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Hague: Islam Awareness Week launch

I am delighted to be here today at the launch of Islam Awareness Week and to see so many people here. And I'm grateful to the Islamic Society of Great Britain and to Mr Sher Khan for organising today's events and for inviting me to be with you.

Of course the events of this week are timely, as we approach later this month the beginning of Ramadam, the most important spiritual event in the Muslim religious calendar. It is essential that awareness of the Islamic tradition is raised throughout the country. Not the least reason for that is the fact after the various Christian denominations, Islam represents the second largest religious community in the United Kingdom.

Nobody should be in any doubt as to the outstanding contribution that people of the Islamic faith make to the strength, prosperity and success of our country. And I want to stress our country because I believe passionately that the United Kingdom belongs to all of us, whatever our religious beliefs or our ethnic background. As far as I'm concerned, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, White, Black or Asian, we are all British as each other.

It would be inconsistent with the history and traditions of this country to say or believe anything else. Because Britain is, and always have been, a nation of immigrants.

At one time or another, we have all come to this land - whether as Celts or Saxons or Normans or French Huguenots or Jews or Asians or Afro-Carribeans or Chinese or Greeks. Many different nationalities brought together in one nation.

I believe that that ethnic, religious and cultural diversity are part of the enduring strengths of Britain not just because of the innate strength it brings to our society, but also because of the historic links it gives us with all corners of the globe.

Within the Muslim community in Britain there are of course different traditions with British Muslims originating from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, East Africa, the Middle East, Sudan, Egypt, North Africa and Kurdistan.

Ever since I was elected leader of the Conservative Party I have made it a priority to listen and to learn from the variety of religious traditions we have in the United Kingdom. Only last week I attended the first ever multi faith policy forum organised by a political party to discuss shared values in the twenty-first century.

That conference was, I'm pleased to say, attended by many members of the Islamic community, some of whom are here today, were able to attend that conference. Of course we weren't there to agree on everything. But what everybody who attended had in common was a desire to make a virtue out of diversity by learning from each other.

And I passionately believe that the Islamic community has a significant role to play in that, not least because Islam, while proud of its own traditions, holds values that I believe are common to us all.

In particular, we can all share the emphasis that members of the Islamic community place on enterprise, on hard work, on education, on respect for others, on standing up for what is right, on carrying out our obligations to others, on the importance to society of marriage and the family, of community and tradition and, through your religion, the need for a spiritual dimension to our lives. And if I can touch for a second on a controversial issue I have been particularly grateful to the support that so many Muslims are giving us in our fight to keep Section 28.

I believe that we all share a vision of Britain where intolerance, bigotry and closed mindedness is rooted out and replaced by genuine openness, genuine inclusivity and genuine tolerance. All of us want a society that is at ease with diversity and pluralism, and a society that can celebrate it.

Certain sections of the media can play a part in helping to bring that about by avoiding some of the stereotypes that we are all too familiar and presenting a much fairer and more balanced view of Islamic culture and what that culture represents. I urge them to do that.

And I think those of us in politics can help too. For my part, I am passionately committed to encouraging not just Muslims but people from all backgrounds, to participate more fully in the mainstream of our national life. I want the drive and energy that has helped so many of you to succeed in business to take you to the top in the arts, the professions, the media and yes - politics too.

I welcome the fact that all of the main political parties are represented here. It is right that this should be a cross-party occasion, with me standing alongside Jack Straw and Charles Kennedy.

I'm sure we are united in believing that any political party that seeks to represent the whole British nation - be it Conservative, Labour or Liberal - must in its character and make-up seek to be truly representative of that nation.

That is why, from my first speech as Leader of the Conservative Party, I have set a high priority on bringing people from ethnic minority communities into my Party at every level.

For let`s be honest, political parties have not always been successful at welcoming the various ethnic groups in our society. Many of them have seen the mainstream of politics as something of a no-go area, where their views are not wanted and never listened to.

But I do believe that the situation is changing. At the last Election my Party had eight candidates of Asian origin - as did the Labour Party. Unfortunately, none of ours were elected, but then 1997 will never be regarded as a vintage year in the history of the Conservative Party.

But at the European Elections last year we did made a start. Nirj Deva and Bashir Khanbhai became the first ever British Asian members of the European Parliament and in Bashir we have the only Muslim MEP. I believe that his achievement should stand as an inspiration for many other British Muslims who want to get involved in national politics whatever party they choose to join.

That's because I want to Bashir to be just the start. I want to see more Black and Asian MPs representing not just Black or Asian communities but all communities. I want to see Black and Asian MPs in future Cabinets and, yes, one day leader of a major political party and Prime Minister - though you`ll forgive me for saying not quite yet.

So whenever I'm speaking to members of my party throughout the country I urge them to do more to involve more people from different communities.

All the parties should be welcoming welcome people from all communities into the mainstream, in the policy making process, the mainstream of our social activities, the mainstream, campaigning, the selection of our candidates.

I believe it is possible to do that, be in the mainstream, without any of us turning our backs on our distinctive culture and traditions. That is what a pluralist, tolerant society is all about.

Islamic culture and traditions are now a permanent feature of British society. It is a culture we should welcome, a culture that should be respected and a culture that can be shared by all of us, whatever our own beliefs. That is why your initiative this week is so welcome. You have my full-hearted backing, and the backing of all my colleagues and I wish you every success.

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