Ministers 'pandering to far right' by not calling out Islamophobia, says ex-government adviser

Ministers are "pandering to the far right" by not calling Lee Anderson's remarks Islamophobic, a former government adviser on the issue has told Sky News.

Imam Qari Asim, who was the last person to hold the post of independent Islamophobia adviser to the government, said it had been "disappointing" to see senior Conservatives refusing to define the Ashfield MP's comments as Islamophobic.

And he claimed members of the Muslim community had "lost any confidence" in the party to tackle anti-Muslim hatred.

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The interview comes as calls are growing for the prime minister to appoint a new adviser amid the fall-out from Mr Anderson's comments.

He was suspended from the Conservative Party last weekend after he refused to apologise for claiming "Islamists" had taken "control" of London and that Labour mayor Sadiq Khan had "given our capital city away to his mates".

There has been wide condemnation of the remarks from ministers, but they - and Rishi Sunak - have repeatedly refused to classify them as Islamophobic.

Former Tory minister Rehman Chishti told Sky News' Politics Hub With Sophy Ridge that the decision to categorise the comments should be taken by an independent adviser, rather than politicians, and criticised the prime minister for failing to appoint one since coming into office.

Now the Liberal Democrats have written to the government, calling on them to take "a vital first step towards taking the type of action the British Muslim community deserves" by appointing someone to the role.

In her letter to Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, the Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine said: "The events of recent weeks have unfortunately reiterated how vital it is that this post be filled as a matter of urgency."

She added: "Religious hatred in all its forms must be stamped out, and the government has a critical role to play in facilitating that."

The SNP has echoed the demand, with MP Hannah Bardell also calling for an "independent, external review into the issue of Islamophobia" within the Conservative Party.

"There is no room for Islamophobia or discrimination of any kind in our society, but unfortunately, for far too long, attitudes and language like this amongst senior Tory politicians has gone unchallenged," she added.

Speaking to Sky News on Tuesday, Mr Asim described how he had been hired by Theresa May in the dying days of her premiership, tasked with providing advice on a definition of Islamophobia and how to tackle it.

His appointment came at the same time as former Labour MP John Mann was taken on to advise on tackling antisemitism, whose work progressed as Boris Johnson took over as prime minister.

"He was given an office and resources when I couldn't even get the terms of reference for my work," said Mr Asim.

"I would write to Number 10 so many times so I could start the work, but I never heard back."

After lockdown, Mr Asim tried to kickstart the process, but again came up against a brick wall.

"The community were asking me, many people were asking me about it," he said. "It was very clear there wasn't the political will to push forward.

"I am not saying the whole Conservative Party or government, but there are certain factions in there that do not want to recognise the scale of anti-Muslim hatred in the country."

The imam was soon to discover he was out of a job, when in June 2022 the government fired him for sharing details of a protest over banning a film about the Prophet Mohammed's daughter, claiming he was trying to stifle free speech - something Mr Asim has denied.

"The letter was just posted on the government website," he said. "I found out from the media that I had lost my job.

"I couldn't actually believe whoever was behind it did not have the professionalism and the courtesy to tell me."

A government source told Sky News the letter had been emailed to him before it was published.

But Mr Asim believes he was "made a scapegoat" for the lack of work on the issue, adding: "I was hired to find a definition of Islamophobia. I was not there to create a blasphemy law through the back door or undermine freedom of speech or undermine the work we have done to tackle extremism."

Now he believes the government needs to hire a new adviser and get to grips with the issue - and creating a definition - once and for all.

Asked about Mr Anderson's remarks, the imam called them "divisive, offensive, racist and Islamophobic", adding: "It has been very disappointing that it seems when senior politicians talk about it, it has been tactical and cynical.

"Why would the prime minister not have called it out for what it is?"

Mr Asim added: "Members of my congregation have lost any confidence in the government in tackling anti-Muslim hatred, especially when people are reluctant to even call it out.

"It goes to show they don't really understand the levels of anti-Muslim hatred or even that they are potentially pandering to the far right."

The former adviser celebrated the UK as "a country that believes in values of equality, openness and respect for diversity", adding: "We come together to stamp out antisemitism or other forms of racial hatred. All Muslims are asking for is the same treatment of anti-Muslim hatred.

"I think it is high time that a Islamophobic definition is achieved and robust and immediate action is taken to carry out that work, and one of the first steps would be to define anti-Muslim hatred.

"I am not wedded to a particular term. What we want to see is the protection of Muslim communities who are targeted by people who feel Muslims are fair game or know they don't face any consequences for targeting them."

A government spokesperson said: "It is unacceptable for anyone to feel unsafe while practising their religion and we take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Muslim hatred.

"Since the 7 October attacks, we have taken swift action to address anti-Muslim hatred, providing an additional £4.9m of protective security funding for Muslims for the current and next financial year, taking total funding for each year to £29.4m.

"We are working with community groups, charities and schools funding projects, including Tell MAMA, the leading national organisation monitoring and supporting victims of anti-Muslim hatred, whom we have provided over £6m since their inception in 2012."