The UK government’s appointment of Lord Ian Austin to lead an independent review into last year’s Leicester riots has been met with strong criticism. Mainstream British Muslim organisations, local councillors and activists have raised serious concerns over the suitability of the former Labour MP.
Austin’s impartiality and ability to conduct such a sensitive review in a fair manner has been questioned due to the 58-year-old’s “divisive record and the serious allegations of Islamophobia.”
Communities Secretary Michael Gove announced last month that he had appointed Austin to lead the review. A panel of experts appointed by the government will investigate the causes of the violence and vandalism seen across the east of Leicester following a cricket match between Pakistan and India. Citing British intelligence, the Mail on Sunday reported days prior to Austin’s appointment that elements close to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) incited British Hindus to confront Muslim youths in last summer’s explosive riots.
Expressing “deep concern” at the appointment of Austin, umbrella group the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said that “it is crucial to have an independent reviewer who is impartial, fair, and capable of gaining the trust and confidence of all stakeholders.” Urging Gove to reconsider, the MCB said: The appointment of Lord Austin, given his divisive record and the serious allegations of Islamophobia against him, has created deep apprehension among Muslims and other communities in Leicester. This casts doubts on his suitability to oversee a review aimed at building trust and harmony within our communities. Any such review led by Lord Austin will face questions about its credibility and legitimacy.”
In an open letter to the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, the Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO), which has 150 affiliates, also expressed “grave concern” at Austin’s appointment. FMO cited a list of Austin’s polarising comments.
Labour councillors in Leicester have also objected to Austin’s appointment and said that they will not participate in the review. Councillors Hanif Aqbany, Misbah Batool, Mohammed Dawood, Kulwinder Singh Johal, Mustafa Malik, Rafik Mohammed, Yasmin Surti and Manjit Kaur Saini have all signed the letter, which urges the government to reconsider Lord Austin’s appointment.
It reads: “Failure to do so would severely hamper the integrity of the review, and in turn, its recommendations will have no value. Regrettably, as elected members answerable to our constituents and in the best interest of our city and communities, we will not participate in the inquiry if the appointment of Lord Austin remains.”
Austin has come under-fire for controversial remarks he made in the past. In 2021 he was accused of racism after tweeting a mocked up image of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream after the confectionary brand’s decision to stop selling its products in the occupied West Bank. The tweet read: “Ben and Jerry’s have stopped selling ice cream in the West Bank, but they’ve introduced new flavours for Gaza.” The accompanying image showed an ice cream tub labelled ‘Hamas Terror Misu’. Austin defended the tweet, stating it made no mention of race.
Austin was forced to issue a public apology and pay £40,000 ($50,000) in damages to Laura Murray, ex-aide of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, after making false allegations of anti-Semitism. In an article, Austin – who quit the party alleging sections of it had become anti-Semitic – described Murray as an “anti-Jewish racist” and part of the “vile anti-Semitism of Corbyn’s Labour”.
Austin’s connection with the right-wing group Henry Jackson Society (HJS) is also a source of concern. A report by HJS into the Leicester unrest said that it had found no evidence of a role played by Hindu ultra-nationalist groups. The report accused some members of the Muslim community of spreading a “false narrative” about the involvement of supporters of the Hindu nationalist movement.
Austin has hosted and spoken at a number of Henry Jackson Society events in parliament and has praised the neoconservative think tank’s “important and valuable work”.
Nearly 200 Hindu youths marched through Leicester’s Highfield area, leading to confrontations with the city’s Muslim community, chanting “Jai-Shri-Ram”, a chant appropriated by Hindu nationalists in India and frequently used to intimidate the country’s minority Muslim population.