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Peter Oborne: What's the Conservative Party's problem with Muslims?

A troubling incident at the Conservative Party conference reveals too much about its attitude towards Muslims

I have just returned from the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, where I heard Prime Minister Theresa May make the most nationalistic speech uttered by any recent British prime minister.

The Conservative Party angrily denies claims that this nationalism has anything to do with racism or bigotry and I have so far felt inclined to accept this.

However, details are now starting to emerge of a troubling incident during the Conservative Party conference which - if true - does indeed suggest that the Conservatives may be on the way to becoming a sectarian – and even racist - political party.

This incident concerns the fringe meeting due to be hosted by TellMAMA, a respected organisation which monitors anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry.

If true it does indeed suggest that the Conservatives may be on the way to becoming a sectarian – and even racist - political party

The facts are contested and the full story has not yet been established. However this much is undisputed: Fiyaz Mughal, founder of TellMAMA, arrived with his team late last Tuesday afternoon to make preparation for their evening fringe event. They were denied conference passes.

According to TellMAMA’s account of events, what followed was unacceptable. The TellMAMA team told me last night that they were harassed by G4S security guards in an unpleasant way. TellMAMA say that these guards followed them around, stared at them in a threatening fashion and insulted one of their staff.

Despite making representations through third parties, TellMAMA were unable to get into the conference and obliged to cancel the fringe event at the last minute.

This has happened before

Crucially, this is not an isolated case. This treatment of TellMAMA fits in with an established pattern of contemptuous or insulting behaviour from the Conservative Party towards Muslim organisations.

Three years ago, I chaired a conference fringe meeting arranged by the Muslim group Engage aimed at boosting Muslim participation in British politics.

The businessman and political activist Sufyan Ismail made an eloquent case that Muslims are natural Conservatives. However an otherwise impressive occasion was marred by the failure of the Tory Party to deliver on an official promise that a Conservative MP would speak at the event.

When I confronted then-Tory chairman Grant Shapps about it later, he told me there were "security issues". However, as Mr Shapps in due course admitted to me, this excuse had no basis in truth.

Last year, a conference event about Muslim charities arranged by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) was cancelled at the very last moment.

Tory chairman Andrew Feldman reached this decision following the publication of a newspaper article claiming that one of the charities, Human Appeal, had links with terrorism.

Unfortunately, the Conservative Party cancelled the event (at which I had also been booked to speak) without checking the newspaper’s claims, and crucially without contacting ACEVO or Human Appeal.

Conservative Party logo

This treatment fits in with an established pattern of contemptuous or insulting behaviour from the Conservative Party towards Muslim organisations

When I examined the article the following day, it was easy to see it contained a number of serious errors, as the Conservative Party could have discovered had it taken the trouble to check the story.

So there is a demonstrable pattern of abusive or contemptuous behaviour towards Muslim organisations at Conservative Party conference.

What if this had been Labour?

Now let's try a thought experiment. Let's imagine that the Community Security Trust (CST), the respected body which exposes anti-Semitism, had been treated this way at a Labour Party conference.

Let's imagine they had been denied passes, and then said that their staff had been harassed by security guards.

I reckon this would have quickly made news, and been interpreted as evidence of embedded institutional anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

I have no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn would have ordered an immediate investigation, and probably apologised fulsomely to the CST. There’s no evidence yet of much of this happening in the wake of the TellMAMA fiasco.

When I spoke to the Conservative Party earlier today they put the blame squarely on TellMAMA. According to their account, TellMAMA applied too late for its conference passes. 

G4S flatly denied the TellMAMA claim that their staff behaved in a threatening way. A spokesman told me that, "We are very happy that our staff behaved in an entirely appropriate manner."

The Conservative Party added the extra claim that TellMAMA had itself been abusive to the member of Conservative Party staff who refused them passes.

At this point I need to declare an interest. I have known TellMAMA for many years. I sat on the panel and spoke at the press conference which launched the group four years ago. They are a government-funded body which does excellent and badly needed work exposing bigotry and intimidation towards Muslims - and it is of course hugely ironic that TellMAMA now claims that its officers were themselves abused at Conservative Conference.

Incident exposes Conservative pattern

There are two contradictory accounts of how TellMAMA was refused entry to Conservative conference, and nobody yet knows the truth. But let's bear in mind that the alleged treatment of TellMAMA forms part of a pattern of behaviour by the Conservative Party towards Muslim organisations.

As I exposed in MEE, Zac Goldsmith's campaign against Sadiq Khan for the London mayoralty was conducted on blatantly sectarian lines.

It is essential that the new Tory chairman Patrick Mcloughlin gets to the bottom of what happened in Birmingham last week

At one stage, David Cameron even went so far as to vilify Suliman Gani, a south London imam, who had connections with Sadiq Khan as a supporter of Islamic State, an outrageous and unfounded charge. Only after the mayoral election did the then-prime minister utter a feeble apology.

So there is a history here which means that it is essential that the new Tory chairman Patrick Mcloughlin gets to the bottom of what happened in Birmingham last week, and apologises if need be. Equally, if TellMAMA’s claims are unfounded then it should retract them.

Last week's Tory Party conference was a success in many respects. Theresa May has unified her party, something no other senior Tory could have managed in the wake of the Europe referendum vote. She made a capable party conference speech and the Conservatives projected themselves as a party of government.

However, there is a point where nationalism can turn into bigotry. If TellMAMA’s story is true, then that point was passed at Birmingham last week.

-Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year 2016 by the Online Media Awards for an article he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015.

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

Photo: Theresa May addresses the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham (AFP)