Conservative Islamophobia and the EHRC

Rachel Shabi

Is a reasonable discussion about the Equality and Human Rights Commission and racism in political parties even possible? Honestly, it seems doubtful. The EHRC has been weaponised in the endless battle of ‘your racism is worse than ours’ between the Conservative government, the Labour opposition and their respective supporters. That the commission has investigated Labour for antisemitism but will not investigate the Conservatives for anti-Muslim hate has been used to undermine the antisemitism probe, painting it as part of a smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. This is not merely bleak in its own terms. It also makes it harder to raise the question of Conservative Islamophobia and what can be done to tackle it.

It’s no secret that the EHRC is operating with restrictions. An independent body reliant on government funding, its budget was hacked by the Conservatives and is now around £17 million – down from £70 million when it was set up in 2007 by New Labour. With that, it is supposed to ‘enforce equality legislation on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation’. It has a huge job with limited resources and the government of the day sitting on its back, aware that hard-right Conservatives would be happy to give it the chop.

There’s no need to fuel conspiracy theories about Jewish power or conjure EHRC agendas against the left to examine the way different prejudices play out in our political conversation. The equalities commission has a high bar for opening an inquiry into a party, not least to justify spending public money. That bar was cleared with Labour and antisemitism: the submission from the Jewish Labour Movement included many examples, more than a hundred evidence statements and sworn testimony from seventy whistleblowers.

Why did the dossier on Conservative Islamophobia not clear the same bar? The Muslim Council of Britain’s submission gives detailed examples of Conservative MPs, councillors and members making eye-wateringly hateful comments and not facing disciplinary action for it. The party leader made vile comments about ‘the burka’ (he meant niqab) which led to a surge in anti-Muslim attacks. There is evidence of denialism at the highest levels of the party. Both the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum and his successor as chairman were hounded for raising concerns. According to a Hope Not Hate/YouGov survey last year, 60 per cent of Conservative party members think ‘Islam is generally a threat to Western civilisation’ while 54 per cent consider it a threat to ‘the British way of life’. In short, the MCB submission shows both the scale of the problem and failures to recognise or deal with it. Still, the EHRC concluded in May that, since the Conservatives had agreed to set up an independent inquiry, ‘it would not be proportionate to initiate our own investigation at this stage.’

The first problem here is the inquiry’s terms of reference, limited only to the Conservatives’ complaints process, which skirts the wider issue of an environment of hostility to Muslims. Next, while the EHRC may indeed need to allow the avenue of an internal inquiry to be exhausted before it opens its own investigation, the upshot is that the Conservatives are being rewarded for ignoring the issue until forced to confront it.

But there are deeper issues here, too. Complaints of Conservative Islamophobia did not and could not show up in the same way as was the case with Labour antisemitism. Where are the dozens of whistle-blowers revealing Conservative failures in sworn testimony? Where are the leaks detailing faults in the handling of discrimination complaints? Where are the Muslim Conservatives MPs and members who have raised the issue and been backed by allies in the party? Conservative members are not only fewer in number than Labour members, but older and less likely to post online (the scale of the problem may be even worse than a trawl through Tory social media would suggest). The Jewish Labour Movement has a 100-year history in the party; the Muslim Council of Britain is 23 years old and has been eyed with suspicion by successive governments, including New Labour.

On top of all that, hatred against Muslims has, as the Conservative peer and former chair of the party Sayeeda Warsi memorably said in 2011, ‘passed the dinner-table test’ of social acceptability. It is a constant feature of right-wing newspapers, with commentators not only launching regular tirades against Muslims, but proclaiming Islamophobia to be a fiction. You don’t need to factor in media opposition to Corbyn to see why Conservative Islamophobia hasn’t generated a level of media attention commensurate with the scale of the problem.

An equalities commission ought to understand these dynamics and calibrate its assessments accordingly. It doesn’t help that the EHRC does not have any Black or Muslim commissioners (that may change, as a new chair and up to four new board members are in the process of being appointed). Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, then the sole Muslim commissioner, and Lord Simon Woolley, then the only Black commissioner, said recently that they lost their roles in 2012 because they were ‘too loud and vocal’ about race issues. All told, it’s a poor situation for a body set up to tackle racial injustice. By encouraging a perception that it handles different prejudices unequally, the commission is adding to toxic divisions between minorities at a time when collectivism, in the face of rising racism, is more necessary than ever.


  • 12 August 2020 at 9:38pm
    A Mawani says:

    The former Chairman of EHRC Trevor Phillips was appointed in 2006, has a history of being accused of making Islamophobia remarks,,
    Throwing money at EHRC will not change the organisation which is treading very carefully when it comes to investigating the Tory Party. The ‘bar’ was set up when Labour was systematically accused of antisemitism. If the call by Sayeeda Warsi for investigation of Tory Party islamophobia and an apology demanded by Tanmajeet Singh Dhesi MP from Boris Johnson’s racist remarks can not be included in the ‘bar’, than what chance there is for investigation of the Tory Party.

  • 13 August 2020 at 1:40pm
    freshborn says:
    People (usually liberals) bring up the EHRC investigation as if people who work for such an organisation would necessarily be impartial. It's quite clear that most of these organisations have a political slant. Usually it's a liberal/Americo-centric bias, which is seen by western liberals as no bias.

    Inferior democratic systems and political persecution in liberal democracies are taken for granted by Human Rights Watch et al. An imprisoned whistleblower in the US is a matter for debate, but a journalist in prison in Cuba is an outrage, regardless of context. Equally, a political leader who wants to move away from free market orthodoxy is scrutinised hysterically, while one who obeys the stockholders is permitted the occasional racist comment. Instances of outspoken racism within his party are isolated incidents, unworthy of attention.

    Perhaps there is no real conspiracy in bias towards orthodoxy. Usually you only need to follow the money. But a mass of people acting according to self-interest, under the guise of defending a minority, is a whisker away from conspiracy, maybe just an wordless conspiracy. Maybe it is sad that our society is so corrupt that conspiracies are unnecessary. Conversely, it is ludicrous to suggest LAP (labour's antisemitism problem) isn't primarily
    a smear campaign.

    The contrast with coverage of the Conservatives' Islamophobia Challenge is valid. So valid, in fact, that it is necessary to reject it out of hand if you intend to continue the pretense that LAP is a legitimate issue. Without a contrast, one can say "Well, you must admit there are instances of antisemitism ..." But whataboutery is not just a tool used to deflect responsibility, it is essential to expose double standards. In fact, you could very well say that LAP is preemptive whataboutery; it is a classic Rovian tactic to discredit your opponent on the subject of his very strength. And really, can anyone argue that LAP is more significant than CIC, let alone a hundred times more significant, as the coverage is a hundred time greater?

    The overlooked aspect of this is the abdication of responsibility by journalists. When Corbyn was leader, there were frequent articles questioning his ability to effectively "hold the Conservatives to account". How on earth he was supposed to do that when the media was hostile across the board, I don't know. Outside of social media and election periods, how often does a politician communicate to us directly? They are forced to pander to the media, rather than lead, and I would say the media wield far more power than any party. If Corbyn gave a speech calling for a final solution, it would have far less impact than the continual stoking of Islamophobia by the Mail et al.

    I would sooner see the EHRC investigate the press than any political party. It's the media who need to be held to account. It is only through media bias that the EHRC are investigating Labour. And is the outcome of the report in any question? We all know what the conclusion will be. It will be equivocal, but it will provide enough condemnation of Corbyn to fuel a final round of media headlines, and the journalists will treat the EHRC as omniscient and omnibenevolent. They will dismiss the leaked report as factional and misleading. What possible motive could they have to produce anything else?

    • 16 August 2020 at 11:35am
      Paul Atkinson says: @ freshborn
      "Conversely, it is ludicrous to suggest LAP (labour's antisemitism problem) isn't primarily
      a smear campaign." Yes, and an acknowledgement of this simple truth would have strengthened Rachel Shabi's argument on the same establishment interests in dismissing Conservative Party Islamophobia. Loose use of whataboutery tends to undermine the strength of relationship between issues.

  • 15 August 2020 at 5:53pm
    bentoth says:
    Some day in the future, when it really doesn't matter, a PhD student will decide to write about the way charges of antisemitism were used to drive Corbyn, and support for Palestine, off the stage in 2020, and how the episode redefined what was possible and not possible to talk about for fear of being labelled antisemitic. The shelfbound thesis will include a chapter on the artful use made of the EHRC by the CAS via Doughty Street Chambers, and the role of the BBC and the Guardian in facilitating the decision.
    It's too soon to write this thesis in a world where the bodies of the leading perpetrators of antisemitism are still being inspected forensically for signs of life, and dead or alive they will have to be treated rather as Cromwell after the restoration. Explaining the decision to run an EHRC investigation against Labour as one based on an objective test won't bear much scrutiny, however.

    • 16 August 2020 at 10:49am
      Paul Atkinson says: @ bentoth
      The main lesson of the anti-semitism campaign against Corbyn's Labour Party is its extravagant exposure of the ruthless violence of the political class's opposition to progressive change. Who knows over what time scale this lesson will be digested but in the current context of looming political crises I doubt it will be lost on future outbreaks of resistance to mainstream directions of travel.

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