Volunteer Contribution: Will an internal investigation really resolve the Conservative Party’s Islamophobia problem?
Friday February 12 2021
In the midst of a pandemic that has highlighted the importance of identifying and tackling the structural inequalities that minority communities face, the urgency of investigating issues of structural and institutional Islamophobia is of ever-greater importance. Central to understanding the way that Islamophobia is manufactured, maintained, and reproduced is examining the way in which the Government approaches Muslim communities. To this end, one of MEND’s volunteers reflects on the track record of the Government and the Conservative Party to deal with its own Islamophobia.
“Whether it’s anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, the Conservative Party has zero tolerance of that. There are structures … which tackle it immediately if there’s any sign of it.” These were the words spoken by former Minister Andrew Mitchell who refuted claims that the Party was rooted in racism and held that any evidence of misconduct would have appropriate action taken. However, this is highly questionable given the ongoing internal investigation into how the Party handles instances of racism, specifically Islamophobia, that have been insufficiently addressed. A former Minister dismissing claims of racism against the Party begs the questions: is Islamophobia tolerated within the Party and is the internal investigation being handled adequately?
Clear evidence of the rampant Islamophobia within Tory ranks has been met with a worrying lack of indifference. MCB, MEND and Hope not Hate have all produced dossiers detailing countless instances of Islamophobia within the Party. Similarly, Twitter user @MatesJacobproduced a dossier of more than 100 members of the Party who posted Islamophobic or racist comments online. These reports all show that, despite the Conservative Party’s insistence of there being no issues of discrimination, it has a deeply rooted Islamophobic problem it refuses to acknowledge. A YouGov Poll further corroborates this, which found that despite 78% of Conservative Party members harbouring negative attitudes towards Muslims, 79% believe that Islamophobia is not a problem within the Party.
This explains the failure of a robust investigation to materialise; Islamophobia is impossible to tackle when the issue is met with outright denial.
Indeed, this explains why the Conservative Party has failed to adequately hold to account those displaying Islamophobic behaviour. Although 74% of Conservative party members polled believe the Party is currently doing all it can to combat Islamophobia, many of those with a documented history of Islamophobia either had no action taken against them or were quietly readmitted into the Party. A notable Islamophobic scandal that evidenced an absence of accountability was that of Zac Goldsmith, Conservative candidate for London Mayor in 2016, who ran an entire campaign against Sadiq Khan relying on the commonly held misconception that Muslims are linked to terrorist actors or engage in terrorist activity. Despite his refusal to apologise and acknowledge wrongdoing, he faced no internal investigation and was instead promoted to a cabinet position in 2019. After losing his seat in the last election, he was elevated to the House of Lords. It is unsurprising then, that British Muslims feel underrepresented and deterred from political participation due to the prospect of character assassination, and a fear that any reports of Islamophobia will be ignored.
Whilst all of the aforementioned dossiers highlight hundreds of incidents by members of the Party, the most damaging come from those in high positions of power. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made many Islamophobic and other racially aggravating comments during his career. Most notably, Johnson referred to Muslim women who wear the burka as ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’, and stated they were ‘oppressed … weird’, and considered women wearing religious wear to be ‘backwards’. Johnson’s comments evidence the casual, mainstreaming of Islamophobia which carries the potential to not only marginalise Muslims, inhibiting civic engagement but also to legitimise and inspire Islamophobic hate.
Data from MEND’s Islamophobia Response Unit reveals that many victims of Islamophobia are Muslim women, particularly visibly Muslim women. While only a minority of women wear the burka, Mr Johnson’s statements serve to heighten the potential risk to Muslim women – particularly those wearing religious dress – of verbal and physical abuse. Defenders of his comments on the basis of the preservation of free speech sent the message that freedom of expression, even if constituting hate speech eclipsed Muslim women’s rights to both religious dress and personal safety. Indeed, the lack of penalisation has left the sense that Muslims were open to attack on any grounds without consequence.
During the 2019 Conservative Leadership Election, Boris Johnson promised to inquire into Islamophobia within the Party – giving much hope that there would be a serious investigation leading to actual change. Despite numerous petitions for a specific inquiry into Islamophobia, the review has lost its original basis, and has been watered down into a general inquiry looking at discriminatory behaviour towards “all ‘protected characteristics’ in the 2010 Equalities Act”. The ever-evident prospect that Islamophobia will not be answered directly within the review has only led to more frustration amongst the Muslim community and further shows the Party’s lack of commitment to tackling Islamophobia.
It is clear that Islamophobia does exist, and at worryingly high levels, within the Conservative party. With the inquiry losing its original focus and the inability of the Party to adequately address and root out Islamophobia within its ranks, there is concern that Islamophobia will not be reviewed legitimately and the issue not satisfactorily resolved with constructive recommendations for change. Any Government that wishes to truly represent its citizens must have the moral fortitude to commit to an honest introspection and demonstrate a willingness to address issues, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. A failure to do this is a failure of leadership.