My Lords, this is an important debate and one in which I am pleased to get the opportunity to speak. The contributions of our Armed Forces need to be recognised and respected. We have a duty to repay their courage and commitment, including after their service, and we also have a duty to their families, who also pay a price on our behalf. I record my gratitude for the risks that they bear, and have borne. We, the nation, owe a great deal to those who risk their lives and serious injury for the sake of our security.
We have a proud tradition of playing a major part on the international stage and our service personnel have demonstrated a courage and strength that have regularly achieved international acclaim. We have a duty to speak up for our Armed Forces and to champion their cause. I am a proud supporter of our Armed Forces, and I take every opportunity to support them and their work, as I know the vast majority of the public do, too. The points I would like to contribute to the debate today surround the issue of relations between ethnic minorities and the Armed Forces. That is an issue I am well placed to speak on, and one I have spoken on previously in your Lordships’ House.
In 2009, the Ministry of Defence formed the Armed Forces Muslim Association, whose meetings I have attended and spoken at several times. General Sir David Richards—who is now of course the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards, was the founding patron of the association, and General Sir Nicholas Houghton is now the patron. Our Armed Forces have a long tradition of recruiting from a wide ethnic base, and that is something of which we should be proud. I am pleased to note that some Muslims now hold senior positions in the Army, the Navy and the RAF. Promotions and appointments to our Armed Forces, as with all employers, must be based on merit. However, I have been assured that the Armed Forces are committed to equal opportunities for all. It is to the benefit of our nation and its defence capabilities that our Armed Forces are reflective of our country as a whole. I do not support that being done by quotas or positive discrimination. Instead, we must work to improve relations between our Armed Forces and ethnic communities in order to allow it to develop organically.
The increasing number of Muslims in the UK Armed Forces is a natural change, because society is becoming more tolerant and young Muslims feel more able to come forward and serve. Generally, both female and BME personnel are in the lower ranks for both officers and other ranks. More recently, targeted recruitment activity has sought to increase the number of females and BME personnel in the Armed Forces, so we should see more female and BME personnel coming through to senior positions in the future. While there is a continual, long-term gradual increase in the proportion of BME personnel, problems still remain. Those are particularly prevalent in the Muslim community. After meeting senior officers of the Armed Forces on two occasions, I recently wrote a report on that subject in my role as chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, a copy of which has been sent to the Minister. We are putting the various ideas into action in conjunction with the imams and senior members of the Armed Forces.
There are currently 2.7 million Muslims in the United Kingdom, whose heritage comes from many different parts of the world. On the whole, those Muslim communities have integrated well into British society and contribute towards a number of industries and professions. However, the number of Muslims who have joined the Armed Forces is severely disproportionate to their population in this country. Given the integral part that our Armed Forces play in upholding the pride and spirit of our country and helping to define our national identity, that imbalance must be addressed. There are opportunities for Muslims to join the Reserve Forces, as they have the knowledge and expertise. The relationships between the Armed Forces and Muslim communities are generally good, but there are problems. It is important that we strengthen and maintain the relationships. Both the Armed Forces and the Muslim community can and should do more to achieve this.
Two of the objectives of the Conservative Muslim Forum are to strive to maintain unity, brotherhood, tolerance and good will between all persuasions of Muslims and with the wider community and to work to maintain and build bridges with all communities and religions within the United Kingdom. The Conservative Muslim Forum is a robust organisation, and members of all communities are welcome to our functions. The imams and members of the Armed Forces have attended our events. The Armed Forces imams periodically lead the Friday prayers, which are held in the House of Lords. I therefore feel that the Conservative Muslim Forum could also be specifically used as a platform to strengthen the links between the Armed Forces and Muslim communities. The Conservative Muslim Forum’s involvement in building stronger links with the Armed Forces will not have any political agenda, as it is very much appreciated that the role of the Armed Forces is totally apolitical. This is not about making a political point but more putting an end to the feeling that Muslims cannot make it in the Armed Forces.
This is perhaps the most important part of increasing Muslim participation in our Armed Forces, for there are number of misconceptions, leading people to believe that a life in the Armed Forces is not compatible with our faith. There is still work to be done in Muslim communities to encourage family members to be more accepting, but the chain of command inside the Armed Forces is getting better every year at accommodating Muslims. Muslims in the UK Armed Forces are able to pray five times a day and fast, as long as this does not have a direct impact on health and safety or operational effectiveness. Female service personnel can also wear the hijab, if they wish to do so. They are provided with halal rations, can seek support from Muslim chaplains and use prayer rooms on base, one of which was recently made available on a naval warship. I recently got the opportunity to try halal ration packs for myself to see what is provided for soldiers on exercises and operations.
To Muslims, a love of your country and serving your community is an important part of our faith. For thousands of soldiers in the Armed Forces, faith features regularly in their daily lives. Conviction in their faith supports them through the arduous nature of their employment, whether it is at sea, on land or in the air, in training, on exercise or while deployed on operations, where danger is often not far away. We must increase the visibility of Muslim service personnel, both in Muslim and mainstream media, and increase attendance at awards and events arranged by the Muslim community. We must also involve a wider range of ethnic minority media in Armed Forces recruitment campaigns. I am proud that the Conservative Muslim Forum has taken a lead on this with our website now carrying links to the Army recruitment website, along with links to the Navy and RAF recruitment websites. Educational literature should also be provided for imams and mosques, explaining the role and nature of the Armed Forces. It is encouraging that we have now established a firm base from which to take this initiative forward, and I commend the work of the Armed Forces imams, Imam Asim Hafiz and Imam Ali Omar, as well as several individuals from within Army HQ and naval command.
I would like to add that an Armed Forces Muslim Forum was recently launched by my noble friend Lord Astor and Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Nicholas Houghton. The forum looks to improve relations between the Muslim community and the Armed Forces at a strategic level. My deputy in the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mr Mohammed Amin, was also in attendance at the launch. I have also spoken to a number of other Muslim leaders who are very keen that we should all, as a community, make efforts to build more harmonious relationships with the Armed Forces. I will be very pleased to be proactively involved in making this happen and increasing the role of the Armed Forces in the Muslim Community and the role of the Muslim Community in the Armed Forces.
Finally, many Muslims, including members of my family, fought in both world wars. We did this out of love and loyalty to the king and the empire. The first non-white person to receive the Victoria Cross was in fact a Muslim, whose name was Sepoy Khudadad Khan, who fought in Belgium during the First World War.
Lord Astor of Hever, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, comments on Lord Sheikh’s contributions in his closing remarks in the Debate.
I agree with what my noble friend Lord Sheikh said about Muslims in the Armed Forces. I was honoured to be invited, as my noble friend said, to the most recent Armed Forces Muslim Forum event, where I spoke alongside the CDS. During that event I met several serving Muslims as well as leaders of organisations around the UK, who were all very enthusiastic about the ongoing work the Armed Forces are doing with the Muslim community.