15 December 2020
This opinion piece was written by Taj Ali originally appeared in the Metro Newspaper on 14
Last month, Ali Milani – who stood as Labour’s Parliamentary candidate in the last general election against Boris Johnson – claimed he encountered Islamophobia from a fellow Party Member.
He alleged that he was asked if he was a terrorist and supported violence, then was told that Muslims shouldn’t be MPs because of their ‘propensity for violence’. Milani claimed he submitted a formal complaint but was made to wait a year and then told that the testimony he had given a year ago had been lost.
So when I saw last month that the Labour Muslim Network had released a report on Islamophobia within the party, I felt optimistic that something would finally be done about it. Unfortunately, that feeling of making sure Muslim people like me felt included in the party all but dissipated after I witnessed how Keir Starmer actually handled the findings.
The report, which constituted the largest ever consultation of Muslim members and supporters of the Labour Party, found 29% of Muslim Labour members had suffered Islamophobia within the Party while 37% witnessed Islamophobia in the party.
Shockingly, 44% of Muslim Labour members said Labour doesn’t take Islamophobia seriously, with more than half of those surveyed saying they didn’t trust the Labour leadership to tackle Islamophobia.
This can be evidenced in how Starmer initially responded to the findings.
On the day that the report came out, a generic statement attributed to the Labour leadership said ‘We thank Labour Muslim Network for this important report, as well as their work to ensure our Muslim members are represented, included and heard. Islamophobia has no place in our party or society and we are committed to rooting it out.’
It was an inadequate response, which failed to address specific issues highlighted in the report, such as lack of confidence in the leadership to deal with the issue and the insufficient complaints process.
It is simply not good enough.
Many in the wider Muslim community criticised the vague initial response and lack of apology for the hurt caused.
So two weeks later – and perhaps as a way to ease tensions – Starmer released a new statement after meeting with the Labour Muslim Network with a commitment to ‘taking swift and appropriate action to address Islamophobia’.
There was no apology in the new statement and the fact it took two weeks to release it after such a damning report demonstrates Labour’s response to Islamophobia has been anything but swift and appropriate.
Then last Tuesday, it was revealed that property developer, David Abrahams had recently donated money to the Labour Party. Abrahams has a history of abhorrent Islamophobic remarks. He has previously said Muslims have ‘mixed loyalties’ and suggested that conservative Muslim culture is inherently violent.
It is an insult to Muslim members of the Labour Party that the party can take money from such individuals and remain uncritical of them. Keir Starmer has remained silent on this issue and is yet to return the donations.
The lack of urgency to deal with this issue makes Starmer’s remarks about ‘swift and appropriate’ action seem like hollow words.
There has been no transparency with the wider membership about what actions the Labour leadership will be taking to tackle the issue of Islamophobia in the party.
This just proves what the Labour Muslim Network found – that a significant proportion of its members do not feel represented or heard within the party.
Nearly half of Muslim Labour members disagreed with the statement ‘I believe the Labour Party represents the Muslim community effectively’ – with less than a third of those surveyed agreeing with the statement.
It’s a sad state of affairs that many Muslims – including myself – feel ignored and neglected by the very party for whom we have sacrificed our own time and energy to campaign for in the past.
Apsana Begum, one of the few Muslim Labour MPs, highlighted how the party had been ‘in denial’ about the problem of Islamophobia in the Labour Party and said she had constantly been asked by some fellow party members to reaffirm her commitment towards British society because of her faith.
The Labour Party, which prides itself on the values of social justice and equality, must be at the forefront of the fight against Islamophobia. A failure to adequately address the issue sends the signal that Islamophobia is tolerated and this only further emboldens far-right extremists.
During the 2017 general election, it was estimated that 85% of Muslim voters voted for the Labour Party. Given the historic support the Muslim community has given the Labour Party in the past, it may be easy for the leadership to assume this will continue. However, it would be a mistake to take Muslim voters for granted.
Prior to the release of the findings, there was already evidence of inaction in tackling Islamophobia. A leaked internal party report in April found widespread Islamophobia from senior officials within the party had gone unchallenged.
According to that report, James McBride – who was a member of staff in Labour’s policy unit – shared a clip of Douglas Murray speaking on BBC Daily Politics after the 2017 Westminster attack. Murray has previously said ‘conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board.’
The findings revealed McBride said on a WhatsApp chat with colleagues that he found it ‘difficult to disagree’ with Murray’s claim that parties were refusing to admit that terrorism comes from Islam. McBride also reportedly said that ‘even so-called moderate Islam’ has ‘hard questions’ to answer about terrorism.
It’s clear that the Labour Party – and indeed the Conservatives too, after Boris Johnson promised an inquiry into Islamophobia within his party but failed to deliver it – must reform their inadequate complaints procedures to ensure Islamophobic incidents are investigated as a matter of urgency.
It is vital that political parties proactively engage with the Muslim community and listen to our concerns.
Taj Ali is a freelance writer and political activist based in Luton. Taj can be found on Twitter here.