The British prime minister is too late to condemn anti-Muslim extremism. For years she ignored the problem and her Conservative Party even fueled it.
“There has been far too much tolerance of extremism,” declaimed Theresa May, standing outside Downing Street on Monday morning, “… and that means extremism of any kind, including Islamophobia.”
The British prime minister was speaking in the aftermath of a brutal terror attack near a London mosque in which a man drove a van into a group of Muslim worshippers. The alleged attacker, according to eyewitnesses, shouted: “I want to kill all Muslims.”
But I have four words to describe the prime minister’s response: too little, too late.
Why did it require a horrific terrorist attack, resulting in the death of an unarmed Muslim man on the streets of London in the midst of Ramadan, to prompt May to decry anti-Muslim hatred as a form of “extremism”? Why did innocent blood have to be spilled in order for the prime minister to utter aloud the word “Islamophobia” for the first time?
And where were her earlier admonitions about the threat posed to the U.K.’s Muslims by far-right extremists? May served as Home Secretary for six years, across two parliaments, in charge of both the police and the security services, yet during that period she made only the odd, passing reference to the “hundreds” of anti-Muslim attacks in the U.K. each year while obsessing over the threat from “Islamist extremism.” Why did she not take seriously the claim made by one of her own Home Office officials to the BBC in 2014 that the government’s emphasis on the “global jihadist agenda” risked ignoring the growing domestic terror threat from the far-right? That particular anonymous official even issued this stark warning: “I wouldn’t want to get to the point where something happens and we look back and think actually, we should have addressed that as well.”
Why in 2014 did she join fellow Conservative ministers in hyperbolically claiming that Muslim extremists were trying to take over schools in Birmingham as part of a so-called “Trojan Horse plot,” when a lengthy investigation by a committee of MPs later concluded that “one incident apart, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found… Neither was there any evidence of a sustained plot”?
Why, as home secretary, did she refuse to fully engage, or even formally meet, with the Cross-Government Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group? Academics Chris Allen and Matthew Goodwin, both leading experts on Islamophobia, quit the working group in disgust at the lack of support from the Conservative government and from ministers such as May. The group, wrote Allen in 2014, “had no bite, no influence, no impact.” Goodwin went further in 2015: “During a generally unpleasant four years, the basic message appeared to be that the government was simply not that interested in anti-Muslim hatred.”
Why did May not offer support to fellow Conservative minister Sayeeda Warsi, when the latter gave a speech in January 2011 addressing the challenge of anti-Muslim hatred in the U.K. and pointing out that Islamophobia had become socially acceptable in the U.K. and “passed the dinner table test”? The then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron “distanced” himself from the speech while the right-wing press launched vitriolic attacks on Warsi for daring to broach the issue.
In her recent book “The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain”, Warsi — who, in 2010, became the first Muslim woman to be appointed to the U.K. cabinet — notes how “six years on from my first keynote speech on Islamophobia, the only one to date by a national politician, government policy-making on Islamophobia has made little progress.” According to the former Conservative minister, “there has been little funding for work combating Islamophobia, little political interest in the issue, little enthusiasm to treating it as seriously as anti-Semitism or racism” while “political discourse on Muslims is inflammatory.”
I asked Warsi for her reaction to May’s apparent volte-face on tackling Islamophobia. “I welcome this change of positioning from the government,” she told me, “but it’s tragic that it’s taken a terrorist attack for that to happen.” Warsi added that she had been “warning about the threat of far-right extremism and rising Islamophobia for the past decade and it was always frustrating that so many of my [Conservative] colleagues failed to either engage with, or even acknowledge, the issue.”
Warsi is being polite. Plenty of leading Conservatives have not just ignored Islamophobia but become keen and active purveyors of it. In recent months, while May has been very vocal about allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, she has been shamefully silent on the brazen Islamophobia within her own party.
Why did he she hire Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby — who once urged Conservatives to focus on their core vote rather than “fucking Muslims” — to run her general election campaign this year? Why, for that matter, did she appoint Boris Johnson — who once said “Islam is the problem” and called Islamophobia a “natural reaction” to reading the Quran — as her foreign secretary last year?
Why did the prime minister allow former Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith to stand for parliament again as a Conservative candidate this year, despite him having run a nakedly Islamophobic campaign against his Labour rival Sadiq Khan last year? Senior London Conservative politician Andrew Boff denounced Goldsmith’s Muslim-baiting rhetoric as “outrageous” and said it had done “real damage” to community relations. Goldsmith’s own sister Jemima — the mother of two Muslim boys — suggested his mayoral campaign had lacked “integrity”.
Why did May also allow the re-selection of Conservative MPs who have compared the burqa to a “paper bag with… two holes for the eyes,” suggested covering the hair is “an excuse for sexual violence against women” and called on mosques in the U.K. fly the British flag to prove that they are truly integrated? Did none of that bother her?
Meanwhile, the Conservatives, under May’s leadership, selected only three Muslims to stand for parliament this year in safe seats and, in the words of the veteran conservative commentator Peter Oborne, have “long given up on policies that appeal to Muslims.” The Conservative Party, concluded Oborne, “is slowly turning into a Muslim-free zone.”
Muslim. Free. Zone. And yet we are now expected to believe that this same Conservative Party will stand up for British Muslims under attack? That Theresa May will lead the fight against rising Islamophobia? Are you having a laugh? The prime minister’s remarks on Monday morning were not only too little, too late. They were the very definition of hypocrisy.