LONDON // The first Muslim woman to serve as a member of the British cabinet says that Islamophobia was not only rife in the UK but had become socially acceptable.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is the chairwoman of the Conservative Party and holds the rank of minister without portfolio, said that prejudice against Muslims had "passed the dinner-table test" among the middle classes and had become the norm.
In excerpts of speech she was scheduled to give at a conference on faith at Leicester University yesterday, Lady Warsi, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan to Britain, said bigotry directed at the UK's two million-plus Muslims was now the only form of religious hatred acceptable in the country.
She also warned that the tendency to classify Muslims either as moderates or extremists fuelled misunderstanding and intolerance.
"In the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burqa, the passers-by think: 'That woman's either oppressed or is making a political statement'," she said.
While she said that terrorism committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam, she also called on Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violence and extremism.
"Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law," she said. "They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims."
Lady Warsi blamed "the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media" for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers.
She revealed that she had raised the problems of Islamophobia with Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Britain last year, urging him to "create a better understanding between Europe and its Muslim citizens".
Her comments were welcomed by Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organisation which promotes interfaith and intercommunity understanding.
Mr Shafiq told The National yesterday her observations set out "the dangerous increase and acceptance of Islamophobia and attacks against Muslims" in Britain.
He added: "We are living in a time where it has perversely become acceptable to label Muslims, attack our faith and hold us responsible for the ills of the World. This collective punishment must stop.
"I am clear that the threat from terrorism is real and present, there are some within our community who wish to murder and kill people - this is contrary to Islam and they should be opposed.
"Muslims are not immune from criticism but this should be based on facts and not prejudices."
Robert Pigott, the BBC's religious affairs correspondent, commented that Lady Warsi was merely saying what many British Muslims privately complain about - that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.
"Lady Warsi has broached the issue before," he said. "She told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain's last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn't really matter."
However, Lord (Norman) Tebbit, himself a former Conservative Party chairman, wrote in his Daily Telegraph blog that "had Baroness Warsi sought my advice, I would have counselled her not to make the speech".
He added: "I would have told her that the Muslim faith was not discussed over the dinner tables of England, nor in the saloon bars, before large numbers of Muslims came here to our country."
"Then I would have told her to go to our Christian churches and listen to what was said about her religion and those who practise it, then to the Mosques to hear what is said in some of them about the Christian faith and those who practise it (or about Buddhists, Jews, or even those who have no faith at all).
"After that, I would say, she might consider who is in need of her homilies on prejudice."
Asked whether the Prime Minister David Cameron agreed with Lady Warsi's view that prejudice against Muslims was becoming more widespread, his official spokesman said: "She is expressing her view. He agrees that this is an important debate."