Andrea Leadsom has been accused of undermining the fight against far-right extremists by suggesting Islamophobia is an issue for the Foreign Office.
In a letter to Theresa May seen by HuffPost UK, Labour’s Naz Shah said the Commons leader’s comments on Thursday “played into the idea that Muslims are less British” and “exposed a profound ignorance of race issues” at the top of government.
Shah urged Leadsom to follow the lead of her cabinet colleague Amber Rudd, who had sparked outrage hours earlier by describing Diane Abbott as a “coloured woman” but swiftly apologised.
Shah, the shadow equalities minister, insisted “this is not a trivial matter” given rising hate crime and an “emboldened far-right movement” in the UK.
The Bradford West MP said: “How can the government hope to combat racism when its own ministers seem to lack a basic understanding of the ways in which it manifests itself?”
Leadsom made the remarks in response to Shah’s call for a Commons debate after Tory Baroness Warsi, Britain’s first Muslim cabinet minister, slammed the Conservatives over Islamophobia within the party.
Shah added that the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims recently published a definition of Islamophobia.
The Commons Leader replied: “The Conservative Party is taking very strong action in any cases of Islamophobia that we identify.
“We have been extremely robust and urgent in our response to this.”
On a definition of Islamophobia, Leadsom suggested “she can discuss with Foreign Office ministers whether that would be a useful way forward”.
Following criticism, Leadsom has sought to clarify her remarks, insisting she thought Shah was referring to “a global definition of Islamophobia”, which the Foreign Office leads on.
But Shah said: “Rather than seeking to make excuses, the right thing for Andrea Leadsom to do is wholeheartedly apologise and grant this debate.”
Urging the prime minister to distance herself from Leadsom’s remarks, the Labour MP went on: “Andrea Leadsom played into the idea that Muslims born in our country are ‘foreigners’ or somehow less British than the rest of us.
“I cannot express how damaging the consequences of this could be for the British Muslim community.”
The Tories have been embroiled in a row about anti-Muslim feeling in the party in recent months.
On Tuesday, 14 people were suspended from the Conservative Party amid reports that scores of members were part of an Islamophobic Facebook group.
Following Leadsom’s comments in the Commons, Lady Warsi – who served as party chairwoman between 2010 and 2012 – asked: “What is wrong with some of my colleagues?
“We are in a hole… stop digging!”
A Commons leader’s office spokesperson said Leadsom thought Shah was referring to an international definition of Islamophobia.
The spokesman said: “Islamophobia is unacceptable wherever it takes place.
“It was thought the MP for Bradford West was referring to a global definition of Islamophobia. International efforts to combat Islamophobia (and all forms of religious persecution and prejudice) are lead by the PM’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, Lord Ahmad, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“Of course, any form of Islamophobia in the UK would be dealt with swiftly by the Home Office or Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government as appropriate.”
A Muslim Council of Britain spokesman said: “We hope it was an honest mistake and a slip of the tongue when Andrea Leadsom suggested that the Foreign Office be tasked with the responsibility to help define Islamophobia in Britain.
“If not, it would imply that British Muslims are to be regarded as foreigners and once again appears to play to the racist trope that Muslims can never be British enough that our concerns are treated equally.”