Islamophobia and Britain’s major political parties by Liam Carroll
By k.anand.14, on 24 August 2020
Since the beginning of March, both the Conservatives and Labour have suspended members over allegations of Islamophobia. The suspensions from the Conservative party came after Hope Not Hate provided the party with evidence of anti-Muslim comments made online by 20 individuals linked to the party, including 6 current councillors. The posts expressed sentiments justifying the denial of human rights to Muslims on the grounds that they couldn’t understand them because of their animal-like behaviour, and that it was “not a bad thing” if Muslims left the UK. Around the same time, Labour suspended Trevor Phillips, the anti-racism campaigner and founding chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, on grounds that comments made by him dating back over 4 years, including stating that Muslims constituted “a nation within a nation” and that the social norms of Muslim Pakistani men were permissive of child grooming, were Islamophobic. Phillips, now the chair of Index on Censorship, a freedom of speech campaign group, subsequently went on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and defended his previous comments, reasserting that he thought Muslims were “different”.
Both sets of comments clearly share the idea that Muslims are not a part of mainstream British society. Additionally, the comments, aside from one made by Trevor Phillips, refer to Muslims collectively. By doing this, they ignore the heterogeneity of the practice of Islam and the social and political attitudes of Muslims in Britain; instead referring to some single conception of Islam that they attribute to all Muslims, at least in Britain. This is something we see within our research, for example one participant called Faatina recounts how Muslims “have to answer every step of our lives, everything that we do”, that Muslims such as herself have to justify or explain why they don’t fit within the conception of Muslim behaviour that is promoted in wider society. Faatina goes on to contrast the Muslim experience with other religions in asking “Whereas how come, you know, like Sikhs, Hindus, Christian, they don’t answer for anything”. Faatina also suggests that the media play a significant role in generating and reinforcing this misguided conception of Muslims, and this opinion is reflected by other participants in the research.
The differences between the Labour and Conservative comments echo the differences between the old and new forms of discrimination against Muslims that we see in our research. The comparison of Muslims to animals made by individuals linked to the Conservative party are an example of the older forms of discrimination, which respondents indicated were more common in the 1970’s and 80’s and were associated with interactions with skinheads or National Front activity. The participants in our research identified similar experiences in their own lives, such as the term ‘Paki’ being used towards all people of South Asian descent. A narrative which emerged from interviews was that this older form of discrimination had declined over time as areas became more diverse and more people interacted with people outside their ethnic or religious group. Respondents also noticed that instances of this type of racism have re-emerged at different times, but that in general ever since the 1990s and more particularly 9/11 a newer form of discrimination, focused more on Islam, had emerged and become more prominent.
The newer form of discrimination, as seen in Phillips’ comments, takes the form of an overarching suspicion of Islam. Phillips assertion that Muslims represent a ‘nation within a nation’ infers that Muslims in Britain may have conflicting loyalties, and it is both emblematic and enabling of this type of discrimination. Our research suggests that now, as a result of modern social norms, discrimination is often unspoken. This passage during one of the interviews depicts this sentiment particularly clearly:
Anisa: Sometimes you feel like on the inside people are thinking that … they’ll never say it but on the inside.
Shamea: So, we’ll never be comfortable but…
Interviewer: Thinking what?
Anisa: Feeling kind of wary of you…‘Cause obviously you look different…and no one will say it to you…but people who do feel uncomfortable by you won’t ever go to you and …
Additionally, many respondents recalled how when in public, upon noticing their beard, hijab or other identifying dress, non-Muslims had diverted their course away from them or avoided sitting next to them on public transport, even when it was the only seat left.
These Conservative suspensions quickly follow the December launch of an inquiry into Islamophobia and other prejudices in the party. You would imagine that these suspensions will serve to put greater pressure on the inquiry to find out why the party is failing to make it clear to their members, prospective and current elected representatives that these views are unacceptable and what processes would need to be put forward to assure the British Muslim population of Conservative credibility on this issue. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see how the Labour party and its new leadership approach Phillips’ case, given Phillips’ high-profile and the well-documented accusations of anti-Semitism within the party ranks. Expelling Phillips would send a message that the party does not stand behind or legitimise the sentiments about Islam that he promotes, but what our research shows is that to challenge the Islamophobia experienced everyday by British Muslims the parties need to do more than simply cast out the worst perpetrators. What is needed is a frank, public discussion about the illegitimacy of people’s suspicions of Islam and for that to be backed up by the policies of the parties of government in this country.
Note: The Labour Party’s Letter notifying Trevor Phillips and his reply have now been published by the Policy Exchange. This is available to download at: https://policyexchange.org.uk/publication/the-trial-the-strange-case-of-trevor-phillips/ . Phillips and his supporters have since contended that the timing of the suspension pending investigation, some four years after some of the comments were first made, suggests maliciousness on the part of party officials.