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Tory MP Says Rishi Sunak Has Broken Promise To Tackle Islamophobia

Rishi Sunak has been accused of "writing off" engagement with muslim voters (alamy)

6 min read

Exclusive: A Conservative MP has accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of having "written off" engagement with British Muslims for political reasons, and claimed that this government does not take Islamophobia as seriously as other forms of racism. 

Rehman Chishti, the Tory MP for Gillingham and Rainham, said the Sunak government was paying "lip service" when it comes to tackling hatred against Muslims, and that it had not been treating Islamophobia "fairly and equally" in relation to hatred against other religious groups.

Chishti, a former minister and ex-vice chairman of the Conservative party, spoke to PoliticsHome following his intervention at last week's Prime Minister's Questions, when he had urged Sunak to do more to tackle Islamophobia and told the PM "enough is enough".

In his question, the Tory backbencher asked why there was no new money for tackling hatred towards Muslims in last month's Autumn Statement, as well as why the role of independent adviser to the government on Islamophobia had been vacant for well over a year.

Chishti told PoliticsHome a week later he had still not been contacted by the Prime Minister on the issues he had raised, and that for over a year he had been trying to secure a meeting with Sunak to talk about the government was doing to tackle Islamophobia, having raised the issue with Sunak in a private meeting during the summer 2022 Tory party leadership contest.

Chishti said that at the time, the soon-to-be Prime Minister had vowed to "work together" on tackling Islamophobia when Chishti agreed to support his leadership bid, but that since entering Downing Street over a year ago his actions have not matched those words.

“For me, having been here [Parliament] for 13 years, as a former vice chair of the Conservative party, a former prime minister’s envoy for religious freedom and as a former foreign office minister, you should always honour your word," he told PoliticsHome.

"You should always know where you stand with someone. That is why I find it so astonishing that the Prime Minister has not yet delivered on a commitment he made to me during the leadership contest."

Conservative MP Rehman Chishti

The Tory MP said he had concluded that the Sunak government, perhaps for "political" and "electoral" reasons, had decided against engaging with the country's Muslim communities.

"For me, having tried to engage across the board with the Prime Minister on these matters, the feeling I now get is that he has written off engaging with the Muslim community for his own political purposes," he said.

"Having for years across the board asked for fairness for all faiths, I've now come to the point that this Prime Minister, his government, and his ministers have made a decision that for whatever reason they want, maybe it's political, maybe they don't see the Muslim community as part of their electoral mapping process of winning seats, that they do not want to engage with them and at the same time, do not want to fund engagement with that community, which is for me, it's divisive and wrong."

The previous independent adviser on Islamophobia, Imam Qari Asim, was appointed in 2019 to advise ministers on producing a definition of Islamophobia. However, it was decided in 2022 that this work would not be taken forward, and PoliticsHome understands that the current government does not plan to appoint a new adviser. 

In 2021, an independent report on Islamophobia in the Conservative party found evidence of anti-Muslim discrimination and views expressed by individuals within the party and at local level, but that there was insufficient evidence to conclude it was an "institutional" problem.

Chishti described his decision to confront Sunak at last week's PMQs as a "last resort", but said that he took the decision to ask the question after becoming increasingly frustrated with what he described as the government's failure to treat all religious groups "fairly and equally". 

The MP pointed to recent Home Office data showing that in the year up to March 2023, where the perceived religion of victims was recorded, 44 per cent of religious hate crime offences carried out in England and Wales were targeted as Muslims – making Muslims the most common target. 

"With anti-semitism, there was seven million announced in the Autumn Statement. Absolutely, rightly so. But there was no funding at all to tackle Islamophobia, none at all," he told PoliticsHome.

"There is an independent adviser who deals with anti-semitism: John Mann, who does a terrific job. I engage with him as a former British envoy for international days of freedom. But the role of the independent adviser on Islamophobia has been laying vacant for over a year.

"Therefore, when people say to me, 'actually, the government is very committed to dealing with Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred', but resources and actions don't demonstrate it, what would you do if you're in my position? How would you feel with regards to seeing the facts themselves?"

Chishti contrasted the approach taken by this government to tackling Islamophobia and issues facing the Muslims with that of David Cameron, the former Tory prime minister who is now the foreign secretary, describing him as a leader who "listened, engaged and got this". Chishti said Cameron met with him to discuss why Westminster politicians should use the word Daesh, rather than the Islamic State, to describe the terrorist group, and that the former prime minister "proactively engaged" with the country's Muslim communities. 

"What I'd again urge the Prime Minister to do is everything he can to put in practice policies and structures which show a commitment to treating all faith communities fairly and learn from his predecessor David Cameron, who did that and won two elections in 2010 and 2015," he said. 

"What I'm seeing at the moment from the current Prime Minister and his ministers is a real lack of regard for engaging with the Muslim community."

A government spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “We have been clear that any form of racism has no place in our communities, and we will stamp it out wherever it occurs.

“This government has doubled the funding for protective security measures for mosques and provided over £6 million of funding to Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) services since its inception, to tackle hate wherever it is found.”

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