What Tory members think matters. Their party is in government. They select parliamentary candidates who go on to vote on legislation and become ministers, and they exert pressure on them through local Conservative associations. They are now electing the nation’s prime minister. So when evidence of racism is uncovered among their ranks, it should be regarded as a national scandal.
Recent polls conducted for Hope Not Hate by YouGov – which has a solid record when looking at party members – is horrifying. It found that 60% of Tory members believe Islam “is generally a threat to western civilisation”, with less than one in five dissenting; that 54% hold it to be “generally a threat to the British way of life”; and 43% do not want a Muslim as prime minister. Two-thirds believe the lie that parts of Britain are under sharia law; another 45% believe in the racist nonsense that there are no-go areas for non-Muslims; and 40% want to limit Britain’s Muslim population. Among the most chilling findings was that 42% believe “having people from a wide variety of racial and cultural backgrounds” has damaged British society, with just 39% dissenting.
Digest that carefully: more Tory members than not believe that the very presence of minorities has damaged our society. These are far-right beliefs and yet they are mainstream in the party of government.
This should be a national scandal, and yet it is not. It is not splashed on all the front pages; it is not topping news bulletins; it is not the relentless topic of TV pundit debates; it is not leading to disgusted resignations from the Tory party; it is not provoking frenzied warnings that the Tory party is not fit for power. Let me conduct a thought experiment: imagine a poll that found that 60% of Labour members agreed that Judaism is “generally a threat to western civilisation”, or that 43% did not want a Jewish prime minister, or 40% wanted to limit the number of Jews entering Britain. Such findings would quite rightly cause an explosion of outrage, as well as passionate warnings, including from me, that Labour must be kept from winning office.
This not to pit Islamophobia against antisemitism in a grotesque racism Olympics. Rather, it is to say that anti-Muslim racism should be treated with the same seriousness as antisemitism. Anti-racism that is not consistent is not anti-racism at all.
As a leftwing commentator, I have made every effort to confront antisemitism among my own political bedfellows, writing multiple columns on the subject with headlines such as “Antisemitism has no place in the left. It is time to confront it”. Many of us have gone on TV and radio to excoriate it; we damn it in speeches; we call it out on social media; we demand suspensions from Labour, and that the party do far more to tackle it. Can the same be said of the political right? Too often Tory pundits remain stumm with little consequence, all while adopting a posture of moral self-righteousness towards their opponents. If you care about racism, you have to call it out on your own side, not just focus on your supposed enemies.
The Tories are about to elect a man who compared Muslim women to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”, and described black people as “piccanninies” with “watermelon smiles”. The most prominent Tory female Muslim politician, Sayeeda Warsi, has described Islamophobia as “very widespread”in the party, existing “right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top”. She has also said she was fearful of Michael Gove becoming prime minister because of his views on Muslims. And let us not forget the Windrush scandal. And yet, what outrage? In the face of party inaction, one volunteer is doing the job the Tory machinery should be. @MatesJacob has been using a Twitter account to uncover alleged examples of racism and has forced multiple party suspensions.
It would be easy, but facile, to put this all down to partisan sympathies. Yes, there are few fans of the opposition in the media. But it is also down to the basic fact that Islamophobia has become mainstream, acceptable, respectable. Elements of the press have played their part in creating this climate. The Sun splashed on “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”, and the Times published “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”. Both papers were forced to later print corrections to these inaccurate stories, but the damage was done.
A study this week found 59% of stories featuring Muslims have a negative slant; at the Mail on Sunday, the figure is a staggering 78%. This must bear some responsibility for public opinion: over a third of Britons consider Islam to be generally a threat to the British way of life, while nearly a third believe in the myth of no-go areas. The so-called “war on terror” – in which western armies are embedded in Muslim lands, killing Muslim people – has acted as an accelerant.
Of course, antisemitism and Islamophobia are intrinsically linked too. Consider the far-right trope that sinister Jewish power is destroying western society through mass immigration (of Muslims), often through the demonic figure of George Soros. This narrative was used to justify the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue last October. Consider too the claim that antisemitism within Labour, or the failure to tackle it, is driven by a desire to appease a Muslim “client base”.
And yet Islamophobia – within or without our governing party – does not garner the attention it deserves. What lesson is being taught to a generation of Muslims growing up in our society, where the hatred they face is both ignored and normalised? Do people care about racism, or is it simply used as a convenient stick to beat opponents? And what hope do we have of change when a man guilty of using grotesque racist language is on the brink of assuming the highest office in the land?