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Conservative Party leadership contest: MEE quizzes the candidates on Islamophobia

MEE sent a questionnaire to those seeking to lead Britain's ruling party. Here are the responses
Top row (L-R): Andrea Leadsom, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey, Jeremy Hunt. Bottom row: Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Mark Harper, Rory Stewart, Sam Gyimah, Sajid Javid

Middle East Eye sent questionnaires to each of the candidates currently standing to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore the next prime minister of the UK, asking their opinions on the issue of allegations of Islamophobia within the party.

Two of the questions require some context. In November, a cross-party group of MPs called for the adoption of the following definition of Islamophobia: "Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness." 

Everyone but Boris: Where do the Conservative Party candidates stand on Islamophobia?
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The government said the definition required "further careful consideration" and had "not been broadly accepted".

On Friday, John Moss, a local councillor in Waltham Forest, northeast London, was suspended by the Conservative Party over past Islamophobic social media posts highlighted by BuzzFeed, for which he subsequently said he "apologised unreservedly".

Another councillor, Nick Coultish, said the article was "misleading" but wrote on Twitter: "These comments were NOT made in a professional capacity as the article suggests and I have since removed the tweets and made the accounts into a private account. I was young, not yet involved in politics in a big way and naive. I’m sorry for any confusion or any offence my historic tweets caused.”

We received responses from all of the candidates, with the exception of Boris Johnson. Below we publish these in full.

Michael Gove

MEE: Do you believe there is a problem of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party?

There can be no place for Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. It is an evil ideology which targets people on the basis of their faith. The recent incidents of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party have been concerning and we must ensure that it is confronted and rooted out.

Do you agree with the APPG definition of Islamophobia?

I support the approach the government has taken so far on this.

Do you believe that it should be adopted by the government?

I support the approach the government has taken so far on this.

Do you believe there should be an independent inquiry into Conservative Party Islamophobia?

By definition, the independent organisations which are responsible for such inquiries should make their own decisions, without being influenced by commentary from ministers or Conservative politicians. Therefore, it would not be right for me to comment.

It has emerged in the last few days that two Conservative councillors appear to have engaged in Islamophobic behaviour and there have been calls for them to be suspended from the Conservative Party. Do you believe they should be suspended?

I understand CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters] is investigating, which I welcome. I want all racists and bigots to know that they are not welcome in the Conservative Party. They do not belong in a party like ours which seeks to unite our country. They should leave.

Sam Gyimah

"The Equality and Human Rights Commission is considering complaints against the Conservative Party relating to allegations of Islamophobia, and I believe it is correct that they consider them in line with their usual processes. I will not be pre-judging their findings.

A great many Conservative Party members come from an Islamic background, and our Conservative Muslim Forum is dedicated to promoting a party for all. That is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree."

Matt Hancock

Do you believe there is a problem of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party?

I am deeply concerned about the cases that have come to light. Vile anti-Muslim views have no place in the forward facing Conservative Party I'm campaigning to lead. Prejudice against Muslims is a problem across our society and political parties have a responsibility to show leadership and refuse to tolerate it in their ranks. 

Our party welcomes everyone who shares Conservative principles. These include freedom of expression and a culture of robust and civil debate including between people of all faiths and none. But I will have zero tolerance of hatred expressed against Muslims – or against any other faith – in our party. And if I am elected leader of the Conservative Party, I will review our procedures to ensure that is put into practice.

In our society more widely, we must do more to protect people of all races, faiths and sexualities from hatred, especially when it is likely to incite violence.

All serious politicians must face up to the dangers of some of the more hostile rhetoric at the extremes of both left and right. Neo-Nazi, Islamist, XRW and other forms of extremism are growing and this has led to growing hate crime, with Muslims and Jews bearing a heavy proportion of the cost.

Do you agree with the APPG definition of Islamophobia? Do you believe that it should be adopted by the government?

In principle I support adopting a definition, however I do not think the current APPG definition is quite right. It is too vague. For me it is simple – we must do everything possible to protect all people and especially those who are of minorities who suffer because of their religion or race. 

But it is not the state’s role to restrict the ability to challenge religious views. In 2006, parliament legislated against religious hatred, but it was clear that this did not restrict discussion disagreement with particular religions. I will fight to protect Muslims, Jews, Christians and all faiths from hatred. But I will also fight to retain the freedom of speech that allows us all to criticise the ideology of Islam, Judaism or Christianity. This is a delicate balance, but it is a balance that we must get right.

I am sure this is what the APPG meant to achieve but I think there is work to do yet to get the right definition. I think it needs to make a clearer distinction between hostility and prejudice against Muslims - which we must condemn absolutely – and civil debate about religion and the role of religious beliefs in politics, which we must protect. 

Nevertheless, when it comes to the Conservative Party, I will take a zero tolerance approach to hatred against Muslims – or any other faith for that matter.

Do you believe there should be an independent inquiry into Conservative Party Islamophobia?

If I am elected leader, I will take appropriate independent advice and review all previous cases and whether our procedures are up to the job of delivering the zero tolerance approach to religious hatred that I will demand. I will conduct this review in an open and transparent manner.

If I find the existing procedures not to be sufficiently robust, I will set out a new approach.

It has emerged in the last few days that two Conservative councillors appear to have engaged in Islamophobic behaviour and there have been calls for them to be suspended from the Conservative Party. Do you believe they should be suspended?

Yes. These statements are clearly completely unacceptable and there is no place for people who hold such views in our party. Full stop.

Mark Harper

Do you believe there is a problem of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party?

I do not. When allegations are made against elected Conservatives or members of the party, these are taken very seriously and action has been taken against those individuals. As a party, the Conservatives have made it absolutely clear that discrimination, abuse and racism of any kind is intolerable and wrong.

Do you agree with the APPG definition of Islamophobia?

The APPG on British Muslims has done much great work. However, the definition of Islamophobia as proposed by the APPG is not in line with the Equality Act 2010, which defines race in terms of colour, nationality and national or ethnic origins. I welcome the recent announcement that the government will appoint two advisers to lead the study of defining Islamophobia forward, building on the important work already undertaken by the Cross-Government Working Group to Tackle Anti-Muslim Hatred and other bodies. The government will then consider the advisers’ recommendations on a definition of Islamophobia.

Do you believe that it should be adopted by the government?

It is right that the government should consider the advice of their study defining Islamophobia.

Do you believe there should be an independent inquiry into Conservative Party Islamophobia?

The Cross-Government Working Group to Tackle Anti-Muslim Hatred will undertake a programme of work to consider a definition of Islamophobia following a consultation. The APPG report provides a good starting point, which I am sure the working group will improve on in a way that builds on the existing strong regime tackling anti-Muslim hatred.

It has emerged in the last few days that two Conservative councillors appear to have engaged in Islamophobic behaviour and there have been calls for them to be suspended from the Conservative Party. Do you believe they should be suspended from the Conservative Party?

When allegations are made against elected Conservatives or members of the party, these are taken very seriously and action is taken. As a party, the Conservatives have made it absolutely clear that discrimination, abuse and racism of any kind is intolerable and wrong. It is not right to comment on specific cases without being in possession of all the facts.

Jeremy Hunt

"There is no hatred more medieval than that based on a difference of faith. Hatred directed against British Muslims because of their religion is disgusting wherever it occurs - including within the Conservative Party. In the Foreign Office, Jeremy has stood up for Muslims facing discrimination around the world, from the Rohingya people in Burma to the Uighur population in China. As prime minister he would bring that same focus to discrimination in the UK. 

"The Government and Conservative Party should adopt a formal, broadly accepted, definition of Islamophobia and the APPG’s report is a good basis to work from. Credible voices like Sara Khan and Trevor Phillips should be listened to as the definition is worked on because it is only by achieving a broad consensus on the problem that we can stamp it out forever."

Sajid Javid

"There is no question there has been a deeply worrying rise in hate crime in the UK, a symptom of rising division in the country.

"But Sajid does not think there is anything inherent in the party that lends itself to Islamophobia, nor - as is regrettably the case with Labour's issues with antisemitism - is there any evidence that the leadership of the party has been in any way complicit in the isolated, deeply disappointing incidents which have been identified."

"Sajid does not believe that the APPG definition is workable but as PM would work with a range of groups across civil society to ensure that racism and discrimination does not take hold in the UK."

Boris Johnson

Johnson did not respond to MEE.

Andrea Leadsom

Do you believe there is a problem of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party?

I am very concerned by reports of Islamophobia inside the Conservative party and there is quite simply no room for those views in our party or society. We do not accept any form of bigotry or racism in our party. The Conservative party will always stand for protecting individuals regardless of their faith, race or identity. The fact that some members have been suspended does suggest a cause for concern, so the party must take this very seriously and tackle any and every sign of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Do you agree with the APPG definition of Islamophobia?

I welcome any work that makes our society more tolerant, and which exposes hatred. It is vital that we look at the causes of division in our society and find ways to solve them. I think the APPG has done excellent work in this regard.

However, it's important to remember that this is a matter of strict, legal definitions. The Equality Act 2010 provides a clear definition for racism that the APPG's definition would alter and unpick. I don't think that we should make these kinds of changes without full and deliberate consideration. There is definitely room for further debate on how we can protect people from persecution based on their faith, and I welcome the discussion we are having.

Do you believe that it should be adopted by the government?

The Government should consider the APPG's findings very seriously and listen to their comments. It should also examine ways that it can provide further protections to people of all faiths whose home is in this country. No one living in the UK should be afraid because of their faith. But we've seen in recent years that this is a problem that extends further than Islamophobia.

I want to see the Government working with all groups across society. People should feel free to practise their faith knowing that the law protects their right to do so. That's how we find a solution to intolerance in our society, by ensuring equal, stringent protection under the law.

Do you believe there should be an independent inquiry into Conservative Party Islamophobia?

We will not allow hatred to take root in the Conservative Party. The party needs to be clear about this, and it needs to remain strict in enforcing its rules on its members. Where Islamophobia or bigotry is found in our membership we must act and send a strong message that racism is not welcome in the Conservative Party. As Prime Minister, I would look carefully at the evidence, speak to representatives of the Muslim community, and if I felt these allegations and evidence of Islamophobia warranted a review, I would not hesitate to do so.

It has emerged in the last few days that two Conservative councillors appear to have engaged in Islamophobic behaviour and there have been calls for them to be suspended from the Conservative Party. Do you believe they should be suspended?

I'd certainly like to see an official investigation by the party into these two councillors - statements like this are not something that I would find acceptable. If initial findings suggest that a suspension is necessary for a full investigation, then I would support that.

Esther McVey

Do you believe there is a problem of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party?

While the reported instances of Islamophobia are not widespread, a number of cases have come to light and we must deal with them in a way which shows we have zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour. A single case of anti-Muslim prejudice is one too many. We have a duty to tackle it head on.  

We must learn the lesson of Labour’s shameful decline into an antisemitic party under Jeremy Corbyn. We should take no comfort from the fact that the number of cases of Islamophobia in our party do not compare with the scale of racism engulfing Labour. Every single case must be dealt with head on.

Do you agree with the APPG definition of Islamophobia?

Concerns have been expressed by the police and others about the definition and the consequences it might have, so for that reason no. We must protect free speech and guard against persecuting people who happen to inadvertently fall foul of wide ranging definitions.  

Our priority should be rooting out prejudice and not a debate about a definition.  

Do you believe that it should be adopted by the government?

There are too many concerns about its structure for it to be applied across government given the range of activities which government is responsible for. There is not the level of agreement that there is over the IHRA [the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism and take up of the definition has not been widespread. Not until there is greater agreement and acceptance of the definition should it be adopted by government.

Do you believe there should be an independent inquiry into Conservative Party Islamophobia?

There are a number of cases which have been identified and which the party must address urgently. Firstly, we must ensure that our process for dealing with cases of prejudice are robust and conducted quickly. Everyone must have a fair hearing, but where people have brought shame on our party in this way we must have a zero tolerance approach. An inquiry if then needed would follow, however, it must not become a distraction to actually dealing with the cases which have arisen.

It has emerged in the last few days that two Conservative councillors appear to have engaged in Islamophobic behaviour and there have been calls for them to be suspended from the Conservative Party. Do you believe they should be suspended?

I would never seek to pre-judge anyone’s case but there does appear to be a case to answer in these instances. If we are to run a robust process, suspending members while a final decision is taken, is the correct response.

Dominic Raab

"There’s no place for racism or Islamophobia in our party or our society. We mustn’t let our guard down on this, because the Labour party has shown in relation to antisemitism what happens if you do.

So we need to be swiftly investigating all accusations of racism or Islamophobia, and take decisive and robust action where accusations are proved to be true. I would review how the complaints system operates within the Conservative party, to make sure it’s firm but fair. If we need to reinforce our complaints process, to ensure can handle accusations more quickly, I wouldn’t hesitate to do that."

Rory Stewart

Do you believe there is a problem of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party?

I do not believe there is a generalised problem of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. Individual allegations of Islamophobic behaviour should be investigated through ordinary channels, as with any other alleged behaviour that falls short of the party’s standards. 

Do you agree with the APPG definition of Islamophobia?

Getting the definition right is critical. I've looked at the definition and there is nothing I can see in it that I instinctively disagree with, but I do think there needs to be a period of broader consultation to think through the potential implications and make sure it has been fully tested legally and is robust. I agree with the principles of the definition.

Do you believe that it should be adopted by the government?

Once the definition has been tested and broadly accepted as described above, then government should consider adopting it.

Do you believe there should be an independent inquiry into Conservative Party Islamophobia?

I do not believe there are grounds for launching such an inquiry. Individual allegations should be investigated through the normal channels. 

It has emerged in the last few days that two Conservative councillors appear to have engaged in Islamophobic behaviour and there have been calls for them to be suspended from the Conservative Party. Do you believe they should be suspended?

That sounds - at least as presented - very shocking, and I feel it should be investigated quickly, fairly and justly.