Conservatives in denial over party’s Islamophobia problem
The attention on racism in British party politics has focused almost entirely on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. This sorry saga continues, yet some light is now being shone into the dark corners of the Conservative Party, as the governing party faces accusations of institutional Islamophobia.
Leading the charge is the former Conservative Party Chair and Foreign Office minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She was Britain’s first female Muslim Cabinet minister but she resigned in protest over the government’s policy on Gaza in 2014. Her passionate campaign to change the Tories from the inside was largely brushed away. She felt the party was in denial about the challenge. She has joined the calls to have an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. She has said: “If we are going to do it, we need to do it in a clear and transparent way with a panel that has members of the community on it… It’s very widespread (in the Conservative Party). It exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top.”
Last week, the Tories suspended 14 members. The party hierarchy has not released the names, but activists had reported numerous cases of anti-Muslim Facebook posts. One of these activists had forwarded some of the posts to Conservative Chairman Brandon Lewis last October, but no action was taken. This was not the only case. Eleven Labour councilors from East Staffordshire walked out of a council meeting on March 4 as they objected when a Conservative mayor declined to account for a post he was alleged to have “liked,” which showed the Queen beheading Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London. The party also had to suspend Andrew Boles, the leader of a council in Kent, after he retweeted a post defending far-right anti-Muslim racist Tommy Robinson.
What should worry the Conservative Party is that several of its leading figures stand accused of Islamophobia. One of the leading contenders to replace Prime Minister Theresa May is former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. He ran into trouble after comparing niqab-wearing women to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes.” The PM did not condemn this use of language. Meanwhile, Tory backbenchers Michael Fabricant and Bob Blackman both came under fire for sharing offensive posts.
Conservative leaders struggle to handle the allegations of Islamophobia. One lame defense is that, “oh but there is a Muslim home secretary.” But the main reaction is denial
The Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, added to the issue. Asked if she would support a debate on Islamophobia, she told Muslim MP Naz Shah that she should seek an adjournment debate so she could discuss this with Foreign Office ministers. A classic sign of Islamophobia is to suggest that Muslims in the UK are not really British so are a foreign affairs issue. Leadsom has yet to apologize.
Many Conservative politicians do not realize the extent of the problem within the party. A state of denial exists. Mohammed Amin, the chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, told me: “For decades the Conservative Party has struggled to accept changes in our society brought about by immigration.” This could be explained but not justified by certain politicians coming from largely rural, white constituencies, where there are few if any Muslims or other ethnic minorities. But much of the friction occurs in urban areas. Some argue that the Conservatives know they are extremely unlikely to pick up British Muslim votes so, consequently, have made little effort to heed the concerns of Muslim voters.
Critics assert that Tory elections guru Lynton Crosby developed this strategy, but clearly after having it signed off by the party leadership. Crosby, who oversaw Johnson’s election as London mayor in 2012, has mastered the art of dog-whistle politics.
Conservative leaders struggle to handle the allegations of Islamophobia. One lame defense is that, “oh but there is a Muslim home secretary.” But the main reaction is denial. Party managers point out that, in contrast to Labour, which has rightly been criticized as being slow to act in cases of anti-Semitism, they have taken swift and decisive action. But is it a strategy or just a tactic to cope as an issue arises? Amin was clear: “The strategy is to shoot the crocodiles as they emerge one by one, especially if they are junior crocodiles.”
All this occurs against a backdrop of an acute rise in Islamophobia and other hate crimes in Britain. Observers will debate for ages whether the Conservative Party is institutionally Islamophobic. It is a subjective assessment, but what is patently clear is that the government is failing in its duty to stamp it out and is devoid of any identifiable strategy.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech