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Labour leader Keir Starmer.
Labour party leader Keir Starmer said “Islamophobia has no place in our party or society” after receiving the report. PA/ Stefan Rousseau

Islamophobia in the Labour and Conservative parties: when will this problem be taken seriously?

More than a quarter of Muslim members and supporters of the Labour Party have experienced Islamophobia within the ranks of the party, a report from the Labour Muslim Network (LMN) claims. With some members or supporters being referred to as “terrorists” or “foreigners”, others have been accused of plotting to “takeover” the party. Some have even been subjected to stereotypes about “grooming gangs”.

Coming so soon after the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) damning investigation into Antisemitism, these findings not only raise further questions about the Labour party’s rank and file but also the extent to which Islamophobia is being taken seriously. Given the dossier of allegations of Islamophobia that the Conservative Party is yet to respond to, the same questions may well be asked there.

The LMN report makes for uneasy reading. As well as the 29% of Muslim members claiming to have experienced Islamophobia within the Labour party, more than one in three claim to have witnessed it (37%). The report claims that nearly half of Muslim members (44%) do not believe the Labour Party takes the issue of Islamophobia seriously. Nearly half (48%) of those asked said they have no confidence in the party’s procedure for dealing with complaints of Islamophobia effectively.

Having already seen large numbers of Jewish supporters turn away from the party, it is possible the same might happen with Muslim voters if the leadership is not seen to act fast and effectively. Even then, that may not be enough. As the LMN research shows, more than half of Muslim members (55%) do not trust the party leadership to tackle Islamophobia effectively.

Part of that problem may be that Muslims do not feel represented in the leadership and shadow cabinet.

Islamophobia in the Conservative party

While the current spotlight is on the Labour party, we should not forget that allegations of widespread Islamophobia in the Conservative party emerged more than two years ago. Back then, Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi, former co-chair of the party, said Islamophobia was: “very widespread … from the grassroots, all the way up to the top”. She added that it was “something the leadership feels can be easily ignored”.

Her comments came in the wake of the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) call for an independent inquiry into the party. Citing evidence of weekly Islamophobic incidents involving party representatives and candidates, the MCB sent an open letter to Brandon Lewis, the then chair of the party, to ask him to investigate the issue.

The MCB’s list of incidents makes for equally uncomfortable reading. They included a Conservative party member posting a picture of slices of bacon on a door handle as “protection from terrorism”, and a member referring to Islam as the new Nazism. Another retweeted posts by former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson and another shared an article describing Muslims as parasites who live off the state and breed like rabbits.

Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid embracing in front of seated audience.
Former chancellor Sajid Javid attempted to get Boris Johnson to commit to an investigation into Islamophobia in the Conservative party, but it hasn’t materialised. PA

During the last party leadership contest, all the candidates pledged to investigate Islamophobia if they were elected. However, the eventual winner, Boris Johnson, has failed to uphold his pledge. He has, instead, commissioned an inquiry into how the party deals with discrimination cases more generally. An inquiry is welcome but this approach fails to address the precise reason why an inquiry into Islamophobia was deemed necessary and lumps all forms of discrimination together, thereby deflecting attention away from the specific matter of Islamophobia. The MCB claims the Conservatives’ approach to Islamophobia being one of denial, dismissal and deceit.

Getting away with it

From my ongoing research into Islamophobia in the political mainstream, a number of arguments can be put forward to explain why Islamophobia remains a problem for both Labour and the Conservatives alike. The first is that few mainstream political actors truly care about Islamophobia, thereby rendering it quite unimportant. Despite regularly paying lip-service to the matter, it always quickly disappears from the political agenda.

We’ve also seen that mainstream political actors can actively deploy and espouse Islamophobia for personal and political gain without fear of recourse or censure. There is no better illustration than Johnson referring to Muslim women who wear the niqab looking like “letterboxes” or “bank robbers”. David Cameron, who was prime minister at the time these remarks were made, reportedly told Johnson to apologise. He appears to have refused. Not only that, but he soon went on to become the party leader. What better way to show someone that there are no consequences for such rhetoric?

What’s more, the mainstream media’s attitude towards Islamophobia is worryingly different in comparison to other forms of bigotry and hate. Within 24 hours of Johnson’s comments about “letterboxes”, some media outlets were encouraging debate about whether some forms of Muslim dress should be banned, rather than focusing on holding him accountable.

The final argument was evident in a recent report from thinktank the Woolf Institute, which found that nearly a quarter of people surveyed did not believe that religious diversity has been good for the country. Drill down a little deeper and it’s Islam and Muslims as opposed to religion that is seen to be the problem. Clearly the general public are akin to their political representatives.

Which culminates in the question: who cares about Islamophobia? Despite the Runnymede Trust claiming more than three decades ago that Islamophobia was a challenge for us all, the same does not seem to ring true in 2020.

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