‘THE CENTRAL ROLE THAT MUSLIMS PLAY IN THIS COUNTRY’ – STRAW, LAUNCH OF HAJJ 2006 (20/12/05)
Speaker: Jack Straw MP
Welcome to you all and thank you for coming along to the launch of the 2006 British Hajj Delegation; sixth here, the seventh such delegation.
I’d like to begin by thanking Dr Al-Dubayan and the Islamic Cultural Centre for hosting today’s event and by thanking all the staff here for their extremely hard work.
This year, the Hajj delegation will again be led by Lord Patel. He and the other volunteers who make up the delegation have always done a magnificent and extremely professional job and this year, I have no doubt, they will do the same again. I pay tribute to their work and dedication; I know that they have all made personal and financial sacrifices to be part of the delegation. And I also want to thank the Saudi authorities as well as my own staff in Jeddah and in London for all their hard work.
Lord Patel and I, of course, know each other very well. As many of you will be aware, we share a love of what is undoubtedly one of the finest towns in the United Kingdom, if not, indeed, Europe – I am talking of course about Blackburn. And Blackburn is also fortunate enough to benefit from large, vibrant and diverse Muslim communities. This year, as in any year, I know that many of my constituents are planning to perform the Hajj.
So for these reasons, I have always taken a very close personal interest in the Hajj delegation and have always given it my fullest support. But even if these personal ties were not there, I would still consider the work the delegation does to be extremely important.
First, because it is provides a very valuable and necessary service. Performing the Hajj is an experience which is both spiritually emotionally and physically demanding. It can mean walking for long distances in fierce heat and in large crowds. Last year, out of the 25 000 British pilgrims who went on the Hajj, we provided help to about 4,100 of them.
This year we expect to see roughly the same number of people. The clinic will be based in a new venue – the Al-Hateem hotel on Ibrahim Al-Khalil street. And again, we’ll be running two separate clinics and waiting areas for male and female pilgrims which will provide medical treatment free of charge to those who need it. We’ve also distributed a redesigned leaflet giving general advice and information for pilgrims to 280 mosques and to Islamic groups and doctors serving Muslim communities.
One of the most important roles which my department, the Foreign Office, has is to provide consular services to British people overseas. For many people, it’s the only contact that they have with the Foreign Office – so it’s vital that we get it right. And it’s equally vital that these services reach out to people from all of Britain’s many communities; and that people from those communities know about these services and use them. Our embassies and consulates abroad are there to help all British people.
This brings me to the second reason why this delegation is so important. The fact that the Government is supporting pilgrims on the Hajj highlights the extent to which we in Britain live in a truly multi-cultural multi-religious society. No other Western country provides this kind of delegation.
Our record on integrating ethnic and religious minorities – and just as importantly on respecting their different cultures and protecting their religious freedoms – is second to none. The United Kingdom is home to two million Muslims, who make a vital contribution to every aspect of life in Britain and are leaders in politics, business and the arts.
I believe that there is a shared sense of community in Britain which is not present to the same extent in other European countries. This was evident most recently in the response to the tragic earthquake in Pakistan. All our Muslim communities in this country pulled together to do everything they could to help. And so did the wider British community, which has now donated a total of £45 million through the Disaster Emergency Committee alone. The same goes for the Government response. UK rescue teams were among the first foreign rescuers on the ground and the UK has now pledged a total of £128 million pounds for humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction. And we are continuing to do everything we can to help people who are now facing a bitter winter.
Of course, in talking about community in this country, I don’t want to sound complacent. We still face real challenges in ensuring that all members of minority ethnic communities play a full role in every aspect of British life. And all of us – politicians, religious leaders and citizens alike – need to be confident in standing up for the benefits we get from living in such a tolerant, democratic society; and we need to be ready to speak up for the values which underpin our community and which are common to decent people of all faiths and of none.
The Hajj delegation is a symbol of the central role which Muslims play in the life of this country. And the selfless dedication of Lord Patel and his outstanding team of doctors provides a very clear reminder of the immense contribution which so many Muslims make to British society.
So let me end by again thanking all the members of the delegation – and by wishing them, and everyone who makes the holy pilgrimage this year, a safe and joyful journey.
Hajj Mabroor – may God bless your pilgrimage