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Why the Conservative Party has a problem with anti-Muslim bigotry

Under David Cameron, the Conservative Party transformed its reputation with British Muslims. Since mid-2016 it has been going backwards, and needs to address this.


Published by Haaretz 14 March 2019. Posted here 7 April 2019

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz which is on the liberal side of the political spectrum recently asked me to set out my thoughts on the problem of anti-Muslim attitudes within the Conservative Party.

I submitted a text with the title "The Conservative Party’s problem with anti-Muslim bigotry." However editors always have the right to decide the headline, and they chose the more eye-catching formulation "Why Anti-Muslim Hate Is Back With a Vengeance in Britain's Ruling Party."

It was published online on 14 March and in the printed newspaper on 15 March. You can read it below.

Opinion: Why Anti-Muslim Hate Is Back With a Vengeance in Britain's Ruling Party

The Tories have come a long way since Enoch Powell’s nativist 'rivers of blood' speech, detoxifying some of its prejudices. But a hard-right membership influx means, for British Muslims, it’s now going backwards.

In 2018, after several instances of anti-Muslim abusive behaviour by Conservative Party members, Baroness Warsi (the former party chairman), Conservative peer Lord Sheikh, and the Conservative Muslim Forum called for the party to hold an independent enquiry into Islamophobia (anti-Muslim hatred and anti-Muslim prejudice) within the Conservative Party. 

The Conservatives have, so far, shown no inclination to do this.

Historically, the Conservative Party was slow to accept the changes in British society brought about by immigration. Memories are long, and British Muslims contrast Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant "rivers of blood" speech in 1968 with the Labour Party’s enactment of race relations legislation that made racial discrimination unlawful. 

But despite that unpromising history, the Conservative Party has changed slowly but steadily. 

That change accelerated when David Cameron became party leader in 2005. He stayed for several days with a Muslim family in Birmingham and spoke very positively about Muslim family values. In the 2010 general election, only about 15% of British Muslims voted Conservative, but by the 2015 general election this increased dramatically to 25%. 

David Cameron sought to detoxify the Conservative Party of its discriminatory policies in general, with the highlight being the enactment of equal civil marriage, despite that causing many older, traditionally minded Conservatives to leave the party.

Sadly, since the high point of 2015, Conservative Party has gone backwards in regard to British Muslims.

The turning point was the London Mayoral campaign of 2016. Behind in the polls, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith attempted to portray his Labour opponent Sadiq Khan as a "closet extremist" and printed leaflets which clearly sought to divide Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims. Many Muslim Conservatives were horrified, but private communications to Zac Goldsmith and to David Cameron were either ignored or received platitudinous responses.

In the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party’s strategy was clearly to win over former pro-Brexit, hard right UKIP voters to gain Labour held seats. Unsurprisingly, the political messaging that appeals to UKIP supporters alienates ethnic minorities, including Muslims. The consequence was that the Conservative Party vote share amongst ethnic minorities generally, and particularly British Muslims, plummeted in 2017. The British Election Study found that only 11% of British Muslims voted Conservative in 2017.

The other consequence of the collapse of UKIP as an independent party was that many former UKIP members then joined the Conservatives. In many cases they were re-joining: hey were former Conservatives who had left in the wake of David Cameron’s detoxification program, and were especially opposed to equal civil marriage.

This ex-UKIP influx has served to make the Conservatives even less multicultural than it was before.

The Conservative Party has a code of conduct which was published in late 2017 and professes zero tolerance of anti-Muslim bigotry. While individual disciplinary instances often come into the public domain, there is no formal reporting by the Conservative Party when complaints are made about individuals, when someone has been suspended, what abusive or unacceptable behaviour has been found or not found, and what action has been taken. 

Those sanctioned thus far appear to be relatively junior. Many British Muslims perceive that senior Conservatives such as Boris Johnson (after he wrote an article comparing burqa-wearing Muslim women to letterboxes) are treated leniently while more junior Conservatives may find themselves expelled. More recently, stories have emerged of formal complaints being made which have not even been acknowledged, let alone dealt with, which cast doubt on the operational efficiency of the complaints process.

Baroness Warsi has accused the Conservative Party of being "institutionally Islamophobic." This phrase should not be misunderstood. There is no implication that the leadership of the Conservative Party sets out to be anti-Muslim. Rather, the phrase implies that the way that the Conservative Party operates actually ends up producing collective outcomes which are anti-Muslim, even though that will not have been the intention of those designing the systems and processes.

Tweet with 63-second video of Baroness Warsi on BBC News Channel

"Vile comments like Muslims should not be in public life, should be removed from our schools, thrown off bridges, deported" have not been dealt with, says Conservative peer Baroness Warsi - accusing her party of "institutional" Islamaphobia

— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) March 5, 2019


Meanwhile, the Labour Party has been engulfed by cases of antisemitism with a number of MPs leaving the party for that reason. The fundamental difference between the two parties is that the Labour Party leader and his closest aides have themselves been accused of holding antisemitic attitudes. There is no such allegation about Conservative Party leader Theresa May or her close colleagues.

This problem will not go away. As well as ensuring that the complaints process operates efficiently, the Conservative Party needs to publicly demonstrate this by transparently publishing names of those under investigation/suspension and publishing subsequent decisions with their reasons. I believe it should hold an independent enquiry into its complaints processes. 

At the same time, the leadership need to ask themselves the serious question: "What is it about our party that leads anti-Muslim bigots to believe that they have a home here?"

My advice to British Muslims who support the Conservative Party’s policies on issues such as business, taxation, education and healthcare, but who have concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry, is to become party members. That is the fastest way to drive out the small minority of Conservative Party members with unacceptable and bigoted attitudes.

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He writes in a personal capacity. Twitter: @mohammed_amin 






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