Shortly after the Christchurch killings, a Conservative party activist, who had posted photos of himself out campaigning for the party, wrote in a Jacob Rees-Mogg supporters group, “I was going through a few magazines the other day down at the local Mosque. I was really enjoying myself. Then the rifle jammed,” garnering several likes from group members. When a Buzzfeed UK reporter presented the evidence to the Tory party, he and twenty-five other members were investigated — though the Conservative party refused to divulge how many were suspended.
For years, the Tories have denied they have an Islamophobia problem, or any issue with racism at all. The most egregious examples of racism are dealt with occasionally when exposed by the media, but these instances are treated as one-offs, lone bad apples, and not representative of a structural problem with racism in any way.
After spending two years campaigning for the Conservatives to acknowledge and combat their Islamophobia problem — both the way Muslims are treated within it, and how other members speak about and act towards Muslims — one senior Conservative, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, finally called for a formal inquiry in July 2018. Even as she continued to highlight hate speech from members on Twitter, and criticize the party leadership’s silence in the media, she has, until very recently, been roundly ignored. Brandon Lewis, the Conservative chairman said, “I would dispute that [Islamophobia] is a problem that exists” within the party, and other Conservatives have claimed never to have witnessed any instances of racism or heard concerns about Islamophobia in the party raised.
On Tuesday, Warsi told a British radio station “Islamophobia within the Conservative Party is at best an indifference towards the concerns of British Muslims and at worst is a deliberate political strategy… but there is no doubt the problem is institutional.” Despite her spending three years devoting a considerable part of her time highlighting Islamophobia, the party has pretended neither she nor the problem exists.
The Muslim Council of Britain was unequivocal in its condemnation: “The Conservative Party has been caught trying to cover up who it decides to suspend and the reasons why. This is the latest in a long line of incidents that have led to a total breakdown of trust in Brandon Lewis’s personal handling of the crisis. On the one hand, we hand recall his claim that the party deals with complaints quickly even though Conservative activists have said that is not the case. On the other hand, we recall Lewis’s misleading remarks suggesting there is no problem despite evidence to the contrary. There needs to be an independent inquiry to shine a light on this issue. Anything less is not good enough.”
Anyone noting the disparity between media treatment of Labour’s antisemitism crisis and the Islamophobia issues within the Tory party has by and large been dismissed and accused of whataboutery. Back in May 2018, on the BBC, I asked the vice chairman of the Conservative party whether he would back an inquiry into Conservative Islamophobia. He insisted he would. Nothing happened. On the same show — a primetime show on a national broadcaster — the Times columnist Melanie Philips argued with me that Islamophobia was often justified whereas antisemitism never is. There was little to no outcry over her comments.
Britain is a racist country, and prejudice exists within all parties. Labour has attempted to deal with antisemitism in its ranks, not always successfully or adeptly. The Conservatives have ignored the problem. It is not whataboutery to argue that no political party should harbor racists of any hue. But the Conservatives have been able to ignore their own issues and problems because Islamophobia is more broadly acceptable among the public and the media class.
A common trope within the British media is that the working class are the racist class and therefore must be pandered to through policy in Westminster. But research this month by the non-governmental organization Protection Approaches found that the prevalence of racist opinions was far greater in higher earning brackets than in the very poorest. Quintessentially, target Tory voters were happy to harbor extremist thoughts about migration, Muslims, and anyone different from them.
That naturally applies to media personnel, which, in turn, affects the degree of accountability to which political parties are held. Rightly, antisemitism is condemned by the public and media. But Islamophobia is seemingly given a free pass, with a wink and nudge, by the middle classes. It is treated not as what it is — simple, outright racism, rooted in the marrow of many Conservative voters and activists — but as a natural reaction to migration. Muslims remain other, and therefore fair game for coded, or in many instances, naked racism.
The Conservative Party has so far managed to ignore the outcry from its own senior members, but slowly the media is awakening to the fact that racism is endemic in the party. The shame is they will never face the same degree of scrutiny as Labour, simply because so many within the media and the wider public are perfectly comfortable with Islamophobia.