In June, a message pinged on Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi’s phone. “Right, sorted out that Conservative party Islamophobia investigation!” it read triumphantly. The sender? Sajid Javid, who was then home secretary.
Earlier that evening, during a televised Tory leadership debate, Javid had bounced his fellow contenders, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, into apparently agreeing to the Conservatives holding an independent inquiry into Islamophobia.
For Lady Warsi, who had tirelessly campaigned against Islamophobia for years, having been the country’s first female Muslim cabinet minister, it was a moment she had longed to see. Unable to contain her delight, she tweeted her thanks to Javid, who now serves as chancellor. “It’s a shame,” she added, “that it’s taken four years and a leadership contest to finally drag my colleagues kicking and screaming to address this issue.”
Speaking at her home in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, Warsi recalls her initial elation. “I thought wow, we’ve finally broken through,” she says, revealing that though she had been lobbying Javid behind the scenes she had no idea he was going to call for the inquiry during the debate.
Now, however, it appears that that commitment has been watered down. Earlier this month, days after Gove insisted that the Tories would “absolutely” hold an independent inquiry into Islamophobia before the end of the year, Johnson performed a U-turn. It would instead be a “general investigation into prejudice of all kinds”.
This is not the first time Warsi has found herself at odds with her colleagues. “I’m really, really hesitant about making this Sayeeda v the Tory party,” she says, but “it’s increasingly becoming like that because there are so few other voices.”
This is the party that she once chaired. “There is a lot of emotional attachment here. It’s like a really painful divorce. It does feel like I’m in an abusive relationship at the moment, where I’m with somebody that I really shouldn’t be with. It’s not healthy for me to be there any more with the Conservative party.”
It’s hard to deny the Tories have a problem with Islamophobia. Yesterday, as the chief rabbi claimed the “poison” of antisemitism had taken root within the Labour party, the Muslim Council of Britain said that the Tories had a “blind spot” for Islamophobia. And Javid’s pledge followed a string of damaging revelations, via Buzzfeed, the BBC and ITV News and the Guardian.
In March, this newspaper revealed how 15 Conservative councillors who were suspended over posting Islamophobic or racist content online had their membership quietly reinstated. Some had described Saudis as “sand peasants” or shared material comparing Asian people to dogs.
In April, the Guardian exposed how two Conservative local election candidates and a woman honoured with an MBE were among 40 new self-professed Tory members who shared or endorsed racist and inflammatory Facebook posts, including Islamophobic material. This time, Muslims had been described as “bin-bag-wearing individuals”, there had been calls for the “cult” of Islam to be banned and the Qur’an had been branded an “evil book”.
In the same month it emerged that Nusrat Ghani, the UK’s only female Muslim minister, had been bombarded with emails from a Conservative activist praising Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and questioning whether immigrants should be allowed to stand for parliament.
This month, the Guardian was passed a dossier compiled by the holder of an anonymous Twitter account, @matesjacob, exposing past and sitting councillors who have posted Islamophobic and racist material on social media. To date, @matesjacob says he has unearthed more than 200 examples of self-declared Tory members, as well as current and former councillors, who have made Islamophobic or racist posts. The party has often responded to these disclosures with suspensions but has faced criticism for the opaque nature of its complaints process.
In June, a survey by YouGov for the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate found that more than half of Tory party members believe Islam is a threat to “the British way of life”.
Javid – who put his Pakistani family heritage at the heart of his leadership bid – appeared to have fallen into line with No 10 about the revised inquiry, telling the BBC: “It makes absolute sense to look at all types of prejudice.”
Warsi says Javid has faced a “huge amount of pressure to pull back”, adding: “He’s chancellor of the exchequer. He’s got the second or third most powerful role in government and he still doesn’t feel like he can exercise power? I get this art of playing politics to get to a position where you’re increasingly more powerful … but I think that politicians are so focused on amassing power that they forget about what they’re amassing it for.”
But she is also sympathetic towards the chancellor, who has acknowledged a “Muslim heritage” but practises no religion. “I think deep down he does genuinely care about this stuff,” she says. “Because if you take the definition of Islamophobia, it’s not about religiosity or Islam or whether you’re actually a Muslim, it’s Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
Indeed, Javid’s government has faced criticism for rejecting a working definition of Islamophobia along those lines set out by a cross-party report adopted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Conservatives.
In a statement, Javid told the Guardian: “I remember vividly being called a ‘Paki bastard’ in the school playground. Like Sayeeda, and so many others, I know what it’s like to face prejudice – as a child, in the workplace and in politics. I pay tribute to all those calling out discrimination wherever they see it. We will only defeat racism by working together. We will investigate anti-Muslim hatred as part of an inquiry into all kinds of prejudice.”
Warsi thrust the issue of British Islamophobia into the spotlight in 2011, while serving in David Cameron’s cabinet. This bigotry had, she said, “passed the dinner-table test” and become widely acceptable. In 2015, by which time she had resigned from the cabinet because of the government’s “morally indefensible” stance on the Gaza crisis, she raised the issue of Islamophobia in the Conservatives. Late that year, she began informally contacting the party chairman’s office about anti-Muslim hatred perpetrated by Conservatives on social media but says she encountered a “bureaucracy wall”. In October 2017, the Tory backbench MP Bob Blackman sparked outrage when he hosted Tapan Ghosh, an anti-Islamic extremist who once praised the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, as keynote speaker in parliament. In 2018, Warsi went public with a call for the Conservatives to hold an inquiry.
Warsi, 48, the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant mill worker who later built a £2m-a-year bed manufacturing company, makes it clear that campaigning has taken its toll. “There are times when you look out to beautiful greenery in peaceful Yorkshire when I think, I don’t know why I bother with this any more.”
However, she says, “I know that for the sake of the future I have to stay. I can’t just say: ‘Look, I’ve had enough, see you later, bye bye.’” Asked if her party is pushing her away, she pauses before saying: “I don’t think it makes it easy for me to stay …”
Has she seriously considered leaving the Tories? “I’ve considered leaving politics, not just the Conservative party. I’ve considered walking away from Westminster, full stop.” Over Islamophobia? “Over generally the state of politics, the way in which politics is done … There are so many lies that are told, there’s very little fact and logical reasoning. The general nastiness around the space.” But Islamophobia has “forced” her back to the frontline.
She has not been entirely alone in her battle. The former Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim says the party is in denial over the extent of Islamophobia and risks becoming the Brexit party “in all but name”.
In 2013, he says he overheard two MPs, one of whom is a serving minister, “having an Islamophobic conversation about me and my religious and cultural background”. He will not name the minister but says that, after going public, he was contacted by Conservative HQ and asked whether he would like to make a complaint using the standard procedure. He declined because of the “delicate” nature of the complaint but said he would meet with the chairman, James Cleverly, “setting out exactly what happened so that he can go away and deal with it”. He says he never heard back.
Karim, who was an MEP for 15 years before losing his seat earlier this year, doubts his former party colleagues’ willingness to tackle – or even acknowledge – the problem. “They just see it as a nuisance. Those of us that are bringing it up and reminding them of this issue are just regarded as banging on about something that is damaging the party and not really an issue in itself.”
Warsi has also raised concerns about the views of senior government figures, warning earlier this year that she feared Michael Gove becoming prime minster because of his views on Muslims. Now she goes further, saying she has “no doubt” Gove – who wrote a controversial book in 2006 called Celsius 7/7 about Islamism in the UK – is Islamophobic. “I think Michael’s view is there is no such thing as a non-problematic Muslim. I think that in his world there’s an extremist lurking behind anyone who professes to be connected to Islam or Muslims in any way shape or form,” she explains.
“On one occasion the prime minister, David [Cameron] pulled him up on it around the cabinet table for some comment that he made. He just turned around and went: ‘Enough, Michael.’ It was about Muslims.” A spokesman for Gove calls these claims “categorically untrue”.
In relation to Johnson, who prompted outrage by writing last year that woman wearing burqas looked like “letter boxes” and argued in 2007 that Islam caused the Muslim world to be “literally centuries behind”, she is more sympathetic, describing him as a “centre-ground, liberal Conservative”.
“He’s made stupid remarks and I think he thinks he’s too clever by half. That’s just part of that well-to-do white privilege that comes in certain spaces, but I don’t think it’s pernicious … I don’t think he’s Islamophobic. I do not think he wants to go out and attack Muslims simply for being Muslim or wants to make life difficult for them. I genuinely don’t believe that. He’s no Michael Gove.”
Mohammed Amin, the former chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, who has also called for an independent inquiry, has been aware of extreme views in the party for decades. He joined the Tories in 1983, he says, “because I believed in the economic ideology”, despite “knowing it was full of old white racists”. He felt the party reached out to ethnic minority voters under Cameron’s reign but that a turning point was reached in 2016 during the Tory London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith’s campaign. Afterwards, Amin spoke out in dismay at Goldsmith’s efforts to smear Labour’s Sadiq Khan as a “closet extremist”.
Last year, Amin persuaded colleagues at the forum to back a call for an inquiry, arguing that it “couldn’t simply be a silent bystander”. In June, however, he was expelled from the forum after attacking Johnson’s moral integrity during a Radio 4 interview in which he compared his popularity to Adolf Hitler’s. When Johnson took over as leader, Amin resigned from the party and defected to the Lib Dems.
He now describes Islamophobia in the Conservatives as a “slow-motion disaster”, adding: “There’s an institutional problem inside the party about being transparent about anything, and that has seriously impaired its ability to get to grips with the Islamophobic problem – and to be seen to be getting to grips with it. And an unwillingness to really ask the question: what is it about the Conservative party that attracts these people?”
Earlier this month, Kyle Pedley, the deputy chair of Stourbridge Conservative Association in the West Midlands, resigned, feeling “aghast”, after claiming he witnessed a Muslim man who was seeking to be chosen as a council candidate being interrogated about his religion by party officers during a selection meeting. He says the man was asked: “Are you really a Muslim? Do you pray five times a day? How many times a year do you go to the mosque?” The local chair denied any Islamophobia.
Kishan Devani, a former Tory parliamentary candidate and deputy chair of the party in London, quit the Conservatives in late 2017 because he felt uncomfortable with a failure to deal with Islamophobia and because of what he saw as a lurch to the right. Devani, who is of a Hindu background, and is now standing as a parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems in Wales, said: “I heard of the way people were talked down, the way people were sidelined because of their race and their background and their religion. I thought, ‘This is disgusting – this cannot be how people are treated.’”
With the party’s eyes fixed firmly on the election, there could be more trouble on the horizon for the Conservatives. In May, the Muslim Council of Britain filed a complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), urging the watchdog to investigate Islamophobia in the Tory party. Since then, the Tories have submitted evidence and the EHRC – which is separately investigating Labour over antisemitism – says it is still considering whether any action is needed.
Warsi, for one, feels there is more work to be done. She is sceptical about Johnson’s motivation for broadening the inquiry, but says she would still get involved, revealing that a senior party official recently sounded her out about taking part. “If that’s the only way to get scrutiny, I’m not just going to sit back and have a monk [sulk] on, as they say in Yorkshire.” But, she says firmly, she is “not prepared to rubber-stamp some nonsensical inquiry”.