By Sayeeda Warsi
4 Jul 2018
I’ve been warning my party of its “Muslim problem” for far too long. This is why I can only welcome a change in tone from some senior members of the party in recent weeks. Theresa May condemned anti-Muslim prejudice in the House of Commons. The Conservative party chairman, Brandon Lewis, wrote that it was “utterly unacceptable that anyone should suffer abuse because of their faith”, and at a recent event to celebrate Eid, the communities secretary, James Brokenshire, was clear about the need to tackle Islamophobia. I welcome this language, but it’s not enough.
Nearly three years since I raised these issues with the then chairman, a year after submitting a six-page dossier to the party and nearly a year after I wrote to the prime minister, we now have a string of voices adding to the chorus of concern. The Muslim Council of Britain has called for an inquiry; the Times published a leader urging the party to “set Muslim minds at rest”; and Lord Sheikh warned that bigotry was a “matter of grave concern”, the Muslim Women’s Network UK, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and others have supported calls for an inquiry and yet absolutely nothing tangible has happened.
Words without action are at best flannel and at worst represent simple contempt. So it’s time for my party to set out its stall. Not only does justice need to be done, it needs to be seen to be done. Lewis, as a fellow lawyer, should instinctively know this.
There should be a forensic, wide-ranging and transparent inquiry into Islamophobia in the party. The process should be published, those who are found wanting should be publicly named and membership withdrawn. And it needs to be cathartic, allowing witnesses to come forward and tell their stories.
Sadly there is no shortage of stories: Bob Blackman’s sharing of a tweet by the far-right activist Tommy Robinson, or his membership of anti-Muslim Facebook groups; the Conservative councillor who shared an article calling Muslims “parasites”; the local council candidate who advocated repatriation. And the blatantly, deliberately Islamophobic mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan in London. Party members have been calling radio phone-ins to speak about their experiences, but are too afraid to give their names; others have confided in me but daren’t speak up in public as doing so would “finish them politically”. These include the dedicated volunteers who we convinced the party had changed. If we don’t fix our latest bigotry blind spot, they will abandon us – and a coming generation will not see the party as a space for them.
Some are determined to proclaim there is “nothing to see here”. Sajid Javid is right to say that having Britain’s first Muslim home secretary is something we can all be proud of. But to argue that this means there isn’t prejudice in the party is bizarre – as bizarre as suggesting that with a female prime minister in office we’ve resolved sexism in politics.
Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 campaign for London mayor was made possible precisely because the party didn’t care about Muslims and ignored their concerns. That attitude led me to ask the 1922 committee of backbench MPs at one meeting if they could assure me we would move on from the era of “Fuck the Muslims”. I think I got my point across.
The current plan to tackle Islamophobia, however, is woefully inept. Lewis has oddly announced that he will work closely with the hate-crime reporting service Tell Mama. While I believe the issue within the party is serious, no one is suggesting that Conservative members are committing “hate crimes”. Systemic prejudice is far more subtle. It passes the dinner table test but will rarely reach the level at which the police can prosecute.
The party needs to be proactive and change its culture. The availability of non-mandatory diversity training is not enough. Those who are most likely to offend will not be inclined to take part. The training should be compulsory for at least those about whom concerns have been raised. I’d suggest Goldsmith and Blackman receive preferential enrolment.
Hiding behind bureaucracy and using process as a fig leaf is not the answer. This is a lesson Labour learned in its row over anti-Semitism. That fiasco holds some lessons for us Conservatives. We rightly and swiftly called Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters out. I hope and believe we did so from a genuine position of abhorrence at the comments and actions of some Labour members. But the longer we fail to address Islamophobia in our own backyard, the more likely our concerns on anti-Semitism are to appear politically motivated.
For years I have argued that an internal inquiry was the solution to this mess. Unfortunately the time for that has now long passed. As a plethora of people and organisations have said, only with a full, independent inquiry can we truly become the party we claim to be: one that deplores prejudice in all its forms and stamps it out wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.
• Sayeeda Warsi is the former co-chairman of the Conservative party