- The former Chair of the Conservative Party said she is “truly ashamed” of her party and fears for the safety of Muslims in the UK, following a panel debate at the party’s conference on the subject of Islamophobia.
- Some panelists at the event downplayed allegations of Islamophobia in the party and dismissed the controversy over comments made by Boris Johnson about Muslim women who wear the burqa.
- Muslim Conservative party members in the audience expressed their exasperation at the direction the debate took.
- The President of the National Union of Students, pulls out of an event at the conference in protest at the comments.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The former chair of the Conservative party has said that she is “truly ashamed of my party,” after a panel discussion at the party’s conference was used to defend comments made by Boris Johnson about Muslim women, while panelists called for the term Islamophobia to be scrapped.
The conference hosted an event on Sunday in Manchester, England, titled ‘Challenging ‘Islamophobia,” by the think tank Policy Exchange. During the event, some panelists downplayed Islamophobia in the party and dismissed allegations of anti-Muslim bigotry made against prime minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson last year compared Muslim women who wear the burqa to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” Multiple incidents of anti-Muslim comments by Conservative party members have also been reported in recent months.
An anti-racist group which monitors Islamophobic incidents in the UK, reported a spike in hate crimes against Muslims in the weeks following the comments.
However, speaking on the panel, the commentator Dr Qanta Ahmed said that Johnson’s “satirical comments” should not be objected to.
“I didn’t feel that was anything other than a joke,” she said, but added that “I objected to his willingness to tolerate that garment in a liberal society.”
The panel’s chairman Trevor Phillips, said that incidents of Islamophobia in the Conservative party were largely on the fringes and should not be held equivalent to the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour party, of which he is a member.
“In your party the people who tend to make these objectionable remarks are followers and you can’t do very much about them,” Phillips said.
He added that “my concern is way, way, completely in the other direction [towards Labour].”
Ahmed agreed, insisting that “there is no intellectual or political or moral equivalence between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”
She called for the Conservative party to reject the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslim’s definition of Islamophobia, saying that it would only help Islamic extremists.
“The definition of Islamophobia is an instrument that will advance only the privilege of Islamists,” she said.
The panelists all insisted they were opposed to bigotry against Muslims, but objected to the use of the term Islamophobia, preferring alternative terms such as “anti-Muslim bigotry.”
The campaigner Peter Tatchell told the event there was a real problem of anti-Muslim prejudice in the Conservative Party, but said he objected to the term Islamophobia because it risks preventing criticism of Islam.
He added that “while it is true that Islamophobia can be and often is an expression of racism, it is not ipso facto racist because neither Islam or Muslim people are a race.”
The Conservative Member of Parliament Nusrat Ghani said that the attempt to form a definition of Islamophobia “fills me with a huge amount of anxiety.”
She said that “people are too concerned about tackling the issue [of Islamic extremism] because they may be called Islamophobic.”
She denied that the Conservative party has a problem with Islamophobia, insisting that “the party has zero tolerance towards all forms of abuse.”
She said that unlike her own party, the Labour party is “institutionally antisemitic,” adding that “there is no piece of evidence, no policy you can point to which shows that the Conservatives treat Muslims in a similar fashion.”
Phillips read out a statement from an adviser to the Indonesian president, who could not make the event, which defended Johnson’s “letterboxes” comments.
“Jokes are not inherently Islamophobic or hateful and this includes Boris Johnson’s joke about the burqa,” the statement read.
It also objected to the APPG definition of Islamophobia, saying that “it is factually incorrect and counterproductive to define Islamophobia as ‘rooted in racism’ as proposed by the APPG on British Muslims.”
It added: “In reality it is the spread of Islamist extremism and terror that primarily contributes to the rise of Islamophobia.”
Phillips also old the event that he had been nominated as “Islamophobe of the year,” by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, to which his fellow panelist, the campaigner Philip Tatchell, joked that he was “jealous.”
Tatchell later tweeted that he had attended the event in order to challenge the party’s record on the issue.
The discussion caused exasperation among some Conservative members in the audience who are Muslim.
One young Conservative Party Muslim activist told Business Insider that he was shocked at the direction the discussion took.
“This was meant to be a discussion about Islamophobia in the Conservative party and we’re spending this whole event talking about the left,” the man complained.
Another Conservative party member in the audience suggested that one panelist, Dr Qanta Ahmed, was promoting Islamophobia.
“I’m trying to figure out whether Doctor Ahmed is here to tackle Islamophobia or to promote it,” the man said.
“I actually struggle to work out what she is trying to achieve.”
Responding to reports of the meeting, the former Conservative Party chair Baroness Warsi, said she was now “ashamed” of her party.
“I am truly ashamed of my Party and fear for Muslims under this government,” she tweeted on Sunday.
Warsi, who was a member of former Conservative prime minister David Cameron’s government, has previously told Business Insider that Islamophobia goes “right to the top” of the party.
Following the meeting, the chair of the National Union of Students, Zamzam Ibrahim, said she would no longer take part in a planned fringe event at the conference on Monday.
“As President of NUS and a Muslim woman, I cannot in good conscience participate in a Conference that openly and willingly denies my own lived experiences, and the bigotry faced by Muslims from the far-right, from elements of our media and in communities across our country on a daily basis,” she said in a statement.
“With hate crimes against Muslims soaring globally, such dangerous rhetoric being disseminated at the annual national conference of our governing Party is simply abhorrent, and must be roundly condemned.”
Labour called on the Conservatives to apologise for the event.
“The Conservatives must explain why they allowed this event to be part of their official fringe and make a full apology,” Afzal Khan MP, Labour’s Shadow Immigration spokesman, said.
“This comes as no surprise from a party that’s rife with racism, whose leader Boris Johnson made racist and offensive comments that resulted in a 375% increase in hate crime, creating fear and anxiety among many British Muslims.”
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