The Observer view on Islamophobia in the Conservative party | Observer editorial

The Tories must launch an independent inquiry into anti-Muslim prejudice in the party

In 2011, Sayeeda Warsi, then co-chair of the Conservative party, argued that Islamophobia had passed the “dinner-table” test; that bigotry against British Muslims was becoming increasingly acceptable in polite company. It has become increasingly clear since then that that polite company extends to the Conservative party itself.

Last Thursday, Harun Khan, the head of the Muslim Council of Britain, wrote to the party’s chair, Brandon Lewis, with a list of Islamophobic incidents that have come to public attention over a two-month period. He has asked Lewis to commit to an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the party and to adopt a programme of training .

The Conservative MP Bob Blackman retweeted a message from the founder of the English Defence League.
The Conservative MP Bob Blackman retweeted a message from the founder of the English Defence League. Photograph: Nigel Howard/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

The most high-profile case raised by the MCB is that of Bob Blackman MP. In recent months, he has retweeted a message from Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, which cited an attack on a Hindu temple as “the reality of being surrounded by Islam”, which he later said was an error. He has shared a Facebook post from an Islamophobic website and has hosted Tapan Ghosh, a hardline Islamophobic Hindu nationalist, at an event in parliament. Not only has Blackman faced no disciplinary action, Theresa May chose to campaign with him in his constituency in March.

There are several other incidents raised by the MCB, including that of a Conservative councillor who shared an article on social media that claimed that French Muslims were “content to live off the state and breed like rabbits”, a council candidate who said Britain should “revoke Muslim immigration” and another candidate who posted a photograph of a rasher of bacon hanging on a door handle, saying: “Protect your house from terrorism.” The MCB says it believes these cases could be the “tip of the iceberg”.

Senior Muslim Conservatives, including Warsi and Lord Sheikh, have backed the call for an independent inquiry. Warsi says she has tried and failed to get these issues addressed by the party leadership and that she believes there is a “simmering underbelly” of Islamophobia in the Conservative party.

If Theresa May continues to ignore these serious accusations, she cannot avoid the charge that Tories are unwilling to meaningfully confront racism in their ranks. Together with Labour’s deplorable failure to tackle its own problems with antisemitism, it creates the unedifying impression that Britain’s two main political parties are more comfortable making political capital out of calling each other out for bigotry than resolving the problems within their own houses.

The Conservative party leadership must also acknowledge its role in encouraging Islamophobia. In 2016, Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for London mayor deployed a series of nasty dogwhistles implying that his Muslim opponent, Sadiq Khan, had links to Islamic extremists. Goldsmith faced no censure and his approach was effectively endorsed by the leadership. David Cameron claimed an imam whom Khan had shared a platform with was “a supporter of IS” in order to discredit Khan, for which he later had to apologise. Theresa May argued Khan was unfit to be mayor “at a time when we face a significant threat from terrorism”.

This is not the only instance where the Tory party has shown its willingness to engage in racialised nods and winks to win votes. The government’s hostile-environment policy, in which private citizens such as landlords are obliged to check people’s papers, increases discrimination against people with foreign names and is ineffective at reducing illegal immigration. Yet it has pursued this policy to win support from voters it fears might otherwise back the far right.

At a time when we have seen rising levels of Islamophobic hate crime in Britain, the Conservatives’ lackadaisical approach to tackling Islamophobia within their own ranks is utterly unacceptable. The party should urgently launch an independent investigation. But the prime minister should also question whether stoking prejudice and discrimination is a price the modern Tory party is willing to pay for attracting votes.


Observer editorial

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