Stephen Daisley

The Tories, Islam, and the importance of pluralism

The Tories, Islam, and the importance of pluralism
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The Conservatives will be relieved that an independent investigation has not found the party to be institutionally racist, though relief is about all they can feel. Professor Swaran Singh’s report, which has taken two years to arrive, paints a picture of a party at best complacent about how its members talk about Muslims. 

Professor Singh examined 1,418 complaints about 727 incidents between 2015 and 2020, of which two-thirds were allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination and three-quarters were from social media. The former commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concludes that:

Anti-Muslim sentiment has been evidenced at local association and individual levels, as demonstrated by a number of social media complaints against party members which were upheld by the complaints process.

He finds ‘clear evidence of a party complaints system in need of overhaul’, ‘an under-resourced and inadequately trained complaints team’, and ‘a weak data collection system’. The Tories’ sanctions regime comes in for censure too, with Professor Singh finding there are ‘no clear guidelines as to which behaviours should attract which sanctions’. 

He also notes one case of an investigation taking seven months to be resolved. On specific cases, he considers Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph column on the burqa an example of the Tories giving ‘the impression to many that the party and its leadership are insensitive to Muslim communities’. This has been one of the most contentious episodes in the Conservative party’s relationship with British Muslims, with critics objecting that Johnson, albeit opining against Continental bans on the Islamic headscarf, did so while deriding wearers as ‘looking like letter boxes’ and ‘bank robber[s]’. 

The report’s acknowledgement of the offence caused is important: a columnist can be as provocative as he likes, but a prime minister — not least a Conservative prime minister — cannot speak so glibly about people’s faith.

The report further identifies ‘examples of anti-Muslim discrimination by individuals and groups at local association level’, including ‘one serious allegation of direct discrimination at local association level whose investigation showed serious failings in the complaints process’.

This refers to an unnamed local association in which a member of ten years’ standing complained of ‘a culture of racism’, including an incident of a councillor ‘shouting a racist slur at the end of a meeting’. The member, supported by other members, complained to the local association but after no satisfactory outcome, the matter was escalated to Conservative Campaign Headquarters. When still no progress was made despite repeated contact, the complainant got in touch with CCHQ again, only to be told the case had been closed after ‘an anonymous phone call from someone in the local association, who told CCHQ that the complaint had been resolved locally’. The complainant then raised the matter with the deputy chair of the party and got a reply saying the complaints office would be in touch. It was the last they heard from CCHQ. This litany of errors and indifference explains why the report is so critical of the procedures the Tories have in place. There are dysfunctional or intractable local associations or constituency branches in all parties, but for a complaint to reach the desk of the deputy chairman and still go nowhere is a categorical systems failure.

The Conservatives will want to emphasise the report’s finding that the party is not ‘institutionally racist’. This was an allegation levelled by Baroness Warsi and she provided the investigation with cases that she believed proves a culture of anti-Muslim discrimination exists. However, Professor Singh concludes that ‘allegations of institutional racism against the party were not borne out by the evidence available to the investigation’. He states:

No evidence was found to support the suggestion that the party had collectively or systematically failed any particular community or group in its processes for dealing with complaints relating to protected characteristics, including race, religion or belief, or specifically Islam.

We found no attitudes or behaviours within the complaints process or relating to the imposition of sanctions by the party that were discriminatory against any group or individual possessing a protected characteristic, including those with the protected characteristic of being Muslim.

Tories will also want to underscore the report’s finding that ‘an overwhelming majority of valid complaints… were upheld and resulted in a sanction’, as well as the conclusion that there was ‘no evidence’ of Islam-related complaints being treated differently or of attempts to interfere in the handling of complaints by party bosses. Some Conservatives will contrast this report with the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into Labour anti-Semitism, which reached much more damning conclusions about the official opposition. ‘We may be racist, but we’re less racist than the Labour party’ isn’t much of a defence, not least considering just how racist you have to be to be more racist than Labour.

Without getting into debates about the merits of the term ‘Islamophobia’ and whether there is a difference between hating a religion and its adherents and, as in the case of anti-Semitism, hating a people or race and its members, it is evident that the Conservative party has a problem with hostility towards Muslims within its ranks. Given Islam’s growing role in British life as a faith that sustains millions of people, provides the moral framework within which they raise their children, and drives them to do charitable works, a party that claims to represent One Nation cannot bear ill will towards a demographic that represent around three million of the British population.

The report alludes to an awareness of this within the Tory party. Professor Singh notes:

There was widespread agreement that Islam should not be conflated with Islamism; the former being described as a faith with over a billion peaceful adherents worldwide, and the latter is typically defined as a religio-political ideology that aspires towards an Islamic state or form of government, which can be achieved through violent and non-violent means. Everyone we interviewed agreed that the actions of Islamists should not be used to stereotype Muslims or discriminate against them.

Conservatives who fear confronting anti-Muslim prejudice in the party may deter critical discussion of Islamism, extremism, or radicalisation should not dismiss this report’s findings. Instead, they should engage with them and discuss how to prevent anti-Muslim sentiments from being advanced in the guise of anti-Islamism. Doing so is the only way to stop anti-Islamist politics from being mischaracterised as anti-Muslim bigotry. 

It is entirely possible for the Conservative party to be welcoming to Muslims and their faith while refusing to bow to reactionary religious and political elements within Islam, just as it is any other religion. A political party that cannot maintain that distinction has no business asking for the votes of a liberal, pluralistic country.