By M. Afzal Khan MP
IN an article published on 1 April, Conservative Party Chairman, Brandon Lewis, wrote about how “a single case of anti-Muslim hatred in the Tory party is one too many”.
Muslims might be forgiven for thinking Lewis was pulling an April Fools’ Day stunt. Just last week, the Conservative Party further suspended 20 members over Islamophobia, including former advisor Roger Scruton, with some members calling Muslims “muzz rats”, “sub human scum” and even asking : “why have we got them in our country?”.
Cross-party calls – as well as calls from the Muslim community and key organisations such as MCB, MEND, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, even associations affiliated to the party like the Conservative Muslim Forum – for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, continue to fall on politically deaf ears. Furthermore, the Tory Party has shown how they are in denial through their refusal to accept the definition of Islamophobia which has the confidence of over 800 organisations and has been adopted by the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Mayors of London and Greater Manchester, as well as councils across the country. Defining and naming a problem is the first step in rooting it out.
During the first Prime Minister’s Questions of April, I asked the Prime Minister about Islamophobia in her party, and her answer fell woefully short. That marked the third occasion I had raised this issue with the PM, and the third occasion on which she has refused to adopt the APPG British Muslim’s definition of Islamophobia, which we will debate in the House of Commons today/on Thursday. Until they accept the definition, the problem of Islamophobia within the Tory Party – let alone the rest of society – will continue to be wholly ignored.
I have written to Mr Lewis on numerous occasions, but he has not had the courtesy to even reply. It was even more disappointing to learn that in his article for The Times he did not even mention the word Islamophobia.
I ask again, how can the Tory Party possibly deal with a problem they can’t even name?
It is worrying for a political party to stay silent and sit on the side-lines while its members actively engage in Islamophobic speech and behaviours.
Boris Johnson’s notorious comments a few months ago, where he likened Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ is not just derogatory, it has resulted in Muslim women being abused with those same words while going about their daily business. Regardless of political affiliation, an MP has no right to ask a woman to remove her burqa, so that he can ‘talk to them properly’. This type of attitude cannot go on unchecked and acts of Islamophobia must be held to account.
This is not a new problem for the Conservative Party. So brazen was the Islamophobic prejudice within the party that, in October 2017, Bob Blackman, Tory MP for Harrow East, hosted anti-Muslim extremist Tapan Ghosh at an event in the House of Commons; the heart of our democracy. Ghosh is an Indian Hindu-nationalist who has praised the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Burma and stated; “Shame on Rohingya men. Shame on Islam. Seeing this reproduction rate, how can we blame the Myanmar Buddhists for driving them out[?]”. Blackman hosted such a preacher of hatred without any formal repercussions from his party. To add insult to injury, a reception held in ‘honour’ of Ghosh was attended several Tory Cabinet ministers including then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.
Moreover, the blatantly Islamophobic mayoral campaign held against Sadiq Khan has yet to be acknowledged. I doubt the letter the PM sent to Sadiq this week, in which she also failed to write the word Islamophobia, will bring any comfort to the Mayor of London that the party has learnt a lesson from its scandalous campaign in 2016.
When such sentiments are openly propagated within the upper echelons of an organisation, we should probably not be surprised by polling data from YouGov in February 2019 which showed that around two in three Conservative supporters believe that there is “a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society”.
The conduct of Brandon Lewis and much of the Tory Leadership, including the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, has been one of continual denial when discussing the issue of Islamophobia; even when it is pointed out by well-respected figures within their own party, such as former Co-Chairwoman, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi as well as members of the Conservative Muslim Forum. There is a consensus within the Muslim community that an independent inquiry is desperately needed, and this plea cannot be ignored.
This denial and head-in-the-sand approach can only result in the continued cultivation of Islamophobia which is systemic at every level of the party.
This is not a matter of party-political tit-for-tat. Political parties have an undeniable duty to root out all forms of bigotry in order to ensure that they truly represent the diverse society in which we live and ensure that every single member of our society feels engaged, protected, respected, and valued.
Therefore, I once again urge the Party Chairman to take concrete steps in tackling Islamophobia. As a fundamental first step, the Conservatives must urgently initiate an inquiry into Islamophobia within the party and adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia. Moreover, it is essential that this definition is explicitly embedded within the party code of conduct in order to ensure that all transgressions cease to be tolerated. The lack of transparency thus far over this issue reinforces the institutional nature of Islamophobia in the Tory Party.
Brandon Lewis, a single case of Islamophobia in the Tory party really is one too many and it is your responsibility to do something about it.
(Mohammed Afzal Khan, CBE is a British Labour Party politician who serves as a Member of Parliament for the Manchester Gorton constituency, after his election on 8 June 2017. He was formerly Lord Mayor of Manchester for 2005–2006, and a Member of the European Parliament representing North West England from 2014–2017.)