Islamophobia is creeping through the heart of the Tory Party – and the lack of action is worrying

HOPE not hate’s polling over the last eight years has uncovered hardening attitudes towards Muslims overall, but those who voted Conservative in the 2017 general election are among the most likely to hold anti-Muslim sentiments.

When Zac Goldsmith launched a ‘dog-whistle’ campaign during the 2016 London Mayoral election and attempted to associate the Muslim Labour candidate (now Mayor), Sadiq Khan, with extremism, it backfired spectacularly.

Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith walking outside his office
© Getty Images

Goldsmith lost, his attempts to take advantage of anti-Muslim sentiments in the country was unsuccessful and other politicians in the party rushed to condemn the campaign as shameful (a rare few, such as former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan, condemned it as “racist” early on). But the fact that Goldsmith went ahead with this strategy in the first place, with the support of Number 10 and several senior officials peddling the same lines, is telling.

HOPE not hate has commissioned polls around its various Fear & HOPE reports which have shown that those holding Islamophobic views were more likely to vote for the Conservative Party than for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. One survey revealed that more people in Britain believe that there are ‘no go’ areas in Britain where ‘sharia law’ dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter than not. A far higher proportion of Conservative voters thought that this was true (47%) than the wider public at large.

Our 2018 YouGov survey of more than 10,000 respondents in Great Britain also showed that when asked if Islam was generally compatible with the British way of life, just under half of the Conservative voters agreed it was a threat, compared to 22% of Labour voters.

An earlier poll in our Fear & HOPE report produced in April 2018, for the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech showed similar results. Conservative voters were less likely to believe that Muslims wanted to integrate, that Muslims faced discrimination or that British Muslim leaders were doing enough to stop British Muslims being radicalised. In fact, when asked about integration, 43% of Conservative voters favoured a banning on religious face coverings compared to 20% of Labour voters.

The attitude of Conservative voters to Muslims has got considerably worse over the last few years, down largely to the influx of voters who backed UKIP in 2015. 

Conservative voters are not the only Britons to see Muslims as a distinct homogenous group, set apart from wider society. The effects of terror attacks and assimilationist rhetoric that distinguishes Muslims as a culturally-distinct outgroup have hardened hostile attitudes among those already predisposed to prejudice across Britain. The events of 9/11 are considered by many to be a pivotal moment which has shaped contemporary attitudes to Muslims, which triggered an enduring rise in associations of Islam and Muslims with violence and extremism internationally. Concerns about the supposed incompatibility of Islam with British values doubled between 2001 and 2006, as controversies about veiling and free speech hit the front pages of newspapers across Europe and America.

However, the series of incidents casually perpetuating anti-Muslim rhetoric seen across the Conservative party over the last several years has sent a clear message to voters. When MP for Harrow East,Bob Blackman, posted an article last year on Facebook titled “Muslim Somali sex gang say raping white British children ‘part of their culture’” it was not the first time he had shared anti-Muslim posts through social media. He followed this up by inviting Tapan Ghosh, a highly-controversial anti-Muslim Hindu politician from India to parliament last year. Ghosh later went on to meet Stephen Lennon (‘Tommy Robinson’) during his UK trip.

Last May, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. “The inaction taken in high-profile cases, sends a signal that Islamophobia is to be tolerated in the Conservative party,” Secretary General Harun Khan wrote in the open letter to Brandon Lewis, Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former co-chair of the Conservatives, has long criticised her party’s attitudes towards Muslims and its inaction against perpetrators. After the series of Islamophobic incidents involving councillors, MPs and even Cabinet Ministers, she has joined the calls of the MCB.

“I’ve been warning my party of its ‘Muslim problem’ for far too long, and a combination of indifference and denial has meant Islamophobia has festered as a racist underbelly within our ranks,” she told HOPE not hate recently. “For too long Islamophobic rhetoric and campaigning has been tolerated within the Conservative Party.”

The litany of casual Islamophobia exhibited by Conservative party members is exemplified by the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, who compared women in burqas to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” last August while arguing against the Danish ban to the face veil in the Telegraph.

HOPE not hate campaigned for the Conservative Party to suspend Johnson for his comments, which remain highly insensitive as well as dangerous. In fact, Tell MAMA, an organisation monitoring anti- Muslim hate crimes, said there was a “direct link” between the former Foreign Secretary’s comments and an uptick in incidents targeting women who wear the face veil.

Mohammed Amin, Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Muslim Forum said, “His words were inflammatory and pander to the far-right narrative that Muslims do not belong in this country. These comments divide our country at a time when we are under so much stress already.”

boris johnson looking annoyed

Some commentators accused Boris Johnson of virtue signalling to garner populist support. In fact, Warsi told Sky News last year that Boris Johnson was deliberately making anti-Muslim comments to exploit the “Ukipification” of their party and win the votes of new right-wing members. “I sincerely hope that he doesn’t continue to use Muslim women as a convenient political football to try to increase his poll ratings and to try to increase his profile and his presence on these issues that he knows will be heard.”

The Conservative Party said they would investigate the comments, but when HOPE not hate reached out to Conservative Chair, Brandon Lewis, last November, he tweeted, “We deal with complaints, none outstanding.” A month later a public statement proclaimed Boris Johnson innocent after an internal and apparently speedy investigation.

“The lack of transparency about how many cases have been investigated, how they were investigated and the outcome shows a clear lack of political will to deal with this issue – instead the leadership have chosen to hide behind bureaucracy and process,” points out Sayeeda Warsi.

Several organisations have joined the calls for an independent inquiry into the issue, such as the Muslim Women’s Network UK, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Jewish Council For Racial Equality and the Union of Jewish Students, as well as Mohammed Amin, the chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum.

Miqdaad Versi, Head of Media Monitoring at the MCB, says his organisation has raised concerns over the existence of Islamophobia within sections of the Conservative Party for some time. “None of our political parties should give safe haven to bigotry. Despite repeated calls for serious action against Islamophobia from Conservatives themselves and a diverse range of Muslims, the Party response has been tepid at best. The party risks normalising bigotry towards Muslims and giving the impression that it is institutionally Islamophobic. We hope that this is not the case.”

However up until this point there has been no discernible change. 

Meanwhile, there remains a stark political issue here for the Conservatives. Only 11% of Muslim voters chose the Conservative party in the 2017 General Election (as opposed to 85% for Labour) and this is unlikely to change while the Party remains in denial over anti-Muslim sentiment. This also relates to the Conservative party’s shrinking demographic – only 19% of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) voters endorsed the Conservatives in the last election – down from 23% in the 2015 General Election.

Unless the Conservatives have chosen to cynically abandon the Muslim vote in upcoming elections to solidify their hold on anti-Muslim supporters, they must stop signalling to voters they find Islamophobia acceptable within its ranks and visibly address the growing problem.

Download a PDF of the report here