Aaqil Ahmed

First They Came for the Muslims

Islamophobia and the 2019 general election

Negative stories about Muslims have become a regular news feature. Aaqil Ahmed explores why its seepage into the political discourse of the Conservative Party is a worry for all of us.

The 2019 election was supposed to be the election where the Muslim community held the balance of power in a number of constituencies. There really isn’t a need for an over-elaborate analysis of the election to know that wasn’t the case. As voters you could argue Muslims were largely irrelevant to the outcome, but as a subject matter they were definitely key to many people’s votes.

It’s possible to argue that the real story of the election wasn’t that Muslims held the balance, but that the real power they held was the ability to be used as whipping boys and a great unifier between the mainstreaming of the politics of the far right and the average voter.

Islamophobia, or just being derogatory about Muslims, it seems is a vote winner for many and generates significant column inches and that’s where any real analysis of the Muslim impact on the election should focus.

Steve Houghton-Burnett, Unsplash.

I’m a Muslim, get me out of here….

On many of my talks I ask a simple question: what is the Muslim population of the UK? Replies are often around 10-20 per cent. Journalism students often include the odd expert who gets it, but generally the figures are around these, with the odd 30 per cent thrown in. The answer is very different. Muslims make up, according to census figures, 4.4 per cent of the UK population, 5 per cent of England and around 1.5 per cent of both Wales and Scotland.

It goes without saying that in particular geographical areas those figures are more significant, with the vast majority living in London, the West Midlands, North West England and Yorkshire.

The overall numbers across the UK would suggest that this is a group that shouldn’t attract the level of attention it does. But they do, and for me it is a mixture of a number of things: poor religious literacy; the inability to cope with religion in the public space; and a press that seems obsessed with them.

Poor religious literacy is a huge issue within the UK. We live in a time and a continent, often referred to as being post-Christian Europe, a period and place where religion is a spent force and irrelevant. The problem with this analysis is that Western Europe may have moved on from traditional religion, but the rest of the world hasn’t. Right now, across Britain and Europe, people from around the world are living in the continent and to them religion is still important.

And those people aren’t just Muslim. Britain has more than one million Hindus and many other faiths growing in numbers, such as Sikhs and Buddhists. While traditional Anglican Christianity may be in decline, through immigration and conversion Catholicism and Pentecostal Christianity are growing. Migration patterns and low birth rates amongst traditional European communities suggest that the percentage of people with faith is going to grow and by 2050 it is suggested that 40 per cent of Britain’s population will have some form of ethnic minority or migrant background.

So these numbers, while not in the 10s or 20s percentages, are still significant when you factor in the religiosity of the people involved. For many of them any notion of post-Christian Europe is irrelevant: religion still means something to their daily lives and it’s that intersection with the public space that makes people with no interest in religion, and no religious literacy whatsoever, uncomfortable, whether it is consciously or unconsciously.

How many times have you heard someone say that they know nothing about religion? That they think of it as a badge of honour? Compare that with if you were to say that you knew nothing about race, cared nothing about sexuality. Surely they are similar; people are often rightly or wrongly defined by characteristics such as race, sexuality or faith. Can it really be acceptable to not know or care about any one of these?

But it’s not just an issue of fairness or accepting diversity because it’s the right thing to do. A society that has such poor religious literacy creates a vacuum and into this vacuum it’s possible to say anything about people’s beliefs and for that uninformed knowledge to lead to intolerance and prejudice.

The first chair of press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), Sir Alan Moses said in 2019: ‘I speak for myself, but I have a suspicion that [Muslims] are from time to time written about in a way that [newspapers] would simply not write about Jews or Roman Catholics’.

Most Muslims, who have heard of Ipso, would argue that Sir Alan has presided over a regulator that has allowed newspapers to print silly scare stories and, in some cases, like the now debunked Times story about a ‘white Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’ to effectively get away with doing as they please.

There would be many journalists and commentators who would argue with this opinion, but it’s a view shared by many Muslims and non-Muslims. It is easy to be able to prod Muslims and refer to them in ways you wouldn’t be able to about other groups in society. Why? Because the audience and the journalists know very little and what they think they know, they often don’t like.

The enemy within?

So in the election we had dossiers on Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, including social media comments suggesting that 25 Conservative councillors posted racist material, which included Muslims being described as barbarians and the enemy within.

The Enemy Within is the title of Baroness Sayeda Warsi’s book about many things, including her journey in the Conservative Party. At times a one-woman crusader against Islamophobia in her party she has pushed for the Conservatives to understand the depth of the problem she feels they face and to hold an inquiry into it.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Photo by Chris McAndrew, UK Parliament.

MP Sajid Javed brought this issue up in one of the Tory leadership debates, and suddenly everyone agreed – yes we need to have an enquiry. Great news, the Baroness’s argument had won and everything must be ok as it was pushed over the line by someone who has been the Home Secretary and was about to become Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So far it hasn’t yet worked out as many imagined. There will be an inquiry of sorts, but it won’t solely focus on alleged Islamophobia and will be a general broad brush review of how the party handles discrimination complaints.

There are many who point to the fact that the party is led by someone who describes niqab wearers as resembling letterboxes or bank robbers. However, maybe a better indication as to why the lack of interest in rooting out any alleged Islamophobia is more to do with a survey held in the summer of 2019 by YouGov for the anti-racism group Hope not Hate.

The survey found that 60 per cent of Conservative Party members believe Islam is generally a threat to western civilisation; 43 per cent did not want a Muslim as Prime Minister and 40 per cent want to lower the numbers of Muslims entering Britain.

Of course, it would be unfair to say this is scientifically accurate, or necessarily a true reflection of the majority of Conservative politicians or voters, but when you add in the apparent disregard for the comments of Boris Johnson with the dossier of troubling statements by party members and politicians to this survey, then it makes it easy to understand the party’s lack of interest in investigating this as well as the press’s lack of desire to hold them to account.

This survey shares with many others of the general public a sense of ‘them and us’ when it comes to Muslims and the rest of society. Yes, it can be attributed to that lack of religious literacy and deep rooted mistrust of religion in the public space, but I think it is something else – a sense that this is an easy target and a group that you can be openly prejudiced about without being labelled a racist.

The Labour Party was rightly attacked for its inability to deal with accusations of anti-Semitism. Many Jewish members came forward with horror stories that seemed to suggest the sensible thing to do would be to root out this prejudice. It didn’t happen, either at all or quickly enough to many people, and the party and its leadership has been chased on this relentlessly.

Compare it to the Islamophobia accusations against the Conservative Party. There are no hierarchies of intolerance and this is definitely not a moment to pit anyone against anyone else. It was right to hold Labour to account on some of its members failings and prejudice, but why not give equal treatment for the Conservatives and Islamophobia?

Double standard

Imagine a poll that suggested 43 per cent of Labour members did not want a Jewish leader or that 40 per cent of Labour members wanted to limit the Jewish population? Would it be expected to dominate the front pages and lead the news agenda for days, if not weeks?

That is the double standard that many Muslims point to when assessing how they are treated by political parties, the press or broadcasters. The secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Harun Khan, has written to the Director General of the BBC on the issue of the BBC’s coverage of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, saying ‘particularly during the general election, it has not given due prominence to the Conservative Party’s systematic problem with Islamophobia’.

The Muslim Council of Britain has also formally complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission over what it suggests is Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.

Metin Ozer, Unsplash.

And now that the general election dust has settled? The Conservatives’ internal investigation will no doubt uncover a few rotten apples, but no prevalence of Islamophobia; the Prime Minister will occasionally put no doubt his foot firmly in his mouth, and Baroness Warsi will continue to try to drag her party into where she thinks they need to be in the 21st century.

Why would she persevere? She is a one-nation Tory and proud of it. And like many people also realises there is not one Muslim community, but a series of multiple communities with contrasting mother country cultures, differing generational maturity in Britain, and very diverse socio economic profiles.

What is to say that within this growing mix of people that there will not be a significant number with interests that chime with those of the party?

Do the Conservatives care?

With economic prosperity you could presume that many would support the party, but the question is – if the party doesn’t address these allegations of Islamophobia within, will they be able to attract enough Muslims to join or vote for them? You could mischievously ask when you hark back to the YouGov survey, do they need to care? In the short term the answer is no, but in the long term demographic change would suggest yes, they will need to address it and they will need help in doing so.

Which brings me back to those bold statements about Muslims holding the balance of power. Both the MCB and the Muslim advocacy group Mend put out separate research looking at various constituencies up and down the country and juxtaposed them with the demographic break down in each one.

If Muslims had voted as a collective for the Labour Party then in theory they would have unseated many Conservatives. One seat that was referenced in this way was that of the prime minister. He held on, as did many others, and the unseating that went on around the country was not Conservative but Labour.

Westminster and Big Ben

The issue with the balance of power angle is it requires too many factors to go one way, for things to be almost perfect. No one votes as a block generally, some people don’t even bother to vote and understanding geography is the key.

The specific areas that most Muslims live in are generally very urban and the last few elections have seen these areas in England at least, vote Labour. Of course, in 2019 we saw many seats turn blue in Labour heartlands, but Muslim votes were not really a factor in this. Hence, Muslims holding the balance theory may be way too early and may not ever deliver, as their future economic success may change the voting patterns of many.

What 2019 did do was deliver a record number of Muslim MPs. Despite allegations of Islamophobia, the Conservatives increased their number from three to five representatives and it will be interesting to observe if this will help change a few hearts and minds in the party about dealing with the Islamophobia allegations.

I haven’t until now brought up Brexit, and the opinion that many have, that it’s emboldened many racist views and mainstreamed language that demonises the ‘other’.

In my view there is a lot in this view, but there is more to life than Brexit. It’s one part of the 2019 general election story but not the only one. You would hope it won’t be an issue come the next election.

My guess is that without owning up to our poor religious literacy and weak press regulation then Muslims and overt Islamophobia will be a component in the next election.

Unless we wake up to the consequences of constant negative stories in the press and not treating Islamophobia as a problem that needs proper investigating within the Conservative Party, then the demonisation will grow and, as we know from history, it starts with words and never stops there.

This essay is from the recent book Brexit, Boris and the Media, published here with kind permission from the publisher.

Aaqil Ahmed

Aaqil Ahmed is Professor of Media at Bolton University and a non-executive director of both Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority. He is a media consultant and former Head of Religion at both the BBC and Channel 4.

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