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The Tory reaction to the Lee Anderson saga proves the first rule of racism

You protect Islamophobia by denying Islamophobia – and that goes for other prejudices, too. You can’t fix a problem if you refuse to acknowledge it’s there

Femi Oluwole
Wednesday 28 February 2024 13:04 GMT
Every time Tory MPs refused to call Lee Anderson's comments Islamophobic

Thank God for the Tories! Their response to Lee Anderson’s comments has been a huge step forward in the fight against bigotry. Today’s Sky News interview with policing minister Chris Philp was a shining example: by making it crystal clear that they know his comments were Islamophobic, but repeatedly refusing to admit it, the Tories have exposed the main strategy of 21st century bigotry in politics: denial.

We all watched Lee Anderson, the former deputy chair of the Conservative Party, accuse London mayor Sadiq Khan of being under the control of “Islamists”. And since then, in a series of painful-to-watch interviews, several Tory MPs have refused to call that Islamophobic, instead insisting that the comments were just “wrong”. We’ve seen that from deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden, transport secretary Mark Harper, immigration minister Michael Tomlinson, migration minister Tom Pursglove, and Therese Coffey.

But this morning, Philp went even further, saying Anderson’s comments were wrong because “he conflated Islamism, which is a form of extremism, with Muslims as a whole”. This has been the most commonly used and universally recognised form of Islamophobia since 2001. He may as well have read out the dictionary definition of Islamophobia. He even said he was taking his lines from the prime minister, as “the government’s principal spokesman”. And he still refused to call it racist.

So, the position of the Conservative government seems to be: we know it was Islamophobic, but we’re never going to admit it.

They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. Well, the same goes for racism. In fact, it’s the first rule of racism. Political parties who want to support bigoted agendas don’t actually have to say anything against the minorities they’re seeking to demonise. Why? Because racism and inequality are the status quo.

We’re already seeing record levels of Islamophobic and antisemitic hate crimes in the UK. Government data already shows that people of ethnic minorities are treated vastly differently from white people, when it comes to things like hiring and policing. So, all any racist party has to do is make sure that doesn’t change.

With Gen Z finding their voice and social attitudes progressing, it’s clear that in 2024: if the public sees racism, they want it gone. Put through the Tory translator tool, that suggests that any party who wants to protect racism can’t afford to let the public know it’s there.

That’s why the government’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests was to produce a report that declared the UK was “not institutionally racist”. It recognised the data on hiring discrimination based on perceived ethnicity, but the report made excuses for that – on the grounds that employers might assume candidates with ethnic minority names are of a lower class or a different culture. (Pssst! That’s racism).

This is why the United Nations said the government was trying to normalise white supremacy, because you can’t fix a problem if you refuse to acknowledge that it’s there. And if the Tories were to admit that they hired a deputy chair of their party who now seems to have a blatantly Islamophobic world view, that’s a door they wouldn’t be able to close.

Anderson himself admitted that “culture wars” – aka the politics of discrimination – was his party’s main tool for the election. So, he’s the poster boy for the Tory rhetoric around immigration, trans people, and racism. But their strategy only works if they can accuse the left of being hysterical for calling them racist. It doesn’t work so well if they admit it themselves.

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