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20 March 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 11:38am

The Conservative party has an institutional Islamophobia problem

By Miqdaad Versi

This week we learnt that a man describing himself as a Conservative party member issued the following social media post: “I was going through a few magazines the other day down at the local Mosque. I was really enjoying myself. Then the rifle jammed.”

The revelation comes only days after the Christchurch attack when a terrorist gunman massacred 50 Muslims as they gathered to pray at their local mosque.

Has the Conservative Party taken any action? We do not know. The Conservative Party is so opaque in telling us how it deals with Islamophobia that we have little information about any of the Conservative Party members or activists who have been reported to the Party for this form of growing bigotry. The Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis has belatedly talked tough on this matter in the press, but there has been little transparency and hardly any accountability.

For me, this points to a strategy that rests on the hope that the problem goes away. And in the meantime, the tactic is either to sweep the matter under the carpet, or foster a culture of denial when it comes to Islamophobia, as repeated by Conservative MPs Nicky Morgan, Owen Paterson and Henry Smith.

Mr Lewis claims there is “no place” for Islamophobia in the Party and that “swift action” is taken following any discrimination or abuse, a claim repeated by senior Tories including Vice Chairman James Cleverly, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Tom Tugendhat.

The denial is accompanied by a flat refusal to listen to those experiencing the Islamophobia, even be they loyal Muslims in his own party, like Baroness Warsi or Lord Sheikh, and groupings who want the Conservatives to succeed, such as the Conservative Muslim Forum. Baroness Warsi has been raising concerns for three years in private to no avail, and says she has no option but to publicly raise cases to shame the Party into action.

And Conservative party members in the Portsmouth South constituency said that Chairman Brandon Lewis has failed to acknowledge repeated requests to investigate a dozen alleged racist and Islamophobic incidents.

Take the case of Michael Franklin whose Islamophobic retweets were known 1,000 days before he was expelled. This only happened after Baroness Sayeeda Warsi highlighted his case in public.

Or consider the chair of South Shields Conservative Association Ajay Jagota who felt he had no option but to resign from his post as his complaints of Tory Islamophobia were ignored. He states that “it seems like there was a deliberate attempt to sweep the complaint under the carpet in the hope that it would go away”. After his resignation, even though Downing Street got involved to assure him of a response, Mr Jagota did not receive anything from CCHQ.

If this does not indicate an institutional problem, then what does?

During a period when there were clearly outstanding cases which the chairman Brandon Lewis knew about, he instead had the audacity to publicly proclaim that there were “none outstanding”, leading to questions of whether Mr Lewis deliberately misleading the public on this issue – questions he has chosen not to directly answer.

Outside the party, hundreds of mosques and Muslim institutions have written to the Conservative Party, as has, on several occasions, the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest umbrella body of Muslim organisations in the UK, which most Muslims think is doing a good job in representing them. Yet the Conservative Party, for some reason best known to themselves, refuses to seriously engage with this and other grassroots Muslim bodies. Compare and contrast this treatment with organisations belonging to other faith communities.

 Mr Lewis has lost the trust of many Muslim communities. Given the above and the many cases raised in the past weeks, there is a serious problem that needs independent scrutiny. There needs to be a root-to-branch independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the party.

Thus far we have been fobbed off by a laughable and unaccountable complaints process.

Questions need to be asked as to why Islamophobia has been tolerated in the Party for so long. Why did an entire party machinery tolerate Zac Goldsmith’s racist campaign for Mayor of London, with even the former Prime Minister David Cameron, former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and then Home Secretary Theresa May directly involved? Why was no action taken against former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Bob Blackman MP or Nadine Dorries MP, whose infractions were significantly worse than councillors who have subsequently been suspended?

Why does there appear to be a culture of silencing dissent, such as when a Muslim Conservative was told by Shaun Bailey to “suck it up” when he wanted to raise discrimination – a fact that contradicts Mr Bailey’s claim of not feeling racism in the Party? Given Mr Bailey’s previous statements about Muslims, one has to wonder how he can remain the party’s choice for the mayor of one of the most diverse cities in the world.

Why are Islamophobes being let back into the Party, such as the Conservative leader of Swale Borough Council, who was returned 13 days after being suspended? How many other such cases are there?

Above all, we need to ask ourselves this: is today’s Conservative party the go-to place for Islamophobes? According to a Hope Not Hate study, almost half (49 per cent) of Conservative voters see Islam as a threat to the British way of life, with a similar number (47 per cent) believing the false conspiracy theory that there are no-go areas where sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter.

Perhaps the most upsetting reality that has dawned on many following this story, is that no senior Conservatives – other than from the three who have left the party – feel comfortable in speaking out in support of an independent inquiry, even those whose anti-racism credentials are well established.

To the hundreds of thousands Muslims across the country whose values align with the party, the message seems to be that this party does not care – a deeply hurtful message that has to change.

Miqdaad Versi is a spokesman for and former assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.

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