‘All my life people have told me to lose my Muslimness’ – politicians on their battle with Islamophobia

In 2011, Sayeeda Warsi, then a co-chair of the Conservative party, implored her government to take action over the rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry, which she said had become socially acceptable enough to pass “the dinner-table test”.

A decade later, it seems too little has changed. Last week, Nusrat Ghani, the Tory MP for Wealden, told the Sunday Times that when she was dismissed from her ministerial post in 2020, she was told by a whip that her “Muslimness” had been an issue. The chief whip, Mark Spencer, identified himself as the person who spoke to her, but strongly denied her allegations.

So what is it like to be a Muslim politician today?

Labour MP and shadow cabinet minister for mental health

During a Commons debate about Islamophobia in November last year I spoke out about how, when I was a child and in the park with my little brother, I was attacked by a racist gang with dogs; how at medical school a senior consultant advised me to tell my family to stop being terrorists; and about being half-Polish and half-Pakistani, and seeing my white, blond mum spat at in the street.

Throughout my life people have told me to lose my Muslimness, that I should give my children anglicised names, that I could become Rosie Allin and have an easier life. But I’m proud of my heritage, and my family of many religions.

I’ve been told by people in politics that I shouldn’t have stood to be deputy leader because no Muslim had ever made it on to a leadership ballot paper – that the country just wasn’t ready to vote for a Muslim. I’m glad I didn’t listen. Then there are the rude and racist people in my inbox, on my Twitter – usually making unprompted comments about terrorism or saying: “What about grooming gangs?” And there have been other issues, such as Muslim politicians or activists having to go through extra security checks at Labour conference, myself included. It was a local police issue and we had to raise it with them.

This is daily life for Muslims. It has become so normalised to spout Islamophobic hate. It rose by 375% in the week after Boris Johnson compared veiled Muslims to letterboxes. As a doctor, I’ll never forget having a patient who said they didn’t want to be treated by a [P-word].

When I was running to be a councillor I knocked on someone’s door who told me that she thought the Muslims were coming to take over Tooting, and that she was going to vote Ukip. But after finding some common ground (both our babies had the same onesie) she realised that there was a connection. I often think that the way to beat this sort of anti-Muslim hate is to rise above it, focus on the positives and keep being that positive role model.

It’s sad there are politicians who have to make a point of not seeming Muslim because they’re worried it will upset their party or voters. Ultimately, I now say: “I’m a woman with many labels: proudly British, Polish, Pakistani, Muslim, a Liverpool supporter. I love clubbing. I love tea.” I’m my own person. I don’t need to fit into anybody’s box.

Lib Dem councillor and London assembly member

I had never experienced racism until 9/11: I was walking home when someone shouted: “[P-word] go home” not far from my doorstep. After that it got more frequent. During the 2018 World Cup, a drunk man got right in my face saying: “Listen [P-word], go the fuck home.” I’ve had problems on the job, too. When I was campaigning I would hear those same phrases about going home. And there would be micro-aggressions such as: “Your name is too difficult” or supposed banter about immigrants taking our jobs. Brexit was a particularly bad time.

Sometimes Islamophobia is a lack of understanding. So, in 2020, I wanted to get people within the Liberal Democrats to experience Ramadan for a day. People – including Layla Moran and Ed Davey – fasted for a day and tweeted throughout. Streams of hatred came back in response. People were asking Ed if he wanted four wives – and saying far worse to Layla. Ed and Layla felt not just the experience of fasting, but the hatred too.

I was shocked that I was the first Muslim woman elected in Merton council – and one of the London assembly’s first Muslim women. Are Muslim women less likely to be elected? Or less likely to put themselves forward? When I talk to Muslim women, there’s a fear of being abused.

People have said in the past I should change my name. But I would never do that. When Michael Fabricant said that Nus Ghani wasn’t obviously Muslim, I tweeted: “Yeah – coz all us Muslims look the same!” I think what he meant was that she was the kind of Muslim that didn’t make him feel uncomfortable.

In the London assembly we’ve got a very good understanding of Islamophobia. It helps having a Muslim mayor. But there is still inconsistency. Whether you are Jewish, Muslim or from any minority group, you should be heard, respected and, if there’s an incident, action must be taken. Our struggle is a shared struggle.

Labour MP for Bradford West

Before 2017, I was familiar with Islamophobia, but that year it went up a notch. I coordinated an open letter with more than 100 cross-party MPs about a Trevor Kavanagh article in the Sun, which referred to “the Muslim problem”.

Now the abuse spikes whenever there’s a terrorist attack, or a grooming gang conviction. They call me a grooming apologist, even though I’ve been doing work around grooming for decades. With the guy from Blackburn who took hostages, they’re like: “Naz Shah, bet you haven’t got anything to say about this.” And I’m sure some attacks are coordinated because they spike when nothing has happened. I’ll just find my Twitter blowing up with comments such as: “Muslims are paedophiles.”

When I was on the home affairs select committee, research was conducted into the amount of abuse MPs received. Diane Abbott was the most abused MP. But they had a category for abuse called “toxic abuse”. Abbott got 8%, I got 15%. I never found out what made certain abuse “toxic” but I remember being shocked.

My political colleagues have tried to support me, but if they retweet me, it opens the floodgates to them, too. So they stop retweeting.

People have said that in certain places, it’s best to tone down any Muslimness. Years ago, I wanted to set something up around Muslims in the Labour party, and was told: “The party is already seen to be too Muslim.” It was meant in a supportive way. But you can’t escape Islamophobia. Look at the health secretary, Sajid Javid: he says he has no religion, but he still didn’t get an invite to the top table when Donald Trump came to the UK, even though he was chancellor. Nor did the London mayor, Sadiq Khan. So your self-identification doesn’t matter.

That’s why one of the most important pieces of work I’ve done is the all-party parliamentary group on the definition of Islamophobia. Because I’ve always said that your Muslimness is a private matter between you and your maker, but this definition includes perceived Muslimness. For instance, the Sikh man who was killed in the US because he was perceived as Muslim.

It’s not easy working with politicians who have said or done Islamophobic things – such as the three Tory MPs who tweeted a doctored video from a far-right, anti-Islam account – but you’ve got to work with people. And my faith requires me to be the best that I can be. It’s a requirement of my faith for fairness, and for justice.

Conservative member of the Senedd

I first realised Islamophobia was a big issue when I was working for my father and member of the Welsh assembly, the late Mohammad Asghar. That was a big turning point for me – to see that racism still existed in the 20th century.

There was an incident, which I think haunted him till the day he passed away. Another politician (not a Conservative) used truly horrific racial slurs towards him at a Welsh assembly event. It was brushed under the carpet by everyone present – and those who were told about it afterwards. Nothing happened. It really affected him, though he kept it quiet and never publicised it. He didn’t want people to be put off entering politics if they knew.

The Welsh Tory leader at the time, now Lord Bourne, was absolutely fantastic. Since I’ve been a member of the Conservatives, they have been the most open-minded and genuinely decent people that I’ve had the privilege to work with. No one has ever, ever uttered a bad word towards our race, towards our religion. In fact, they celebrated it.

I’ve never experienced any Islamophobia personally in politics – except for one incident on the doorstep last year. We went to one house and there were four or five men standing outside, and one of them said: “I didn’t know Margaret Thatcher was black.”

I believe prejudice does exist and people do experience Islamophobia. If [Nusrat Ghani] has experienced racism, I would never invalidate what she has gone through. But I know the party believes in meritocracy. You can see the level of diversity that’s surrounding Boris Johnson. I’m confident that the investigation that will happen will shed light on what happened. And if anyone should be reprimanded, if anyone needs training, I’m sure they’ll receive it.

Labour MP for Coventry

When I got elected, I knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. I had seen the Islamophobia that Sadiq Khan had experienced with his mayoral campaign, and I had seen how much abuse Diane Abbott received.

Lisa Nandy discussed decades of neoliberalism and no one batted an eyelid, but when I essentially said the same thing in my maiden speech – discussing “40 years of Thatcherism” – I was attacked in the press, including the Guardian, and on Twitter. That’s when I realised there were double standards. People thought I should be grateful to be in this position.

It set the tone. Since then, whether it’s speaking up on issues such as Black Lives Matter, or for migrants’ rights, I get abused, on social media, in the post or through my email. And often it’s related to my faith – they talk about Muslim invaders. I’ve been confused with pretty much every other Asian MP; I had one of the deputy speakers mistake me for a member of staff a year into the job. The police outside chambers like to check my pass, while a group of white female MPs goes through unchecked.

But I’ve always said the problem is structural. There are policies in this country that have caused immense pain within Muslim communities, whether it’ s Prevent or the hostile environment. The worst effects of Islamophobia aren’t words, but those decisions such as the Iraq war, pushing the trope of Muslims as terrorists.

People want diversity from their MPs. But when you bring that experience, and talk about issues affecting communities, that’s too much. There are so many incidents that show Muslim communities are not being treated with dignity and respect and fairly by the Labour party: Trevor Phillips called Muslims “a nation within a nation” and then was quietly readmitted into the party. But I’ve refused to stay in my box.

I have to think about whether I can speak up about a certain issue without being labelled a terrorist sympathiser. I’ve been talking about Islamophobia for two years. Because my political beliefs are deeply shaped by faith. Because I look at the world we live in – rife with injustice and poverty – and imagine the world we could create. Because I know I’m not alone, and that there is solidarity – Angela Rayner and other shadow ministers have shown it, and my colleagues such as Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Diane Abbott. They get it. That’s a sisterhood.

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