Islamophobia is apparently a “natural reaction” to Islam, with the faith being “the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers”. So wrote Boris Johnson in the Spectator in 2005.
It’s far from the only item on the charge sheet for Johnson’s Islamophobia. He retains Chloe Westley in his team at No 10 despite her having called a far-right activist who has described Islam as “evil” a “hero”; and he gave Zac Goldsmith a position in cabinet despite his racist campaign for mayor of London in 2016. And of course, there is his recent and infamous use of far-right terminology about Muslim women who wear burqas, comparing them to “letterboxes”.
Yet the prime minister’s lack of any acknowledgment of error or wrongdoing on his part and his casual disregard for the impact of his words and actions does not appear to be relevant to large swathes of the media. There is a wealth of evidence of Islamophobia across all levels of the Conservative party. Why does it have so little political traction, and why is it regularly dismissed in mainstream circles?
Over many years of raising issues of Islamophobia as part of my role at the Muslim Council of Britain, I have experienced three types of response. First, I get a lot of denial. Some deny that there is an issue at all, others question the scale of the issue and others believe that the concern is only in “retaliation” or in competition with other claims of racism. This is a symptom of how Islamophobia has truly become normalised in society, long ago passing the “dinner-table test”, and is entrenched in sections of the media itself.
Consider, for example, the multiple inaccurate stories about Muslims that have been corrected after complaints I have made, including one co-authored by Andrew Gilligan – a person with a history of false stories about Muslims, who Johnson has appointed as one of his advisers at No 10. Just this week, Melanie Phillips regurgitated in the Times the far-right conspiracy theory that deceiving others is mainstream Islamic belief.
There was no public outcry from liberal journalists across the political spectrum at her outrageous claims. When journalists cannot even see this type of racism, or choose not to speak out when it is at their own front door, that is surely part of the reason they do not see it in our governing party. Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said last week: “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many in the British media dismiss Islamophobia because they believe Islamophobes have a point.”
Second, there is obfuscation: when I have highlighted the under-prominence and lack of reporting of Islamophobia to senior editors or journalists involved in these topics, the response I usually get is along the lines of: “it is being reported fairly”. Perhaps the lack of advocates from Muslim communities contributes to this ability to ignore real concerns; and perhaps it is a recognition that if the Conservative party itself ignores the issue, they can too.
A number of senior Muslims from the Conservative party have spoken out, including the former chair of the party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum (CMF) and the senior peer Lord Sheikh and the former chair of the CMF, Mohammed Amin. But despite a number of private conversations I have had with Conservative MPs, none has been willing to publicly break the party line and stand up against the inaction of their party against this type of racism. That is a true indictment of where we are.
Finally, there is apathy. It seems to me that many journalists just do not have enough experience or engagement with Muslims to really “get it”, and understand the pain and fear Islamophobia causes. This may be because politics and the media still don’t reflect the diverse country that they serve and, like other marginalised groups, Muslims are sidelined. For example, only 2% of MPs and 0.4% of journalists are Muslim, compared to around 5% of the population. But this structural issue is no excuse for ignoring racism.
The central role the media plays in corroborating and making excuses for racism when it comes to Muslims cannot be understated. At a time when British Muslims feel vulnerable and scared, we really need genuine allies to stand up, be counted and refuse to accept the normalisation of Islamophobia in politics and the media. Until that happens, we will never tackle the structural discrimination faced by Muslims today.
• Miqdaad Versi is head of public affairs at the Muslim Council of Britain