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Lee Anderson: Rishi Sunak denies Tories have Islamophobia problem after MP suspended

Prime minister says Lee Anderson's comments 'weren't acceptable' after the former Tory deputy chairman claimed London was 'controlled by Islamists'
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Lee Anderson, in Sutton-in-Ashfield, central England on 4 January 2024 (AFP/Jacob King)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Lee Anderson, in Sutton-in-Ashfield, central England, 4 January (AFP/Jacob King)

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has denied the Conservatives have an Islamophobia problem as the governing party struggled on Monday to contain a deepening row over the suspension of an MP over offensive remarks about London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Lee Anderson, former deputy chairman of the party, was suspended by the Tories after stating that Khan, who is a Muslim, had given away "control" of the capital to "Islamists". 

Speaking on Monday to the BBC, Sunak said: "I think it's incumbent on all of us, especially those elected to parliament, not to inflame our debates in a way that's harmful to others."

"Lee's comments weren't acceptable, they were wrong. That's why he's had the whip suspended.

"Words matter, especially in the current environment where tensions are running high. I think it's incumbent on all of us to choose them carefully."

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However, he denied that his party had "Islamophobic tendencies". 

Anderson was suspended last week after telling broadcaster GB News: "I don't actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they've got control of Khan and they've got control of London... He's actually given our capital city away to his mates."

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The remarks were widely condemned by politicians and commentators, including Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Tory member of the House of Lords.

In a comment piece for the Standard newspaper on Monday, Khan called on Sunak to condemn Anderson, and said the MP's remarks had "poured petrol on the fires of hatred".

Khan wrote: "Depressingly, this is not a one-off incident, but another example of a pattern of behaviour that’s been increasingly infecting the Conservative Party for years. We’ve seen many instances of blatant anti-Muslim hatred being promoted and tolerated from top to bottom of the party — from prime ministers and mayoral candidates to donors and those running to be MPs."  

Khan faces an election contest in May and accused the Conservatives of deploying "a strategy to weaponise anti-Muslim prejudice for electoral gain".

He referred to the mayoral election contest in 2016, in which his Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, was accused of running an Islamophobic campaign.

"With just over two months to go until the Mayoral elections, I hope we don’t see a repeat of the divisive, and deeply racist and Islamophobic campaign the Conservatives ran in 2016," he wrote.

Anderson on Monday refused to apologise for his remarks about Khan. "When you think you are right, you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness," he said in a statement.

Other Conservative party figures offered only qualified criticism of his remarks.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper told Sky News that Anderson should "retract those comments and apologise", but did not rule out his fellow parliamentarian returning to the party.

Sky News revealed that leaked messages from a WhatsApp group show that several Tory lawmakers disagreed with Anderson's suspension. 

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) welcomed Anderson's suspension, and called on the Conservative party to probe "structural Islamophobia" within its ranks. 

In a letter to Richard Holden, the chair of the Conservative Party, Zara Mohammed, the MCB's secretary general, wrote: “Our view is that the Islamophobia in the Party is institutional, tolerated by the leadership and seen as acceptable by great swathes of the party membership.”

“Leaders – especially those in politics – have the ability to shape the agenda and a narrative, and play a role in Islamophobic hate crime... These issues cannot – and must not – be ignored.”

In 2020, the MBC put together a dossier of examples of Islamophobia from 300 individuals associated with the Conservatives.

A survey conducted this month by polling company Savanta showed that 29 percent of people in Britain believed the Conservatives had a problem with Islamophobia - the most of any major UK political party.

Last week, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman sparked further outrage after claiming that "Islamists" were now in control of the UK.

'The truth is that the Islamists, the extremists, and the antisemites are in charge now'

- Suella Braverman, former Home Secretary

Writing in the Telegraph, Braverman claimed that politicians were "burying their heads in the sand" over the spread of "extremism" throughout the country's institutions.

She specifically referenced pro-Palestine demonstrations as proof, as well as claiming that university campuses were not safe for Jewish people.

"The truth is that the Islamists, the extremists, and the antisemites are in charge now," she wrote.

"They have bullied the Labour Party, they have bullied our institutions, and now they have bullied our country into submission.”

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