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Ex-Mayor’s Resignation Shows Why Councils Must Adopt a Definition of Islamophobia

Ex-Mayor’s Resignation Shows Why Councils Must Adopt a Definition of Islamophobia

Categories: Latest News

Friday February 04 2022

Philip Normal, a Labour councillor and the former Mayor of Lambeth, South London, has resigned after the resurfacing of a series of racist and Islamophobic tweets that he sent between 2011 and 2015. In addition to multiple derogatory tweets about Arabs, black and transgender people, he tweeted in 2011: “Why do some Muslim women walk like penguins? I’m not being mean? Because I know there’s an issue in the healthcare system there…”. Also, in 2011, he tweeted: “Muslim extremists on the overground seem to love Capri-sun!”. In 2013, he described Whitechapel, an area in East London, as “aggressively Muslim”. Mr Normal’s remarks and subsequent resignation as a councillor highlight the prevalence of Islamophobia in local politics and party politics as a whole. Therefore, it is imperative that all UK councils and political parties adopt a formal definition of Islamophobia that will help to ensure that such bigotry is not tolerated and addressed.

Mr Normal was right to resign after his historic tweets resurfaced. However, it is concerning that his past social media activity was seemingly ignored or overlooked when he became a councillor and Lambeth Mayor. Indeed, the content of his tweets is blatantly Islamophobic; in likening Muslim women to “penguins”, he dehumanises them in a highly insulting manner and, by referring to “the healthcare system there”, insinuates that Muslims are outsiders that originate in foreign countries – which he implies are socio-economically backwards and is racist, in and of itself. His use of the label “Muslim extremists” reinforces the Islamophobic trope that Muslims are inherently violent and threaten Western society. In generalising about a neighbourhood such as Whitechapel, he furthers the far-right conspiracy that British culture is “under threat from invasion” by Muslims, contributing to a climate of Islamophobia in social, political, and public spheres of life.

Although Mr Normal has apologised for his “offensive and discriminatory” tweets that he says were written “before I was active in the Labour Party”, the party inevitably failed to assess his level of character prior to letting him stand as a council candidate. Lambeth has a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population of 44% and a Muslim population of 7%, making it an ethnically and religiously diverse borough. An individual of Mr Normal’s ilk that has made numerous racist remarks is unfit to represent Lambeth’s residents or serve in any other area of public life. Thus, the case that he became Lambeth Mayor in 2020 is particularly troubling and underscores that councils are not doing enough to tackle Islamophobia.

Concerningly, this is not an isolated case, and Islamophobia is a wider issue among councillors and council candidates. For example, Councillor Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall Council, has been accused of hurling abuse at Muslims attending funerals during the first COVID-19 lockdown. Although the funerals were compliant with public health guidelines and the local mosque had consulted the council on this, Councillor Bird nevertheless insisted that the mourners were flouting the rules. He took it upon himself to disrupt the funerals, for which he was investigated, but ultimately retained his role as council leader. Equally, several Conservative councillors and candidates – many of whom continue to serve in their local council – have written or shared Islamophobic posts on Facebook. This highlights that councils must develop a robust strategy to tackle anti-Muslim sentiment among their councillors and staff, integral to which is adopting a formal definition of Islamophobia to ensure that instances of Islamophobia are identified and, in turn, appropriately addressed.

Such cases also expose an institutional problem of Islamophobia within political parties beyond just the council level. For instance, Trevor Phillips was suspended from the Labour Party in 2020 after a string of Islamophobic statements. Among other things, he claimed that Muslims are “becoming a nation within a nation”; that a Muslim family fostering a Christian girl is “akin to child abuse”; and that Muslims “see the world differently from the rest of us.” Yet, he was reinstated into the Labour Party in June 2021 and, astonishingly, received a knighthood earlier this year for his “services to equality and human rights”. Worryingly, it was not a surprise that a November 2020 report by Labour Muslim Network found that over one in four (29%) Muslim members or supporters of Labour had directly experienced Islamophobia in the party. At the same time, more than half (55%) did not trust the Labour leadership to tackle Islamophobia effectively.

Likewise, Nusrat Ghani, a Conservative MP, recently claimed that her “Muslimness” was a reason for which she was sacked as a transport minister in 2020, saying that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”. This comes after Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the former co-Chair of the Conservative Party and the first Muslim women to serve in a British cabinet, alleged that Islamophobia is “very widespread [in the party]. It exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top”.

On the other hand, although Labour has adopted the APPG definition, indifference towards Islamophobia remains very much apparent within the party, a primary example of which is the reinstatement of Phillips. Meanwhile, the Conservative Government rejected the APPG definition of Islamophobia and have failed to produce an alternative definition, more than two years after pledging to do so. As such, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are fully committed to combatting Islamophobia within their ranks. Until they are, Islamophobia will sadly continue to persist in both parties.

The examples outlined above illustrate how Islamophobia permeates all levels of British politics, ranging from local councils to the upper echelons of government. Adopting a formal definition of Islamophobia is just the first step in addressing this issue; councils and parties must have clear guidelines in place to explain what constitutes Islamophobia and how those accused of Islamophobia will be penalised. As a general principle, any individual that has perpetrated Islamophobia at present or in the past, such as Philip Normal, should not be allowed to remain part of their council or party. Therefore, MEND urges the UK government and all councils to adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia, in conjunction with the guidelines put forward by the Coalition Against Islamophobia, to ensure that this phenomenon is tackled in a targeted and effective manner.

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