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Opinion

Fifth column

July 7, 2018

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Tory Islamophobia in Britain

For several months now, the ruling Conservative Party in the UK has been in the news for fostering Islamophobia. Different members of the party have publicly expressed their hatred or bigotry towards Muslims, and with impunity.

In late June, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a conglomerate of British Muslim groups, wrote to Brandon Lewis, the party chair, requesting “an inquiry into Islamophobia within his party, including a full audit to ensure racists and bigots have no place in the party”. In his letter to Lewis, Harun Khan, the head of the MCB, gave a catalogue of nearly a dozen Islamophobic incidents that came to public attention over a two-month period, suggesting that there were “more than weekly occurrences of Islamophobia from [the party] candidates and representatives”.

The MCB highlighted the high profile case of Conservative MP Bob Blackman who has been consistently endorsing Islamophobia. He had retweeted an anti-Muslim tweet from Tommy Robinson, a known Islamophobe and founder of the English Defence League. Blackman also shared a Facebook post from an Islamophobia website, and hosted a hardline Hindu Islamophobe from India, Tapan Ghosh, at an event in parliament.

No disciplinary action was taken. Instead, British Prime Minister Theresa May campaigned with him in his constituency in March this year. This has encouraged more bigotry and openly hostile behaviour against Muslims, sending a “signal that Islamophobia is to be tolerated”, according to the MCB’s letter.

Now Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the former chair of the Conservatives, has called on her party to launch a “full independent inquiry into Islamophobia” and “warned [that] the Tories were pursuing a politically damaging policy of denial about the problem in its own ranks”. She also accused Brandon Lewis of a “woefully inept response to the recent complaints” of Islamophobia and complained that she had repeatedly raised the issue over the past three years, including writing to Prime Minister Theresa May. But “absolutely nothing tangible has happened”.

According to Lady Warsi, there is a “simmering underbelly” of Islamophobia within her party – a fact she had tried to highlight since 2011, when she, as a co-chair of the party at the time, had argued that Islamophobia had passed the “dinner-table” test and that bigotry against British Muslims was becoming increasingly acceptable in polite company.

In an open letter published in The Guardian this week, she wrote: “Words without action are at best flannel and at worst represent simple contempt.” “So it’s time for my party to set out its stall. Not only does justice need to be done, it needs to be seen to be done,” she added.

Earlier this week, more than 350 mosques across the UK – from Wales to Belfast and from Scotland to Manchester – endorsed the MCB’s call for an urgent and formal inquiry into Islamophobia within the party, a culture that seems rampant. The calls for inquiry from the mosques comes after Sajid Javid, the British home secretary of Pakistani origin who has publicly distanced himself from his ancestral faith, denied that there was a problem of Islamophobia within his party.

In his bizarre party defence, he attacked the MCB by claiming that it does not represent British Muslims and that the group had associations with extremism. These charges were denied by the MCB, which also said that such an attitude demonstrated that the party was not interested in dealing with this matter. The fresh revelations also highlighted how Ben Bradley, the vice-chair of the party, dismissed Islamophobia while apparently attempting to cover it. The new evidence also suggested that several government ministers held “extreme” views on Muslims.

For several years, the Conservative Party has encouraged Islamophobia by either engaging in an anti-Muslim rhetoric or raising the bogey of extremism to attract voters or discredit opponents. In the London Mayoral campaign of 2016, Zac Goldsmith, the party candidate waged a nasty campaign against Sadiq Khan that was “soaked in racism”. According to Owen Jones, a Guardian commentator, Goldsmith shamelessly exploited anti-Muslim prejudices and “offered a campaign of fear, smear and bigotry”. He accused his opponent of having links to Islamic extremists who “repeatedly legitimised…extremist views”.

Theresa May used a similar Islamophobic language by associating Khan’s faith with terrorism. She argued that Khan was “unfit to be mayor at a time when we faced a significant threat from terrorism”. During the campaign, the then prime minister, David Cameron, tried to discredit Khan by alleging that an imam whom Khan had shared a platform with was “a supporter of IS” – a claim he had to later withdraw and furnish an apology. According to Lady Warsi, “Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for London mayor was made possible precisely because the party didn’t care about Muslims and ignored their concerns”.

The rise in Islamophobia among the Tories has galvanised wide support against the problem within British society. Not only Muslim politicians and peers but also Jewish groups and newspapers like The Observer and The Times have also called for an independent inquiry. Acknowledging the rise in the levels of Islamophobic hate crime, The Observer, in its editorial earlier this week, accused the Tories of employing a “lackadaisical approach to tackling Islamophobia within their own ranks” and termed it “utterly unacceptable”.

While indirectly accusing Theresa May of stoking anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination for attracting votes, The Observer implored the Tory Party to “urgently launch an independent investigation”. It also urged the Conservative Party’s leadership to “acknowledge its role in encouraging Islamophobia”. In an editorial titled ‘Isolating Islamophobia’, (June 1, 2018), The Times asked the Conservatives to “tackle a perception that it is hostile to Muslims”. Supporting to MCB’s call for an independent inquiry into allegations, it asked the party that it “should act” rather than “bristle”.

Mohammed Amin, the chairman of the Conservative Party’s own Conservative Muslim Forum (CMF), has also accused his party of failing to root out Islamophobia “because they are scared of damaging their own political power”, according to The Independent, adding that repeated warnings about the problem have been ignored.

Admitting that the CMF “has had many instances of anti-Muslim behaviour”, Amin told me that they “sent an open letter to the Leader of the Party, calling for enquiry into Islamophobia”. Although Amin, whose association with the Tories has surpassed 35 years, believes that the leadership is sincere in combating anti-Muslim behaviour, he insists that an independent inquiry is necessary.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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