A New Pessimism For Tackling Islamophobia Accompanies Boris Johnson’s New Conservative Government
The outcome of last week’s general election confounded expectations. On the promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’, Boris Johnson led the Conservative party to what was an unprecedented victory; one that gives him the largest majority in the Houses of Parliament since 1987 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Adding another five years to the previous nine years of Conservative-led government, Johnson’s majority will afford the Conservatives a unique opportunity to push through a radical programme of legislation.
Some will hope this programme will include policies and legislation that seek to address Islamophobia. One of those is likely to be Baroness Sayeeda Warsi who, as the former co-chair of the Conservative party tweeted shortly after the result was announced that there was a need for the party to rebuild its relationship with British Muslims. Citing endorsements from Tommy Robinson — former leader of the far-right English Defence League — and Katie Hopkins — celebrity ‘extremist’ of the radical right — as conveying a disturbing message, Warsi said that an appropriate first step would be to launch the oft-promised inquiry into Islamophobia in the party itself.
Despite what seemed to be a call to arms by Warsi, there is little to suggest that under the new government Islamophobia will be afforded any greater importance over the next five years than it has over the past nine. In this article, I reflect on almost a decade of Conservative-led governmental responses to Islamophobia to think through and put forward some ideas about what the next five years might look like and what impact — if indeed any — this might have.
The Ongoing Promise
Maybe unsurprisingly, the independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative party featured in the election campaign. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, the current Chair of the Conservatives James Cleverly, responded to a string of allegations of Islamophobia among parliamentary candidates by offering an apology. As he put it:
“Well, course, I’m sorry. And I’m sorry when, you know, people do or say things that are wrong”
In the same interview, Cleverly reiterated the claim that the party would launch an independent inquiry into Islamophobia and other types of racism as soon as it was possible to do so. As he explained:
“It will specifically look into Islamophobia in my party. And it will, by definition, also have to look at other stuff as well, because you can’t always unpick this”
It is not however the first time senior Conservative figures have paid lip service to an inquiry. Back in June, all of the leadership candidates — Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart and of course, Johnson — made the exact same claim during a live television broadcast on the BBC. That the inquiry remains little more than a mere promise speaks volumes not only highlights the lack of importance the party hierarchy attribute to the matter of Islamophobia within its own ranks but so too is it indicative of the importance afforded Islamophobia as a discriminatory phenomenon in society more widely.
A New Hope
Under the Conservative-led Coalition Government of 2010, the prospects for tackling Islamophobia looked much different to how they do now. Having already witnessed the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Islamophobia in late 2010, what seemed like a watershed moment at the time occurred in 2011 when, in a speech at the University of Leicester, Warsi claimed Islamophobia had passed the ‘dinner table test’:
“Islamophobia has now crossed the threshold of middle class respectability…For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate — even commendable — thing. You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test…Islamophobia should be seen as totally abhorrent — just like homophobia or Judeophobia — because any phobia is by definition the opposite of a philosophy. A phobia is an irrational fear. It takes on a life of its own and no longer needs to be justified. And all this filters through. The drip-feeding of fear fuels a rising tide of prejudice. So when people get on the tube and see a bearded Muslim, they think ‘terrorist’…when they hear ‘Halal’ they think ‘that sounds like contaminated food’…and when they walk past a woman wearing a veil, they think automatically ‘that woman’s oppressed’. And what’s particularly worrying is that this can lead down the slippery slope to violence”
Politically important and publicly necessary, Warsi’s announcement went beyond anything that had occurred previously in the political spaces of the UK. For many, the speech signalled not only a new impetus for tackling Islamophobia but so too a new hope; one that found form in the establishment of the Cross-Government Working Group on Anti-Muslim Hatred (‘Working Group’) shortly after. Symbolically, the developments signalled to Muslim communities that the Conservatives ‘got’ Islamophobia.
A Loss of Hope
Within a few years however, much of the hope that accompanied Warsi’s speech had dissipated. Dogged by controversy from the outset, in 2013 I wrote despairingly about the APPG. As I put it:
“…since its launch in November 2010 the APPG on Islamophobia has been little more than a sideshow: an unhelpful, unwanted and unnecessary distraction from giving Islamophobia the rightful, timely and necessary attention it so desperately needs”
Subsequently relaunched — and relaunched again — the number of meetings facilitated by the APPG soon diminished to the extent that by 2014 it had become incoherent and lacking any clear strategy.
Within a year or so, the same was true of the Working Group too. Having been invited to participate as an independent member, I became angry at the Working Group’s impotence in particular its failure to hold Conservative politicians to account. Publicly resigning, I lamented how both the impetus and expectation of just a few years previous had:
“been sadly lost, both [the Working Group] and Government having collectively failed to create the forward momentum necessary if Islamophobia was ever to have been realistically tackled”
A Rising Problem
Coinciding with this loss of hope was a growing awareness of the tangible realities of Islamophobia. Among others, this was evident in the 65% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes recorded by the Metropolitan Police, the murder of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham, the three nail-bombs were left outside mosques in the West Midlands, the political and media hysteria calling for a ban on the niqab in hospitals and the hoax allegations made via Operation Trojan Horse that demonised vast swathes of Muslims in Birmingham. Somewhat unbelievably, the Working Group was silent throughout.
Rather than focusing on Islamophobia’s harsh realities, the Working Group instead chose to focus its attention on supporting activities that included the Big Iftar, Srebrenica Memorial Day and the need for social media workshops in which Muslim organisations would learn how to challenge extremist narratives online. While useful, my personal view is that some were far from important; failing to directly challenge or make a difference to Islamophobia in its tangible forms. To the current day, I await evidence of the Working Group doing anything meaningful in this respect.
Three Prime Ministers, Three Messages, One Outcome
Since the establishment of the Working Group, three different Conservative Prime Ministers have failed to address Islamophobia. The first, David Cameron routinely spoke about Britain being ‘a Christian country’, about how ‘we’ needed to be more ‘evangelical’ about ‘our’ Christian faith while simultaneously calling on the country’s Muslims needed to be ‘more British’. In doing so, he reinforced the notion that Muslims were a ‘them’ to wider society’s ‘us’.
The second, Theresa May failed to conceive Islamophobia for what it clearly is. Instead of conceiving it as a discriminatory phenomenon akin to racism or homophobia, she publicly spoke about Islamophobia being a form of extremism. Conveying — deliberately or otherwise — the misguided message that Islamophobia is indeterminably associated and somewhat consequential of terrorism and extremism her message crassly gave credence to the view that if Muslims ‘stop blowing themselves up’ people will ‘stop hating them’.
Johnson is the third and is someone with a long history of expressing controversial views about Muslims and the religion of Islam. Back in 2005 for instance, he wrote in the Spectator that it was only “natural” for the public to be scared of Islam and therefore be Islamophobic. As he put it:
“To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran [sic], Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke…Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers”
Likewise after the 7/7 terror attacks in London, he claimed “Islam was the problem”. Two years later in an appendix to his book The Dream of Rome, Johnson went on to claim “There must be something about Islam…” given the ‘Muslim world’ is “…literally centuries behind” the West.
Johnson has also written what is descried as a ‘comic political novel’ titled “72 Virgins”; the title making a clear reference to the oft-cited claim that Muslim martyrs are rewarded with 72 virgins (houris) in Paradise.
Letterboxes and a Lack of Concern
Most recently, Johnson courted controversy when just last year he remarked that Muslim women who wear the niqab looked like ‘letterboxes’ or ‘bank robbers’. As I wrote at the time, far from being a mere gaffe or innocent ‘joke’ Johnson’s comments were as deliberate as they were insulting, cowardly and clever. One can only speculate the extent to which such comments — and the motivations underlying them — provide an insight into what is likely to emerge over the next five years.
Johnson’s comments about veiled Muslim women occurred under May’s tutelage around the same time that the first calls were being made for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative party. Instead of being outraged at the Muslim Council of Britain’s dossier of near weekly instances of Islamophobia, May’s response was one of ambivalence. Like her ministerial peers, she clearly expected the matter to quickly disappear from the political agenda despite attracting criticism from Muslim voices within the party itself. These included Mohammed Amin — chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum — who criticised May’s leadership for hoping the matter would “…somehow magically go away” and Warsi who claimed that Islamophobia was “…widespread [in the party]…from the grassroots, all the way up to the top”.
The Working Definition Sham
One further issue offers additional insight: the never-ending quest for a formal — or ‘working’ — definition of Islamophobia. Ongoing for more than a decade, the quest to find a working definition gathered apace under the past two Conservative governments. Driven by the APPG on British Muslims — a newer and somewhat more strategic update to the APPG on Islamophobia — it undertook a two-year inquiry that engaged parliamentarians, experts, lawyers, community activists and Muslim organisations in an attempt to come up with an appropriate definition. Culminating in a report in 2018, the working definition proposed stated that:
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”
Hoping to send a positive message that Islamophobia was still being taken seriously while reigniting the political spaces to do more, the report aspired to the working definition being welcomed and endorsed by the British government, statutory agencies, civil society organisations and British Muslims. Despite being adopted by the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives did not follow suit due to the claim the working definition had “not been broadly accepted”.
While a detailed overview of why others rejected the working definition can be found in a briefing paper I wrote for the Religion Media Centre available here, many of the arguments and criticisms historically posited against Islamophobia were again being roundly cited. Claiming that the new working definition had the potential to limit free speech and provide a shield behind which Muslims could deflect criticism of themselves and their religion, what became evident was that irrespective of how Islamophobia is defined it always attracts the same criticisms: criticisms that are never supported with evidence. On that point, it is highly unlikely that any definition will ever appease or placate those who seek to criticise, detract from, or deny Islamophobia, Neither will any working definition provide the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ many hope that it will.
A Convenient Smokescreen
As I claim in my forthcoming book “Reconfiguring Islamophobia: A Radical Rethinking of a Contested Concept”, the quest for a working definition provides a convenient smokescreen for the Conservatives: simultaneously affording them licence to do nothing about Islamophobia while batting away criticism and condemnation for not doing so, As regards the former, the argument goes that if they do not know what Islamophobia is then how can they do anything about it? As regards the latter, the quest for a definition means that they can argue that they are indeed doing something and by extension, will do more once the ever elusive definition is found. As I show in the book, neither narrative holds up to interrogation or scrutiny.
One way of illustrating this is to consider the recent announcement by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the news that it has appointed an independent adviser to lead on identifying yet another working definition of Islamophobia. That the independent adviser is Imam Qari Asim, a member of the Conservative’s wholly impotent Working Group since its establishment in 2012 and someone that has been integral to abject failure to address Islamophobia in contemporary Britain is as unbelievable as it is farcical.
From looking back over the past nine years of Conservative-led governments, there is little evidence that offers any hope the Conservatives will either afford the issue of Islamophobia within its own ranks with greater importance or identify the need to do more to address Islamophobia as a tangible and real socially prevalent discriminatory phenomenon. Nine years on from the new hope that accompanied the arrival of the Conservative-led Coalition government in 2010, not only is there now no new hope but more worryingly there is no hope whatsoever that things will change in the coming five years. That nothing meaningful has been achieved under three successive Conservative-led governments is evidence enough to suggest that much the same — i.e. nothing — will develop or occur under a fourth.
In truth, there is a very real cause for concern that things have the potential to get worse. The evidence for this refers back to something I wrote about Johnson in the summer of 2018. As I put it, it is abundantly clear that it is feasible that mainstream political figures — as also mainstream political parties also — can actively deploy and explicitly espouse Islamophobia for personal and political gain without any fear of recourse or censure whatsoever. The Prime Minister would seem to be tangible proof of this worrying development.
Further evidence can be seen in one of the responses to the tweet sent by Warsi referred to in the introduction to this article. The response came from the aforementioned celebrity ‘extremist’ Katie Hopkins. As she put it:
“Your party? Hold on a minute sister. I think you will find it’s OUR party now. Britain has Boris and a blue collar army. Nationalism is back. British people first.”
While tweets can be overstated — Hopkins’ tweet had in excess of 2,500 retweets and 8,800 likes — the message conveys a quite pernicious message. That we know the Brexit referendum has catalysed record levels of racially and religiously-motivated hate crimes while also deepening the divides between different communities, that pernicious message not only demarcates ‘Muslims’ from ‘us’ — including telling Warsi that the party she has been a part of for more than a decade is no longer hers — but more worryingly draws an analogy between Johnson’s Conservatism and nationalism. It is unlikely that such views exist solely in the mind and outpourings of Hopkins.
A New Pessimism
While the past is not a reliable predictor for the future, it is difficult to foresee any significant positive change in the new Conservative government’s approach to understanding and addressing Islamophobia. Add in the fact that the Conservatives continue to stall on launching an independent inquiry, that it continues to perpetuate the worthless quest to locate a working definition, that the current Prime Minister has a history of expressing contentious views about Muslims and the religion of Islam, and that we currently live in a time when hate crimes and social divisions are increasing and the chance of any positive change occurring looks ever more distant. Of course, only time will tell if such a pessimistic view is warranted but for those Muslims that are already preparing to leave the UK, neither is there time to waste nor is there time to wait. That alone should be evidence enough for the matter to be a cause for concern for many, many more of us.