Tory Islamophobia ensures Sunak’s words ring hollow

Tory Islamophobia ensures Sunak’s words ring hollow

Sunak will not acknowledge that his government’s horrific policy on Gaza exacerbates tensions (File/AFP)
Sunak will not acknowledge that his government’s horrific policy on Gaza exacerbates tensions (File/AFP)
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While Islamophobia in Britain is a centuries-old phenomenon that further took off following the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, the last two weeks have witnessed a veritable tsunami of anti-Muslim abuse. Most alarmingly, much of it has emanated from some of the most senior political figures in the country.

It particularly accelerated after the House of Commons debate on a motion for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on Feb. 21. Reports indicated that some members of Parliament have been threatened — a serious charge given that two MPs have been killed in public since 2016. The details are not clear, in terms of the who or the scale. What we do know is that, in the aftermath, a whole slew of comments emanated from figures on the extreme right of the Conservative Party.

Kicking off this firestorm of hate was former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. In October, she had referred to pro-Palestinian protests as “hate marches,” but did not lose her job for that inflammatory rhetoric. This time, Braverman claimed that “Islamists are in charge of Britain now … they have bullied our country into submission.” No, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has not converted to Islam and joined Al-Qaeda. The notion was absurd, but Braverman’s use of far-right language and conspiracy theories was nothing new; she had previously called the arrival of refugees an “invasion” and insisted that 100 million people around the world qualify for asylum in the UK, “and let’s be clear: They are coming here.”

She has not been censured or kicked out of the Conservative Party. This is reminiscent of when Boris Johnson said Muslim women wearing burqas “look like letter boxes.” That bout of anti-Muslim rhetoric did him no harm and he went on to become prime minister. Braverman has ambitions to follow in his footsteps.

The prime minister and his colleagues refused to name the crime for which Anderson had the whip removed

Chris Doyle

Another to escape suspension was former Prime Minister Liz Truss. She toured the US last month and shared a platform with Steve Bannon. The latter praised the far-right British racist and extreme Islamophobe Tommy Robinson as a “hero.” Truss stayed silent. Another Tory MP rehashed the age-old smear of “no-go areas,” saying that certain areas of London and Birmingham were off-limits to non-Muslims. He retracted these malicious claims but no action was taken.

One politician who has been suspended from the Conservative Party is Lee Anderson, an MP who, until mid-January, was the Tories’ deputy chair. Anderson spoke to a right-wing TV channel, GB News, and said of Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London: “He’s given our capital city away to his mates. I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan, and they’ve got control of London.” The Muslim takeover claims mirror the racist Jewish takeover tropes, both of which need to be cracked down on.

What was so much more disturbing, however, was the way in which Sunak and his ministers attempted to brush off Anderson’s comments. The prime minister and his colleagues refused to name the crime for which Anderson had the whip removed. It was tortuous to listen to the endless interviews in which ministers would only say Anderson was wrong but refuse to say, when probed, that what he had said was Islamophobic.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden argued that the problem was that the comments could have given the impression of Islamophobia. Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate to challenge Khan in the London mayoral election in May, said nothing. Many Tory MPs argued that Anderson should be allowed back into the party.

While the Conservative Party has lambasted the left on every occasion for even a whiff of possible antisemitism, it has never dealt with the rampant Islamophobia in its own ranks. In part, this is because any credible investigation would have to highlight comments made by some of the most senior figures in the party. But it also exposes just how weak Sunak is because, politically, he cannot tackle the problem within his own party.

A survey of Tory members published last week found that 52 percent believed parts of European cities were under Shariah law and were no-go areas for non-Muslims. And some 58 percent of Conservative Party members think Islam is a threat to the British way of life. The national figure is alarming enough at 30 percent.

Islamophobia is likely a key reason that the British government has failed to call out Israeli atrocities in Gaza

Chris Doyle

Islamophobia is also rampant in much of the right-wing media. Here are just two recent examples of many. Guido Fawkes, the pen name of a leading right-wing blogger, posted that the “Labour Party have chosen to seek unsophisticated Muslim support for numerical reasons at the expense of sophisticated Jewish support.” Trevor Kavanagh, a leading political columnist at the right-wing Sun newspaper, was just as bigoted when he said on TV: “By the very definition of being a Muslim, you are going to be anti-Jewish.” The major shareholder of the right-wing GB News has also been found to have been posting and resharing Islamophobic comments and conspiracy theories; a charge he denies.

All of this comes against the backdrop of rising Islamophobia. Reports of anti-Muslim hate have risen by 335 percent since Oct. 7.

Ever since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, the dominant thread — not least among those trying to act as apologists for Israel’s subsequent atrocities in Gaza — is that there has also been a surge in antisemitism, that the protests in London and elsewhere are hate marches and that Jews feel terrified to walk the streets. A major rise in antisemitic incidents of 589 percent has been reported. It is indeed alarming.

Yet, regarding antisemitism, the government and the Labour Party have rightly taken action. They have made countless statements, increased funding and done everything to try to reassure Britain’s Jewish community. For the most part, it is treated with the seriousness it deserves.

This contrasts with the reaction to Islamophobia. It is rarely called out. The government barely references it and, unlike in the case of antisemitism, barely devotes any parliamentary time to the issue. It will not even agree to a formal definition, like it has done for antisemitism.

Perhaps most alarming of all is that Islamophobia, which is also linked with its twin brother anti-Arab racism, is likely a key reason that the British government has failed to call out Israeli atrocities in Gaza. It seeks to stoke divisions between communities and fight culture wars. The calculation has long been that the Conservatives can profit electorally from this approach.

This all makes Sunak’s speech on Friday, when he called for a crackdown on extremism, ring hollow. He is trying to blame the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations against Israel’s possible genocide in Gaza for this climate, yet refuses or is unable to crack down on the extremism in the party he leads. He will not acknowledge that his government’s horrific policy on Gaza exacerbates tensions. The unfair demonization of Muslims cannot and must not be allowed to continue. If this is not tackled, anti-Muslim attacks will continue to rocket, with profound long-term effects.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. X: @Doylech
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