During Tuesday’s BBC TV debate of Conservative leadership contenders, Sajid Javid made a strategic error.
He sprung a surprise on his four fellow candidates for the Tory crown — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Rory Stewart — by asking if they would commit to an independent investigation of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. They all agreed.
The trigger had been a question by a Muslim hardliner, Abdullah Patel, who asked the panel if they accept that ‘words have consequences’. The debate host put this to Boris Johnson, reminding him he had said Muslim women wearing burkas looked like letter boxes and other controversial things.
It later emerged that Mr Patel is accused of anti Semitic tweets and had expressed reactionary views about relations between men and women (as such Islamists often do).
The controversy that flared up after the debate related to the fact that the BBC had used such a questioner, while making it seem as if he was just a man in the street.
A less noticed aspect of the saga was Mr Javid’s response. He committed to the Tory Islamophobia probe and then bounced the others into the same.
This was unwise. When people rise up against the odds from a group that has hitherto suffered discrimination — for example Margaret Thatcher as the first women prime minister of the UK, or when Colin Powell became the first black US secretary of state — they almost always do so by not making any issue at all out of their status.
They send out an unspoken signal that they might be female or black (or gay or whatever) but their minority status is incidental to their persona, not central to it.
If even a flash of resentment or preoccupation about that status emerges, then prejudiced people in the dominant group think: ‘Ah, he is as bitter as the rest of them.’
Mr Javid has in the past seemed aware of this. Part of his image is that he happens to be the son of a Pakistani bus driver, but he is also a proud British patriot, who is eurosceptic and hawkish on some security and foreign policy issues.
He took the harsh decision to cancel the citizenship of the Isis bride, Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria to back the terror group — a statement that he harbours no ambivalence about radical Islam, even if other Muslims do.
But on Tuesday , Mr Javid damaged that image with his decision to extract a commitment from his colleagues. He should have just stated his own view, and used the opportunity to remind viewers of his proven antipathy towards the Islamic extremism that most of us so justifiably loathe.
Instead, he compounded his error by putting pressure on Rory Stewart to say he would condemn foolish comments by Donald Trump.
If anyone has demonstrated his credentials of being profoundly respectful of Islam, it is the erudite Mr Stewart, who has spent much time in Muslim countries.
I believe there is no need to examine alleged Tory Islamophobia.
Consider for a moment the parallel controversy over anti Semitism in Labour. As someone who is strongly pro Israel, I accept that it is legitimate to criticise Israel fiercely, and possible to do so without being remotely anti Semitic.
Similarly, it is possible to criticise radical Islam without being Islamophobic. We must be able to say, for example, that a large minority of one section of the UK community, and only one, British Muslims, has shown notable levels of ambivalence about suicide bombing.
Liberals should be honest that mainstream Muslim thinking in the UK is now more consistently hostile to issues such as same sex rights as is mainstream Christian thinking.
Muddled thinking on ‘Islamophobia’ led to Pastor James McConnell being put in the dock for an anti Islamic sermon after a complaint by Dr Raied Al Wazzan, a man who praised the peace brought about in Mosul by Isis barbarians (he later said he hadn’t mean that).
Dr Al Wazzan was on the BBC recently rejecting a far right allegation of Islamic extremism in Belfast, yet was not asked about his shameful, extremist Isis remark.
Dr Wazzan has been given residency, good employment and opportunity by our wonderful country, yet still he has implied the UK is ungenerous to immigrants. His defence of Isis was worse than anything Pastor McConnell said, yet it was the latter who faced trial.
The Tories of all people must speak out against such injustices.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor
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