UK’s ruling Conservative Party has Islamophobia ‘problem’: Report

Most reports of discrimination within the party relate to anti-Muslim sentiment, a study finds, as Boris Johnson is criticised over ‘insensitive’ burqa comments.

Boris Johnson was criticised in the report for his comment in 2018 likening Muslim women who wear the face veil to letter boxes [File: Matt Dunham/Pool via Reuters]

Islamophobia “remains a problem” within the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party despite its claim to have a “zero-tolerance” approach towards discrimination, according to an independent report.

Tuesday’s study (PDF) by Professor Swaran Singh, who has served as a commissioner for the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, found that most discrimination within the party relates to anti-Muslim racism.

The party received reports of 727 incidents of discrimination from the beginning of 2015 to the end of 2020, two-thirds of which alleged Islamophobia.

The study was commissioned by the party, which is led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in response to criticism of its handling of discrimination and complaints.

“Judging by the extent of complaints and findings of misconduct by the party itself that relate to anti-Muslim words and conduct, anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the party,” Singh wrote in his 51-page report.

“This is damaging to the party, and alienates a significant section of society.”

Singh said the Conservatives have not been active enough in challenging discrimination, adding that its complaints procedure needed to be overhauled.

The party’s sanctions system for those who breached the rules was unclear, he said.

However, he also claimed that there was “no evidence” that complaints of Islamophobia were treated differently from other forms of discrimination.

The Conservative Party said it was considering the report’s recommendations.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella body, said while Singh’s report “rightly recognises that Islamophobia has been a serious issue” for the Conservatives, it failed to acknowledge “the root causes of this bigotry”.

Zara Mohammed, MCB’s secretary-general, said: “The investigation primarily deals with form over substance. Procedure is important, but it needs to be underpinned by dealing with the deep-seated issues of institutional racism.”

“We hope that this is the starting point of the party’s own self-reflection.”

Former Conservative cabinet minister Sajid Javid decried the “distressing examples of anti-Muslim sentiment” in the report and urged his party to “unconditionally” adopt its recommendations.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of Parliament’s upper chamber House of Lords, said the report demonstrated how the party was “at best unable and at worst unwilling to deal with the issue of racism”.

Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow equalities minister, described the study as a “damning indictment of the discrimination rife in the Conservative Party”.

“It goes all the way up to the prime minister,” she said, as she urged Johnson to make “a full and proper public apology that acknowledges the pain and hurt he has caused in the Muslim community”.

PM Johnson criticised

Singh highlighted remarks made by prominent party members – including Johnson and Zac Goldsmith, a former MP and London mayoral candidate – as problematic.

Johnson notoriously wrote a newspaper column in 2018 in which he referred to women wearing burqas (a full-body veil that covers the face as well) as “going around looking like letterboxes” and likened their appearance to “bank robbers”.

Johnson, who was a backbench MP when the editorial was published, defended the article as a liberal defence of a Muslim woman’s right to choose what she wore.

Johnson was interviewed for Singh’s investigation and issued a qualified apology for the offence caused by his past remarks about Islam.

“I do know that offence has been taken at things I’ve said, that people expect a person in my position to get things right, but in journalism you need to use language freely. I am obviously sorry for any offence taken,” the report quoted Johnson as saying.

“Would I use some of the offending language from my past writings today? Now that I am Prime Minister, I would not.”

In response, Singh wrote in his report: “While this could be considered leading by example, the investigation would like to emphasise that using measured and appropriate language should not be a requirement solely for senior people, but ought to be expected throughout the Conservative Party.”

Meanwhile, Goldsmith’s unsuccessful, divisive 2016 mayoral election campaign saw him accuse rival Labour candidate Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, of providing “cover for extremists”.

He also said Khan had “tried to silence questions about his links [to extremists] by shamelessly accusing anyone who raises them of being Islamophobic”.

Both incidents involving Johnson and Goldsmith “give the impression to many that the party and its leadership are insensitive to Muslim communities”, Singh said.

Singh made several recommendations.

Within six weeks, the party should have an action plan on how it will address the failings found in the report, and by November, it should publish a policy on how complaints are handled, he said.

Singh also called for mandatory training on the complaints process for at least one member of every local party association.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies