How can organisations work to stamp out Islamophobia?

Following allegations of discrimination that resulted in MP Nusrat Ghani’s dismissal, Shakil Butt explains how HR professionals can eradicate such behaviour in the workplace

How can organisations work to stamp out Islamophobia?

Discrimination in the workplace is nothing new. Discrimination at the highest levels of power is also sadly nothing new, including allegations of discrimination that resulted in former Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani being dismissed because of her ‘Muslimness’. 

Ghani was the first Muslim woman elected as a Tory MP back in 2015, but five years later was ‘replaced’ during a reshuffle without explanation. She has claimed she was told her ‘Muslimness’ was “making colleagues uncomfortable”. Ghani described those words as “like being punched in the stomach” and said she felt “humiliated and powerless”.

It has been acknowledged by prime minister Boris Johnson, who has previously likened women who wear the burka to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’, that Ghani did raise her concerns and he directed her to the internal complaints process, but she did not believe that was appropriate and wanted the government to “take this seriously, investigate properly and ensure no other colleague has to endure this”.

Allegations of Islamophobia also surfaced in 2014. Former Conservative chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the Conservative government in protest at its policy on Gaza, describing it as “morally indefensible”. She also campaigned for six years against Islamophobia in her party.

An independent inquiry into Islamophobia, carried out by Professor Swaran Singh, a former equality and human rights commissioner, found anti-Muslim sentiment “remains a problem within the party" but there is "no evidence" the party is institutionally racist. Singh examined 1,418 complaints relating to 727 separate incidents between 2015 and 2020 of which two-thirds of all reported complaints to the Tories' headquarters related to allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination. 

Warsi contested the report’s conclusion, stating: “If it looks like institutional racism, feels like institutional racism, fits the definition of institutional racism, then I'm afraid it is institutional racism."

What was telling was Singh’s finding “clear evidence of a party complaints system in need of overhaul”, a “lack of transparency in the complaints process, with no clear decision-making process as to how complaints should progress, and no specified timeframes for resolution”, all of which underscore Ghani’s reluctance to follow the internal investigation processes. 

Worryingly, the Guardian reported in 2019 that 15 Conservative councillors who were suspended over posting Islamophobic or racist content online had their membership quietly reinstated and the newspaper exposed how two Conservative local election candidates and a woman honoured with an MBE were among 40 new self-professed Tory members who shared or endorsed racist and inflammatory Facebook posts, including Islamophobic material.

Islamophobia as defined by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on British Muslims in 2018 has yet to be accepted by the Conservatives: a definition that was adopted by Labour formally in 2019. This definition of Islamophobia was expressed as “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

The Equality Act 2010 introduced nine characteristics that are protected legally from discrimination, which include racial and religious discrimination. Furthermore, there is an Equalities Duty on all public sector organisations to: eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act; advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not; and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

In real terms, how does Muslimness show up in a person from the Islamic faith? Like all people of faith and no faith, observance of one’s lifestyle choices vary from individual to individual and can manifest in different ways. Some ‘Muslimness’ can be very visible, while religious belief and practices are not always so apparent. The degree of adherence to faith can also vary considerably from one person to the next, so ‘Muslimness’ is difficult to identify as it can be very different according to context, country and culture which itself is often mistaken for ‘Muslimness’.

‘Muslimness’ can include head coverings such as the hijab on women or growing facial hair on men; choosing to pray; opting to fast, not eating pork or drinking alcohol – all of which are regarded as being more typical expressions of ‘Muslimness’. It can also include refusing to cheat and lie; avoiding slander and gossip; being of service to others, particularly the weak and vulnerable; giving in charity; being kind and forgiving; being patient and persevering; to speak up and advocate for others; staying true to your spouse or simply not using foul language.

Contrary to the stereotypes and negative narrative popularised by Hollywood and the rhetoric of the far right, ‘Muslimness’ is not a threat. Extremism in any religion or social movement is a separate issue and has no real relationship with any faith generally or with Islam as practised by the majority of the world’s 1.9 billion Muslims. 

Islamophobic discrimination is not a Muslim problem but a blight on all of us if allowed to continue unchallenged. In the workplace, a good starting point to tackle Islamophobia is to adopt the definition of Islamophobia by the APPG of British Muslims and note the examples it has given of behaviours and practices that would constitute Islamophobic racist and religious discrimination. 

Good governance requires HR to ensure that investigations into any allegations of discrimination are robust, fair and independent with clarity on timeframes and the process itself. This will empower and enable employees to come forward to raise their concerns, confident that they will be heard, and action will be taken for all cases found to be true. 

The prime minister has ordered an inquiry into Ghani’s claims, the second inquiry in as many weeks which is hopefully the beginning of a new approach to tackling Islamophobia.

Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire and honorary treasurer of the CIPD