Nusrat Ghani has made headlines by claiming that she was demoted from the position of transport minister in 2020 because of her Muslim faith. Speaking to The Sunday Times, Ghani said a government whip explained that her “Muslimness” had been raised as an issue and that an MP had said her faith was making others “uncomfortable”.
Ordering a cabinet inquiry into the MP’s complaints, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted he was taking the matter “extremely seriously”.
“I took them [Ghani’s comments] very seriously when they were raised with me 18 months ago … [I’m] very glad there’s an investigation taking place now,” Johnson said. “I can’t say more, really, about it.”
However, these allegations of Islamophobia will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. Allegations of racism have long been plaguing the party. Indeed, former Conservative co-chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said in 2018 that anti-Muslim prejudice had “poisoned” the party. Referring to the incident with Ghani, Warsi said that what happened was “an open secret” in Westminster, adding that colleagues have been aware for “many months” that Ghani struggled to be heard.
Michael Gove – communities secretary, no less – has repeatedly come under fire for alleged Islamphobia, from writing a book containing anti-Muslim rhetoric to his role as founding member of the Henry Jackson Society, a neo-conservative think tank which has been criticised for Islamophobia.
Just a few months ago, in May, the Singh report commissioned to examine Islamophobia within the Conservative Party found that it “remains a problem” but stopped short of establishing that the party was institutionally racist, which prompted some critics to brand it a “whitewash”. The investigation, by Professor Swaran Singh, found that an overwhelming majority of complaints lodged with the Conservative Campaign Headquarters were upheld and resulted in a sanction. Yet just 50 per cent of these were a suspension and only one resulted in an apology.
It appears, then, that the Conservative Party is not prepared to acknowledge, much less tackle, its Islamophobia – the same anti-Muslim sentiment that would have given rise to the incident that Ghani allegedly experienced. As such, it doesn’t inspire much confidence that the Cabinet Office inquiry into the former minister’s complaints will yield any fruitful outcome. If the prime minister was taking the matter that seriously, why did it take over a year for him to act?
And how does his purported commitment to uncovering the truth of this debacle reconcile with his own track record of comments about Muslims and other minority groups? Islamophobic incidents rose by 375 per cent in the week after Boris Johnson compared veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes”, research has shown.
Moreover, the responses to Ghani’s allegations from sections of the Conservative Party point to an anti-Muslim culture. Numerous politicians, and high profile Tory members, either dismissed her lived experience or downplayed it.
While publicly identifying himself as the individual who allegedly told the minister that she was sacked for her “Muslimness”, chief whip Mark Spencer challenged Ghani’s version of events. Conservative MP Michael Fabricant, meanwhile, said the timing of her claim was “very suspicious”, and suggested it was linked to moves to get rid of Boris Johnson over “Partygate”. Speaking to LBC, Fabricant said that Ghani was not “obviously” a Muslim, and it was “lame” to claim that this was the reason she was fired as transport minster in a reshuffle in 2020.
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Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi then defended Johnson’s inaction on Ghani’s case in an interview with Sky News. “The prime minister has promoted Nadhim Zahawi to secretary of state for education, Sajid Javid to health secretary, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng,” he said. And Adrian Hilton, former advisor to ministers and chairman of the Academic Council of the Margaret Thatcher Centre, said: “This is difficult to believe. The prime minister is himself of Muslim descent. He has appointed Muslims to his cabinet.”
No one should question Nusrat Ghani’s right to be heard as a Muslim woman and she should not be forced to grapple with discrimination at work on any basis, least of all her religion. And yet this scenario mirrors the realities that many ethnic minority women across Britain face. Up to a third are passed over for promotion at work because of racial discrimination.
In the context of a government which commissioned a widely contested report arguing that Britain is not institutionally racist, no, I am not surprised that it has been hit with yet more allegations of Islamophobia. And the cabinet office inquiry will, I suspect, be another whitewash.