Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as Conservative Party chairman, James Cleverly, have recently acknowledged and apologised for what many Muslims see as institutional and systemic Islamophobia in the Tory party. Although they have promised an open and transparent inquiry, this still hasn’t happened – and many British Muslims are running out of patience.
These apologies themselves, although carefully phrased, are not insignificant. Admitting there is a problem is the first step to fixing it. Now it is time to do so with an inquiry made up of impartial external experts, as well as a broad cross-section of the Muslim communities who are on the receiving end of rising religious hate crime in what has always been, to me, one of the most tolerant and inclusive places on Earth.
In 2017, I advised Citizens UK on a report on Islamophobia which had been chaired by former Conservative MP Dominic Grieve QC. The report recommended an independent review of Prevent (I’m pleased to say that this has since been taken up to be completed by next August). The report also suggested a set of independent press standards to ensure that the Islamophobic trope of equating Islam with extremism was avoided. This unfortunately has yet to happen; similarly, neither has the report’s other recommendation that the government adopt a definition of anti-Muslim prejudice.
The media is clearly part of the problem. Even the BBC, derided by parts of the right wing as a bastion of the lefty liberal elite, has come in for criticism for its ongoing platforming of controversial commentators like Melanie Phillips (who recently made a false accusation that deception is a mainstream Muslim belief – and has even derided the term “Islamophobia” itself).
The Conservative Party, however, has been the focus for much of the criticism, and understandably so. As the party of government, and now with a huge majority, they have a responsibility to set the tone for our politics and society, which must continue to reflect the tolerance that Britain is renowned around the world for. If anyone doubts that Britain is still one of the better places in the Western world to be a Muslim, let me remind them that halal slaughter has been illegal in Belgium since the start of this year. France has for some time banned headscarves in schools to say nothing of President Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Similar acts would be unthinkable in Britain – and rightly so.
The Tories, driven by conservative values, are understandably more vocal – or even muscular – on issues of British identity, citizenship and integration. These voices are an integral part of our political culture and should be protected – but so should the rights of all citizens to live in a country free of hatred.
So, it’s time for Boris Johnson to get serious about Islamophobia. The UK’s four million Muslims are a significant political force. Interestingly, most Muslims instinctively have “small c” conservative values, like hard work, entrepreneurship and traditional family values. But that has often been stopped from becoming a “capital c” vote for the Tories because of issues like Islamophobia.
So, what should Boris Johnson do? First, he must engage with Muslims. Only Muslim communities themselves can articulate their concerns, and help the party find a way out of this. Although there is no formal hierarchy in Islam that provides an equivalent figurehead to the Chief Rabbi or the Archbishop of Canterbury, there are still clear groupings of Muslims with consensus-based leadership and representation – many of whom have not crossed the threshold of Number 10’s door for years, despite being important voices for inclusive citizenship and engagement.
It is also essential for this government to adopt the definition of Islamophobia. The definition was set out by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims last year, and has cross-party support, being adopted by Labour, the Lib Dems and even the Scottish Conservatives. This proves that it is not a party-political issue, yet the government rejected its adoption last May.
It is no good acknowledging, apologising or even condemning something if we cannot even agree what it is. It is time Boris Johnson provided leadership on this – not only for the sake of his own party or the four million British Muslims who make a significant contribution to the country’s economy adding an estimated £31 billion and more – but for the 70 million Britons who I believe want to live in a country free of hate.
While working on my plain English translation of the Quran, I was amazed at how many verses talk about common humanity and shared citizenship, including the verse when God tells humanity He “made you into different races and tribes so you may know each other; the most honourable in the sight of God is the most mindful.” That message is addressed to us all, but perhaps is particularly relevant today in Westminster.
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