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Tory Islamophobia: The trouble with Michael Fabricant

Recent comments by the MP show that the Conservative Party tolerates anti-Muslim bigotry
MP Michael Fabricant during a Brexit demonstrations opposite the House of Lords Westminster on 29 January 2019 (Reuters)

Michael Fabricant and I entered parliament together. He was elected a Tory MP in the 1992 general election, while I became lobby correspondent for the London Evening Standard at the same time.

I quickly noted that Fabricant had the merit, unusual in a politician, of not taking himself too seriously. If PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster had been an MP, he would have been a bit like Fabricant; artless, charming, but prone to getting into scrapes. 

But Fabricant is not harmless. It is striking that a large number of his scrapes have involved insults to Muslims. 

Unprovoked attack

Six years ago, Fabricant launched a hideous, unprovoked attack on Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, at that time pretty well Britain’s only Muslim newspaper columnist. After she appeared on Channel 4 News with columnist Rod Liddle, Fabricant announced that he could never appear on a programme with her, as he would “either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by punching her in the throat”. 

Fabricant later had the good grace to say that he was “deeply embarrassed and ashamed” by the episode, and there is no evidence that Alibhai-Brown’s Muslim identity provoked Fabricant’s abuse.

This sordid episode tells us a great deal about what life is like for Muslims in Britain today

Two months later, in the wake of the resignation of then-foreign minister Sayeeda Warsi over the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Fabricant suggested that Gaza was “a Muslim issue”. He later said his comments had been misinterpreted.

In July 2018, Fabricant posted a cartoon of Muslim London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s head on an inflatable balloon, engaged in a sex act with a pig. He soon deleted it, saying he had posted the image “without checking it properly”.

Now, Fabricant is in trouble again after an ugly spat with Miqdaad Versi, spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain. On Wednesday, Versi retweeted a video of Tory MP Andrew Mitchell claiming the Conservative Party has “zero tolerance” of Islamophobia. 

Versi challenged the claim, writing that it was “unacceptable” for a Tory MP to deny “the well-established evidence demonstrating the depth & breadth of Islamophobia” in the party. “There are literally 100s of examples, and the Party has taken an approach of denial, dismissal & deceit on the issue.”

'Anglo-Muslim relations'

Fabricant replied, saying: “Your spite and unpleasantness neither does the cause of tolerance in his country nor the cause of Anglo-Muslim relations any good at all.” The phrase “Anglo-Muslim relations” implies one thing: Muslims are separate. It’s an utterly disgraceful thing to say; though Fabricant has taken down the offending tweet, he has not apologised.

Should we care? Fabricant is a relatively obscure backbench MP. His views count for little in the House of Commons. There is a temptation to dismiss this affair as of little importance, but that would be a mistake. 

This sordid episode tells us a great deal about what life is like for Muslims in Britain today. They live in a country where a Tory MP can suggest that being Muslim means they are not fully British.

Remote file

Imagine that Operation Black Vote had produced evidence of racism inside the Conservative Party, and that a Conservative MP had warned of the damage they were causing to “Anglo-Black relations”. All hell would have broken out, with calls for the MP to resign. 

There’s a different rule for Muslims. Believe it or not, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party did not merely stand by Fabricant; it praised him. A Conservative Party statement said Fabricant’s tweet - later revised by the MP to reference “Muslim-nonMuslim relations” - raised “an important point about how it is the Labour Party that has been investigated by the EHRC for racism.” Incredible.

Widespread Tory attitude

It is impossible to conceive that a Labour MP with a record of antisemitic remarks would still be an MP, however charming and harmless he or she appeared to be. Yet Fabricant gets away time and again with bigotry against Muslims.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a closing speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester on 2 October 2019 (Reuters)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a closing speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester on 2 October 2019 (Reuters)

Bear in mind that Fabricant’s implication that Muslims aren’t British reflects a widespread Tory attitude. Last year, Labour’s Naz Shah called for a debate on Islamophobia in the UK. Andrea Leadsom, then the Tory leader of the House of Commons, replied that Islamophobia was a matter for the Foreign Office.

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On Wednesday night, I contacted Fabricant and asked whether he agreed that his words “Anglo-Muslim relations” clearly implied that Muslims cannot be fully British. He replied: “No. I absolutely do not agree … Nationality and religion are two very separate things.” He pointed out that he deleted the original tweet and substituted “Muslim and non-Muslim” for the initial phrase. 

Fabricant is not a malicious man, but I am afraid he does reflect the repellent bigotry that has become commonplace in Johnson’s Tory party. The party’s inability to recognise that Fabricant said something dreadful shows how deeply entrenched anti-Muslim prejudice has become. 

Andrew Mitchell, the former cabinet minister whose claim that the Tories took a zero-tolerance approach to Islamophobia precipitated the row, admitted there were issues when I challenged him on his claim on Wednesday night: “The Tory party does have the structures for dealing with Islamophobia, but there is admittedly an issue about whether they are being properly deployed at the moment,” he said. 

A deep problem

This is a grave understatement, but at least some senior Tory politicians are finally acknowledging that there is a problem. 

I also contacted the Tory party itself. I asked whether the party agreed with Fabricant’s tweet suggesting Muslims can’t be fully British. I asked why, given his failure to apologise, Fabricant wasn’t disciplined. I pointed out that there were hundreds of well-documented examples of Conservative Party Islamophobia. Why didn’t the party take them seriously? No answer to any of these questions.

Sayeeda Warsi was completely right when she said that Islamophobia in Britain had “passed the dinner-table test”. The Fabricant episode is the clearest example yet that Johnson’s Tories have such a deep problem with Muslims that they can only be described as institutionally Islamophobic.

It is well past time that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission investigated the party that felt no need to discipline Michael Fabricant. 

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.