Imagine for a moment that Theresa May had a lifelong record of support for neo-nazi extremists – terrorists, even. That she had attended a wreath-laying ceremony in America in honour of say, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, in the manner of Jeremy Corbyn turning up at one that commemorated the Black September murderers of Israeli athletes from their Olympic team in 1972.
Andrew Murray is a far-left adviser to Corbyn’s office who has been accused of interfering with anti-semitism complaints. Now go on to suppose that the Prime Minister’s office was embroiled in a row about whether it had or hadn’t interfered with allegations about anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred among party members – that Sheridan Westlake, for example, or Keelan Carr had been dragged into the row.
Or imagine again that Philip Hammond had praised Combat 18 in his earlier years, and once said that he would like to “go back to the 1980s and assassinate Michael Foot”. Like Corbyn, John McDonnell, the Chancellor’s opposite number, has a long history of praise for terrorists – though, being smarter and savvier, he has put more distance between his past and present self.
These invented parallels are very rough. But they do help to explain why claims of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred among Conservative Party members haven’t surged on to the nation’s TV screens and into most of the papers. Nor have they gained the social media projection that anti-semitism within the Labour Party has done.
To date, they have been largely confined to the usual suspects – the Guardian, the Independent. Sayeeda Warsi cannot get the lift-off for her campaign that she is striving for. The reason for this is that a journalistic consensus has emerged about the Conservatives and anti-Muslim prejudice, which is that it isn’t happening on the same scale as anti-semitism within Labour.
For that reason, Downing Street and CCHQ’s instinct will be to tough out the stories about right-wing people and anti-Muslim hatred which now drip reguarly into the left-of-centre media. Some of them are Conservative activists. Some don’t seem to be. Some of the former have their party membership removed, some don’t, some are expelled and then readmitted.
There is a steady trickle of claims rather than a flood. Number Ten is preoccupied by Brexit and that issue also grips CCHQ. It has to deal with a mass of Associations up in arms about Britain’s now planned non-depature from the EU this Friday. Plus the local elections. E-mails of complaint about alleged anti-Muslim incidents among Party members went unanswered.
Just as Downing Street didn’t have expertise on Northern Ireland in the autumn of 2017, and thus became ensnared in the backstop, so we suspect that Party, broadly, has no sure means of unpicking the tangle of Islam, prejudice, multiculturalism, racism, extremism, integration and Islamism that is the sum of the issues concerned. Which explains why it made a mess of handling the Boris Johnson burka row.
As in CCHQ, so in Parliament. It is significant that the Minister for Countering Extremism, Susan Williams, and the Minister for Faith, Nick Bourne, are peers. There is nothing wrong with either of them. But the upper house is not the cockpit of political action in Britain: that is the Commons. There has been a tendency to shove these tricky briefs away from people that we elect.
There is no shortage of Conservative MPs who work tirelessly to get to know, and to represent, the views of the diverse people and interests in their constituencies. That is not the same thing as taking a big interest in Islam or Islamism. There will be a vague but powerful feeling that the whole business is trouble: shades of the Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons.
So no wonder that CCHQ is hunkering down, trying to ride out the complaints, and hoping that the whole business will go away. It won’t. The drip of complaints is steady – which suggests that the efforts to find the relevant material is well-financed and resourced. There will be more material of the very nasty kind that has already been unearthed.
The issues are more complex than it would suggest. This site has consistently argued that there is a difference between Islam, one of the three great Abrahamic religions, and Islamism – which, at its most benign, leans towards treating people not on the basis of equal citizenship but on that of religious practice; and which, at its worst, shades into extremism and terror.
Furthermore, the two, though different, are linked. There are forms of Islam about which people should be phobic – a statement also true of forms of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and so on. However, it is the first that poses the biggest public policy challenge, given the struggle within Islam itself over its future. Hence 7/7, the murder of Lee Rigby, the Manchester atrocity – and so on.
Some of the campaigners for an inquiry into Tory anti-Muslim prejudice want a lot more than anti-Muslim Conservative members kicked out of the Party. They want in effect to do the kicking themselves – to appoint advisers and consultants to any internal Party enquiry; to discourage the identification of Islamism as a motivating factor in extremism and terrorism; to muzzle media outlets who do so.
Our take is both that an inquiry is needed, to establish just how much anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred there is among Party members, and that CCHQ doesn’t have the capacity to handle such a probe. The last of appointing an enquiry with advisers linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-e-Islami would be worse than the first.
So for what it’s worth, this site encourages Sara Khan, the Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism, to hold an investigation into racial and religious prejudice among all the main parties, and to make recommendations. We believe that anyone looking at the evidence impartially would swiftly conclude that the Conservative problem is real, fairly small – and a lot less sizeable than Labour’s.
But we could be wrong. Which is why some independent person or body should have a look. The bulk of Khan’s work to date seems to be massing evidence about extremism which will be published before the summer. Putting the political parties under the magnifying glass would be a natural extension of it.