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The British public aren’t woke, but they know bullying when they see it

Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, has had the Conservative whip withdrawn over his comments about Sadiq Khan
Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, has had the Conservative whip withdrawn over his comments about Sadiq Khan

The Tory party’s inability to decisively move against Islamophobia is of a piece with its entire approach to culture war issues over the past few years, writes Will Cooling

No one can say that the Conservative party wasn’t warned.

It is nearly five years since Sajid Javid used a BBC Tory leadership debate to push his fellow candidates to agree to an independent investigation into rising levels of Islamophobia within the party. Two years later the inquiry would report back that anti-Muslim views were to be found at individual and local level within the party, and that complaints about Islamophobic incidents were poorly handled. In 2022, Boris Johnson launched a formal investigation into claims that MP Nus Ghani had been told by the then chief whip that her removal from a previous ministerial role in 2020 was due to her faith (the report eventually proved inconclusive).

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And yet when Lee Anderson attacked the London Mayor for being under the control of Islamists, the Tory Party was somehow still unprepared for the ensuing backlash. While the Tories were ultimately forced to suspend him from their parliamentary party, ministers still struggled to explain what the Ashfield MP had done wrong and many backbenchers sought to defend him.

For the benefit of those still having difficulty understanding the obvious, Anderson’s remarks were wrong because they made a baseless accusation against a politician solely on the basis of his religion.

Khan has not only consistently used his position to advocate for London as a liberal city but has also prioritised maintaining close links with minority communities, including marching with LGBTQ+ Londoners at London Pride, and attracting praise from the city’s Jewish representatives for his outreach efforts. You don’t have to like or support Sadiq Khan to recognise that the idea he’s promoting Islamism bears no relation to his actual record as mayor. That’s exactly how you’d expect a secular social democrat to behave, regardless of their personal faith.

Anderson’s comments were therefore clearly bigoted, and few can doubt that he’d have made such accusations against a mayor with Khan’s record who wasn’t also a Muslim.

Many Tories have hidden behind the fact that Anderson’s remarks focused on Khan’s faith, rather than his ethnicity, as a way of avoiding accusations of tolerating racism. But we know through the challenges raised by antisemitism that religious and racial prejudices are often linked. It has been repeatedly shown that Islamophobia feeds racist stereotypes that lead to British Asians of all faiths to experience greater discrimination and harassment.

By playing on negative stereotypes, such remarks not only make Sadiq Khan – who already has to have constant police protection – less safe, they also make Britain a less welcoming place for all British Muslims.

The fact is the Tory party’s inability to decisively move against Islamophobia is of a piece with its entire approach to culture war issues over the past few years. Whereas once they sought votes on promises of economic progress or to ‘get Brexit done’, this broken party now scrambles round for any wedge issue or dividing line that can persuade a few more people to ignore how the country is increasingly falling apart.
Whether it be defensive ministers or angry backbenchers, the fear that unites them is that if they’re too harsh on Anderson it will cause bigots to abandon them, and so further reduce their already anaemic levels of support.

Typically, the minister for women and equalities decided that the best form of defence was attack, and picked a fight with Labour over the correct term for anti-Muslim prejudice.

Kemi Badenoch’s notional academic concerns about the relative merits of the term Islamophobia as opposed to anti-Muslim hatred shouldn’t fool anybody; the government has repeatedly failed to engage with efforts by other political parties and civil society groups to agree a common definition. Nor has Badenoch been able to outline how she will work with others to protect Muslims from discrimination or abuse. She is merely engaging in a more provocative form of prevarication than the average Conservative minister.

Such cowardice is not only morally wrong but politically misguided. The Tory party has still not recovered from its decision to use its last party conference to have minister after minister take to the stage to launch indiscriminate culture war broadsides against left-leaning professions and minorities.

The British public are far from woke, but they know a bully when they see one. And they don’t like them.