Tories must confront Islamophobia head-on
There is no problem with Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, according to UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid, because he — a Muslim — has one of the government’s top jobs. “Let’s just look at who the home secretary is in this country. My name is Sajid Javid, I’m the home secretary,” he told the BBC when asked about calls for an independent investigation. If only it was that simple.
The number of Muslim MPs is slowly increasing: A record 15 were elected in the 2017 general election. And the likes of Javid, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim woman to serve in Cabinet, have landed high-profile posts. But a surge in incidents of discrimination is also obvious.
Javid was quizzed on the subject following an appeal from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) through its Secretary-General Harun Khan, who wrote to Conservative Chairman Brandon Lewis last week requesting an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the party.
The secretary-general was spoiled for choice when it came to choosing incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination to highlight, but he settled for nine of the “more than weekly” occurrences that took place in April and May.
These examples are a sorry indictment of the Islamophobia that is clearly rife on the fringes of the Tory party. Most cannot be repeated here, but they generally involved vile, ignorant and hate-fueled generalizations about Islam and its followers, migrants, and links to the far-right. All were made by members of the Conservative Party who were seeking election to public office or had already been voted in (one was even a town mayor).
The letter also focused on sitting MP Bob Blackman who, it said, “has shown a consistent record of endorsing Islamophobia.” This includes re-tweeting an anti-Muslim post by far-right extremist Tommy Robinson, hosting anti-Muslim Hindu extremist Tapan Ghosh in Parliament, sharing an anti-Muslim post on Facebook, and most recently, being found to have been a member of a number of Islamophobic Facebook groups. He has faced no action from his party.
Javid was given a national platform to condemn such hatred, admit there may be a problem in the party, and vow that it will be stamped out. Instead, he buried his head in the sand, denying there is an issue and bizarrely attacking the MCB as not being representative of Muslims in Britain, even though it has more than 500 affiliated organizations.
“I would be very suspicious of anything that they’ve got to say,” he said. But regardless of whether the MCB is representative or not, the Tories cannot deny the facts of the cases of Islamophobia it raised.
It seems political parties in the UK have a problem with tackling religious discrimination, as the Labour Party has been equally ineffectual in tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks. Instead, it is the nation’s Muslims and Jews who have been united by this issue, with both supporting the other in their respective rows. Last week, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality and the Union of Jewish Students backed the MCB’s call for an investigation into Tory Islamophobia.
A common factor that links most of the incidents highlighted by the MCB is social media, which is too often used to attack Muslims, along with a wide array of other targets. For example, the abuse that the liberal, tolerant mayor of London has to put up with on Twitter is extraordinary and shames the country.
The fact that his Tory rival in the 2016 mayoral election, Zac Goldsmith, ran what was described by a member of his own party as a “disgusting” campaign aimed at smearing his Labour opponent as a “closet extremist” can only have emboldened these faceless bigots to target him and other innocent Muslims both online and in the streets.
Last Tuesday, a mosque in Leeds was set on fire (as well as a Sikh place of worship less than an hour later), in what police are treating as a hate crime. Politicians clearly cannot be blamed for individual incidents, but if the Tories can unequivocally deny that a problem exists, why should society be anything other than encouraged that acts of Islamophobia are acceptable in Britain today?
It is time for Prime Minister Theresa May to lead by example. She should step in and order an independent inquiry, while condemning Islamophobia and all incidents of discrimination. The Conservative Party must lift its head out of the sand so it can confront the ugly face of bigotry.
• Martin Downer is a UK-based journalist with experience of working in the Gulf. Twitter: @MartinDownerUK