all citizens. If we are to ensure that toleration will survive in this country, and protect pluralism and liberty, we need to be aware of the precise nature of the threat. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe deserves praise for drawing attention to that challenge in this House and elsewhere.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to address his remarks to me, and of course I acknowledge the points that he was making about the hon. Member for Wycombe, who has rightly set out his stall on the matter. I hope that I conveyed the point that I wanted to make, which is that confronting the extremists is not the major job that we have. We must address the society.

Michael Gove: Both go hand in hand, and we cannot effectively champion the interests of moderate Muslims and of our pluralist, tolerant and liberal society, unless we show a determination to tackle extremism. It is the extremists who, in the past, have crowded out from the debate the moderate voices in the Muslim world. I am thinking particularly of the voices of female British Muslim citizens, which have been stilled and silenced as a result of extremists operating not just in mosques but more broadly in our society.

I want to say a word of appreciation about my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and congratulate him on his speech. He brings huge expertise and great integrity to the debate. In his professional career before he joined us in this House he spent many distinguished years serving this country and defending its interests. While he has been in the House he has proved himself a dedicated public servant, and whenever he speaks on such issues it behoves all of us to pay close attention to the expertise and integrity that he brings to bear on them, as he did so effectively today.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on his speech. Rather than inhabiting a constitutional Never Land, all that he did was stick up for those Enlightenment values that are the best protection for all minorities. In that respect I am delighted that his comments found a ready answering call in all my hon. Friends’ speeches.

When we are talking about integration and cohesion it is important for all of us to choose our words carefully and to tread with care. With your permission, Mr. Olner, I want to make a brief apology to the House. On a previous occasion, in December 2005, I had an opportunity to question the Home Secretary about his strategy for preventing extremism. I believe that several individuals whom the Government had asked to work with them on preventing extremism were themselves linked to extremist groups. I took the opportunity to raise in the House the names of some of those individuals. One of them, a gentleman called Ahmad Thomson, is a Muslim convert who was involved in holocaust denial, and I believe that it was right to draw attention to his involvement and that of several others whose enlistment by the Government in their fight against extremism seemed to be mistaken.

However, even as I was pointing out that the Government had made a mistake, I myself made a mistake. One of the individuals to whom I drew attention was Mr. Khurshid Ahmed. I remind the House that the gentleman to whom I drew attention has exactly the same name as another Khurshid Ahmed who is indeed linked with extremist activity, and who operates primarily in Pakistani politics but also has a link with institutions in this country. The Khurshid Ahmed who served on the preventing extremism together group is an admirable individual. I have now had the opportunity of meeting and working with him on several occasions.

When I discovered my mistake, I immediately wrote to Mr. Ahmed and to the Home Secretary to apologise and to put the record straight, but I have received representations from Mr. Ahmed’s Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), who asked me to use any opportunity to place on the record in Hansard an acknowledgment of my mistake and to underline what I said in my letter, which was that Mr. Ahmed has done considerable work to further integration and cohesion in our society, and that he deserves nothing but the highest praise for his many years in public life. I am happy to use this opportunity to state on the record, for the benefit of Hansard and those outside, my appreciation of Mr. Ahmed’s work and of the calm, diligent way in which the mistake was brought to my attention by the hon. Member for Dudley, North, whose own contribution to fighting extremism in his area of the west midlands also deserves to be noted with credit by the House. I placed copies of the letters that I wrote in December 2005 to the Home Secretary and to Mr. Khurshid Ahmed in the Library earlier today.

I mentioned that it is important to acknowledge our mistakes, and I believe that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in her conduct since taking on responsibility for integration and cohesion matters, has acknowledged that the Government made errors in the past. She did that not in a breast-beating way, but in an appropriately respectful fashion. Before sitting down and allowing the Minister to reply to the many questions that have been put by my hon. Friends,

I would like to acknowledge that the Government have moved but also to indicate that there is still some way to go.

I believe that the Government have accepted that, before the fateful events of 7 July 2005, they had fallen down on the job when it came to questions of integration and cohesion, and of extremism, specifically within the Muslim community. They have acknowledged that the principle of the covenant of security—that unless someone is actively engaged in violence against the state, their activities would be tolerated, no matter how extreme their preaching—was a mistake. More than that, I believe that the Government have acknowledged that some of their chosen partners in the Muslim community and elsewhere were not as well chosen as they might have been.

The Secretary of State was absolutely right to point out recently that Muslim organisations that boycott holocaust memorial day should no longer receive public money. I also note with approval that recently she has been showing a willingness to work with the Sufi Muslim Council, the British Muslim Forum and especially the Fatima Women’s Network, all of which are more moderate Muslim organisations.

The Government’s greater openness to working with moderate, mainstream organisations is to be welcomed, but it provokes a couple of questions. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe pointed out, the Government still seem to be taking a disjointed and far from synoptic approach. I mention one area that he did not, which comes under the rubric of the Department for Education and Skills. Why is it that the Government’s adviser on the teaching of Islam in higher and further education, Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui, is linked with the Islamic Foundation and the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, both of which are institutions that were set up by the Jamaat-e-Islami party, an explicitly Islamist organisation, and its supporters? In other words, why is the man who is charged with checking extremism on Britain’s campuses in fact linked with a body that was set up by a separatist Islamist organisation?

Secondly and more broadly, I welcome again what the Secretary of State said about seeking to encourage mosques to register with the Charity Commission and, as a result, receive not only help with fundraising, but a higher level of oversight and help with governance. What, however, do we do with mosques that explicitly reject that kind offer because they wish to carry on with extremist preaching and teaching? How do we ensure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, that the flood of extremist Wahabi literature and, indeed, Saudi money into certain mosques is effectively checked so that the process of indoctrination in an extremist ideology is scrutinised and we deal effectively with teaching that might encourage a new generation of people who believe in separatism and division?

In that regard, I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s question about the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. Why is the Muslim Association of Britain—the UK branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation—on an equal footing with the British Muslim Forum and the Muslim Council of Britain? Why is Finsbury Park mosque, which used to be the haunt of Abu Hamza, now run by the Muslim Association of Britain’s Dr. Azzam Tamimi? Why, having got rid of one extremist, do we have another version of extremism in control?

I have a final request for the Minister. I appreciate that time is pressing and that she has a limited amount of time in which to answer all our questions, but can she prevail on the Secretary of State and the Cabinet to ensure that we have a full-day debate on this issue in Government time? Given the setting-up of the commission, the Secretary of State’s announcements and, crucially, the prospect of significant changes in the Government machinery for dealing with this most sensitive of issues, as well as the Government’s fitful record of implementation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newark referred, we need the Government to give a clear statement in their own time on precisely what the new strategy is. That will give those Opposition Members who wish to see them and our multi-ethnic society succeed an opportunity to make an effective contribution to this ongoing process.