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Cancelling Trevor Phillips

Suspending Phillips didn’t advance Labour’s claim they are the party of anti-racism

The “draft charges” in the Labour party’s letter justifying the suspension for racism of Trevor Phillips – one of the party’s life-long anti-racist campaigners – could scarcely be more serious.

They amount to an allegation that he’s authored a slew of hatred and bigoted vitriol against Muslims.

The letter cites examples of what it regards as “hostility or prejudice” to Muslims, behaviour which “targets, intimidates or incites racism including Islamophobia”, and which “undermines the Party’s ability to campaign against racism.”

Quite a charge given that as the founding Chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, it was Phillips who mainstreamed the concept of Islamophobia in Britain back in 1997 following his work with Runneymede Trust’s report “Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia.”

According to Labour’s Secretary General Jennie Formby, however, Phillips’s suspension was a “matter of urgency” to protect the party’s anti-racist reputation – even though most of his speeches and articles on which the “draft charges” are based were widely reported four years ago.

Phillips is black, has himself suffered racism and has been an outspoken critic of the Labour party’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism.  Labour is in danger of collapsing into a “brutish, authoritarian cult” he says.

The Muslim Council of Britain say he “has made incendiary statements about Muslims”.

The Labour peer Lord Mann describes Phillips’ suspension as ‘Orwellian’.

The sometimes “incendiary” reporting of the hard left Sqwawkbox website jubilantly points out that critics of Labour (like Mann) for “supposedly” not suspending “alleged anti-Semites quickly enough” have been outraged by Phillips’s suspension.

A senior government official who closely monitors the increasingly febrile slugging match over racism and identity politics in Britain today puts it like this:

“What I’ve realised is that we have a really shit debate about anti Muslim bigotry in this country.”

Too true.

The commentator Peter Oborne also rounded on “Saint Trevor” for having quipped at a fringe Conservative conference event that he was “jealous” not to have been nominated for the annual “Islamophobe of the year” award by the London based Khomeinist organisation, the self-styled Islamic Human Rights Commission.

“Let’s suppose that Phillips had boasted that he’d been nominated …as ‘anti-Semite of the year’ and that a fellow panellist had joked that he was ‘jealous’” wrote Oborne. “Such a conversation would have been treated as a national scandal. Front-page headlines denouncing Phillips as a bigot and anti-Semite would have dominated all newspaper front pages the following day, and rightly so.”

For the party, his suspension is a test run for the definition of Islamophobia which Labour have adopted

Indeed, it would – but only had the newspapers, like Oborne, mischievously omitted the circumstances, which were that Phillips was deliberately mocking how the IHRC has so cynically exploited the charge of “Islamophobia”  with its poisonous and preposterous annual “Islamophobe of the year” gala dinner.

Previous awardees include President Obama, the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, the commentator Yasmin Alibhai Brown, the Labour MP for Rotherham  Sarah Champion who publicly raised the issue of largely Asian gangs grooming underage girls for sex, Dame Louise Casey who led an inquiry into the scandal, the former Home Secretary and former Chancellor Sajid Javid, and a posthumous award to the 12 journalists at the Paris based Charlie Hebdo magazine massacred in 2015 by Jihadists. “No one from Charlie Hebdo could make it” quipped the IHRC’s odious master of ceremonies at the IHRC’s gala dinner awards ceremony

Make no mistake, for the IHRC its “Islamophobe of the year” award is a deadly serious business. And Phillips’ barb was quite obviously his way of emphasising just how sick the IHRC had become. It is ludicrous for Oborne to say he found it “hard to understand why Phillips was happy to joke about the term (Islamophobia) at a Tory party conference.”

Then there was the Conservative peer Baroness Warsi who appears to support Labour’s decision to suspend Phillips. Why? Because, she says, he has “defined Muslims as a single group, who think the same, act the same and should all be held responsible for the same things.”

Casting Muslims as a monolithic group was pretty much how the Baroness herself behaved when she criticised the appointment of her fellow Muslim Sara Khan as Commissioner for Counter Extremism because according to Warsi – who has certainly never polled all of Britain’s 3 million Muslims – Khan was not trusted by “a cross-section of British Muslim.”  A demonstrably unprovable statement.

The Labour party’s case rests on 19 passages from five speeches and articles by Phillips, three of which he wrote in 2016.

The full context from which Labour has plucked these 19 selected passages reflect Phillips’ concern consistently expressed since 2005, that Britain is “sleepwalking our way to segregation…becoming strangers to each other and leaving communities to be marooned outside the mainstream.”

Only a blind man driving through parts of Britain and Europe (and I emphasise ‘parts’) would suggest otherwise, surely.

Suspending Phillips may well be the prelude to his expulsion from Labour. For the party, his suspension is a test run for the definition of Islamophobia which Labour (as well as the SNP, the Lib Dems, Greens and several councils) have adopted from a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group of British Muslims which was influenced significantly by the Islamist aligned organisation MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development).

The APPG report defines Islamophobia as being “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

The report seeks to make Islamophobia a problem suffered by all Muslims as a single group because of their “Muslimness” – all, that is, except those Muslims like the Commissioner for Counter Extremism Sara Khan who oppose the APPG definition, but do want a definition that provides the clarity everyone is seeking.  Khan, like other like-minded Muslims, has been the victim of racism and hideous abuse from fellow Muslims, including from a senior MEND official  who described her as an “Oreo” – brown on the outside, white on the inside, or to put it another way, a “sell-out” to her faith, a Muslim “Uncle Tom.”  This kind of abuse brings into question whether the “Muslimness” or Muslim identity of Muslims like Khan is acceptable – the very issue at the heart of the APPG definition.

So, what exactly is this brand new word “Muslimness?” And who will decide what it is, or isn’t? Bearing in mind that Muslims are both multiracial and multicultural: some are secular, some devout, many in-between? And what would the APPG’s definition allow, and what would it seek to ban?

The APPG’s report doesn’t address these questions save to assure us, it has no intention of stopping “free and fair criticism or debate” around Islam – just as long as it is “fair” and “reasonable”.

So, what exactly is “fair” and “reasonable” criticism of Islam?  The Phillips case offers an insight into what in practice it means.

On the back of Labour’s charge sheet against Phillips, the APPG have launched a full-on attack on him by tweeting a video which seems determined to nail him to the wall as “an Islamophobe.”

In 2016, Phillips wrote “I thought Europe’s Muslims would gradually blend into the landscape. I should have known better.” The APPG video ask “Do you think saying…’ I thought Europe’s black people would gradually blend into the landscape. I should have known better’ would be considered racist”?

On its face, of course it would be. Except that directly following Phillips’ comment – “I should have known better” – he spends 1082 words explaining that he is not referring to Muslims monolithically. He refers, for example, to “liberal Muslims” who, he writes, were “in despair” at “Muslim opinion hardening against them.” He says that British Muslims “are a diverse group; but, rich or poor, British-born or not, most have a deep commitment to their faith. Many are distressed by what they see as white Britain’s increasing secularism, low morals and loss of confidence in many of its own values.” Phillips based this on an ICM poll for Channel 4. The poll may have been right; it may have been wrong – but he was entitled to report accurately its findings at the time, surely?

The APPG video also attaches a tweet from the far-right extremist Tommy Robinson – who has incited anti Muslim bigotry – replicating Phillips’s words with the comment: “So surely this Islamophobic?”  Is the APPG seriously suggesting that Phillips is no better than Robinson?

The video then asks if the words: “The centre of gravity of female opinion is ‘some distance away from the centre of gravity of everybody else’s’ would be considered sexist”? This because Phillips is reported to have said the centre of gravity of British Muslim opinion is “some distance away from the centre of gravity of everybody else’s.” Again, the APPG asks “So surely this is Islamophobic?”

Is it? Again, Phillips based his comments on the ICM poll which reported that more than half of Muslims in Britain thought homosexuality should be illegal, 47% believed teachers should not be gay, 23% supported the introduction of Sharia Law, 39% agree that “wives should always obey their husbands”, 31% thought it acceptable for a man to have more than one wife. There were some positive findings too – for example, 86% felt a strong sense of belonging to Britain.

Nonetheless, it’s fair comment to report that several of those indicators suggested a marked divergence of a significant portion of Muslim opinion from the mainstream. Phillips was surely entitled to report the poll’s findings provided what he said fairly reflected them.

The APPG video then plays what it clearly believes is its ace card, asking rhetorically: “Do you think saying ‘Jews are not like us’ and Jews are a ‘nation within a nation’ would be considered anti -Semitic?”

Of course, stripped of all context, it would be.  Except that it’s not clear that Phillips did actually say “Muslims are ‘not like us’ and will NEVER fit in with British society.” The APPG quote is from a newspaper headline as if it was the verbatim of a talk Phillips gave to the think tank Policy Exchange. The Labour party also relies on this report, the text of which has Phillips qualifying his statement about “difference” as a suggestion, rather than an assertion: “It may be (my emphasis) that they see the world differently to the rest of us.” Nonetheless, the comment was insensitive and also unfair because this time it did imply that Muslims are monolithic and that pretty well all of them have views inherently different from non-Muslims which is clearly nonsense. As to Phillips’ “nation within a nation” comment, it was made on a different occasion as was his summary of the finding of the ICM poll, which was the basis of his comment. Still, Phillips could have found a more sensitive form of words to make his point.

Did Phillips also cross the monolithic line when he wrote: “…authorities in towns such as Rotherham and Rochdale remain reluctant to associate the child grooming scandals with social norms within the largely Pakistani Muslim neighbourhoods in which they took place.”

If Phillips meant bluntly that child grooming is a “social norm” within Muslim communities, the answer must be “Yes.” And IF that IS what he meant, it is shocking because it’s also a prominent far right narrative, and even if Philips believes it to be true, he should know to steer well clear. It’s perfectly possible to have an honest debate about grooming gangs without stereotyping Muslims in that way. If, on the other hand, Phillips was referring to the taboo that existed within some Pakistani communities, local authorities and the Police on addressing or even discussing the widespread sexual abuse of white girls by men of mainly south Asian heritage, then clearly the  answer is “No.”

None of the allegations levelled by Labour and the APPG are straightforward yet both the party’s “urgent” suspension, and the APPG’s reductive video smack of a gleeful “gotcha” moment because Phillips – a trenchant critic of both – is a big fish to land in their nets.

I know from my own investigation into the Labour party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, that administrative suspension was only deployed in the most blatant cases. In cases analogous to Phillips with language that may have been insensitive to Jewish sensibilities, members were usually just sent a “Reminder of Conduct” letter.

Still, Phillips does have questions to answer about what he actually said or meant and he says he will provide the answers.  But whatever Labour’s conclusion, it should be set against his passionate vocation of wanting to generate an honest and open debate about the enormous challenge of creating a cohesive society in this increasingly diverse country.  Phillips feels especially passionately about Britain’s liberal white elite having too often pressed the mute button about the very real cultural divide that has long been opening up in Britain -“the deafening silence in the air about the real dilemmas that confront our society” as he describes it.

Labour’s “urgent” suspension of Phillips has done nothing to advance Labour’s claim to be the party of anti-racism. While Labour failed to recognise antisemitism when it stared them in the face, they seem to have rushed to judgement against a political opponent with their extremely serious allegation that the man who first drew attention to the concept of Islamophobia is himself a Islamophobe whose commentaries have incited racism, fear and hatred of Muslims.

Anti-Muslim bigotry exists, including in the Conservative party, and too many are in denial about this and the harm it causes. But no purpose is served by weaponizing the debate over it.

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