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Shahid Malik: Britain’s First Muslim Minister | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- After becoming one of the first two Muslims to be elected to the British House of Commons in 2005, Shahid Malik is today the first Muslim to assume a ministerial post in any British government.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed Malik as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, a ministerial post, in the new cabinet he formed at the end of June, putting him in charge of several dossiers, including the Middle East, Latin America, South Asia, China, and Russia, within the Department for International Development (DFID), which plays a key role in the promotion of Britain’s foreign policy of supporting developing countries.

In his first interview with an Arab media outlet since his new appointment, Malik said that he, like others who monitored the Palestinian legislative elections, is deeply saddened by the current state of affairs in the Gaza Strip, adding that the 40th anniversary of the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories demands additional efforts to help the Palestinians.

Speaking candidly about his new position as International Development Minister, Malik said that the appointment of a Muslim in a ministerial position proves that “Britain is a society built on merit”. However, he was quick to add, “ultimately, I’ll be judged on what I achieve not on my background”.

Malik, who comes from a modest background, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “My appointment show people from working class backgrounds that based on merit, one can excel and do well”.

Malik was thrown into the spotlight in Britain in 2001 when rioting broke out in the northern town of Burnley. While trying to calm a crowd of angry British Asian Muslim youths, Malik was mistakenly beaten and arrested by police. He became the voice of British Muslims who fight racism and are proud to be citizens of the United Kingdom, and his star shone because of his frank discourse and tackling of issues like religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

Malik chose Yemen for his first visit as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, and wrapped up a visit to Sana’a last week after having personally inspected his Department’s projects in Yemen. Malik said that while in Yemen, he could sense how significant it was that he was a Muslim, explaining that “the response was so warm, it was humbling yet very powerful”. He also added that and a number of Yemeni officials said that the appointment of a Muslim minister “shows how great Britain is”.

He added: “When I visit the Muslim world, officials and the general public can to me more than others, and through me they can relate to British Government, and that is a very positive thing in terms of engagement.” He went on to say that this engagement can play a major role as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, especially since it “promotes the best of British values,” but maintained that “this does not mean that we are perfect, but as a Muslim, there is no other country I would rather be in, and I always say, no other country offers Muslims the rights and freedoms that Britain does.”

Malik spoke about Yemen, expressing his fascination with the country and the beauty of its landscape, but also warned of the challenges it faces. He said: “It is a fascinating and beautiful country, but it is facing daunting challenges that mostly have to do with its growing population, which is expected to double by 2020 to reach 40 million.” He added: “Sixty seven percent of the population is under 24, and 40 percent of them are unemployed. Furthermore, water is scarce and 90 percent of the people in Yemen don’t have an adequate supply of water, and the economy is heavily dependant on dwindling oil resources.”

He also spoke of fears of terrorism in Yemen, referring to “Al-Qaeda elements in Yemen and the murder of eight Spanish tourists and a number of Yemenis,” adding that the terrorist attacks are a cause for concern.

Malik warned of the repercussions of those challenges and said: “These challenges are all potential for things to go wrong. Yemen is in desperate need of the support of the United Kingdom and its Arab neighbours. We live in an interdependent world if Yemen deteriorates, it will impact first and foremost the Arab neighbours.” He felt that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has an “important role” to play in Yemen, highlighting that one of these roles can be in terms of the labour market. He explained: “There a strong labour market demand in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and Yemen has a pool of labour and a real need for jobs. If the two can connect in someway, and satisfy labour demand, it will be a win-win situation”. Malik said he recognizes ‘its not that straightforward’, and plans to contact Gulf countries to explore the best means to developing these ideas.

During his trip, Malik signed a 10-year Development Partnership Agreement with the Yemeni Government that stipulates the growth of British aid to Yemen to an annual £50 million [$100million] by 2010. Asked if security fears are behind Britain’s interest in Yemen, Malik said: “Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and this is the only reason the United Kingdom is interested in Yemen and is our main reason for investing”. He added: “We also want to give a signal of ‘business as usual’ and the slaying of innocent citizens won’t hinder our support for Yemen”. During his visit, Malik met with a number of Yemeni officials, chief amongst whom was President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom he described as a “robust character.”

In addition to Yemen and Jordan — the two Arab countries under Malik’s direct supervision — the Minister is also working on British development projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Malik explained that Britain pledged £774 million for Iraq in 2003, £610 million of which has been dispersed, with the Department for International Development’s spending standing at £488 million. He noted however that “Iraq is not a poor country; the challenge is in how to spend the money, and now to help Iraq to invest in its infrastructure.”

Iraq is a key area of interest for the British government. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced several times that his government aims to support Iraq economically in order to work on its stability. Malik stressed this aspect of the Iraqi, saying: “We believe that economic stability is vital for the long term growth of any country, but the Iraq model is an exception because it is a cash- rich country, and the question is how this money should be spent.” He added: “Economic and security considerations cannot be separated from one another, and there are has to be a sense of investment safety for there to be progress.” Malik noted that “some things are improving but we only hear the negative aspects, and there is no doubt a need to speed up improving people’s lives”.

Malik went on to say that the British Government has suggested a number of initiatives to the Iraqi Government concerning southern Iraq, where British forces are based. He explained that one of those initiatives is the formation of a Basra Investment Promotion Agency, whose details are still being discussed. He added: “we are keen on supporting development in Basra and in offering loans to small and medium-sized enterprises”. Other ideas being discussed are the rehabilitation of the airport and the establishing of free trade zone. He expected work on some of these initiatives to be finished by the autumn, and added: “We are thinking about the Iraqi economy and have plans for it, but it is the Iraqi Government that decides ultimately.”

On the corruption problem in Iraq, Malik said: “Corruption poses a major risk to reconstruction, especially because it undermines confidence in the state’s new institutions”, adding that “there has to be a clear commitment that corruption will not be tolerated”. Malik stated that the reconstruction projects funded by DFID do not suffer from this problem, saying “the money spent is tracked and monitored through tried procedures, we are confident that the money we invest has a known trail”. Malik also stressed that “Corruption is a challenge for every country, but in different ways, but Iraq is facing a particular challenge.”

Beyong Iraq, Malik is concerned with a number of political issues, including the situation in the Occupied Territories. Malik spoke about the Palestinian elections that Hamas won in 2006, and which he had helped oversee as an international monitor. On the results of these elections and the international boycott of Hamas, Malik said: “People like me, who were there as international observers for the elections, are brokenhearted at where we are today, especially after the optimism we sensed in those days, when Nabulus was closer to Notting Hill (in London) and there were more women than men in the streets.” He added: “there must be a recognition that if you want to be a government taken seriously, there are responsibilities that come with that, and Hamas was clear what was expected of it is, and that is the Quartet Principles,” in reference to the international community’s conditions that Hamas should renounce violence, recognize Israel, and honor previous peace agreements to get recognition. He continued: “The destiny of Hamas is in their hands (ie the hands of its officials), and this is yet another missed opportunity in a part of the world that has too many missed opportunities”.

Malik stressed that the British Government plans to help Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (Abu-Mazin) and will try to “improve ordinary day-to-day life for Palestinians, who are now in their 40th year of suffering, and we have to make extra efforts this year to end their suffering.” On the policy of supporting Mahmud Abbas and isolating Hamas, which could in turn lead to isolating Gaza, Malik said: “Abu-Mazin said that he is committed to working on behalf of all Palestinians, and we must look for ways to ensure that Gaza isn’t further disadvantaged”. Malik stressed that “Since the election of Hamas, aid from the UK has not reduced and from the European Union it has even increased, however the main impediment has been from the Israeli government”. He elaborated that this impediment is two-fold, as “firstly, they are not giving back the tax revenues they have collected, and we call on them to return the whole $800million in their possession back. Secondly, the roadblocks and inaccessibility make it almost impossible for business”.

On whether he believes British foreign policy pushed some to join extremist groups and raised the terrorist threat, Malik said that “no doubt that certain foreign policy areas caused anger and frustration”. He explained that various British foreign policy decisions have had various responses, and that “while we led the world in Kosovo to save lives, Iraq is not perceived in the same way.” However, Malik was very clear in asserting that the response to foreign policy cannot justify terrorism, stating “anger does not justify harming so much as a hair on the head of an individual, and terrorism is not driven by anger, but by misinterpretations of Islam.” He added: “My Islam teaches me that those (terrorists) are not martyrs going to heaven, and the job of Muslims is to speak up against these crimes, for these people are not friends of Islam.”

Answering question on his Department’s plans for the coming years, Malik said that “we want to sign as many long-term agreements as possible in order to help stabilize the regions that need our help,” adding that “it is important to boost investor confidence to ensure places become sustainable”.

Malik has big plans he wishes to pursue through his position, starting with raising the British people’s awareness and instilling in them a sense of responsibility toward impoverished people around the world. He said: “We want to increase the profile of our work in the UK, and educate them on what we do; I plan several road shows around the country to showcase what we do and to give people an opportunity to engage.” He added: “We want to link every school in Britain to a school in a developing country so that our children and youth may learn that we have responsibilities beyond our shores, for we are the world’s fourth wealthiest country, and with such privilege comes responsibility”. He finished by saying:”I hope the new generation grows up as good and healthy citizens not only for the United Kingdom, but for the world.”