Former Tory MEP on Islamophobia claim: ‘It was a political exercise to use my religion to undermine me’
After Sajjad Karim first raised an allegation of Islamophobia against a serving minister he says he was told by Tory HQ that he would be contacted by the party inquiry to share his evidence. More than two years later, he is still waiting for a call.
The former ConservativeMEP – who spent 15 years in Brussels representing north-west England – spoke out in September 2019 amid a series of Islamophobia claims piling up against the party.
The 51-year-old recalled overhearing a conversation between two Conservative Parliamentarians with Islamophobic content directly about him. “I was able to hear these conversations directly with not just an Islamophobic base, but a very clear expression of very prejudiced views and positions which were clearly Islamophobic,” he told the BBC.
Today, as he calls for the Conservative party to finally investigate his allegation, Karim has given The Independent his fullest account to date of the alleged 2013 incident. Though he is not publicly identifying the individuals – one of whom he says went on to become a minister and is presently serving in government – he has confirmed he will name names to an investigation.
It comes in the wake of a separate claim last month by Tory MP Nusrat Ghani that her Muslim faith was given as a reason for her being sacked as a minister, prompting Boris Johnson to order a Cabinet Office inquiry.
Referencing the alleged 2013 incident, Karim said: “It was entirely a political exercise to try and undermine me, to use my religion as a means to undermine me.” He added: “I don’t know Nus Ghani’s case, or situation… all I know is in my case the discussion was about how my religious and cultural background could be engineered politically and used against me.”
As Karim pointed out, anyone “fair-minded” ought to be “horrified”. And yet, to this day, there has been no investigation by the party. Though he was contacted by the chairman’s office following the BBC interview, he says he was refused a meeting with the then chairman, James Cleverly.
“I was… contacted by the chairman’s office and told that there is a central address to which I could… make a report of Islamophobia on,” he said. “A complaint, a complaints email address which would go to central office and a staffer would pick it up and deal with it.
“I made it clear that, actually, that is not an appropriate way because my complaint is one in relation to two very senior members of the Conservative Parliamentary party and this was not an appropriate format either for me or for them, or for the party for that matter, for this to be dealt with. But a more appropriate way would be for the chairman to see me, and I’d be happy to come down to London face-to-face – James Cleverly was the chairman at the time – and that I would provide him with all of the details of my complaint and this needs to be led by him at a senior level because of the very of nature of the allegations and the people involved. This is not appropriate for a junior member of staff to be dealing with.”
However, he says, he was told Cleverly was too busy and that he should use the normal process. “I responded, and said, no I’m not going to use the standard process, this is not appropriate. And then I was emailed back saying that, actually, the… inquiry was going to be taking place… and that the inquiry would contact me and that I should give my evidence to the… inquiry and I said, fine.”
When the call never came and the inquiry published its findings more than a year and a half later without his input, Karim labelled the report a “whitewash”. The “independent investigation into alleged discrimination” in the Tory party, chaired by Professor Sarwan Singh, said allegations of institutional islamophobia “were not borne out by the evidence available to the Investigation”. However, the report stated “anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the Party”. Boris Johnson’s comments comparing women wearing the burqa to letterboxes were also criticised and the May 2021 report found evidence that the party’s complaints system was in need of an overhaul.
Singh’s report noted that the Conservative party’s central database recorded 1,418 complaints between 2015 to 2020 concerning 727 incidents of alleged discrimination. Two-thirds of all incidents related to claims of anti-Muslim discrimination.
The report concluded: “We discovered some examples of discrimination and anti-Muslim sentiment, most of which were at local association level. We did not, however, find evidence of a Party which systematically discriminated against any particular group…”
Does Karim think that the Conservative party is institutionally Islamophobic? He pauses, before replying: “I don’t think it is but I think what is happening is there are a small minority of people who either are or who are willing to use Islamophobia as a political tool even though they might not necessarily ascribe to those views. And the prime minister himself has actually been accused of that. But the overall workings of the party in the political context that we are currently in means that those people feel emboldened enough to be able to do these things in the belief that they’ll get away with it.”
He added: “Now, that’s very different to being institutionally Islamophobic or anti-Semitic, or racist. This is opportunism at play in a context that allows them to get away with it.”
Karim’s parents moved to Britain from Pakistan in the mid-1960s. His father worked for the Muslim Commercial Bank, first as a clerk before rising to become a manager; his mother a housewife. One of six children, Karim grew up in Brierfield, Lancashire. Though he handed out leaflets for the Conservatives as a seven-year-old, he stopped supporting the Tories after arriving in London to study in 1989 and realising, in his words, “we’ve been done over” when he compared what he saw in the capital to the economically depressed situation in the community at home. He later joined the Liberal Democrats.
Father-of-two Karim, who switched from representing the Liberal Democrats to join the Conservatives in 2007 under David Cameron’s leadership, sees himself as a One Nation Conservative. The MEP, who supported the remain camp during the Brexit referendum, lost his seat in the European Parliament in July 2019. He says he took a six-month break before taking up consultancy work offering strategic advice to clients in private industry or trade organisations.
However, he has eyes on returning to political office and hopes to be able to stand for Parliament as Conservative candidate at the next general election. But he is no fan of Johnson, and does not see a path clear while he is in Number 10. “The political realities are, beyond holding individual membership, trying to get onto candidacy selections, constituencies etc, it’s a huge challenge for centrists and me personally, of course,” he explained.
“I think one of the biggest challenges that actually we now face is maintaining the unity of the UK and I really don’t see a circumstance emerging where we can really maintain that without some substantial reform,” he said. “Reform to our constitutional order, reform to our political system and this really needs both a government and an opposition that reach into all parts of the United Kingdom and try and arrive at a new settlement that allows us to remain intact.”
He added: “We have got to find some way of making sure centrist politicians who have really been cleared out of British politics. Firstly it happened under Corbyn in the Labour party and then it’s happened more latterly with Brexit in the Conservative party. We, as a country, have got to find some way to make sure we get those people back into our political system.”
He continued: “Brits, we are not extremes, we never have been. We are very middle of the road, centre-right, centre-left, open, tolerant but this English nationalist agenda that’s being led today, I refuse to accept that it is endorsed by the majority of the British people. It isn’t. It is the capture of our political system by a small minority of parts of England is what we’re looking at, in reality.”
The Conservative party did not provide direct responses to a series of questions put to it by The Independent, including whether it will investigate Karim’s allegation. A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “We committed to holding an investigation during the 2019 leadership race following accusations of discrimination within the Party. An independent investigation was undertaken by Professor Swaran Singh, with individuals submitting evidence via a public call for evidence. Professor Swaran Singh’s investigation concluded that there was no evidence of institutionalised racism or a systemic issue.
“As a Party we have appointed the most ethnically diverse cabinet in history, we celebrate and value the contribution that every community has to offer our great country and Conservative family. The Conservative Party has a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination of any kind, and has always acted to deal with any incidents of hatred, abuse or intimidation.” The Cabinet Office declined to comment. Professor Singh was contacted for comment.
Karim does not want his fresh intervention on his Islamophobia allegation to be taken to mean he is a single issue politician. “I’ve got a huge EU career behind me, I fought an election… [to be] president of the European Parliament – came second, much against all expectations, we did a fantastic job there – held so many chairmanships, so senior within the party, worked really closely with two prime ministers,” he said, adding: “These are things that were all being done because I never allowed discriminatory factors to get in the way.”