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Cabinet reshuffle: Boris Johnson and the scourge of Islamophobia

The promotion of Nadine Dorries and Michael Gove in the latest reshuffle is further evidence of the toleration of racism in the British Conservative Party
Britain's newly appointed secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, Nadine Dorries, leaves 10 Downing Street, London, on 15 September 2021 (AFP)

Last week, after much speculation, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson undertook a reshuffle of his cabinet, which saw some ministers banished to the backbenches and others promoted to the head table.

For Johnson, this appraisal process was an important opportunity to bring into the fold those who share his ideology and views and can represent what he stands for. But it was also a chance to dismiss from his top team those who are out of step, those who have presided over policy failures and those who are, frankly, not fit for office.

Johnson made his own dehumanising comments that same month about Muslim women, likening those who wear the burqa to 'bank robbers' and 'letterboxes'

It was hardly unsurprising, then - but no less appalling - that Johnson used it as an opportunity to turn a blind eye to racism by promoting two people who have been criticised for their Islamophobic views.

Nadine Dorries was promoted from being a minister at the Department of Health and Social Care to sitting around the cabinet table as the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport. 

Like Johnson, the new culture secretary has a habit of making offensive and discriminatory remarks about the hijab, niqab and burqa. In August 2018, in response to a Twitter user saying that it was a Muslim woman's right to choose what she wears, Dorries used her verified Twitter account to call the burqa a “medieval costume” that should not be “tolerated” in “progressive countries”.

Johnson made his own dehumanising comments that same month about Muslim women, likening those who wear the burqa to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”. It led to a 375 percent increase in Islamophobic hate crime, according to the monitoring group Tell Mama – but Dorries expressed her disappointment that his comments “didn’t go further”.

Sweeping insinuation

Dorries has also peddled the far-right trope that inextricably links the very real problem of grooming gangs with Muslim men by questioning the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in March 2018, about what he was doing to tackle this when he made a statement on hate crime.

Grooming gangs are most prevalent in areas of the UK where Khan does not hold office, yet Dorries seemed to be saying that, as a Muslim, it was his responsibility to provide answers on this issue, and in so doing belittled the grotesque incidents of hate crime which were the subject of Khan’s video.

Worse, in August 2018 she boldly claimed that Muslim women choose to dress modestly to “hide… [their] bruises”. As a Muslim woman, I felt that Dorries was making a sweeping and baseless insinuation about Muslim men in the families of those who wear the hijab as being likely to engage in domestic abuse.

In her quest to further the othering of Muslims, she told British Muslim author and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in a Twitter exchange in May 2018 that she should “appreciate… the country and people you have chosen to live, work and benefit from all your life”.

Why the British government is in no hurry to define Islamophobia
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For me, that suggested that not only does Dorries believe that someone who is Muslim does not truly belong in Britain and therefore has no place commenting on the workings of the country, but also that a British Muslim is a burden on the state, “benefit[ting]” from it.

She also promoted the Islamophobic myth in February 2017 that vote-rigging is “commonplace” in Muslim communities, as well as saying in August 2018 that "You cannot expect a society that … embraces gay marriage to live harmoniously when condoning the suppression of women forced to cover up, segregate and become invisible". In saying this, Dorries seems to be suggesting that all Muslims are intolerant of homosexuality and implying that Islam is incompatible with life in Britain.

This despite Dorries herself not only voting against allowing same-sex marriage but being accused of comparing gay marriage to incest, saying in May 2013 that "if gay marriage bill takes sex out of marriage, could a sister marry a sister to avoid inheritance tax?"

And in May 2017, Dorries' Twitter account tweeted a false story about Muslims claiming benefits for several wives.

Dorries’ transgressions are extensive, well-documented and have been heavily reported on. The Muslim Council of Britain’s 2020 dossier of evidence of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party included a long list of her infringements, which were reported to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the chair of the party. (For the sake of transparency, I should state that I authored much of that report). Continuing the trend of failing to act on Islamophobia which has seemingly been allowed to run rampant in the Conservative Party, Dorries has not been investigated.

Middle East Eye reached out to a DCMS government spokesperson on Wednesday morning, asking if Dorries would comment on her past statements. By Thursday afternoon, there had been no response.

Concerned by Johnson's appointment of Dorries to one of the most senior jobs in British politics, the anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate wrote to the Conservative Party in September 2021 about her history of Islamophobic statements and what her appointment said about the party's stated commitment to meet the "zero tolerance" of Islamophobia as recommended in the independent 2020 Singh Investigation.

The Conservative Party has had ample opportunities to acknowledge, address and tackle the scourge of Islamophobia

That investigation, set up to examine alleged discrimination within the Conservative Party, found that two-thirds of the 1,418 complaints made between 2015 and 2020 related to allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination, including complaints about Johnson himself.

The Conservative Party accepted all the report's findings.

'Deeply worrying' views

Just as Dorries seems to suggest Islam is incompatible with life in Britain, many communities, particularly Muslims, anti-racists and pro-LGBT rights champions, might suggest that Dorries herself is incompatible with modern British values. Unfortunately, the prime minister, in promoting her, does not appear to share this view.

Dorries is not the only cabinet member to whose behaviour Johnson is blind.

Long-standing cabinet minister Michael Gove is another Tory politician who hasn't been investigated for his Islamophobic comments, despite him holding “crazy" and "deeply, deeply worrying” views about Muslims, according to former co-chair of the Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi in March 2017.

Instead, Gove has been continuously pushed up the greasy pole, and now leads the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. This is the department, then called the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, that was tasked in May 2019 with establishing a working definition of Islamophobia.

In a perfect encapsulation of the Conservative Party’s attitude towards Islamophobia and the importance of tackling it, two years on the party has yet to start working on it, with a spokesperson simply saying earlier this year that it had been paused.

Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith
London Mayor Sadiq Khan (L) looks on as Conservative Party mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith addresses the media following the announcement of Khan's election victory on 7 May 2016 (AFP)

This is not the first time the Conservative Party has richly rewarded Islamophobia, and it is unlikely to be the last. In spring 2016, Zac Goldsmith infamously ran a mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan so laden with Islamophobic tropes that it was even criticised by senior Conservatives including Andrew Boff, the then-Conservative group leader on the Greater London assembly. Yet despite losing the race, he was promoted to cabinet in 2019, given a peerage - but not subject to any investigation.

'Serious questions'

Harun Khan, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said at the time: “For Zac Goldsmith to be given a peerage and position in cabinet despite his racist campaign for mayor of London illustrates how racism is not only accepted but even rewarded by the government.

“Serious questions must be asked about how the Conservative Party can say one thing and do the complete opposite when it comes to Islamophobia.”

David Davies MP said in April 2016 that Islamic headwear is “an excuse” for sexual violence against uncovered women and was still made secretary of state for Wales. 

And finally, Boris Johnson, despite claiming “Islam is the problem” in 2005, and that Islamophobia was a “natural reaction”, making racist comments about Muslim women and Black people, and eliciting endorsements from prominent members of the far-right in November 2019, still went on to become the leader of the Conservative Party and the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Conservative Party has had ample opportunities to acknowledge, address and tackle the scourge of Islamophobia that has so deeply permeated every level of the party. Last week’s reshuffle was one such opportunity.

But instead, just as we have seen before, Johnson used the reshuffle to promote people with a long history of making Islamophobic remarks.

Once again, he has shown his true colours.

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

Zainab Gulamali
Zainab Gulamali is the former public affairs and communications manager at the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). In 2019, she authored the MCB's submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the prevalence of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, and has worked on this issue extensively. She writes in a personal capacity, and her views do not represent those of the MCB.