Over the last few months there have been some low-profile media stories about Islamophobia at various levels of the Conservative party. Yesterday there was an interview on the Independent with a former Tory parliamentary candidate who defected to the Liberal Democrats over its treatment of Black and minority-ethnic candidates, Kishan Devani, who said that the party had lurched rightwards since the 2016 referendum and had attempted to become “UKIP-lite”. Former party chairman and minister without portfolio Sayeeda Warsi, who has been outspoken about Islamophobia in the party in the past, spoke to Business Insider saying that the ‘poison’ was very widespread and existed at all levels from the grassroots to the top levels of the party and that the party refused to deal with the problem because they saw it as a vote winner. She attributes it partly to the influence of Michael Gove and former campaign manager Lynton Crosby.
She mentions the London mayoral campaign, run by Crosby, in which Zac Goldsmith’s team accused Sadiq Khan of being an extremist (mostly on the basis of his former human rights work as a lawyer) and made a pitch to Hindu and Sikh voters claiming that Labour supported a “wealth tax on family jewellery” and that Goldsmith had attended Narendra Modi’s appearance at Wembley stadium while Khan had not, and had called for him to be banned from entering the country (on the grounds, let’s not forget, that he oversaw a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat while he was first minister there, and that Muslims are routinely subject to arbitrary violence in parts of India that are under BJP domination — ironic that he accused Sadiq Khan of having links to extremists while cosying up to this fascist). In this case, while their main pitch was to the suburbs, they also tried to peel off one group of brown people at the expense of another (as Warsi put it, saying “these are the acceptable brown people and those are the unacceptable brown people”) but that was a special case in a city which generally votes Labour (Boris Johnson won by downplaying his extreme and bigoted views which have become more obvious since he left that position, and was helped by Labour putting Ken Livingstone up after he lost in 2008).
Generally, the Tories play to a white, provincial and suburban voter base: they appeal to a normative, ‘real’ England of small towns and villages and foster a suspicion of the city, especially the inner city, with its ‘foreign’, ‘troublesome’ ethnic minority and immigrant populations and cosmopolitanism. This is why David Cameron was able to sell his vision of a “big society” where volunteers do things locally that the state had been paying people to do: people should be “looking after their community”, but those of us who live in urban areas know that they are generally impersonal and people’s idea of ‘neighbours’ means those who live one or at most two doors down, if that. It only works in a village. More recently, Theresa May jibed at Remainers at the Tory party conference following the 2016 referendum that “if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, implying that Leavers were “real Brits” and those who wanted to remain in the EU were, to borrow Stalin’s phrase, “rootless cosmopolitans” who had connections outside the country and aspirations to live, work or marry abroad. The fact that there were also ethnic minority Leavers who had connections to other countries besides the EU does not figure in this kind of analysis.
The Tories have calculated that they can win general elections without needing to worry about ethnic minority votes, and the threatening overtures made by not only councillors but various MPs over the years do not harm either their individual electoral fortunes nor the party’s general election record. These threats, from attacks by sitting Tory MPs on the face veil (Phillip Hollobone, 2010) to association of FGM (which is practised by Muslims and others, mostly in Africa, and has not spread to Muslims that previously did not practise it) with Islamic extremism (as David Cameron did in his 2015 “extremism” speech) to calls for “muscular liberalism”, meaning open contempt for cultural practices these ‘liberals’ do not like, play to white voters in the suburbs and shires whose knowledge of Islam and Muslim culture comes from the media, particularly the commercial press, and for the most part do not know any Muslims. We are just a foreign mass to them, found in the ‘ghettoes’ of Luton and Leicester. “Those people.”
This is ultimately why the Tories refuse to seriously investigate the general issue of Islamophobia in their party — the fact that incidents keep happening, and that the party attracts bigots. The party has promoted bigots to the highest offices; not only Michael Gove, but also Boris Johnson, who as editor of the Spectator printed not only hostile copy from the likes of Mark Steyn but outright untruths about Muslims in the UK from Patrick Sookhdeo. We know it is possible for the leader to remove a parliamentary candidate, as Michael Howard did with Howard Flight in 2005, but Boris Johnson has seen no restraint to his ambitions since then despite his noted dishonesty (he is the source for a number of the false media stories about the EU which have circulated, and is known to have written both pro-Leave and pro-Remain pieces in the run-up to the 2016 referendum) and lack of diplomatic ability. The problem has been compared with the accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party, but the difference is that Tory Islamophobia targets ordinary Muslims in this country, while nearly all the reports of anti-Semitism in the Labour party relates to (often well-justified) harsh attitudes to Israel or stereotypes about Jewish élites, not ordinary Jews.
It’s true, there are a small number of Tory MPs who are not bigots and who respect human rights and the rule of law (e.g. Dominic Grieve). However, there are a number who are and who will not face serious consequences for their careers as long as they express their bigotry in polite terms, i.e. avoid crude slurs. We must avoid giving them our vote, but we must lobby for stricter controls on the propaganda issued by the commercial tabloids which demonise and stereotype us for the entertainment and self-confirmation of people who do not know any of us. The rest of us are subject to arrest if we swear in the street or post an offensive tweet; the commercial media should be subject to the same rules as the rest of us.
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