2018 has seen repeated calls for the British Conservative party to launch an official inquiry into Islamophobia within its ranks to ensure that it does not accommodate racism and bigotry[1].

Calls were made by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella body, in a May 2018 letter to the Chair of the Conservative party, Brandon Lewis MP. The call came after a series of Islamophobic incidents involving Bob Blackman MP, against which no action had been taken. In the letter, Harun Khan, the secretary general of the MCB called out this lack of action and stated, “Mr Blackman is not the only one who has fostered Islamophobia in your party”, adding that April 2018 had seen “more than weekly occurrences of Islamophobia from candidates and representatives of the Conservative Party”[2].

Blackman’s attitudes and actions were called into question after he retweeted the founder of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson’s, tweet, which stated that an attack on a Hindu temple was “the reality of being surrounded by Islam”. Blackman later said that retweeting this was an error. However, he has also previously shared a Facebook post from an Islamophobic website and invited Tapan Ghosh, the founder of Hindu Samhati who is known for his incendiary rhetoric towards religious minorities in India, to speak at the House of Commons. Ghosh has claimed that Muslims are “all jihadis” and justified the persecution of Rohingya refugees, claims which caused Amber Rudd and other senior Conservatives to distance themselves from his visit. In addition to Blackman facing no disciplinary action over these cases, Prime Minister Theresa May chose to campaign with him in his constituency in March[3].

Adding to the cases concerning Blackman is the case of a Conservative councillor who shared an article on Twitter claiming that French Muslims were “content to live off the state and breed like rabbits”, a council candidate who posted a photograph of bacon hanging on a door handle with the caption “Protect your house from terrorism”, and another candidate who said Britain should “revoke Muslim immigration”. The MCB warns these could be the “tip of the iceberg”[4]. Another instance of Islamophobia saw a Muslim member of the party reportedly told he was “not welcome” in the party by a councillor and then told in a candidate’s interview that “naturally in your core belief women are not allowed to work”[5].

Accompanying an independent inquiry should be a published list of Islamophobia within the party where action has been taken, and the adoption of a programme of education and training on Islamophobia, said the MCB. Crucially, they said, the inaction by the party in such high-profile cases of Islamophobia as those involving its members “sends a signal that Islamophobia is to be tolerated in the Conservative party”[6].

Over 350 mosques and Muslim organisations also wrote to the Conservative party to back the MCB’s calls, which were additionally supported by eleven separate umbrella organisations from all over the UK. As the MCB stated, such support “reflects the importance this issue holds in Muslim communities across the UK”[7].

Calls from inside the party

A number of those from inside the party joined calls for the inquiry.

Among them were former chairman of the Conservatives, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and former adviser to David Cameron, Lord Mohamed Sheikh, with Lord Sheikh writing directly to Theresa May to describe the issue as a “matter of grave concern to the many Muslim members and supporters of the party”, and citing Zac Goldsmith’s London 2016 mayoral election campaign, Blackman’s parliamentary hosting of Ghosh, and the lack of Muslim candidates in the last general election as a reflection of this[8].

Baroness Warsi’s calls for an inquiry did not represent the first time she has raised concerns about Islamophobia. In 2011, she argued that Islamophobia has passed the “dinner-table” test, and thus that anti-Muslim bigotry was becoming increasingly acceptable in everyday life. Writing personally to the Prime Minister about the need for an inquiry, she said she believes there is a “simmering underbelly” of institutional Islamophobia within the party. Speaking to Sky News, she said “What I would like to see is, first of all, people within the party stopping denying this is an issue and then starting to acknowledge the extent of the issue, and then setting out a clear pathway of how we’re going to deal with it”. She expressed that it was a shame that such a public rebuke of the party was potentially what it was going to take for it to take the issue seriously[9].

Speaking to the Guardian, a number of Muslim members of the Conservative Party said that they felt the issue of Islamophobia within the party had been marginalised, noting their reaction to reading the MCB’s letter had been, “How refreshing – this is something that all Muslim Conservatives are feeling” and attesting to the widespread nature of their discontent[10].

In response to the letter, a Conservative Party spokesperson said, “We take all such incidents seriously, which is why we have suspended all those who have behaved inappropriately and launched immediate investigations”[11]. However, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 3 June 2018, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, took a very different approach, denying there is a problem with Islamophobia in the party, and claiming instead that the MCB does not represent British Muslims and has associations with extremism. Such comments, according to Harun Khan, indicate the Conservative Party’s lack of interest in dealing with the matter[12].

According to the chairman of the party’s own Muslim forum (CMF), Mohammed Amin, the party’s failings on dealing with Islamophobia are down to the fact that it does not want to risk its political power with a contentious probe into racism when it lacks of a Commons majority, and is instead hoping the issue “will magically go away”. The CMF echoed the MCB’s calls for an inquiry, and said that any action the Party claimed it had taken so far had not been satisfactory[13].

Members of the Labour Party, which has itself been facing serious accusations of anti-Semitism within recent months, also commented on the issue. Labour MP, Rupa Huq, said the observations by the MCB pointed to “the very definition of institutional racism – not just bad apples, but a systematic leadership failure to address both personal prejudice and systematic unfairness … The Tories’ failure on Islamophobia is desperately disappointing”. She also pointed to the effect of this Islamophobia on the wider British Muslim community, “If the people who claim to be leading this country are shirking their responsibility to protect all the communities living here, it sends an appalling message. It makes racists inside and outside their party think they can get away with it”[14].

No inquiry was launched. Instead the Conservative Party said it had introduced a new code of conduct to cover all forms of discrimination, allegations of which would be taken seriously[15].

The case of Boris Johnson

And then in early August, the former British foreign secretary and Conservative MP, Boris Johnson, likened women who wear the burqa to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes” in a newspaper column, characterising the garments as “odd” and “ridiculous”[16].

Facing accusations of Islamophobia, Johnson was called on by senior members of the Tory party, including the Prime Minister, to apologise, but he did not. One Conservative member called on him to be expelled, while another said he would quit if Johnson became the party leader[17].

Hashim Bhatti, Conservative councillor and chair of the youth wing of the CMF writes in the Guardian that Johnson’s comments, which came amid the backdrop of Islamophobic instances involving the party, have left Muslim members of the party feeling like they are not being listened to when they express concerns of bigotry and have isolating Muslim and ethnic minority voters. Therefore, calls for an inquiry remain necessary. He writes that the aim of such an inquiry should be to discern “what it is about the Conservative party that leads bigots to believe that they will find a home here” and should have access to both the senior leadership and non-Muslim and Muslim grassroots Conservatives throughout the country[18].

The MCB also renewed its calls for an inquiry, stating, “It is now widely acknowledged that the Conservative Party has a poor relationship with Britain’s Muslim communities”[19]. In its letter to the Prime Minister, it said that the level of political support for Johnson’s comments “highlighted the underbelly of Islamophobia” within the party. The letter praised the Prime Minister for her support for Muslims following the 2017 Finsbury Park terrorist attack on worshippers. She had said, £There has been far too much tolerance of extremism in our country over many years – and that means extremism of any kind, including Islamophobia”. The MCB said, “We are writing on you to continue the leadership you have previously shown, and to urge you to launch an independent and transparent inquiry into Islamophobia within the party and more broadly in society”. It also called for a full disciplinary inquiry into Johnson’s comments[20].

While the Conservative chair, Brandon Lewis, called on Johnson to apologise for his comments, he has continued to reject calls for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the party[21].

The cost of such comments

Baroness Warsi warns that in making such comments, Johnson is turning Muslim women into a “political battleground”[22], and the very real impact that such language has on the British Muslim community has been significantly documented. Connections between Johnson’s comments and instances of Islamophobia on the streets of Britain are tangible. Tell Mama, the anti-Muslim hate-crime monitoring group, reported a spike in abuse against Muslim women after Johnson’s column was published, and these figures are still likely to be lower than the actual number as most hate crime goes unreported[23].

As the director of Tell Mama, Iman Atta, says, “Comments and political statements have impacts … Boris Johnson is a privileged white male who has had a route to power and influence that many from black and ethnic minority groups could not even dream of … These are some of the most marginalised women, who cannot find employment and, in some instances, have few choices. But to Johnson, his political ambitions mean that he is willing to call them terms that are dehumanising. It is this dehumanisation that leads perpetrators to feel emboldened enough to target these women for anti-Muslim hate crime”[24].

Women wearing the burqa report hearing Johnson’s comments echoed to them from members of the public as they go about their daily lives. The psychological impact this has on women is significant. Mariam Khan, editor of It’s Not About the Burqa, scheduled for release next year, says, “double-checking behind me after I get off the bus, not wearing headphones, being aware of Muslim women around in my area who wear the burqa and worrying they will be hurt. Worrying about my family members who wear the burqa and wanting to know what to do to keep them safe” are all things which weigh on her mind constantly after Johnson’s comments. While she notes that this is not anything new, as Muslim women were already subject to abuse, she says, “Johnson’s comments were intentional and malicious and they have put Muslim women, especially visible Muslim women, in even more danger than they were previously. So much Islamophobic hatred goes unreported and I dread to think what Muslim women have had to go through, what they haven’t reported, what they don’t know if they can report”[25].

Islamophobia for political gain?

Johnson’s high profile and speculated motivations for such comments point to another reason for the importance of clamping down on Islamophobia within the Conservative party. While he has a long history of making controversial comments, it is widely considered that he has ambitions to become the prime minister. Some speculate that the comments made in his article “represent a new tactic at angling for party leadership – one that proved successful for U.S. President Donald Trump and his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon”[26].

Weeks prior to writing the article, Johnson had resigned as the foreign secretary due to disagreement with the approach of the government to Brexit. The greater distance from the government that his resignation afforded him allowed him the space to make such comments and adopt a stance that appeals to his right-wing supporters. While Johnson appeared to be advocating against the banning of the burqa in Denmark in the article, the message of the article and its language was one of clear underlying opposition to Islam, and thus likely to resonate with those who shared this opposition. This is in keeping with the political support Johnson has received from supporting an anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the past few years, particularly through his crucial role in the campaign for Brexit and the subsequent preparations to actually exit the EU. Writing such an article strengthens this fan-base which has propelled him politically over recent years[27].

Thus, Baroness Warsi called his comments “offensive … but clever politics”. Her concerns were echoed by opposition politicians, including David Lammy MP, who tweeted, “Our pound-shop Donald Trump is fanning the flames of Islamophobia to propel his grubby electoral ambitions”. As Perrigo writes in the Independent, “By refusing Theresa May’s calls to apologize, Johnson may be making a calculation to assert himself as her prime challenger” [28].

But this approach might not be tactically-unique to Johnson. Observations about the wider Conservative Party’s tolerance of Islamophobia for political gains have also been made. An editorial in the Observer suggests, for example, that the government’s hostile-environment policy has contributed to Islamophobia by increasing discrimination against people with foreign names. Such instances, it says, demonstrate the Tory party’s “willingness to engage in racialised nods and winks to win votes … it has pursued this policy to win support from voters it fears might otherwise back the far right”[29].

It is not hard to see why members of the Muslim community might feel expendable to the party and ignored, and not hard to see why the Islamophobic actions of some of its members might be considered symptomatic of a wider culture in which Islamophobia is deemed acceptable for political gain. As Brexit gets nearer and political contention in the UK increases, the stakes for British Muslims, in terms of their treatment both at the political and societal levels, are therefore becoming higher[30]. An inquiry is then absolutely necessary, but ironically this culture might be the very thing preventing an inquiry from going ahead – as the chair of the CMF said, the party’s lack of willingness to even examine Islamophobia within its ranks is due to it not wanting to risk political support.

[1] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018b.

[2] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018b.

[3] Observer Editorial, 2018; Safi and Elgot, 2017.

[4] Observer Editorial, 2018.

[5] Khan, 2018a.

[6] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018b.

[7] Khan, 2018b.

[8] Khan, 2018b.

[9] Observer Editorial, 2018; Walker and Slawson, 2018.

[10] Walker and Slawson, 2018.

[11] Walker and Slawson, 2018.

[12] Khan, 2018b.

[13] Khan, 2018a.

[14] Walker and Slawson, 2018.

[15] Khan, 2018a.

[16] Perrigo, 2018.

[17] Perrigo, 2018.

[18] Bhatti, 2018.

[19] Perrigo, 2018.

[20] Sabbagh, 2018.

[21] Bhatti, 2018.

[22] Perrigo, 2018.

[23] Saner, 2018.

[24] Saner, 2018.

[25] Saner, 2018.

[26] Perrgio, 2018.

[27] Perrigo, 2018.

[28] Perrigo, 2018; Saner, 2018.

[29] Observer Editorial, 2018.

[30] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018a.

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Sources

Bhatti, H. (2018) ‘I’m a Tory councillor. Islamophobia in my party goes beyond Boris Johnson’. [online] 7 August. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/07/conservative-party-inquiry-islamophobia-boris-johnson. [Accessed 2 October 2018].

Khan, S. (2018a) ‘Conservatives hoping Islamophobia issue ‘will magically go away’, warns senior party activist’. [online] 5 June. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/conservatives-islamophobia-inquiry-racism-sajid-javid-mohammed-amin-a8384876.html#. [Accessed 2 October 2018].

Khan, S. (2018b) ‘More than 350 mosques urge Conservatives to launch internal inquiry into Islamophobia claims’. [online] 4 June. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/islamophobia-inquiry-mosques-urge-conservative-party-theresa-may-a8381551.html. [Accessed 7 June 2018].

Muslim Council of Britain. (2018) ‘The Muslim Council of Britain Officially Requests Inquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory Party’. [online] 31 May. http://www.mcb.org.uk/the-muslim-council-of-britain-officially-requests-inquiry-into-islamophobia-in-the-tory-party/. [Accessed 7 June 2018].

Observer Editorial. (2018) ‘The Observer view on Islamophobia in the Conservative party’. [online] 3 June. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/03/observer-view-islamophobia-conservative-party. [Accessed 8 June 2018].

Perrigo, B. (2018) ‘Boris Johnson Has Caused a Political Firestorm After Offending British Muslims. Here’s What to Know’. [online] 8 August. http://time.com/5361153/boris-johnson-burqa-muslims/. [Accessed 2 October 2018].

Sabbagh, D. (2018) ‘Muslim leaders urge May to launch inquiry into Tory party Islamophobia’. [online] 13 August. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/aug/13/may-under-pressure-to-launch-inquiry-into-tory-party-islamophobia. [Accessed 2 October 2018].

Safi, M. and Elgot, J. (2017) ‘Tories disown firebrand Hindu activist after Commons visit’. [online] 26 October. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/26/tories-disown-firebrand-hindu-activist-after-commons-visit. [Accessed 8 June 2018].

Saner, E. (2018) ‘’It has made us unsafe’: Muslim women on fear and abuse after Boris Johnson’s burqa remarks’. [online] 14 August. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/14/unsafe-muslim-women-fear-abuse-boris-johnson-burqa?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Tweet. [Accessed 2 October 2018].

Walker, P. and Slawson, N. (2018) ‘Conservatives under fire for failing to tackle party’s Islamophobia’. [online] 31 May. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/may/31/muslim-council-calls-for-inquiry-into-conservative-party-islamophobia. [Accessed 8 June 2018].