Challenging Islamaphobia? An Event At Conference Tells me The Tories Don’t Care

Seven years ago I was chairman of the Conservative party. At the time, under the leadership of David Cameron, it felt like an organisation that was striving to become more diverse and more inclusive, and one that was taking steps to improve the representation and influence of people from different backgrounds. Cameron told me he wanted to change the face of the party, and the faces within the party.

How things have changed. We now have a leadership that openly demonises Muslim women, fails to acknowledge the extent of racism within the party’s ranks, and uses language over Brexit that stokes hatred and deepens divisions. And this weekend, in Manchester, we had a meeting at the party conference that brought out the worst aspects of this atmosphere of intolerance.

We are no further along the road in dealing with the bigotry and racism within our ranks Headlined as Challenging “Islamophobia”, at first glance it seemed to be the kind of event I could sign up to: who wouldn’t want to support minorities under attack? But then I noticed that some of the panellists had at times said, let us say, dubious things about Muslims.

I immediately raised my concerns with the MP Nusrat Ghani, who was also billed as a panellist. I asked her why the party conference would be hosting an event dominated by such people. She assured me it would be balanced, and that the speakers would be challenged. But it now appears that exactly what I’d feared has happened and that the meeting became a Muslim-bashing fest. I am appalled at both its content and its conduct.

Trevor Phillips, the chair, opened the event by telling Muslims what they should be concerned about. The conversation then majored on Muslim extremists, Islamists, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. From sharia to burqas, terrorism to misogyny, the panellists emphasised anything but the real lived experiences of British Muslims. Finally, he told the panellists they had “30 seconds on whether we should have a definition and an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative party”. “Very briefly,” he then emphasised.

I now realise why the event’s headline had quotation marks. It wasn’t a meeting to challenge Islamophobia, but to challenge the very concept of it – suggesting it to be a dangerous, concocted idea being “weaponised” by extremists and a tool to shut down criticism of Islam. It ignored the harrowing tales of discrimination and prejudice I’d heard from victims as part of the parliamentary report Islamophobia Defined.

When I first read reports on the gathering, I felt sick to my stomach at what went on. Later, as I listened to a recording of the event, I felt deep fear.

Fear that a mainstream party has so lost its way that it would host such an event. Fear at the disingenuous way the Islamophobia report was presented, with no parliamentarian involved in producing it given a chance to respond. But, most particularly, fear at the manner in which British Muslims who dared question this panto of an event were treated.

A party member of 37 years who introduced himself as proudly Conservative, Muslim and British, said: “I’m trying to figure out whether [the panellists] are here to tackle Islamophobia rather than promote it – I’m struggling to understand.” Another young man from Hull tried to give examples of Islamophobia but was shut down. It made for disturbing listening. Being named “Islamophobe of the year” was joked about by panellists as if it were a badge to be worn with pride.

Even more disturbing was how the panel tried to shore up their anti-racism credentials by denouncing antisemitism within the Labour party. It was the worst kind of hypocrisy. I thought this terrible playing of “race politics’ was confined to the divide-and-rule practices of the colonial past. I have been raising the issue of Islamophobia within my party for nearly four years and have often been asked whether it is “as bad as Labour antisemitism”. I have refused to engage in this debate, because those who do are no friends of any minority. I will not play “Muslim victimhood” versus “Jewish victimhood” or any other form of racism – those of us who truly care about equality believe all need protection.

Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, described the Conservatives recently as “an extreme rightwing faction”; the MP Sam Gyimah said he felt “an outcast” in an increasingly intolerant party. I have personally tried to battle on, painstakingly presenting complaints, citing hundreds of incidents of Islamophobia as evidence, yet despite Boris Johnson’s public promise of an inquiry we are no further along the road in dealing with the bigotry and racism within our ranks. Sunday’s meeting was disingenuous, divisive and peppered with dog whistles. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that it was very suited to today’s Tory party.