How would you describe your identity in terms of religious belief?
I am a Muslim.
What made you decide to either adopt or retain this?
My family are Muslims, I come from a long line of Islamic culture. In that respect it wasn’t something that I consciously chose, but as I grew older and started to learn more about it myself, independently, it just felt right, it felt that what my parents chose for me was what I wanted.
I think a lot of people may say the same thing. You go through phases, and in particular, as a Muslim living in a Western country, you go through an identity crisis at certain point in your life and that isn’t really an issue any more, but it was probably up until my early 20s. I didn’t even have Muslim friends. So, it was difficult to feel that you fitted hundred per cent within the Muslim culture, but also within the British culture. In that respect, there was a bit of ups and downs, but in terms of adherence, I’d like to think that was more or less consistent.
Is GB an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I think my opinion about whether Britain is a tolerant and equal society in relation to religion and belief has changed over the years. I have lived in England for a while and there is a distinct difference, I think. The difference, perhaps, between Wales and England is that in Wales, there was initially less exposure to ethnic minorities, and there was a very innocent curiosity when they meet you, but once they meet you, and they ask you the questions which are on their minds, just to understand that you are human, and like them… you are not going to bite! Once that barrier is broken, then, there is tolerance there. I think as a result of things that have happened around the world, that have had an impact on Great Britain, that tolerance has changed. I think, broadly speaking, there are still equalities that ethnic minorities are privileged to enjoy in Great Britain, but I think that the tolerant aspect of it… the equality is there because we have the law to protect us, and you can just see, even from the media reports over the last eighteen months running up to the election campaign that the types of issues people are more willing to talk now, that perhaps they wouldn’t have talked about before in terms of their fear of ethnic minorities, immigration, etc… I think the tolerance has started to decrease.
Are there any challenges to you living in accordance with your beliefs? If so, are they social, legal or political?
I would say that broadly speaking the challenges I face as a Muslim in Wales are social. Perhaps to a certain extent political challenges and barriers. As I said, initially, for example in my job, being perceived as a barrister, despite my headscarf, was a major issue and took a very long time for people to accept. I would walk into court and they would think that I was a witness, or the defendant, or the complainant. So, I would walk to the court room to put my stuff down and they would say ‘sorry, you have to wait outside’. And then I would say ‘I am the counsel’…. ‘Really, really?’ and then ‘I would say, look this is my rope, I didn’t steal it’. And it is fine. It is not something… you learn to be accustomed to it. And you get negative comments as well, from peers as well as occasionally from judges, but I wouldn’t say that there has been a barrier which has prevented me from progressing in my career or has stopped me from doing something I wanted to do. I would like to think that anyway. I definitely wouldn’t say that there are any legal barriers as such.
How does Islam regard Human Rights?
I would say that in historical terms, there has been a significant contribution of Islam on human rights. However, there hasn’t been enough discussion about it in the public arena. So, it is a new notion for most people, actually to associate Islam with something like human rights.
Have Human Rights which apply to everyone been positive for GB society?
HRs which apply to everyone in British society are 100% good.
Do Muslims make a practical contribution to Human Rights?
In terms of the debates on human rights in particular, I can’t of the top off my head think of any one person that perhaps contributes to that in Great Britain. Of course, there are lots of movements, a lot of bodies, like the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Council of Wales, that do work in this area, and generally speaking, trying to portray a clear picture of what Islam stands for, what Islam is, in order to produce a counter-narrative against all the negativity which is out there. The extent to which they have done it with a particular HRs focus, I am not entirely sure, I don’t think there is a specific HRs focus. It has been more about ‘this is who we are, this is what we do… terrorism is not something which Islam believes in’. So, it has been directly in response to the challenges which the Muslim community face in Britain instead of a direct contribution to something like human rights.
Do public bodies respect Human Rights?
I think, broadly speaking, in comparison with other countries, the answer is that in general human rights are respected by public bodies, but there are significant, and it is something we hear often about and it is an issue. That is just one example. But in terms of their policies, in terms of what their ethos is about, yes, I would say that they try to uphold human rights as best as they can.
When should the State intervene in citizens freedom to manifest their beliefs?
I don’t know whether I would describe it as ‘intervene’, but there is a role for public authorities and the State to play in terms of engaging with faith and with religion. I think there is sometimes a fear of sort of offending religious bodies and this way they create bigger problems, because by failing to engage they create more problems. Maybe one example of that would be within the Family context: social services, children, safeguarding, that kind of issues… if there are religious and cultural issues there, they don’t quite know how to address it and deal with it. In terms of intervening, I don’t know whether I would say that public authorities have the right to intervene as such, but I would say they have a role to play.
There are issues which must be addressed because if there is someone who is vocalising very clear ideas of wanting to go to Syria, that has to be addressed… but at the same time where do we draw the line between someone expressing his concern that there is violence happening there and something must be done about it, and actually identifying someone who may be falling prey to radicalisation?
Do your beliefs mean that you feel that you have a duty to vote?
I feel I have a personal responsibility to vote. I think you have a civic duty, a personal duty to vote, and I think that though I can sympathise with people who feel they can’t cast their vote if there is no party that they truly believe in, and this election brought that to the surface more than any other election that I am aware of, in terms of being an adult who can vote. For me, it was a struggle to decide for whom to vote, but yes, I think there is a personal duty to vote. It is difficult to put a label and say, that duty comes from my faith, or it simply comes from who you are as a person. Yes, I think it comes from both.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see an empowerment of the judiciary?
I think the system should stay as it is. The judges can say what is incompatible, and they have a view about how the law should change, but ultimately separation of powers, I think, it is quite vital.
Are there barriers to participation in our democracy for minority groups?
The system in itself in Great Britain, there should be no problem with allowing people to be included of all different walks of life, and minorities. What happens in practice is not necessarily the fault of the system or how the structure works, but how different institutions with different parts of the community and society. So, I think that is where the problem lies. There are certain communities who feel very disfranchised or disengaged from mainstream British life, but to be honest with you, that is a problem which must be addressed from both sides. I think it is an issue that communities have to address within themselves. They have to be willing and wanting to integrate and participate, and also the institutions which help facilitate the system, must also be able to communicate clearly with those groups. The system should work fine. It is just a case of communicating, in my view.
Does the unelected nature of the House of Lords concern you?
I think the unelected nature of the House of Lords is a major issue, and perhaps, that is where the disconnection between certain parts of British society and the parliamentary system comes into play. They don’t see anyone they have chosen or who represents them, and these people hold a significant amount of power in terms of how the country is run and what can impact on these people’s lives. So, I think there should be a system where the Upper House is more representative and they are elected individuals.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I am sure whatever they say, or at least in their hearts, they want to represent other groups as well as the Anglican community, but the truth is that every faith group needs to have its own voice.
I don’t necessarily feel represented by bishops in Parliament… not as a Muslim woman.
Do public bodies respect legislation?
It is very difficult to point to something which public authorities have deliberately tried to ignore in terms of legislation… I mean a conscious effort to ignore the law. There are breaches which occur, obviously, but I actually represent lots of public authorities, because I am on the Treasury System Panel, and I don’t think broadly speaking there is a deliberate attempt to ignore the law. There is an attempt to implement it in a way which they perceive it or understand it to be. There is sometimes a lack of understanding of what the legislative provisions actually and what that means on the ground in terms of duties of public authorities… so, I think it is a lack of understanding, and obviously there are policy considerations that public authorities take into account which don’t necessarily accord with legislative duties. And resources are obviously a big influence in decision making, and I think sometimes, particularly in equality legislation, that is where the disregard may happen.
Are the mechanisms which we have for accountability effective?
The legal system and the courts should be the first mechanisms of accountability and they should be there before the press, because the press are less likely to portray an accurate image of what has happened and sometimes they can inflame situations. However, they have a role to play, in raising awareness of issues and that should not be taken away from them, but in terms of strict accountability, it should be the courts and tribunal system, the ombudsmen… it would really depend on the nature of the issue which you want to bring to account.
Are Muslims proportionately represented in public life?
If and when they fail or they don’t satisfy the job criteria, that can cause more damage for the development of minorities in getting the representation that they want. So, there is a process and I think it starts at the grassroots in terms of getting, even from school level, encouraging people of different ethnic minorities, to pursue those types of careers. And I think that is happening at some levels much more than before. You only have to look at an average law school class to see the difference to 15 or 20 years ago. So, it is a gradual process.
I think there are a couple of female Muslims MPs. In the judiciary I don’t believe there aren’t female Muslims. Male Muslims? There may be district judges in other cities, but certainly not Muslim district judges and above I am aware of. I am against positive discrimination, as I said.
Are the judiciary sufficiently independent?
Broadly speaking, I would say our judiciary are sufficiently independent. There are obviously some decisions which have come out more recently, where you question the extent to which there is real impartiality towards government policies. Decisions on welfare reforms are a good example, Judicial Review cases on employment tribunal fees is another one. But broadly speaking I would say that the distance is there and it is fit for purpose.
Have you ever campaigned on a particular issue?
The demonstrations I have been involved in have always been related to international events. So, more recently, I demonstrated against the military coup in Egypt, and spoke publicly on a number of occasions on that; I signed petitions for example in respect of the Palestinian solidarity movement; I got involved in demonstrations and discussions following the Charlie Hebdo incident. I have never had to necessarily get involved in domestic issues. The only one that comes to my mind now… I signed a petition against the Counterterrorism and Security Act… immigration issues… I wouldn’t say I protest on them, or I am an activist, but I have a real passion for it, by virtue of my job, because an important part of my work is on immigration and asylum cases, where I represent appellants. So, and that is perhaps one area where I wouldn’t say that the problem is the lack of distance between law makers and the judiciary, but it is one jurisdiction where there is inherent prejudice against appellants that you don’t see in any other jurisdiction.
Do public authorities understand and address any religious needs you have?
I think that is something that anecdotally you hear… More recently you hear… it is something that thankfully I haven’t experienced it myself… but it is for example a couple of stories where women wearing the burqa have had issues concerning identification… they have gone to court and judges have asked them to take off their burqas in order to be identified. I personally don’t see that’s an issue at all and actually when you go back to the religious texts, we are supposed to comply with things like that, when there is a purpose. And the purpose is security here. Some people feel there is a disconnect there, but no, I think my needs have been met.
Is it important to act within State law?
To be completely honest, and I was having this discussion recently in a different context, I don’t think you can simply go around and say ‘no, I am going to disregard these laws because of a particular belief that I have’. You can go about it in a positive way and try to seek change in order for those laws to be amended, to try to address your particular belief, but I think you should follow them.
Do your beliefs require you to speak for the vulnerable?
One hundred per cent I feel my beliefs require to speak on behalf of the weak and the vulnerable. I think advocacy is a major, major, major, and very strong tool, and many people either don’t have the ability to do it for themselves, and they need others to do it for them. The more you speak against injustices, the more you share information with people and cast a light on issues which are happening, the more likely it is that change will eventually happen.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally?
Perhaps the easiest example to show that there is unfairness in the system is the whole MP scandal over the year and compare that with the crackdown on benefit fraud or misrepresentation on applications for various benefits, where for one group of people you are facing prison sentences and denial of benefits, which can render people bankrupt and destitute, and on the other hand, it is something it is spoken about and people are very concerned, and MPs apologise for it, but then it is brushed under the carpet as if it hadn’t happened.
How do you feel about the increase in police powers over the past 15 years?
There is no doubt that to a certain extent there is a new type of threat that perhaps Great Britain didn’t face before and it must necessarily be addressed. There is no question about it. I think the way the laws have developed has taken a step too far. There are particularly draconian laws. For example, under the 2015 Act, the police have the right to revoke your travel documents, they take them from you for an initial period of 14 days, that initial 14 day period only has to be authorised by a senior police officer. If they want to extend the period, that should be by application to the court. In theory, according to the Act, the individual is entitled to make representations. However, that individual may well be denied access to certain parts of the evidence or the information which the police have, if the judges determines that it is reasonable to do so and it may well be excluded from parts of the proceedings. Temporary exclusion orders take a step forward, where actually if the SS determines that the matter is so urgent or there are particular circumstances to justify it, can either circumvent the court altogether and impose a two year order or go through the court system and the judge does assess it but without the individual knowing… and the individual only knows about it once the order has been imposed. They do have a right to seek address but it is almost in a way of JR and then the judiciary will have a very limited role in terms of assessing a decision of the SS. I think those types of power, in this state and age, are serious infringements on civil liberties, and actually in terms of addressing your question about necessity, there is a lot to be said about whether these developments are actually counterproductive, because if you look at the major terrorist incidents which have happened in the last years, every single one of the individuals who was involved were people who were already on the intelligence radar, with MI5… and the intelligent service failed to engage at the right time. So, is it right to give the security and intelligent service more powers when with the powers they have they failed to address those problems? I gave a talk about all this a couple of weeks ago!
Are there any laws you would like to see changed?
I cannot really think of any law which I would like to change. Nothing I can think that if it were changed it would make my life as a Muslim easier. Nothing that I can think under that head, and in terms of broadly speaking, if there are laws which I would like to be changed… well… if anything, I would like to see more laws which ensure protection of vulnerable people, which uphold rights of people with protected characteristics under the Act, ensure that public authorities have more than just due regard or consideration for the rights of others. So, more restrictive duties in that respect, but nothing that comes to mind straight away.
Is there anything else which you would like to tell us about your views on freedom and belief in contemporary Britain?
Maybe, perhaps with Islam more than with other mainstream religions, is the interplay between… it is not just confined within Great Britain or the UK… and actually lots of the laws which have been enacted, have been the result of changes in the world. I wonder if that is an angle that perhaps needs to be looked at… I guess that is another research in itself.
Mona is a barrister based at Civitas law Chambers in Cardiff. She was called in 2004 and has been practising in public and employment law since she completed her pupillage in 2007. Mona has developed a career specialising in all aspects of equality and human rights law, with a special interest in asylum and immigration. She also sits as a member of the Wales Committee of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and is a regular contributor with the BBC and ITV Wales, where she comments on matters relating to human rights, the perception of Islam and religion as well as current affairs.