Many British Muslim leaders warned the ruling Conservative Party of rising anti-Muslim feelings within the party, but no one paid heed to them.
In 2013, Sajjad Karim was sitting in the European Parliament in Brussels listening to a speech by the then European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding.
“We had a very vociferous far-right in parliament and they were all sitting to the right of the parliament’s hemicycle. I didn’t look towards them at all but I heard the mumblings that took place. I was just sitting there and I had my hands in front of me, almost slightly praying,” he tells TRT World.
In that speech, Reding officially acknowledged Islamophobia was a problem in Europe that the European Commission had to address: something that Karim- then a British Member of the European Parliament (MEP)- had long campaigned for as chair of the parliament’s Islamophobia working group.
But an incident in the same building not long after proved the problem was festering within his own political home. Karim, a member of UK’s Conservative Party, says he walked into the members’ bar and overheard one of his party colleagues encouraging an Islamophobic whispering campaign about him. Karim says his then colleague, who has since served as a minister in the UK government, suggested undermining his re-selection process to stand as a Conservative MEP in 2014 by spreading rumours that rich, foreign Arabs would fund his campaign.
Karim- who was Britain’s first Muslim MEP- went on to win his party’s re-selection and was re-elected in both the 2014 and 2019 European elections. Throughout his award-winning political career, in which he has negotiated complex trade deals globally, he has faced many challenges but the darkest and most serious one lies ahead, not just for him, but for his entire party; possibly even the whole country.
There have been several alarming Islamophobic incidents within the Conservative Party in recent years. Last year, several Conservative councillors were suspended for posting comments on social media calling Muslims “barbaric”, “the enemy within” and suggesting mosques be banned. The matter was made worse when a Guardian newspaper investigation revealed several were reinstated, many, it seems, without apologising or acknowledging the harm of their rhetoric.
In 2018, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson compared Muslim women in the burqa to bank robbers. This led to a 375 per cent increase in anti-Muslim incidents in the country in just one week.
In 2017, Conservative MP Bob Blackman hosted Hindu nationalist and anti-Islamic extremist Tapan Ghosh -who has previously praised the genocide of Muslims in Myanmar- as a guest in the British parliament. Blackman says no Islamophobic remarks were made at the event, yet Ghosh peddled the trope that Islam and Muslims were a threat to Hinduism in the Indian sub-continent and called for “madrasas to be banned”.
Karim believes the rise of Islamophobia within the party is a symptom of an increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic post-Brexit Britain.
“This really is a defining moment for the party and country because we really are in a battle for the soul of what type of a county we want to be in the future,” said Karim. “The UK that I’ve known had become a tolerant, open society which people like me from diverse backgrounds felt completely a part of. Now I have to worry, is this the basis on which we will move forward? What is worrying is that it is now clearly acceptable to make prejudiced, incorrect statements about Muslims that simply would not be acceptable about any other group. When you allow one section of society to be attacked in this particular way it then leads to other parts of society. It will very soon and very quickly spread beyond just targeting Muslims.”
Politicians and campaign groups have called for an investigation into Islamophobia within the party. After initially promising one, the prime minister reneged.
Mohammed Amin is the former chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum (CMF), which encourages Muslims to join the Conservative Party. Two years ago he also called for an official inquiry after he was informed of a number of complaints, several involving Muslim candidates being deselected for council positions. “I was given 20 pages of documents about an existing complaint that was getting nowhere. I then raised this with the party chairman and said ‘what’s happening about this complaint; can you get someone to look into it?’ He promised me this would happen but I never heard anything back.”
Amin was awarded an MBE from the Queen in 2016 for his community cohesion and inter-faith work. During his time at the CMF there was a rise in the percentage of Muslims voting Conservative. In 2010, it was 15 percent, in 2015 it was 25. Since 2017, the percentage has been decreasing and in 2019 it declined to 11. When Boris Johnson was elected as party leader Amin resigned his 36-year membership, describing Johnson as morally unfit. He feels the “party has gone backwards partly because of a failure to get a grip on the Islamophobia issue” and partly over Brexit.
“I think the party is taking a terrible direction of English nationalism. The party now demands blind loyalty and is alienating educated people. That is not a good place for our country to be in,” said Amin. He says the reluctance to combat Islamophobia could be a tactic to win the growing far-right, nationalist vote. “There might be concern about alienating some of their extreme anti-Muslim members.”
Dr Chris Allen, an associate professor in Hate Studies at the University of Leicester, UK, became an independent advisor to the government on Islamophobia in 2011. He resigned in 2014, telling me he takes a “damning view” of the then Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s and successive entirely Conservative government’s attitudes to Islamophobia because they have “paid lip service… but none have responded in a meaningful or tangible way”.
Unfortunately, not even lip service was on offer when this reporter contacted the Conservative Party to ask how it deals with Islamophobia. Neither an acknowledgement nor a response was received.