The Tory party must now open its eyes to the Islamophobia within its ranks

Enough hot air between them: Rishi Sunak needs to be clear with disgraced former deputy chair Lee Anderson that Islamophobia will not be tolerated  (Jacob King/PA Wire)
Enough hot air between them: Rishi Sunak needs to be clear with disgraced former deputy chair Lee Anderson that Islamophobia will not be tolerated (Jacob King/PA Wire)

Whatever they choose to call it, the Conservative Party has a problem with Islamophobia, or “anti-Muslim hate”, to use the apparently preferred term. Of course, there are Islamophobes in the Labour Party and, still, antisemitism; and no doubt some Conservatives also harbour some old-fashioned prejudices about Jews. But, at the moment, the focus is on what Lee Anderson’s remarks about Sadiq Khan, and the reaction to it, tells us about the anti-racist credentials of the Conservative Party – and it is not encouraging.

Mr Anderson notoriously said the capital was being “controlled” by Islamists and accused Mr Khan of handing the city over “to his mates”. The comments lost him the Tory whip.

In a slightly bizarre twist in this phobic tale, he has made a supplementary, and welcome, statement in which he declares that “the vast majority of our Muslim friends in the UK are decent, hard-working citizens who make an amazing contribution to our society and their religion should not be blamed for the actions of a tiny minority of extremists”.

Why he couldn’t have said that sooner is unstated – and it has the feel of something that had been cooked up earlier by his party to accompany the apology that Mr Anderson still apparently refuses to make.

Still, it does suggest an inkling of comprehension about one of the most pernicious facets of Islamophobia – the blaming of Muslims as collectively responsible for a real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Muslim person or group, such as terrorism, grooming gangs, or breaches of the law on protest marches.

Thus, Mr Anderson has, implicitly, accepted his remarks were Islamophobic while his party leaders are still trying to insist that they were not Islamophobic, but merely “wrong”, as if Mr Anderson had made a simple factual error about Mr Khan obeying orders issued by unnamed terrorists.

Indeed, Rishi Sunak seems incapable even of uttering the word “Islamophobia” or of accepting that his party and some of its supporters and ex-supporters are, in fact, Islamophobes who hate Islam as a religion and Muslims as an ethnic and/or religious group.

It is not a precise mirror image of the wave of antisemitism that flourished for a time under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership – and still obviously persists in the minds of people such as the former candidate for Rochdale. However, it is nonetheless a similar disease, and with some of the same pathology.

Quite simply, the Conservatives and their leader are in denial about anti-Muslim hate, and for as long as they say they don’t have a problem, then that problem is going to get worse.

Mr Anderson’s case is instructive. Some Conservatives in parliament and outside are privately voicing support for Mr Anderson; while publicly, right-wingers inside and outside the party are continuing to blame Muslim people and their religion for terrorism, organised child sexual abuse, and crime – as if they were solely and collectively responsible.

Miserable as that is, what is more profoundly dispiriting is the language and behaviour of those at the top of the party. Boris Johnson, for example, albeit some years ago, wrote about Muslim women in veils looking “ridiculous” and like “letter boxes” or “bank robbers”. He later apologised for his words, after a reported spike in anti-Muslim hate incidents.

More recently, while Mr Anderson “only” claimed that London and Mr Khan were controlled by Islamists, Suella Braverman, no stranger to headline-grabbing populist controversy, made the even more absurd claim that Britain itself is under Islamist rule, and implied Muslim people (and others) demonstrating against the war in Gaza are all antisemitic.

Liz Truss, desperate to rebuild her career after her disastrous spell in No 10, stays mute while Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist to Donald Trump, praises Tommy Robinson as a “hero”.

Zac Goldsmith was accused of running a “dog whistle” campaign against Mr Khan in 2016. An internal report into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party by Professor Swaran Singh, published in 2021, found hundreds of alleged incidents at grassroots level, and said it had taken “for ever” for officials to focus on the recommendations, and even now they have not been implemented.

In fact, it had only been commissioned in the first place because Sajid Javid “bounced” his follow Tory leadership contenders into agreeing to it during the 2019 campaign hustings. One of the problems with the recent activities of Mr Anderson, Ms Braverman and Ms Truss is that the party has still not set up a complaints and investigations procedure, as Prof Singh suggested.

Thus, there remain no formal measures to process complaints relating to discriminatory behaviour involving its most senior members, though low-level local Islamophobia is obviously also an issue. Sayeeda Warsi, a Tory peer and the first Muslim cabinet minister, has spoken out many times about the party’s Islamophobia problem, to frustratingly little effect.

One emerging problem is the way that the political preferences of Jewish, Hindu and Muslim heritage communities are actually diverting and may become more communalised as a result of these ethno-religious divisions being weaponised by the more unscrupulous elements in the political parties. It is a complex picture, but the nascent danger is there.

The most charitable interpretation of the Tories’ complacency and defensiveness about Islamophobia is that the party genuinely believes there’s no issue, and, if there is, the instinctive impulse is the same as any other organisation under attack – the survival instinct is to gather the wagons round and deny Islamophobia exists.

That is indeed how Labour reacted to claims of endemic antisemitism, but it did not succeed, and the Conservatives won’t if they just close their eyes and wish anti-Muslim hatred away now. Mr Sunak must know that he can and should do better than Mr Corbyn did.