Islamophobia in the Conservative Party: The accusations that led up to the Boris Johnson controversy

Boris Johnson's comments that Muslim women who wear burkas 'look like letter boxes' has reignited accusations that the Conservatives are Islamophobic. Picture: Oli Scarff/Getty Images.
Boris Johnson's comments that Muslim women who wear burkas 'look like letter boxes' has reignited accusations that the Conservatives are Islamophobic. Picture: Oli Scarff/Getty Images.
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The Muslim Council of Britain has previously called for the Tories to hold an independent inquiry into the issue.

Boris Johnson’s comments that Muslim women who wear burkas “look like letter boxes” has reignited accusations that the Conservatives are Islamophobic.

Such allegations have been charged at the party for years, with calls being made for an independent inquiry into the issue.

What did Boris Johnson say?

The former foreign secretary said he did not agree with total bans on burkas in public – after such a ban was imposed in Denmark – but he did say the women who wear them “look like letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph, he wrote: “If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran.”

But a total ban played “into the hands of those who want to politicise and dramatise the so-called clash of civilisations; and you fan the flames of grievance,” he wrote.

Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called his language “disgusting” while Labour MP David Lammy said: “Our pound-shop Donald Trump is fanning the flames of Islamophobia to propel his grubby electoral ambitions.”

Has he apologised?

No. Despite mounting pressure from Tory Party chairman Brandon Lewis and Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Johnson has refused to apologise.

“It is ridiculous that these views are being attacked – we must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues,” a source close to him said. “We have to call it out. If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we are simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists.”

What else has happened?

A number of Tory politicians and candidates have been accused of Islamophobia over the years and the leadership has been accused of failing to deal with it appropriately.

Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East, re-tweeted anti-Muslim posts by Tommy Robinson in 2016 – which he said was done “in error” – and hosted Hindu nationalist Tapan Ghosh in Parliament last year.

Labour MP Naz Shah said: “Mr Ghosh holds abhorrent views, is on record for calling upon the United Nations to control the birth rate of Muslims, praising the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Burma and also said Muslims should be forced to leave their religion if they come to a western country.”

Mr Blackman said he was unaware of his comments, while Mr Ghosh said he was not Islamophobic.

Earlier in 2018, Mr Blackman said he regretted sharing a Facebook post from an American anti-Muslim website.

In 2016, the Conservatives’ London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith was accused of running a “racist” campaign against his Labour opponent Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, by linking him with extremists and terrorism.

In April 2018, Conservative councillor Mike Payne was suspended after sharing an article which called Muslims “parasite”. Mr Payne shared the article before he became a councillor but appeared to defend it, saying “the article refers to the impact of uncontrolled immigration in France”.

In June 2018, a pro-Tory Facebook group containing Islamophobic, racist and homophobic comments about public figures was uncovered. Among the members were Tory MPs and councillors but there is no suggestion they actively joined or took part in the group. Many said they were not aware of being signed up.

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Who’s called the Tories out?

Muslim groups have accused the Tories of Islamophobia.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who was the first female Muslim cabinet minister, has said Islamophobia is “very widespread” within the party, adding that “it exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top”.

She said Theresa May needed to acknowledge the issue and tackle it.

“Up to now, sadly, there are certain parts of the party that have been in denial about this issue,” she told the BBC.

Has there been an inquiry?

No. The MCB has written to Tory chairman Brandon Lewis to formally request an independent inquiry into Islamophobia within the party.

In a letter from May 2018, the MCB criticised the handling of MP Bob Blackman and said in the last month there had been “more than weekly occurrences of Islamophobia from candidates and representatives of the Conservative Party”.

“Whilst they were thankfully dealt with once they were brought to public light, these cases suggest a wider problem.

“The inaction taken in high-profile cases, sends a signal that Islamophobia is to be tolerates in the Conservative Party.”

Demands from the Muslim Council of Britain:

We would therefore urge that you consider our request for the Conservative Party to take the following steps:

1. Launch a genuinely independent inquiry into Islamophobia within the members, structures, electoral

campaigns and public representatives of the party.

2. Publish a list of incidents of Islamophobia within the party where action has already been taken.

3. Adopt a programme of education and training on Islamophobia.

4. Publicly reaffirm from the highest levels a commitment against bigotry wherever it is found.

However the MCB’s calls were rejected by Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

What have the Tories said?

The Conservatives have said they take allegations of Islamophobia seriously.

In June, Tory Chairman Mr Lewis wrote an article in which he stated: “I believe discrimination of any kind has no place within the Conservative Party. A single case of abuse is one too many, and since becoming chairman I have taken a zero-tolerance approach.”

Regarding the calls for an inquiry, a party spokesman said: “We take all such incidents seriously, which is why we have suspended all those who have behaved inappropriately and launched immediate investigations.”

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This story was original published in the i news