The Observer view: Tory MPs whipping up Islamophobia must be stopped

<span>Lee Anderson, the former deputy chair of the Conservative party, said on GB News that London mayor Sadiq Khan had ‘given the capital away’ to Islamists.</span><span>Photograph: GBNews</span>
Lee Anderson, the former deputy chair of the Conservative party, said on GB News that London mayor Sadiq Khan had ‘given the capital away’ to Islamists.Photograph: GBNews

It should have been a sober debate about what the UK and its allies can do to bring an end to the conflict between Israel and Gaza. Instead, the House of Commons descended into procedural chaos and angry recriminations last Wednesday after the speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, broke with parliamentary convention to allow MPs to vote on a Labour, as well as the government’s, amendment to the SNP’s opposition day motion on a ceasefire. Rather than focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that is escalating with each day that passes, the Commons drew itself into a pointless blame game that has led to days of speculation over Hoyle’s future.

Every party involved – the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives – claimed the moral high ground in Wednesday’s debate, while accusing the others of undermining a critical discussion in their own interests. And all three parties are complicit in the shameful row that followed. Hoyle explained that he selected the Labour amendment out of concern for the safety of MPs who have received threats over this conflict and did not want to support an SNP motion labelling Israel’s military offensive as collective punishment. These MPs not only wanted to express their support for a ceasefire, they feared the consequences if they could not.

There is no doubt that Hoyle takes the safety of MPs seriously in his role as speaker following the murder of two MPs, Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist in 2016 and David Amess by an Islamist extremist in 2021, and the killing of five people including a police officer during an Islamist terrorist attack on Westminster in 2017. MPs have reported receiving death threats in relation to this conflict and have consequently been provided with extra police protection, for example, at their constituency surgeries. There are people in jail for threatening current and former MPs such as Jess Phillips, Luciana Berger and Joanna Cherry.

But it is worrying that the speaker publicly stated that concerns about MPs’ security drove him to break convention, particularly when it was one party, Labour, that so clearly stood to gain from his decision; this itself sets an uneasy precedent and sends the wrong message to the tiny minority who think that threatening and intimidating their elected representatives is a legitimate form of democratic engagement. Hoyle has apologised for the decision he took, however, and this should be the end of it.

Suella Braverman claimed that ‘the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge’ of Britain

What is appalling, though, is the way some politicians have sought to make political capital out of the week’s events by further stoking tensions. The Hamas atrocities of 7 October and the ensuing conflict between Israel and Gaza have triggered increasing levels of antisemitism and Islamophobia here in the UK. This column last weekend covered the sixfold rise in antisemitic incidents seen in the last three months of 2023 compared with the equivalent period the year before, with a spike immediately after Hamas’s attack and before Israel had launched its military response. On Friday, Tell Mama, the organisation that records Islamophobia, reported a more than threefold increase in the number of anti-Muslim incidents between 7 October 2023 and 7 February, compared with the same period the year before, with Muslim women disproportionately targeted.

In this context, politicians should be sending a clear message that these forms of racism are completely unacceptable. Instead, some Conservative politicians have intervened in the most irresponsible of ways. The former home secretary Suella Braverman claimed that “the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge” of Britain. The former prime minister Liz Truss took part in an interview with the disgraced Trump strategist Steve Bannon and failed to challenge him when he called the far-right activist Tommy Robinson “a hero”. Lee Anderson MP, deputy chair of the Conservative party until he resigned last month, said on GB News that the Labour London mayor, Sadiq Khan, had “given the capital away [to] Islamists”, whom he referred to as Khan’s “mates” .

Anderson’s comments are Islamophobic; in echoes of the awful mayoral campaign the Conservatives ran against Khan back in 2016, he is deliberately implying that one of the country’s most prominent Muslim politicians is being controlled by Islamist fundamentalists. He is no better than the antisemites who hold British Jews responsible for the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Gaza. The Labour party made the right call in cutting its ties with Azhar Ali, its candidate in the Rochdale byelection, after it became clear two weeks ago that he had voiced offensive conspiracy theories about Israel. Rishi Sunak has done the correct thing in suspending Anderson from the Conservative whip. But as Braverman’s comments show, the problem goes wider than Anderson. And, as a former premier, Truss’s effective endorsement of Donald Trump and her blunt attacks on President Biden in the US last week additionally bring the office of prime minister into disrepute.

Politicians must be able to soberly discuss the threats that violent extremism – whether Islamist or far-right – poses in the UK. But it is dreadful to grossly overstate the threat of Islamist extremism in the way that Braverman did, and even worse to link it to Muslim politicians, as Anderson did. There are members of the Conservative party willing to stoke tensions in an already febrile situation for their own political ends. It is dangerous and irresponsible, and the prime minister must confront it once and for all, for the sake of the whole country.

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at