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Boris Johnson is incapable of dealing with Tory Islamophobia

Anti-Muslim bigotry stretches right to the top which explains the muddle about the mooted Conservative Party inquiry into the scandal
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a closing speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain, on 2 October (Reuters)

All significant political leaders confront choices when they take high office which define themselves for the remainder of their time in charge. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced one of these choices when he had to decide what to do about his party’s ugly epidemic of Islamophobia.

He had two options. 

Either he could treat the issue as a second-level issue. A matter of reputation control to be managed and brushed under the carpet. 

Or he could behave like a leader. That means tackling with the problem root and branch in order to deal once and for all with an appalling injustice.

A deep problem

Johnson would have made enemies. But in my view that would have been the right approach for two reasons. First of all Johnson is a new leader with a fresh mandate to sort out intractable problems.

Horrifying evidence is constantly emerging of the depth and scale of virulence of Tory hatred towards Muslims

Second, it would have been the right thing to do. The problem of Tory Islamophobia goes deep. Horrifying evidence is constantly emerging of the depth and scale of virulence of Tory hatred towards Muslims.

To give a very recent example, earlier this week MatesJacob, an anonymous Twitter user who campaigns against racism, produced a devastating dossier showing that 15 sitting Tory councillors (as well as ten former ones) have distributed Islamophobic and racist material on social media.

One called Muslims the "enemy within". Another wanted to ban mosques. A third called London’s Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan a "vile creature".

All these councillors were suspended at once pending an investigation. Johnson could hardly do anything else in the national spotlight of an election period.

The Goldsmith campaign

But if recent history is anything to go by, the investigation will be a half-hearted process and conducted in the shadows. Once the election is over and the media spotlight goes away, I’d expect the majority of these Tory bigots to be let back into the party.

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The problem dates back to the Islamophobia on display in Zac Goldsmith’s tainted campaign to be London mayor -  which I’m proud to say I exposed in a series of articles for Middle East Eye at the time.

Andrew Boff, Conservative group leader on the Greater London assembly, later went on record as saying that campaign had "done real damage” and had “blown up bridges” the Conservative Party had built with London’s Muslim communities. Mohammed Amin, chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum, accused Goldsmith of painting Khan as a "closet extremist".

The Tory reaction to this dark episode is telling. Goldsmith, a member of Johnson’s inner circle, has never apologised. And he’s paid no price for his tolerance of bigotry.

An institutionalised Islamophobia

There’s a pattern here. Again and again, Tory MPs get away with racist or Islamophobic comments. Bob Blackman, Tory MP for Harrow East, is one of the worst offenders. He received no punishment after sharing anti-Muslim social media posts by the former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson. 

Nadine Dorries is a Tory minister who has endorsed Robinson with no comebacks from the Tory Party. The Muslim Council of Britain showed in a recent study how Tory Party debating forums are riddled with Islamophobic comments.

This is not at all surprising.

 A protestor is escorted out of the venue before an event launching the Conservative Party's general election campaign in Birmingham, Britain, on 6 November (Reuters)
A protester is escorted out of the venue before an event launching the Conservative Party's general election campaign in Birmingham on 6 November (Reuters)

Just imagine the outrage if a member of Corbyn’s senior team had dismissed complaints about anti-semitism by a Jewish Labour politician in this way

A YouGov poll earlier this year unveiled the chilling finding that two thirds of Tory members believe parts of Britain operate under sharia law. YouGov adds that almost half of Tories believed in the myth of no-go zones where “non-Muslims are not able to enter” while 39 percent thought Islamist terror attacks “reflected widespread hostility to Britain among the Muslim community”.

With Islamophobia going this deep in the Tory Party, it’s no surprise that respected figures, like former chairman Sayeeda Warsi now say that the problem is institutional. Yet, last week Health Secretary Matthew Hancock patronised her by saying "there are others who take a more balanced view”. 

This comment shows the scale of the problem. Just imagine the outrage if a member of Corbyn’s senior team had dismissed complaints about antisemitism by a Jewish Labour politician in this way.

Yet again and again senior Tories insist there isn’t a problem. Former Tory chairman Brandon Lewis said Islamophobia wasn’t an issue, while Jacob Rees-Mogg and rising star Tom Tugendhat both say the party has handled the issue well.

No moral right

This blindness explains the muddle about the mooted Tory Party inquiry into Islamophobia. During the Tory leadership election, all the candidates (crucially including Boris Johnson) committed to an independent investigation.

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This was abandoned once Johnson became prime minister, but resurrected last week when Michael Gove told the Today programme that there would be "an independent inquiry into Islamophobia and it will be established before the end of this year". 

Since then the Conservative Party has once again gone into retreat. The plan now is an internal investigation that will look at all discrimination and not specifically Islamophobia. 

The sad truth is that Johnson is incapable of dealing with his party’s anti-Muslim problem. This makes him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy because his party constantly returns to the subject of Labour antisemitism. 

It has no moral right to do that until it deals with the bigotry in its own ranks. A bigotry which stretches right to the top. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.