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Full speech of UK Secretary Miliband, Engage Muslim World,  Building Coalitions
Full speech of UK Secretary Miliband, Engage Muslim World, Building Coalitions
Foreign Secretary David Miliband Calls for ?Building Coalitions? with Muslims
To broaden the coalition and win consent, we need to understand the Muslim world better, or we will risk undermining the force of our own argument, as I have sometimes done when using the labels ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’; we need to hold fast to our own values and support those who seek to apply them, or we will be guilty of hypocrisy; and we need shared effort to address the grievances, socio-economic and political, that are perceived to keep Muslims down, and in fact do.
Sunday, May 24,2009 17:49

Foreign Secretary David Miliband Calls for ’Building Coalitions’ with Muslims      

The Foreign Secretary David Miliband has this evening delivered a speech at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on the theme of ’Our shared future: building coalitions and winning consent’.


The following is the full text of the speech of the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OXCIS) on May 21. Among other Secretary Miliband talks about Kosovo’s position in the relations between east and west and calls the OIC to support Kosovo.

"Everybody is talking about reform in British politics. Rightly so. The integrity of our democratic institutions has been badly undermined. The need for renewal is urgent. It is, for that very reason, all the more ironic that my case today rests on the importance of politics. I want to argue that the foreign policy questions that unite this country and Muslim majority countries turn on the idea of mutual respect conducted through politics.

Many learned people have stood in this hall and spoken of the values that are shared between the Abrahamic faiths. That is not my purpose today. I am a politician not a preacher or a religious scholar. I want to talk, I hope in a spirit of humility and respect, from my perspective as Foreign Secretary, about the political process of building coalitions and winning consent overseas for foreign policy goals. This question does not only arise in respect of our relations with Muslim majority countries, but today I want to explore how we, the British government, work with those, in Muslim countries, governments and people, whose values we may not entirely share.  This speech does not address how we approach these issues at home.

President Obama has made it clear that there is a problem. He said simply a few weeks ago: “America is not and never will be at war with Islam”. Next month he will address this theme in a landmark speech in Cairo. The fact that he feels the need to say and do these things, and the positive reception he has received around the world for his determination and candour, reveal the depth of division and distrust towards the west that has emerged in the period since 9/11.  Our coalitions are too narrow and consent far from won.

To broaden the coalition and win consent, we need to understand the Muslim world better, or we will risk undermining the force of our own argument, as I have sometimes done when using the labels ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’; we need to hold fast to our own values and support those who seek to apply them, or we will be guilty of hypocrisy; and we need shared effort to address the grievances, socio-economic and political, that are perceived to keep Muslims down, and in fact do.

My argument starts from a recognition of difference. It is based on the belief that there can be no single answer to the question of how we should live. I do believe there are universal values that can be traced through diverse cultures and religions. I do believe there are basic human rights that must be observed by every government and every individual. But as the Prime Minister has powerfully argued there is a global society where universal values and rights still leave room for extraordinarily rich and different ways of living.

Our challenge is to understand that while there is no single template for a good life, there must be a template – and a better template than the one we have now - for people of diverse views, that derive from different belief systems, to work together.

As British Foreign Secretary, it is my privilege to represent a country of extraordinary diversity and remarkable history. But it is as well to be clear about the prejudices that British history generates, not just in Muslim majority countries, but elsewhere too. Decisions taken many years ago in King Charles Street are still felt on the landscape of the Middle East and South Asia. Ruined Crusader castles remain as poignant monuments to the religious violence of the Middle Ages. Lines drawn on maps by Colonial powers were succeeded, amongst other things, by the failure – it has to be said not just ours - to establish two states in Palestine. More recently, the invasion of Iraq, and its aftermath, aroused a sense of bitterness, distrust and resentment. When people hear about Britain, too often they think of these things.

These events are associated with a history of relations between Europe and the Islamic world that have been characterised by conquest, conflict and colonialism. But there is a different tale to be told. It does not erase the conflict, but it does establish a different narrative.

It is a history not of conflict or confrontation, not even of coexistence or tolerance, but of interchange and mutual contribution. It is the history of 17th century Iran - as told so impressively in the current British Museum exhibition. Of 13th century Andalucia, Norman Sicily or the European enlightenment, of St John of Damascus, Christian advisor to Umayyad Ruler, of dialogue between Byzantine Emperor and Arab Caliph and the discovery of Greek thought by early Islamic scholars. These are histories of openness, diversity and achievement. Of cultures coming together and learning from each other.

My predecessor Castlereagh once said, you can’t teach morality with a sword. It is probably even more true today than it was then. What I want to argue today is that the central task for foreign policy is the creation of arenas of politics, national and international, in which different values and ideas can be argued out, and in the process recourse to violence marginalized; and that the central danger is the failure to create such arenas, with consequent strengthening of those committed to violence.

The basis of my argument is that security in today"s world can no longer be guaranteed by the world"s only superpower, or even a concert of great powers.  The threats from climate change, terrorism, pandemics and financial crisis are too large and too diffuse.

Security therefore depends on two indispensable features.  First, we need the broadest possible coalition of states and political movements. That means being prepared to encourage reconciliation with organizations whose values we may not share but who are prepared to pursue common interests.

Second, we need the consent of citizens. In centuries past, alliances were forged by monarchs, treaties were signed by kings and honoured - or not - by the ruling elite.   But power in the modern age has escaped such a firm grasp.

In setting out these two aims - building coalitions and winning consent - the tension between them is clear. The widest possible coalition will, at times, include groups whose aims we do not share, whose values we find deplorable, whose methods we think dubious. But it will be impossible to win the consent of peoples if we cannot demonstrate consistency and certainty in the application of our values. A rigidly consistent application of our values would surely exclude from the conversation organizations without whom progress is impossible. Yet if we engage all the relevant parties, with no regard for our values or theirs, we are open to the charge of the purest realism.

The way through the tension lies in our commitment to politics and the rejection of violence. It is always when silent consent for violence is withdrawn – in favour of politics - that the actions of diplomacy have the chance to stick. Even in countries which are not democratic, the actions of governments are constantly conditioned by the demands of their people. This, a deep belief in politics, is the bedrock. The nobility of politics is contained in the negotiation of conflict through conversation, the replacement of dispute by compromise and of force by persuasion.

This is not an evangelical impulse. Politics begins where people, with whom we share a world, disagree, sometimes on matters of fundamental importance. Between the secular liberal and the person whose faith is inseparable from their politics, there is no easy assimilation. Neither is any way of judging who is "right". There is just a dialogue and a search for common ground.

Coalitions can and must be wide but they can only be forged on the basis of a commitment to politics and the renunciation of violence.

Building Coalitions

Over the last decade the focus of the relationship between the west and the Muslim world has narrowed. Terrorism has distorted our views of each other and skewed our engagement with each other. Organizations with different aims, values and tactics were lumped together. Little or sometimes no distinction was drawn between those engaged in national territorial struggles and those pursuing global or pan-Islamic objectives; between those that could be drawn into domestic political processes and those who are essentially anti-political and violent.

The upshot was that the West came to be seen not, as we would have wished, as anti-terror, but as anti-Islam. No matter that mainstream politicians in the UK and US and in Muslim countries repeatedly rejected the notion of a clash of civilizations. That is how it came to be perceived.

If we want to rebuild relations – to forge broader coalitions - we need to show greater respect. That means rejecting the lazy stereotypes and moving beyond the binary division between moderates and extremists. We should not just see Muslims as Muslims, but as people in all the many guises they occupy in their lives – at home, at work, in all the many aspects of a rounded individual life. There is always more to life than is captured by a single label.

This is especially pertinent when you think that the Muslim world is not immune from the changes affecting the rest of the world. Rising individualism and modern technology have brought forth a debate in which people of all faiths are trying to accommodate modern lifestyles to the demands of their religious identity.

So, a more rounded, respectful view would mean a focus on success, not just on the conflict or poverty found in the Islamic world. Turkey, a secular democracy with a majority Muslim population, is a force for modernization and an inspiration to the region. Indonesia is a living demonstration that pluralism and tolerance are the best answers to diversity. The Gulf States such as the UAE have, in just two generations, created some of the most advanced and inspiring cities in the world drawing on the urban architectural traditions of both East and West.

Respect is never enough alone. It is only ever a precondition. A change in tone must lead to a change in substance. Broadening coalitions will require a more active effort to reach out, a greater effort for reconciliation with those who do not share our values or adhere to our world view, but who have more in common with us than those who preach that we are the enemy.

That is why Britain, with Embassies in 38 Muslim majority countries, maintains diplomatic engagement with countries with whom we have major disagreements on human rights, nuclear proliferation or conflict, like Iran, Sudan or Uzbekistan. In each case, we seek to influence through engagement and dialogue, and to do so on the full range of challenges we have in common: climate change; Millennium Development Goals and the economic crisis for instance.

It is also why Britain is strongly supportive of reforms to the international system that institutionalise close political relations between western and Muslim majority countries.  The EU has an interesting role so let me give two examples.  The debate about Turkish accession is a vital test of our commitment to shared politics. The Union of the Mediterranean provides a forum for countries from North Africa, the Levant, Turkey and Europe to work together.  The idea is simple: arenas for politics create the space for shared effort. Based on mutual respect.

Where it is harder to draw the line and determine who we can and should work with, is in relation to those political movements that are not in government. And conflict situations are the most difficult of all. Every case is different. In some cases our troops are at risk and we will not jeopardise their security. And the commitment to politics and violence are shifting and blurred. There are no easy cases.

I believe the coalition in Iraq was right to try to work with the "Sons of Iraq". Despite their pasts, their decision to reject Al-Qaeda and begin the transition to living within the constitution has helped to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis in Bahgdad and Al Anbar province, and given them a chance to shape their future.

In Somalia we must acknowledge that although President Sharif used to be part of the Union of Islamic Courts, he is now leading a broad-based transitional unity government. He is trying to implement the Djibouti Peace Agreement. He is trying to prevent the exploitation of youth and the abuse of Islam.

In Afghanistan, the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament set out a comprehensive approach. We must understand two things. First, that the vast majority of those we call the Taleban – a term covering a wide range of people - have absolutely no ideological affiliation with the Al Qaeda. In Fareed Zakaria"s words they want "Islamic rule locally, not violent jihad globally".  And second, that the Taleban themselves are the violent aberration of an authentic tradition of conservative tribal religious nationalism. The Pashtuns and other tribes are as much the victims of Taleban violence as anyone else in Afghanistan. Many in the South and East of Afghanistan understand this.

It is by drawing more Pashtun and other tribal representatives away from violence and into the political arena that we can hope to stabilize Afghanistan.

Some representatives of those conservative tribal values were excluded from the Bonn - victors only - conference in 2001. Peace and security in Afghanistan does not turn purely on the men in uniform; it depends on a broader and more inclusive political settlement. That is why we must support the Afghan Government"s efforts to reintegrate those Taleban who are prepared to abandon violence, engage in the democratic political process and renounce Al-Qaeda.

With some there is no reconciliation. In Pakistan, it should be noted, there is a different context. Parts of the militant insurgency are trying to usurp civilian government in a country where politics is at a premium and military rule has been too often the norm. Constitutional rule needs to apply across the country.

In none of these cases could we declare an identity of values between the British social democrat and the local leader. But, in foreign policy, that should not be our primary concern. What we are seeking is a common commitment to a process by which conflicts are worked through politically, in these cases against the backdrop of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda.

We will find, that once the conversation begins, people are prepared to say things that perhaps they had not even themselves ever expected to say. Perhaps if the young Ian Paisley had heard the accommodating remarks of his elder self he may well have been shocked. The older F.W. de Klerk must have looked back on the younger and wondered at the distance he had come. Politics changes people. We change our minds. We give and take a point, we reassess, we make progress, we build coalitions and consent.

I see two major obstacles to the winning of consent. First, there is the perception that our commitment to democratic values stops where the Muslim world starts. And, second, there is our approach to conflict in the world.

Political Reform

Gallup have surveyed representatives of 90% of the world’s 1.3bn Muslims and they find something intriguing and heartening. What Muslims consistently say they admire most about the West are political liberties, freedom of speech and fair judicial systems. These, it appears, are universal values.

However, this is accompanied with almost complete skepticism about how, in the United States and Europe, we apply those values. The data are very clear – we are seen to apply our values so inconsistently that the application casts doubt on our sincerity. At that point, consent is impossible.

So our first task is to understand the thoughts of people in Muslim majority countries in the spirit in which they were offered. It is clear that Muslims do not want us to sponsor whichever individual happens to occupy the relevant office at any given moment, nor do they ask us to arrive with a floor-plan for democratic government.

I take it that Muslims who answered this survey are saying simply that the procedural values of free countries are values they hold too. It is a profound degree of agreement, enough to conduct a conversation, a principle on which to base a coalition.

So the task for the international community is to uphold the office rather than any particular incumbent.

Elections are due to take place next month in Lebanon, Iran and Morocco, and before the end of the year in Tunisia and Afghanistan. Where appropriate, we will do what we can to support the processes. Last year in Bangladesh we helped fund a new photographic electoral register and this year we are providing additional security support for the elections in Afghanistan.

But, as long as those values we hold in common are respected in the course of the election, then its outcome is legitimate.

I know that at this stage many people will be leaping out of their seats to ask “what about Hamas?”

Let me address that by first reminding you that in 2000 we and many of our EU partners shunned the Austrian government not because of the way it had come to power but because of the far-right views and policies it espoused. When it comes to Hamas, no one disputes that they won the most seats. We are not claiming that their election was “illegitimate”. We are saying the failure to embrace a political process towards a two-state solution makes normal political relations impossible.

Also, elections are not the end of the matter. Democracy requires the ballot box but is not reducible to it. It also requires a thriving civil society. So, in places where power is closely guarded we must continue our efforts to promote reform from the bottom-up - training journalists and judges, or funding civil society groups working to protect women or minority rights. At the same time, we will use our influence to defend the institutions that protect freedoms and uphold justice for all and to stand up for individual rights. The accountability of power is the way to reinforce authority and legitimacy.

Resolution of Conflict

I have said that we are committed to a process of politics by conversation rather than force and that anyone prepared to lay down their guns and join the table is welcome. We will not be checking their ideological credentials beyond that assurance that argument is their weapon of choice and will remain so.

But this is a fond hope at the moment in too many parts of the world. Clearly, a pre-condition of any such principle is that the acute conflicts that disfigure parts of the world are addressed.

Here again, I want to be candidly realistic. We have to start from where we are. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed have put it well: “In the West”, they have written, “we are galvanised by terrorist attacks and suicide bombings….(whilst) the Muslim world is galvanised by the invasion and occupation of Iraq…and images of civilian death and destruction from the Israeli invasions of Gaza and southern Lebanon.”

Confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims, in Bosnia and Kosovo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in South East Asia and the Middle-East, has brought terrible human misery. That suffering poisons international relations.

I think it is a great shame that the doctrine of liberal interventionism came to be defined not by action in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, where humanitarian interests were at stake, but by the conflict in Iraq. It came to be defined, narrowly and inaccurately, by military action rather than diplomatic engagement. We need to recover the original idea which was and is a noble idea, very much an expression of our values.

It explains why we have doubled our aid to Pakistan, and are helping the democratically elected government to improve the quality of basic services, notably education and health.  It is why in Sudan we are spending £115m on aid and £85m on peacekeeping to save lives and stabilise the situation both in Darfur and across the South. And it is the basis of our very active involvement in securing Kosovo its independence, so that it can move on from the atrocities of the 1990s and build a more peaceful and prosperous future.  We very much hope that the OIC will affirm its support for Kosovan independence next week.

It also explains our work in Afghanistan, and our military work now coming to an end in Iraq. The purpose is to help legitimate government clear the ground of conflict so that the work of politics can begin. If we do not make this plain then we leave open the argument for an alternative explanation that will be willingly supplied by Al-Qaeda – that this is all part of the West’s attempt to subjugate the world of Islam.

The one place where I think that there is unanimous agreement that we need more political activism and more diplomatic engagement is in the pursuit of a 2-state solution in the Middle East. For people of all faiths and of none, it remains an issue that stirs up an acute sense of injustice and resentment.  We need – all of us, in our own ways – to act soon, very soon, to prevent a fatal and final blow to the scope for compromise.

The power to create peace in the Middle East is dispersed. It requires Fatah and Hamas to engage in transformational politics not violent conspiracies. It requires the new Israeli government to freeze settlements and accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. It requires the 22 states of the Arab league to be entrepreneurs for coexistence with Israel.


Max Weber once wrote that there are only two deadly sins in politics. One was a lack of objectivity, where politicians put serving themselves above serving a cause. The second was a lack of responsibility: a desire to leave a good impression rather than take responsibility for the outcomes and consequences of his or her actions.

Those words, I hope, are a reminder that compromises and trade-offs are not an abdication of our moral duty. They are a definition of them.

That imposes obligations on us, the heterogeneous and sometimes chaotic “West”.  But it also places responsibilities – above all the responsibility to take risks in the drive for political structures that bring people together – on leaders in Muslim majority countries.  The drive by King Abdullah of Jordan to take forward the Arab Peace Initiative is a good example.  The shared commitment of President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif to defend democracy in Pakistan is another.  President Yudhoyono’s leadership on climate change is another.

But I want to leave you with the best illustration of these values as they are lived in practice. Britain’s history means we have baggage that we have to acknowledge as we build coalitions and forge consent. But in our Muslim citizens, we have an enormous resource. The focus is on the minority who are a threat to us all.  But the daily stories of the vast majority of our Muslim friends and neighbours combine the values that bind Britain together as a liberal democracy with their particular religious identity.

I am thinking of the humanitarian work of the British charity Islamic Relief in the world"s poorest communities which raises £40m annually to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poorest people.

I am thinking of a British Muslim like the Foreign Minister of Somalia Mohammad Abdullahi Omaar, returning courageously to his country of origin to help rebuild a nation savaged by war.

I am thinking too of scholars at this Centre who have made a notable contribution to Islamic scholarship and debate in this country. Earlier today Dr Nizami took me on a tour of the Centre’s magnificent buildings. It is remarkable how distinctively Islamic the architecture is. Yet at the same time, the complex as a whole, with its towers, quadrangle, cloisters and – eventually – gardens are also distinctively Oxford.

When Edward Gibbon suggested in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that if Charles Martel had lost the battle of Poitiers, Oxford would have became an Al Azhar of the Cotswolds, he could not imagine a future in which both Islamic and Christian institutions could coexist here by consent and through toleration. It can be so. It should be so.

For generations this country has been a meeting place.  A country where over a million Muslims, now two million, from all around the world, have come and made their lives. They don"t forget their roots; they plant them in the soil; and it enriches the ground on which we stand.

They join the coalition of the nation, the nation to which we all grant consent, even as we pursue our own beliefs on matters of ultimate importance. They are the best advocates of the case I have made today, that progress comes through coalition based on consent."

The Source

Read the full speech

The Financial Times wrote an editorial following the speech "Engaging Islamists" concluding that the Foreign Secretary "is asking many of the right questions."

The Foreign Secretary also highlighted his speech in his blog: forging coalitions with the Muslim world and wrote a guest blog on Spirit21.


Notes for Editors

Read more how we are building coalitions with the Muslim world.

Posted in Islamic Movements  
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