Islamophobia has always managed to weave its dark web into the political sphere. But when I see a headline about yet another MP being accused of Islamophobic comments or behaviour, I usually expect the MP to be from the Conservative Party. Because why wouldn’t you? It’s a safe assumption to make.
Most of us have seen and remember the comments that our very own Prime Minister has previously made comparing Muslim women wearing burqas to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. And that’s not even touching upon the many other Tory MPs who have ‘accidentally’ taken a photo with an alt-right extremist group burning the Quran or re-shared anti-Islamic posts on social media.
The Conservatives have a major and systemic problem with Islamophobia in their party, that we all know. Yet, it seems they are not the only ones. This week a leaked Labour report entitled ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to anti-semitism, 2014-2019’ came to light (a report that has been on everyone’s reading list this week! And it’s a damning report to say the least.) It reveals, and confirms, the disloyalty and utter contempt that senior officials had for the Corbyn leadership and the extreme lengths they went to undermine him.
However, the report also contains pages and pages of Whatsapp messages and email chains that implicate senior members over an array of issues – spanning from anti-blackness, anti-semitism, and as you might have guessed, Islamophobia.
It shows that former senior officials held anti-Islamic views, which they openly expressed, while others willingly turned a blind eye to it all. It details countless complaints and investigations into Islamophobic behaviour from members within Labour, and how these were poorly dealt with, if at all, by the party.
As both a Labour member and a Muslim woman, this is extremely disheartening to read and has left me reeling with anger and confused regarding my place in the Labour Party.
A number of harrowing examples were outlined in the report. One example was the case of James McBride, a staff member in the Labour Policy Unit, who shared a clip of the right-wing Islamophobic commentator Douglas Murray, after the Westminster Bridge attack in 2017.
He then makes Islamophobic comments about the religion and its ‘connection’ to terrorism in a Whatsapp conversation with colleagues. For a staff member to have the confidence to express such hostile views openly to colleagues shows he must have had no fear of repercussions, because there simply weren’t any.
|Leaked Labour report, p. 46.|
Another example is the case of Rod Liddle. Multiple complaints were made about him over Islamophobic and transphobic comments, and a discussion around his potential suspension began. John Stolliday, the then head of the Governance & Legal Unit (GLU), asked Emilie Oldknow, the then Labour Executive Director, if Liddle could be suspended as he was a prominent journalist.
But the investigation was stalled and they decided to ‘sit on it for now’ once it was found out that Liddle was ‘chummy’ with the MPs Ian Austin and Tom Watson. They decided to prioritise their own anti-Corbyn motives, over dealing with abusive language, to protect a journalist who was friends with their preferred candidate for leader. Oh to have friends in high places!
Then you have the MP Jim Fitzpatrick who was said to have displayed a ‘pattern of racist behaviour’, and allegedly called a local Bengali wedding an ‘Islamist plot’. However, complaints against him were consistently dismissed by Iain McNicol, the then General Secretary, as simply ‘a matter for Jim Fitzpatrick’.
No further action was taken and once again harmful Islamophobic behaviour was allowed to run rife in the party with officials either not taking it seriously or just plain ignoring it.
However, the case that stood out the most for me, and many others, was that of Syed Siddiqi. An individual who received horrible Islamophobic abuse, and was then vilified by his own party because he was a ‘Corbynite’.
Siddiqi was the CLP Secretary for Ilford South in 2017. He received an abusive phone call from one of the members he had previously removed from a local Labour Whatsapp group for inappropriate conduct – Manjit Panesar.
Siddiqi had recorded this phone call and reported it both to the police and to Labour. Panesar was initially suspended but ‘stakeholders’ began to ask questions as to why Panesar was suspended and Siddiqi was not, which relates to Panesar submitting counter complaints (with no evidence, however).
Dan Hogan and Sam Matthews of the GLU then lifted Panesar’s suspension and placed both him and Siddiqi under investigation. However, all attention was now on Siddiqi and investigative efforts were entirely focused on him, with Ilford MPs Mike Gapes and Wes Streeting submitting complaints against him expecting ‘the strongest possible disciplinary action’.
To make matters worse, Streeting is currently the co-chair of the cross party group for British Muslims, and yet here he was aiding Islamophobia. Not great news to hear as a British Muslim.
Siddiqi was eventually suspended, and even though further bullying complaints were received regarding Panesar, no action was taken against him. Siddiqi lost his role as CLP Secretary and to further the misery of the situation was replaced by none other than Panesar.
The Islamophobic phone call was then referred higher up the chain and was looked into again in 2018 by the new General Secretary, Jennie Formby. Hogan was repeatedly asked why no action had been taken in relation to Panesar, but he never responded. Panesar was eventually suspended in 2019 and he then resigned from the party.
Siddiqi still remains suspended pending a hearing.
These examples show just how systemic the problem of Islamophobia is in the Labour Party. It’s not taken anywhere near seriously enough, even though Labour has chosen to adopt the definition of Islamophobia put forward by a cross-party group. Senior party officials have turned a blind eye to it on countless occasions, which only serves to further the problem.
Party members don’t see consequences to Islamophobia so the behaviour continues and manifests into even more harmful behaviour. When it’s not taken seriously, ignored, and has no real consequence, Islamophobia ends up being normalised and justified, and this then filters out into wider society. And the people who end up suffering from this? Muslims.
I don’t really know where this leaves me. On the one hand, this has really called into question if I want to stay a member of the Labour Party or if it’s even the party for me anymore.
I’ve hovered over that cancel button a lot this week! I don’t want to be a part of a party that ignores Islamophobia and pushes it to the sidelines, because it’s something I have to deal with all the time, and I need a party that understands that.
On the other hand, would staying in the party be more beneficial? They say you can only change from within, and maybe leaving would add to the problem rather than resolve it. At the moment, I’m leaning more towards staying a member – but a Labour member that won’t stay quiet and will continue to shout long after this leak dies down.
The Labour Party needs urgent change to dispel the Islamophobia within its ranks and that change needs to come sooner rather than later.