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1 June 2018

As a Muslim member of the Tory party, I saw Islamophobia firsthand

I was inspired by David Cameron’s attempt to modernise the party. But I soon learned it was only a veneer. 

By Shazia Awan-Scully

There is a problem in the Conservative Party – and not just the trials of Brexit. It is the contempt many at both the grassroots and elected levels show towards Islam.

The Muslim Council of Britain has sent an open letter to Conservative party chair Brandon Lewis with a list of examples of elected officials making horrifically Islamaphobic comments, including a councillor calling Muslims “parasites”. The letter also accused the MP Bob Blackman of fostering Islamophobia in the party.

Although I have my own reservations about the Muslim Council of Britain, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. I should know – as a strong, Welsh Muslim woman of colour and an ex-Conservative.

The Conservative Party first captivated me in 2007. The new leader, David Cameron, was intent on modernising the party, and appointed a Muslim woman to his shadow cabinet in the form of Sayeeda Warsi. I thought: “Here is a man promising to change the face and feel of the party – and delivering on it.”

And so, in the not-so-distant past, I became the first woman of colour to even address a Conservative party conference in Wales, and stand as a council and parliamentary candidate for the party. Amongst all of this, I was eagerly recruited to a steering group of Conservative Muslim women and youth. It was all very fast and exciting. Now, though, as I cast my mind back to my Conservative party journey, I realise I was often made to feel like some sort of exotic exhibit. I was the token, tick box exercise – a modern Muslim woman that they could show off. 

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My time in the party was far from perfect, but then no political party is without its flaws. What makes the Conservative Party unique, however, is the put up and shut up attitude. My breaking point was April 2016. The divisive and repugnant London Mayoral campaign run by the Tory nominee Zac Goldsmith against Labour’s Muslim candidate, Sadiq Khan, was making me sick to my stomach. I felt compelled to speak up in the pages of the New Statesman. This campaign was Islamophobic. How else could one explain the campaign literature declaring: “His party supports a wealth tax on family jewellery…  As a government minister he did not use his position to speak about Sri Lanka or the Tamil community.” Words like “radical” and “dangerous” were used – words easily associated with terror and extremism. 

Goldsmith lost, but the party didn’t seem to learn anything. Last year, it re-hired controversial election strategist Lynton Crosby, the brain behind the London mayoral campaign.

Yet if I had looked, I could have spotted the signs earlier. It was as far back as 2011 that Sayeeda Warsi, then the Conservative party chairman, said that Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test” and become widely socially acceptable in Britain. No doubt she has had her fair share of Conservative dinner parties! Meanwhile, I remember being once told at a party event: “You don’t look like you’re a Muslim – you’re not even wearing the head thing [hijab], had you not said I wouldn’t have guessed.” This was followed up by: “It’s really refreshing to see your family have ‘allowed’ you to be politically active.” The implication, being, of course, that Muslim women are all oppressed little meek creatures seeking our fathers or husband’s permission to do anything.

Although many of the recent slurs cited by the Muslim Council of Britain were by activists, the discriminatory attitude towards Muslims comes from the very top. I still haven’t forgotten the letter sent by then-Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, and endorsed by Cameron, which asked Muslim leaders to “explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”.

Then there is the support for Narendra Modi, who might be the Indian prime minister but is also a hardline Hindu nationalist and forever associated with the riots that happened on his watch as chief minister of Gujurat, in which Indian Muslims were massacred. Tellingly, Cameron sent a letter during the 2016 mayoral election to Hindu and Sikh Londoners which declared: “Closer ties between the UK and India have been a priority for me as Prime Minister. I was pleased to join Zac and thousands of British Gujaratis in welcoming Prime Minister Modi to the UK last year.” 

Modi fans who have occupied senior positions in government include the former minister Priti Patel, who declared she was “proud” to call him a friend. Either the Conservative party wants to exploit historic divisions between communities or it is too ignorant to understand what it is doing. Then you have the afore-mentioned Blackman, who hosted an event featuring controversial Hindu nationalist, Tapan Ghosh, in parliament. Ghosh has appeared alongside figures on the British far-right, namely Tommy Robinson.

The Conservative Party and many within it seem to have a notion that Islam is not compatible with British values and therefore not compatible with the Conservative Party. Yet the core principles of Islam are those of honesty, tolerance, justice, fairness and respect for all people. There is no reason core British and Muslim values should not overlap. 

When she was the home secretary, Theresa May pledged to make anti-Muslim hate crimes a more serious offence. Yet hate crimes jumped by 23 per cent in the 11 months after the EU referendum, shortly after which May became Prime Minister. Anti-Muslim attacks on the street also rose 47 per cent in 2016 compared to the year before, according to Islamophobia monitoring service Tell Mama. Perhaps she needs to take a look at her own party first and lead by example. 

As for me, I realised was I could not pursue the values of openness, tolerance and inclusivity that are dear to me whilst a member of the Conservative Party. I’m proud to say I joined Welsh Labour earlier this year.