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Fri 17 September 2021

Amidst new claims that Muslim members of the Conservative Party were deliberately excluded from an inquiry into Islamophobia, Faisal Hanif explores why its findings will make little difference

The investigation into racism in the Conservative Party has received a mixed response.

There are those who believe that the report is a whitewash, despite its conclusion that Islamophobia has become a serious issue, with concerns too easily denied or dismissed. Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi believes that the findings satisfy the thresholds of institutional racism – something she has repeatedly emphasised in what she describes as a  “long and lonely campaign” against Islamophobia in her own party. The report itself found no evidence of institutional racism, despite stating that there were issues “from the top… to the bottom” of the party.

Others have taken a more hopeful approach, when listing the report’s shortcomings, acknowledging that it “provides a historic opportunity for the party to reset its relationship with Muslim communities”. 

Boris Johnson’s infamous column, which compared Muslim women wearing the niqab and burka to “bank robbers” and letter boxes” and led to a 375% increase in hate crimes against Muslims, was one of the incidents which Sarwan Singh – the report’s author – cited. Johnson, who made the remarks in his lucrative Telegraph column in 2018 while a backbench MP, refused to apologise for what the report described as an impression that the Conservatives were “insensitive to Muslim communities”.

The Prime Minister’s response is a perfect illustration of the disdain he and many within his party hold for Muslims. It is also borne out of ruthless Conservative pragmatism that seeks only to win power. Johnson’s attitude towards Muslims is not unique given his past comments on black people and homosexuals, but he and other Conservative Party big wigs know full well that a sizeable proportion of the voter base hold a special disregard for Muslims. 

Anti-fascism advocacy group, Hope Not Hate, found that 57% of Conservative Party members had a negative attitude towards Muslims, with almost half believing that Islam is “a threat to the British way of life”. Fifty-eight per cent believed that “there are no go areas in Britain where Sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter” – a figure which rose to 66% of those who backed Boris Johnson in the 2019 Conservative Party leadership election.


‘Islamism Versus Islam’

What should have made disturbing reading for the party of Government has instead been an ace in the pack to use as part of its confected ‘culture war’ – a game which has been played even during the 15 months and counting of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Craig Whittaker, Conservative MP for Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, claimed that Muslim, black, Asian and ethnic minority communities in his constituency were not taking the Coronavirus pandemic seriously following the announcement of new local lockdowns across England in July.

When Boris Johnson declared that he did not want to “criminalise” those who had already made plans to spend Christmas with their families, social distancing rules were relaxed for four days in England. But no such exception was made for Muslims when a tweet at 9.16 pm by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock declared a lockdown in northern England just hours before the beginning of Eid day last August. Thousands of people had planned, sometimes at great cost, to spend time with families and tighter restrictions could have been announced days in advance so that everyone could rearrange.

Just two days after the release of the report, the Prime Minister hosted Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – a man who owes much of his political success to cultivating an image of a defender of Christianity against ‘Muslim hoards’. He is by no means alone in gaining electoral success on the back of on anti-Muslim message. All over Europe, opposition to Muslims is a uniting force among the various populist and far-right leaders and parties. Islamophobia has had a distinct power in mainstreaming those once considered to be on the fringe or crackpots. This also appears to be the case in Britain as the Conservative Party has become a one-stop-shop for anti-Muslim racists.

In 2011, the then Prime Minister David Cameron chose a security conference in Munich to declare the failure of state multiculturalism before singling out “Muslim groups” as the exemplars of what had gone wrong and whose behaviour, in particular, had to be tackled through “muscular liberalism”. There was sufficient geographical distance between Cameron in Munich and the English Defence League (EDL), which was protesting in Luton on the same day – but the symbolism of a Prime Minister making statements which would be used by racist street thugs was not lost. Not on those who queried the timing of the speech; nor on the EDL, which celebrated the mainstreaming of their tropes; or on the Conservatives, who knew that there was sufficient electoral currency in demonising one section of the populace.

Writing in response to the Singh report, former Conservative MP Paul Goodman declared that the way forward for the party was to have hostility to Islamism but a friendliness towards Islam. But the false paradigm of ‘Islamism versus Islam’ is now being used successfully by European governments to crackdown on mainstream Muslim practices and target Muslim institutions. As pressure from nationalists parties grows, they are increasingly resorting to Islamophobia to shore up their voter bases. In France, Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated in his ‘war on Islamism’ by banning a Muslim candidate of his own party because she wore a hijab in a campaign poster. 

As the right increases its demonisation of Muslims under the guise of free speech and anti-terror measures, Britain’s Conservative Party has plenty of room to follow, knowing full well that it will have no real consequences at the ballot box.

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