Islamophobia Is Boris Johnson’s Problem Now [FOREIGN POLICY]

December 16, 2019

“What would you do to get the hate out of politics?” a British citizen asked Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn a week before the Dec. 12 U.K. election, during a BBC debate. It was a legitimate question to put to both of them, as the leaders of the two major British national political parties.

For Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, it was primarily about the accusation that the party leadership, himself included, had not been strong enough on tackling anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks. For Johnson, it was about Islamophobia and bigotry against Muslims in his Conservative Party. Neither gave an answer that differed tremendously from previous statements; they were perceived as dodging and deflecting the accusations.

Considering that reported hate crimes against Jews in England and Wales doubled in 2018 to 2019 as compared to the previous year (1,326 compared to 672), anti-Semitism is plainly an issue that needs to be addressed by the Labour Party and U.K. society as a whole. In the same period, almost three times as many hate crimes (3,530) were committed against Muslims, accounting for almost half of all hate crimes against religious groups in the U.K. altogether—yet attention to that issue has been paltry in comparison.

When it comes to anti-Muslim sentiment, it isn’t just that there is a problem with Islamophobia among Tories. After all, the current prime minister once wrote that “Islamophobia—fear of Islam—seems a natural reaction” and insisted that “Islam is the problem.” More recently, a number of Conservative Party officials have been suspended over Islamophobic discourse, but the Tories seem unwilling to sufficiently address Islamophobia within the party.

It isn’t just in the Conservative Party where anti-Muslim bigotry is found. It’s much more widespread throughout British society.

But it isn’t just in the Conservative Party where anti-Muslim bigotry is found. It’s much more widespread throughout British society. In-person hate crimes against Muslims from 2016 to 2017 increased by 30 percent; the following year, “Punish a Muslim Day” letters were sent to Muslim members of Parliament and families around London; mosques nationally have been attacked, including when a van plowed into a group of pedestrians who had been worshipping at a London mosque in June 2017. And now that the election is over, that problem isn’t about to go away. On the contrary, Islamophobia has been mainstreamed in a way never seen before in modern Britain. And it could get worse.

Indeed, the problem of Islamophobia is more dire today than after the 9/11 attacks or the 2005 London train and bus bombings. Shortly before the Dec. 12 election, an ICM poll surveyed voters about their attitudes toward Muslims. When it came to Conservative voters, 37 percent admitted to viewing Muslims in a negative light, 55 percent said that there should be a reduction in the number of Muslims entering Britain, and a staggering 62 percent said they agreed with the statement that Islam threatens the British way of life.

Those numbers are deeply troubling but not surprising. Concerns about the prevalence of anti-Muslim bigotry in the Conservative Party have abounded for years now. Numerous complaints about Tory officials and activists’ behavior and rhetoric toward Muslims have been lodged. In 2018, no less than a former chairperson of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, declared that the Tories had to form an inquiry into Islamophobia. Indeed, years earlier, while still serving as co-chairperson of the party, Warsi said that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test,” meaning it had become widely tolerated and acceptable.

Warsi wasn’t wrong. The more striking numbers in the latest ICM poll weren’t the ones about the Conservative Party but those for the British public as a whole. When it comes to British voters more generally, the poll reported that 26 percent view Muslims in a negative light, 41 percent said that there should be a reduction in the number of Muslims entering Britain, and 45 percent agreed with the statement that Islam threatens the British way of life.

I have researched extremist Islamists for much of my career. I’ve received threats from extremist Islamists many times for my work—sometimes for arguing that these extremists pose a threat to the U.K. or that they are a menace to Muslim communities worldwide. After all, it is Muslims who are the main victims of extremist Islamism worldwide, and it is Muslims who have paid the highest price in terms of fighting extremist Islamist groups.

But it isn’t extremist Islamists whom the poll asked about. It asked about Muslims in general and Islam as a religion. Hostility toward Muslims wasn’t limited to a small minority of Britons—nor even in just one political party. Rather, when almost half of voters according to the ICM view Islam—not extremists, not radicals, but regular, believing Muslims—as a threat, Britain has a grave problem to reckon with.

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