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Islamophobia a ‘problem’ in UK’s Conservative Party, probe finds

Independent investigation says ‘bulk’ of discrimination complaints against Tories have been made over anti-Muslim bias, doesn’t find they amount to ‘institutional racism’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves at the media as he leaves 10 Downing Street in London, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves at the media as he leaves 10 Downing Street in London, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE)

LONDON (AFP) — Islamophobia within Britain’s ruling Conservative Party is a problem both at an individual level and beyond but falls short of “institutional racism,” an independent investigation concluded on Tuesday.

The center-right party has been dogged for years by accusations of anti-Muslim sentiment that have been leveled against members, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The former journalist’s comments comparing Muslim women in veils to letterboxes and bank robbers, in a newspaper column in 2018, contributed to a “widespread” perception that the Tories have a “Muslim problem,” the report said.

“Anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the party. This is damaging to the party, and alienates a significant section of society,” the investigation led by Swaran Singh, a former commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, found.

Singh said he believed the report was “going to be very uncomfortable for the party,” and hoped it would “spur them into action.”

Illustrative photo of Muslim women wearing burqas (AFP/Torsten Blackwood/File)

The investigation said since 2015 the “bulk” of discrimination complaints had been made over anti-Muslim allegations.

Of 1,418 complaints relating to 727 incidents of alleged discrimination, more than two-thirds of the incidents — 496 cases — related to Islamophobia.

But while the report found “there were examples of anti-Muslim discrimination by individuals and groups at local association level,” it said those problems fell short of claims of “institutional racism.”

The report said there was no evidence that complaints related to Islam are treated differently from those related to other forms of discrimination.

Johnson told Singh’s probe he was “sorry for any offense taken” over his 2018 column and added he would not use “some of the offending language from my past writings” now that he was prime minister.

‘Unable or unwilling’

The report also considered accusations made by the campaign of 2016 Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith claiming his Muslim Labour rival Sadiq Khan associated with extremists.

Goldsmith told the investigation the accusations showed “poor judgement in the way his campaign was conducted” and he denied “harboring anti-Muslim sentiments or using such sentiments for political advantage.”

Left: The Conservatives’s Zac Goldsmith speaks at a London Mayoral Accountability Assembly at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London on April 28, 2016; Right: Labour’s Sadiq Khan speaks at an event in London on January 28, 2016. (AFP/Justin Tallis and Leon Neal)

MP and former Conservative finance minister Sajid Javid, the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants, highlighted “distressing examples of anti-Muslim sentiment” listed in the report.

“Stamping out discrimination, whether against Muslims or any other minority group, is an issue where our country’s political parties have a responsibility,” he said.

Former Conservative chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi, a member of the House of Lords and a longtime critic of her party’s handling of Islamophobia, tweeted the report revealed a party that was “at best unable and at worst unwilling to deal with the issue of racism.”

In response to the investigation, the Conservative Party said it accepted the report’s recommendations and would work harder to counter discrimination in all its forms.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a thumbs up after Sajid Javid, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, September 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

“On behalf of the Conservative Party I would like to apologize to anyone who has been hurt by discriminatory behavior of others or failed by our system,” party co-chairwoman Amanda Milling said.

She added the party would “continue to take a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination” and “take immediate action to improve our handling of complaints.”

The opposition Labour party has meanwhile been dogged for years by incidents of antisemitism, blamed particularly on far-left followers of former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In October, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said Corbyn’s office had broken the law in its handling of complaints by Jewish members. His successor Keir Starmer has apologized profusely and suspended Corbyn from the party.

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