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British Muslims condemn 'whitewash' report into Conservative Party Islamophobia

Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologises about 'offence taken' for comments about niqabs, as new report suggests Islamophobia not institutionalised in ruling party
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wears an embroidered jacket reading Prine Minister as he tours HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in Portsmouth, southwest England prior to its departure for Asia in its first operational deployment on 21 May 2021 (AFP)

British Muslim political leaders have condemned as a "whitewash" an inquiry into Islamophobia in the party and called for a further investigation to look into evidence of breaches of the law.

The report, which was released on Tuesday, said the party had a perception of being "insensitive" to British Muslims, but it also cleared the party of institutional Islamophobia.

The inquiry into allegations of anti-Muslim attitudes in the Conservative Party, which was led by Professor Swaran Singh, said that while there had been instances of anti-Muslim sentiments by party members and some leading figures, the suggestion that the party was institutionally racist was not "borne out by evidence available to the investigation as regards the way the party handled the complaints process".

'I’m not saying that the party leadership is insensitive to Muslim communities. I’m saying that the perception is very strong'

- Professor Swaran Singh, report author

Speaking to the Press Association, Singh said that comments such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson's reference to women wearing the niqab as looking like "bank robbers" and "letterboxes", as well as the controversial campaign of London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith in 2016, had led many to believe that the party was hostile to Muslims.

“I’m not saying that the party leadership is insensitive to Muslim communities. I’m saying that the perception is very strong," he said.

Sajjad Karim, a former Conservative MEP who chaired the European parliament’s working group on Islamophobia, described the method the inquiry was carried out as an attempt to "whitewash deep-rooted issues out of sight."

“It is difficult to identify any basis upon which this has been a serious attempt to address credible and serious matters or deliver on Boris Johnson’s leadership election pledge," he told the Guardian, referring to a promise by Johnson to investigate the issue.

“If anything it acts as an illustration of an attitude inclined to view Islamophobia as an irritant best pushed to one side, when not being utilised in promoting culture wars, rather than as a serious systemic issue which needs to be rooted out.”

Another senior Muslim Conservative said the report was "a sad reflection of how little the party cares about inclusivity.”

The Conservative Party has been dogged with allegations of Islamophobia for years. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has long urged for an inquiry and submitted evidence to that effect to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

A June 2019 survey by polling company YouGov found that more than half of Conservative Party members believed Islam to be a threat to the "British way of life”.

In evidence given to the inquiry, Johnson said that he apologised for "any offence caused" by his 2018 column in the Daily Telegraph, which discussed the implications of a ban on burqas and niqabs in the UK. At the time he was criticised for "dogwhistle" racism over the comments.

“Would I use some of the offending language from my past writings today? Now that I am prime minister, I would not," he told the inquiry.

In a statement, the MCB said it welcomed the new report, but warned it fell short of addressing the underlying causes of the problem.

"We hope that this is the starting point of the Party’s own self-reflection. Regardless, it is imperative for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to determine whether any breaches of law have taken place," said Zara Mohammed, Secretary General of the MCB.

Former Conservative chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi, who has long been a critic of Islamophobia in the party, told Sky News that Johnson's apology had been "mealy mouthed" and said the EHRC should take up the investigation.

Party investigations

The inquiry came in the wake of a highly publicised investigation into antisemitism in the main opposition Labour Party by the EHRC.

The EHRC report said Labour had been responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act: political interference in antisemitism complaints, failure to provide proper training to handle the complaints, and harassment.

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The fallout led to the suspension of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn after he suggested that the scale of antisemitism in the party had been "dramatically overstated".

The EHRC told Middle East Eye that it was looking closely at the Singh report and would wait to assess the Conservative Party's response.

“We are pleased to see that the independent investigation has now published its report. We have been kept informed of the progress of the investigation by Professor Singh and will evaluate his team's findings carefully," it said in a statement.

"We will assess the report alongside the investigation's terms of reference and await the Conservative Party's response on the actions they will take. This process will take some time and we do not anticipate making any further comments until that work is completed.”