Too many UK politicians are playing with Islamophobia

Gripped by election fever, some are providing the mood music for anti-Islamic extremism

A group of 'Stand Up To Racism' supporters protest outside the Conservative party headquarters in London last month. Getty Images
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Resolving a problem usually involves first admitting its existence. To deny a problem is a renunciation of responsibility – refusing to name it is quite another.

When it comes to the problem of Islamophobia, that type of rejectionism has been witnessed at the highest levels of Britain’s political elite over the past week. The price for this has been seen in the recent appearance of three men in a London court on terrorism charges, accused of identifying an Islamic education centre in Leeds as a target for far-right violence.

UK politicians must take this seriously.

There ought not to be any surprise about the denial concerning Islamophobia in Britain. The real surprise is only why anybody is surprised. The deputy chairman of the Conservative party, Lee Anderson, declared in late February that “Islamists” had “got control” of London, as well as the city’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan. The former Conservative home secretary, Suella Braverman, has claimed that “Islamists … are in charge”, while former Conservative prime minster Liz Truss has asserted that a “radical jihadist party” could soon send someone to Parliament.

This kind of rhetoric is not new for the current Conservative party, even though it might shock those who would prefer to remember a different kind of Tory, such as Dominic Grieve or Kenneth Clarke. This is the reality that perhaps many of us would rather not face, but the party has allowed such rhetoric to spread within it for many years. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who was co-chairwoman of the party in 2011, drew attention to it famously when she claimed that prejudice towards Muslims had “passed the dinner-table test” and thus become socially acceptable.

To deny a problem is a renunciation of responsibility – refusing to name it is quite another

More than a decade later, the situation seems to have become worse, but we are mistaken if we see this as separate from wider engagements within the party, as well as within British politics more generally. On the contrary, there is a broader trend in UK politics, and in the Conservative party in particular, that has identified its future as speaking to a base driven by populism, instead of engaging in political leadership.

The Brexit vote in 2016 pointed to a major schism in this regard.

Few political figures within the Conservative party thought that Brexit would happen but saw that expressing support for it would develop into political currency. Hence the famous example of former British prime minister Boris Johnson, who led the pro-Brexit campaign, but was clearly shocked when it actually happened. Nevertheless, the lesson was learnt: there were political points to be scored by aligning with the basest instincts of populist supporters, irrespective of the damage that might be wreaked upon the country.

In the political turmoil that ensued, dozens of Conservative MPs were forced to leave the party because they refused to go along with the leadership populism that took over amid the Brexit referendum. At the time, some Downing Street insiders expressed glee at their departure because their view of Britain’s electorate was that it was breaking down into “Remainers” and “Leavers” – therefore, losing prominent centrists meant the party becoming more attractive to the Leavers who were more important to the Tories’ electoral ambitions.

We’ve seen much of that kind of populist tacking over recent years, and the recent Islamophobic outbursts are a part of that. The populism of increasing swathes of the Conservative base is connected to a broad sentiment of suspicion regarding Muslim communities, and that has reared its head many times over the past decade.

None of that is clearer than in recent months, with the fallout from Israel’s war on Gaza playing out on Britain’s streets. The populism of the far right, with its deep connection to Islamophobia, white supremacy and anti-Muslim bigotry, has lined up behind Israel’s bombardment of a largely Muslim and non-white population. But instead of condemning that trend, much of the Conservative leadership has focused on demonising pro-Palestinian protesters instead.

When confronted with these recent outbursts, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and many other senior Conservative figures refused to acknowledge that these were direct expressions of Islamophobia. Mr Anderson was suspended from the party, so there was a recognition that something wrong had been said, but there was no public acknowledgment that his speech was Islamophobic. It was striking to see Conservative figures, including Mr Sunak himself, admit that Mr Anderson’s comments were “wrong” but refuse to say why they were wrong. In the case of Ms Truss or Ms Braverman, there was not even any condemnation.

The UK is heading into an election cycle later this year. Research shows that this kind of populist bigotry increases when political campaigning is at its peak. Britons need to see examples of leadership, and not simply examples of politicians pandering to their supporters’ baser instincts.

To do otherwise comes with a significant cost. The security services managed to foil this recent terrorist plot against the Muslim community. But with so many politicians providing the mood music for such extremism, we may have a lot more to deal with before we know it.

Published: March 05, 2024, 4:00 AM