Britain’s Conservatives have long sought to exploit an anti-Semitism scandal in the opposition Labour party, but face accusations they are failing to confront anti-Muslim sentiment in their own ranks.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party has announced a long-awaited review into discrimination in the party, led by psychology professor Swaran Singh, a former member of the equalities watchdog.
But it has drawn accusations of being too broad to address specific and long-running concerns about anti-Muslim attitudes among Conservatives.
The party said the review would “look at how we can improve our processes, to make sure that any instances are isolated and that there are robust processes in place to stamp them out”.
But the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which represents hundreds of organisations including mosques and charities, said it risked being a “whitewash”.
“By broadening the remit and looking at discrimination more generally, it is likely that the review is pre-programmed to ignore the mounting evidence of Islamophobia across the Conservative party,” it said.
The MCB previously warned of a “palpable sense of fear” about bigotry in politics among British Muslims, who in the 2011 census made up 4.8 percent of the population of England and Wales.
The review was also criticised by Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative chairwoman and Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister, who has been outspoken on the issue for years.
“There’s no look at what has actually gone on, there’s no look at the extent of the cases, there’s no detail of how bad the problem has been and how badly it’s been dealt with,” she told BBC radio.
She also criticised Singh’s appointment, saying that he “believes that racism itself is a contested term”. Singh, who has written for Spiked – an online magazine known for its support of far-right figures and whose editor believes Islamophobia is “an invented term mainly designed to shut down critical discussion about Islam” – did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.
Labour has faced accusations of widespread anti-Semitism in recent years, which contributed to their defeat in last week’s general election.
But attention has been shifting to the Conservatives’ record.
The Guardian newspaper last month published details on 25 sitting and former Tory local councillors who, it said, had posted Islamophobic and racist material on social media.
Posts reportedly included calls for mosques to be banned, references to Muslims as “barbarians” and “the enemy within”.
Johnson was accused of fuelling the problem with an article he wrote in 2018, when he was foreign minister, saying Muslim women wearing the full-face veil looked like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.
The article defended the right of women to wear what they choose but research by anti-racism group Tell MAMA showed a 375 percent spike in anti-Muslim incidents following the publication of the comments.
A poll earlier this year found some striking views among ordinary Tory party members.
The YouGov poll for anti-racism group Hope Not Hate found that 40 percent of Tory members said Britain should design its post-Brexit immigration policy to accept fewer Muslims.
Thirty-nine percent said “Islamist terrorists” reflect a widespread hostility to Britain among the Muslim community, while 43 percent said they would prefer not to have a Muslim prime minister.
A separate poll found 56 percent of Conservative party members surveyed said Islam was “generally a threat” to the British way of life.
The Conservatives’ campaign for the 2016 London mayoral election meanwhile drew heavy criticism after attempting to link the victorious Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, to Islamist extremism.
My Party must start healing its relationship with British Muslims
Endorsements from #TommyRobinson & #KatieHopkins & colleagues retweeting both is deeply disturbing
Independent Inquiry into #Islamophobia is a must first step
The battle to root out racism must now intensify 💪🏽 https://t.co/ztK4ICpmNX
— Sayeeda Warsi (@SayeedaWarsi) December 12, 2019
Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission, where Singh previously worked as a commissioner, is looking into complaints against the Tories.
But it has yet to decide on any formal investigation, as there is against Labour over anti-Semitism, a spokeswoman said.
During the recent election campaign, Johnson insisted his party had a “zero-tolerance approach” to incidents of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and any other form of prejudice.
He apologised “for all the hurt and offence that has been caused” by previous incidents, saying it was “intolerable”.
“It’s so important as a country that we don’t allow that kind of thing and that’s why we’re going to have the independent inquiry,” he said.
In an afterword to his own book, The Dream of Rome, Johnson wrote that Islam had kept the Muslim world “literally centuries behind” the West.