Disgraced Conservative MP Lee Anderson with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, January 2024 (Reuters)

Lee Anderson, the former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, is not known for being either meek or measured.

But even by the Ashfield MP’s standards, his remarks last week to the hard-right outlet GB “News” plumbed new depths. He claimed that London Mayor Sadiq Khan had “given our capital city away to his mates”, declaring, “I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan, and they’ve got control of London.”

Anderson has been condemned from all quarters, including by many Tory MPs quick to “distance ourselves” from the remarks. Amid growing pressure for action rather than words, the Conservatives removed the party whip from Anderson. Even a hesitant Rishi Sunak said Anderson’s comments were “wrong”, while balking at calling them out as Islamophobic or prejudiced.

Anderson, taking a page from Donald Trump’s book, doubled down. Rather than apologizing, he launched a fresh attack on Sadiq Khan. His words were clumsy, the MP said, but they were “born out of sheer frustration at what is happening to our beautiful capital city”.

If you are wrong, apologizing is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. But, when you think you are right, you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness.

Another Tory MP, Paul Scully, joined the assault with the unsupported claim that there are “no-go areas” in parts of London and Birmingham where Muslim people live. He told BBC Radio London that “some people are concerned about, more and more, their neighbourhoods changing”.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, a moderate Conservative, criticized the remarks.

Islamophobia v. A Civil Society

This was a welcome response to the bigotry, but it couldn’t bury the attempt of some Tories to construct a narrative of British Muslims as a hidden column using the UK’s democracy and politics for nefarious purposes.

Replace “Muslim” with “Jew” and you can see the tactic — and the potential damage — of the conspiracy theory. Yet Robert Jenrick, a former Minister in the Sunak Goverment, has declared in the House of Commons that Britain has “allowed our streets to be dominated by Islamist extremists”. Former Home Secretary and wannabe Prime Minister Suella Braverman wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “the Islamists, the extremists, and the antisemites are in charge now”. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in the USA, far-right politician Nigel Farage — alongside former Prime Minister Liz Truss — boomed, “Radical Islam is becoming mainstream in British politics” and projected that “by the 2029 general election, we will have a radical Islamic party represented in Westminster”.

Truss shared a platform with Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to Donald Trump, to speak darkly about a “deep state” ousting her from power. Asked about Farage’s comments, she replied: “There’s going to be a by-election in the next few weeks, and it could be a radical Islamic party win in that by-election. So that is a possibility.” Pundit Douglas Murray put more fuel on the fire, “it seems that British MPs are finally waking up. Now that the Islamist threat is coming at them”.

Part of the context is the catalyst of the mass killings in Israel and Gaza. Polarized responses to that man-made disaster reached where a vote on a Gaza ceasefire was effectively buried because Speaker of Parliament Lindsay Hoyle said he feared for MPs’ safety.

But part of the context are politicians willing and even eager to exploit that tension for personal gain. As the Conservatives stand on the verge of electoral implosion, some of their members are staking out ground for a hard-right shift — and hostile rhetoric over religious, race, and ethnicity is part of the playbook. Anderson, former Home Secretary Braverman, and their allies whip up culture wars by proclaiming the pro-Palestine rallies a disease of uncontrolled immigration and the Muslim presence in the UK.

The consequence of this, if Anderson and Scully are emulated and exceeded by colleagues, is to put British Muslims in a corner. Having been verbally ostracized as “extremist”, there is no way back. Any sincere intention to pursue the common good may be portrayed as a “Trojan Horse” to take over UK society. Any engagement in democracy is reconfigured as a ploy in cahoots with Hamas or Iran’s ergime. Efforts to build a civil society for all are transformed into the cover for a jihadi training exercise.

Baroness Sayyeda Warsi has been consistent in calling out the Islamophobia within her party. In a 2011 lecture, Warsi said that Islamophobia had passed the dinner table test. Her evaluation was borne out in research by Stephen H Jones in 2022: middle- and upper-class occupational groups are more likely to hold prejudiced views of Islam than people from working-class groups.

Earlier this week, Warsi said Rishi Sunak needs to “find the language” to “call Islamophobia Islamophobia”: “What is it about the Prime Minister that he can’t even call out anti-Muslim racism and anti-Muslim bigotry? Why can’t he just use those words?”.

Warsi’s question is on the lips of many Muslims, young and old, from governors of schools to trustees of charities to volunteers at food banks. They feel that they have been put under a searchlight as prospective criminals rather than everyday contributors to their communities.

The answer from the Conservative leadership could determine whether that searchlight becomes even more intense — both over a riven party slinking into hatred and bitterness and over a fractured British society cutting off many of its members.