How many times does Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s first Muslim woman cabinet member, have to say the same thing to be heard? For the past couple of years, she has been trying to make her colleagues and the press listen to her when she says Islamophobia is a serious issue in the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, she has repeatedly been ignored.
Last week, she raised the issue once again: She accused Prime Minister Theresa May of “burying her head in the sand” over Islamophobia, adding that she believes the Tories had become “institutionally Islamophobic“. For once, her complaints seemed to get some traction – not long after her comments made headlines in the British media, fourteen Conservative Party members were suspended for Islamophobic Facebook posts. But a few suspensions don’t get to the heart of the matter – the scale and the roots of the problem are still being drowned out.
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When asked about Baroness Warsi’s comments Conservative MP Henry Smith gave a flavour of just how Britain’s governing elite fails to understand racism in general and Islamophobia in particular – he claimed Islamophobia wasn’t a significant issue in the Conservative Party because “he hadn’t come across it”.
This, unfortunately, seems to be the logic used by many Conservative politicians when dealing with accusations of racism directed at their party. Their thinking goes, if they do not see or experience something, there is no issue. Of course, they do not dwell too much on the fact that they clearly wouldn’t be natural targets of institutional Islamophobia or any other form of racial or religious discrimination.
Nevertheless, even if you were to take Smith’s measure of how to judge whether Islamophobia is a serious issue in the Conservative Party, you have to wonder where he’s been looking to arrive at the conclusion he did. Just look at the recent roll call of high-profile Tories who’ve been accused of Islamophobia.
In the summer of 2016, Tory Zac Goldsmith, who, up until then, was mostly known for his green credentials, ran against Labour candidate Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race. The Conservatives – with well-known strategist Lynton Crosby working behind the scenes – chose to fuel Goldsmith’s campaign with racism.
They used loaded language, describing Khan, a British Pakistani Muslim, as “radical and divisive” and even suggesting that he is a closeted “extremist”. They also distributed leaflets in areas of London where British Indians and Tamils are in majority, warning that Khan could not be trusted. While Muslims within the Conservative Party expressed their outrage at these decisions, Michael Fallon, defence secretary at the time, said it was part of the “rough and tumble” of politics and then-Prime Minister David Cameron chose to stay silent.
In 2018, Boris Johnson, former foreign secretary who casually drops in racist remarks while he performs the “bumbling politician” role he’s spent years perfecting, compared Muslim women in burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” in a Daily Telegraph essay. Despite a fair amount of public outrage, he refused to apologise.
Islamophobic messages play well with Conservative voters
One reason behind the Conservative Party’s reluctance to acknowledge its Islamophobia problem appears to be the prevalence of Islamophobic attitudes across certain segments of the British population – segments that are inclined to vote Conservative.
Anti-Muslim views in the UK are widespread and not confined to one party or political orientation. However, a recent report by the anti-fascist group HOPE not hate found Conservative voters are more likely to have anti-Muslim views. The report showed that just under half of those who voted for May’s party in the last general election, for instance, think Islam is a “threat” to the British way of life.
The Conservatives, eager to hold on to their voters and stay in government, seem to be turning a blind eye to, and at times reinforcing, these ideas without thinking about the consequences.
When ignored, these ideas start to become more and more mainstream, and fuel the rise of the far right. When politicians like Johnson and Goldsmith imply that Muslims are “dangerous”, “different” and even “hostile” and get away with it, and when their colleagues – like Smith – try to deny the mere existence of a problem despite mounting evidence to the contrary, they contribute to the mainstreamisation of Islamophobia in Britain.
Earlier this month, when Labour MP Naz Shah asked Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, to call a debate on Islamophobia , she was told to speak to the Foreign Office about it. It’s almost as if Leadsom doesn’t think you can be Muslim and British.
Leadsom’s shocking response to Shah appears to reflect a far-right idea that Muslims have a different “culture” and different “values” that are at odds with British or Western “culture”. It’s these racialised ideas that drive far-right narratives into our everyday lives and have been some of the underlying forces behind the moral panic over refugees trying to reach safety in Europe. These ideas help legitimise restrictive, violent domestic and foreign policy.
So, the issue of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party is not primarily a question of offensive language. The real issue is the ideas and beliefs that lie behind the offending words. The idea that Muslims do not belong to Britain and that they are a threat to the UK filter into how British Muslims are treated and seen in their own country, and also shape the British public’s attitudes towards foreign Muslims seeking refuge here.
The Conservative Party indeed has an Islamophobia problem. And this issue should not be used for political football, or boiled down to the acts of individual people. Islamophobia in the Conservative Party is institutional and should be dealt as such. If the politicians leading us continue to ignore this problem, the consequences could be dire – both for the party and Britain at large.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.