Tories place their faith in Islam

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Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, went vote hunting yesterday among Britain's minority faith communities. But among the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians, gathered together by the Tories at the Emmanuelle Evangelical Church near Westminster for political conversion, hope lurked that Ms Widdecombe herself might be converted.

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, went vote hunting yesterday among Britain's minority faith communities. But among the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians, gathered together by the Tories at the Emmanuelle Evangelical Church near Westminster for political conversion, hope lurked that Ms Widdecombe herself might be converted.

"I would love to convert Ann to Islam," said a wistful Ruqaiyyah Maqsood, former religious education teacher and herself a Muslim convert. Surveying a gathering almost exclusively middle-aged and male, Ms Maqsood said "tough" Ms Widdecombe would be a great asset.

Ann of the veil? Maybe, just perhaps. She has, after all, already converted from Anglican to Catholic. And yesterday she rounded on the larger Christian churches, which she said could learn plenty from "less compromising" minority faiths. "They are like the Christian church used to be," she said nostalgically, longing perhaps for the days when the pulpit was just for men, not women.

Of course, the Tories denied yesterday that anything as indelicate as vote hunting was taking place but, despite all William Hague's talk of encouraging faith communities to expand their social role in a "denationalisation of compassion", few really believed that votes were not the major motivation.

It was interesting to listen to those Mr Hague would pull into his brand new reformed party. The guests generally deplored the "curse of the single family", argued that society had crumbled because marriage was not being pushed hard enough by the Government, and even denounced sex before marriage.

There was a strong anti-homosexual odour. Most of those present apparently opposed the repeal of Section 28, which bans the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and were congratulated by Mr Hague. "Britain's Muslims are standing tall in this campaign and millions of parents are grateful for that," he said. Of course, the Tories always add the caveat of tolerance. The trouble is, some of those being wooed are far plainer speakers than professional politicians.

For Dawvd Noibi, an Islamic consultant with the Muslim education charity IQRA Trusts, the time for pussy footing about homosexuality was clearly over. "If we don't speak out we will all be responsible before God," Professor Noibi warned. There was applause when he added there was "no excuse" for gay couples having children.

Ms Maqsood said there was compassion for gays but many Muslims would like to see money being invested in a "cure" for the "abnormality". It is enough to make Ivan Massow, the gay businessman who was a Hague adviser before he defected to Labour in August, and perhaps even the shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo, blanche.

Ah, these are increasingly schizophrenic times. There is Mr Portillo, who "outed" himself, appealing for tolerance of difference while Ms Widdecombe's rhetoric turns a small, chummy woman into something rather terrifying. "Tolerating other lifestyles doesn't mean affording them equal validity," she says firmly. And there is the party's appointment of Tim Montgomerie as head of its new think-tank, Renewing One Nation. It is reported - although he denied it yesterday - that Mr Montgomerie opposed Mr Portillo's reselection because of his homosexual past.

Does Ms Widdecombe not worry that she might alienate more liberal supporters? Not a bit, apparently. And, despite appearances, she says the Tories are not trying to grow their very own moral majority.

Rabbi Johnathan Romain, of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, warned that the Tories' "obvious" pursuit of minority faith votes was probably naïve. It ignored, he said, the political diversity within those faiths and that many Jews would look favourably on abortion, euthanasia and repeal of Section 28. It appeared not a lot of Tories knew that, he said.

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