Here in Britain we like celebrating ourselves on how far we’ve come in dealing with racism. The days of National Front marching the streets are gone, and the political parties have cleaned up too. You won’t see Tory posters feeding fear of immigrant neighbours if Labour come into power. Racism is the distant past it would seem.
And yet today the Tories stand accused of racism once more. There is an issue of Islamophobia spreading like a virus in the party that once again raises questions as to whether there are barriers between the Tories and the far-right or it’s all really just one big revolving door.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) accused the Tories of having an issue of institutional Islamophobia within its structures. This was supported by over 350 mosques and Muslim organisations. They pointed to a lengthy list of councillors suspended for bigoted remarks, party members accused of such and while the MP Bob Blackman has been known to have promoted virulently Islamophobic content and associated himself with the likes of Tommy Robinson and the Hindu nationalist Tapan Ghosh.
Labour Party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn supported calls for an independent inquiry but this, it could be argued, is tinged with political opportunism and hypocrisy. Labour have demonstrated impotency and at times a lack of political will in treating anti-Semitism within its own ranks with the seriousness it deserves. To condemn structural racism existing within another political party because that party is your direct rival will not sit well with many anti-racist campaigners.
Some of those suspended from the Conservative party have been for some genuinely shocking comments or endorsements of them. Mike Payne, a councillor in Calderdale, was suspended in April after he shared an article that referred to Muslims in France as “parasites” and derided them as freeloaders content to live off the welfare state. Alexander van Terheyden, a Hackney council candidate, was also suspended in April after it emerged that he attended a rally addressed by Tommy Robinson. Terheyden however insisted he was not prejudiced against Muslims but was simply anti-Islam. Philippa Auton, a prospective Tory council candidate in Hounslow, stood down after it was revealed that she had retweeted Tommy Robinson and, in response to a Guardian tweet on how to prevent future terror attacks, believed in reversing Muslim immigration. Most shockingly, David Boston posted a picture of bacon wrapped around a door handle captioned with “Protect your house from terrorism. Stay safe lads”.
The Tories have always had a problem with racism, and perhaps this is proof that it wasn’t swept away but just brushed under the carpet. Now a shaft of light poured over it, and there is nowhere to hide.
As Nesrine Malik wrote in the Guardian, “the Conservative Party has a problem with Muslims… the problem has been growing unchecked for years.” The 2016 London Mayoral Election was an example of not just a lack of political will to confront anti-Muslim bigotry but in fact, a willingness to weaponise it when necessary. The entire campaign of Zac Goldsmith ran on dog-whistle politics, implying that Sadiq Khan, being a Muslim, was unfit to fight extremism. It played on the politics of prejudice and division that ultimately alienated potential voters.
Critics of this would argue that the appointment of Sajid Javid as home secretary rebuffs the notion of Islamophobia existing on a structural level within the party. Javid himself dismissed the accusations, pointing to his rise within the party as proof of a ladder existing for Tory Muslims. Javid also indicated that the MCB had extremist ties and could therefore not be trusted as a legitimate source to communicate with on this matter.
There is however one problem with parading Sajid Javid as the emblem of inclusivity of Muslims within the party. Javid, by his own admission, has admitted he is not a practising Muslim and in fact Christianity is the religion practised in his house. He has worn his Muslim identity like a jumper, treating as cultural more than religious. There is nothing inherently wrong in this and many Muslims, including myself, have done this ourselves. But it does become an issue when that identity is embraced conveniently to absolve the party of any wrongdoing over Islamophobia. As the journalist Hussein Kesvani tweeted, Javid “has been on record several times saying he wasn’t Muslim”. There is a mountain of evidence, and it is simply growing, that the Tories have not dealt with Islamophobia well.
Others would argue that Javid himself is being deeply hypocritical on this matter. The Home Secretary has been fairly robust in his condemnation of Labour’s failings regarding anti-Semitism. But where it concerns his own party, he has arguably fallen short in promising to make the party a safe space for Muslim members.
There’s a degree of truth to what Javid says about the Muslim Council of Britain but the main problem with this is that the criticisms of Islamophobia have also been internal rather than simply emanating from outside voices. A Muslim member of the party was told by a councillor that he was not welcome in the party. Mohammed Amin, who is the chairman for the Conservative Muslim Forum, accused his party of failing to handle Islamophobia and supported calls for an independent inquiry into the party’s soaring levels of anti-Muslim prejudice.
“The Conservative Muslim Forum decided unanimously that the matter was so serious that we should make our positions known publicly,” he told the BBC. It follows Tory peer Baroness Warsi also calling for investigations into Islamophobia within the party. This cannot simply be spun as point-scoring from opponents of the party when the genesis of these criticisms are from within.
These criticisms require attention and not dismissals. The appointment of Sajid Javid as home secretary is not evidence of the Tories having no issues with Islamophobia. The catalogue of prejudiced remarks by councillors across the years and the barely concealed racism of Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign has crystallised an issue allowed to fester within the party.