Britain’s Conservative Party has an Islamophobia problem
Maya Good, writer and researcher. Her work mostly focuses on politics, and ‘race’ and racism in the UK/ Aljazeera
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.
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”.
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.