Islamophobia is the government’s biggest scandal

Michael Gove has scrapped work on a definition of anti-Muslim racism. It’s time someone held the Conservative party to account

November 09, 2022
Photo: Joe Blossom / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Joe Blossom / Alamy Stock Photo

There has been no shortage of crises and scandals during the last 12 years of Conservative government, yet there’s one scandal that continues to receive little attention, despite its significance to communities up and down the country. At its heart is a very basic question of equality: whether the government is committed to rooting out discrimination against people because of their faith and race. 

The scandal is the rampant Islamophobia in the Conservative party and the manner in which it has been allowed to go unchecked. At times, the struggle to get others to sit up and notice has felt incredibly painful and lonely for British Muslim communities, even in “quieter news days” before the pandemic. 

We’ve seen a Muslim former minister, Nus Ghani, allege that she was sacked because of her faith; we’ve seen Conservative party MPs retweet far-right bigots like Tommy Robinson. One Tory MP invited a speaker into parliament who praised the Rohingya genocide; councillors who posted racist and Islamophobic statements online were quietly reinstated, while the party continues to insist that it has a zero-tolerance approach towards Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. 

Islamophobia in the party is not confined to elected officials. A HOPE not Hate survey of Tory party members found that 57 percent of party members had a negative attitude towards Muslims, with almost half (47 percent) believing that Islam is “a threat to the British way of life”. In addition, 58 percent believe “there are no go areas” in Britain where Sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter. It’s pretty clear that Islamophobia in the Conservative party is a problem of more than just a few bad apples. 

In the latest development, Michael Gove announced that the government had decided to scrap work towards a “working definition of Islamophobia”, his colleagues in the government having promised to come up with such a definition more than three years ago. The announcement came just days before the start of Islamophobia Awareness Month last week, and at a time when Muslims are the most frequently targeted group for religious hate crimes in England and Wales.

It follows the government’s rejection in 2019 of the definition put forward by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims, citing concerns over free speech. The same definition has been adopted by other major political parties, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives. Even senior police chiefs who had initially expressed concerns that the definition could undermine efforts to combat extremism later urged the then-prime minister Boris Johnson to adopt it, saying they had been reassured it would not hinder their work. The APPG definition on Islamophobia is not legally binding.

Yet despite all this, the government continues to fail British Muslim communities, whose calls for greater action to tackle Islamophobia fall on deaf ears. Some may point to the independent investigation carried out by the Tories themselves last year into all forms of prejudice as proof that action is being taken, yet as the journalist Peter Oborne and I discovered, the investigation was selective in whom it approached for evidence of Islamophobia. While some of those who had suffered Islamophobic abuse in the Tory party were approached for their evidence, other high-profile cases were ignored. 

The shameful way in which the Tories have failed to deal with Islamophobia is proof that the party cannot be trusted to deal with the matter on its own. 

It knows that there will be little outcry over the government’s failure to tackle anti-Muslim prejudice among the sections of the powerful right-wing press that regularly subject Muslim communities to negative and sensationalist reporting. The Conservative party is being let off the hook by some of those whose purpose it is to hold power to account, while it continues to insist that there’s nothing to see.

The Conservative party must also be acutely aware that by failing to come up with its own definition of Islamophobia, and refusing to let victims define their own suffering, it can continue to portray expressions of hatred and racism against Muslims as matter of debate. Why would it adopt a definition that so many of its own members would fall foul of?

For many British Muslims like me, the decision to scrap work on a new definition of Islamophobia sends out a clear message: the party in government doesn’t think tackling hatred and prejudice towards Muslims is a priority. It has, for such a long time now, been failing to deal with the problem—so why has the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the body responsible for enforcing equality laws in the UK, so far refused to take action? Isn’t it time it conducted an investigation?

This demand that the government tackle Islamophobia isn’t a demand for special treatment for Muslims, it’s a demand for equal treatment.