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Artillery Row

First they came for Trevor Phillips

The definition of Islamophobia threatens honest debate about multi-culturalism

What is behind the Labour Party’s suspension of Trevor Phillips’s membership? The former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (the body that is coincidentally – or not coincidentally – busy investigating allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party), finds himself accused of the parallel crime of Islamophobia. Labour’s disciplinary unit will decide his fate, but the letter to him makes clear that he is facing expulsion from the party of which he has been a distinguished and thoughtful supporter for thirty years.

It is an extraordinary charge to make against a man who was instrumental in encouraging Tony Blair’s government to pass a law protecting Muslims from incitement. Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP who the Muslin Council of Britain once nominated as Politician of the Year and who has been the victim of anti-Muslim abuse, refutes the charges on Phillips’s behalf as “so outlandish as to bring disrepute on all involved in making them; and I fear they further add to the sense that we, as a party, have badly lost our way.”

Adrift or not, the Labour party remains the vital and important force in British politics that 10 million adults recently voted for. It is therefore reasonable to seek some deeper motive animating the attack on Trevor Phillips. Is this simply a case of the revolution devouring its own children? If so, why him? Alternatively, and more darkly, the ability to besmirch a former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission as an Islamophobe would help cast suspicion on the motives behind the Commission’s decision to investigate Labour’s anti-Semitism.

More elementally, perhaps this is nothing more than payback for Phillips’s preparedness to debate issues and share a platform with entities Corbynites despise like the fringe events at the Conservative Party conference and the think tank, Policy Exchange. Such people are not what Labour has in mind when it says it embraces diversity.

In the inner life of political parties, sheer pettiness cannot be ruled out. But careful calculation could also have inspired this character assassination. Swiftly inoculating itself from Islamophobia allegations helps Labour ensure that it will not repeat the mistake it made with anti-Semitism of appearing slow to respond.

What is more, the timing is interesting. Although some of the allegations date back several years, why has Labour chosen this moment to strike against Phillips? Last week, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) sent a second dossier of 150 allegations of Islamophobia by Conservatives to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The MCB demanded that the Tories be placed under the same sort of investigation for Islamophobia that the Commission has undertaking against Labour over anti-Semitism.

By targeting one of their highest profile members, Labour can draw attention to how the party is unflinching in its exposure of anti-Muslim prejudice at a time when the Conservatives are still discussing – very slowly – the terms of reference for their own internal investigation into the subject.

If this is truly the calculation, then it is pretty quirky. When the spotlight should be on alleged Conservative prejudice, why would Labour indulge in the diversionary tactic of making its own members’ alleged bigotry the main story? It seems bizarre. Then again, there is much in Labour’s recent strategising that is not from the classic public relations playbook.

An alternative and simpler explanation exists. It is that the Muslim Council of Britain has become an important voice in public discourse on faith and community issues. It is a voice that the high command of the Labour Party listens to and takes seriously. Labour hopes that the MCB has done important work in highlighting where the Tory swamp needs draining. So when the MCB’s spokesperson announces that Phillips is guilty of making “incendiary statements about Muslims that would be unacceptable for any other minority” Labour takes that allegation very seriously indeed.

How could Labour not do so when the police and the Criminal Prosecution Service have agreed that a hate crime is “any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person [italics added], to be motivated by hostility or prejudice.” If the MCB can’t perceive Islamophobia, who can?

The Muslim Council of Britain has become an important voice in public discourse on faith and community issues.

It can be debated whether perception is the same as fact and that a crime can be defined by “the victim or any other person” who perceives it rather than by objective criteria. Yet, however questionable, it is how the law is now enforced in this country.

To this is added another imprecisely defined concept, that of Islamophobia. There is – or should be – an obvious problem with this particular phobia. Namely, that Islam is a faith, not a race. In this respect it differs from anti-Semitism which is directed against a race, the Jews. Religious observance is not a pre-requisite for Jews to be hated by anti-Semites. They’re primarily hated because of who they are, not what they think.

Reasonable people would accept that hostility and prejudice based on race is unacceptable. But hostility towards a set of beliefs can be a more complicated question. What if criticism (whether fair or unfair) is directed either at the theological concepts of a religion or at the actions of individuals rejoicing in that faith’s name? If the MCB, or any other Muslim individual, feels that such criticism is the consequence of hostility and prejudice, is that therefore Islamophobia?

It was in an effort to bring clarity in defining Islamophobia that in May 2019 Parliament debated the findings of the all-party committee on British Muslims. The committee, chaired by the Conservative defector, Anna Soubry and Labour’s Wes Streeting, declared that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

However well-meant the intention, this definition is unsatisfactory – as, for the government, James Brokenshire pointed out at the time. It might be right to suggest that those who hate Muslims exhibit behaviour similar to that displayed by racists. But to say that anti-Islamic sentiment is “rooted in racism and is a type of racism” ignores the obvious point that Islam, like the other great world religions, is, in its very essence, trans-national, multi-racial, and universal.

Not only did Soubry, Streeting and their fellow parliamentarians prove unable to spot the difference between a race and a religion, they also failed to grasp that “expressions of Muslimness” covers a multitude of actions, not all of them above fair comment or reproach. In adjudicating on Islamophobic intent, it surely depends upon the nature of the “expressions” to which the accused was highlighting? Many Christians, agnostics and atheists are alarmed by “expressions of Christianity” by fundamentalists who gleefully think everyone else is on the highway to Hell. To criticise such fervour of faith is surely as legitimate as it is to fear its Islamist equivalent?

A specific fear about Islamist fundamentalism is not necessarily to be confused with sweeping hostility to all Muslims. But the problems mount when individuals risk articulating apprehensions that go beyond the specifics of individual criminal or intolerant acts and on to contributory factors. First among these is what preventative community-wide measures can be designed against radicalisation. But this implies that Muslims may be more likely to be tempted into such behaviour than, for instance, the average British Anglican, Hindu or Buddhist. These days, however much a minority it statistically happens to be true. It is why security services engaged in “profiling” haven’t focused on infiltrating the W.I. or comings and goings down at the vicarage.

It is upon this slippery slope that Trevor Phillips sees in his peripheral vision the scenery beginning to whiz past. The Labour Party has sent him the charge sheet, itemising occasions where he has expressed fears about some British Muslims’ reluctance to integrate (for instance, his observation that few Muslims wear Remembrance Day poppies compared to other immigrants). He is (accurately) accused of stating “for the first time in living memory Europe has encountered a minority group which both occupies a significant social distance from the society into which it is arriving, but which also appears resistant to the traditional process of integration.”

If the Labour party decides that the expression of such fears are incompatible with party membership, then this is an important moment. For it signals that Labour is no longer committed to the “melting pot” concept of a society in which those of different faiths, races and identities find areas of common ground, shared endeavour and a unifying narrative. Integration is off. Separatist identity is in, its barriers to be rigorously policed. This is the outlook of Malcolm X and Hendrik Verwoerd.

Adopting this attitude is, of course, a matter for the Labour Party. But the rest of us should not imagine that the implications may not eventually affect us too. For this is the championing of a definition of Islamophobia that is so impervious to permitting honest debate that it will tear at the core of what binds all of us – regardless of our differences – together. It is a definition that needs to be challenged with vigour, charity, intelligence and courage. That is what Trevor Phillips sought to do and why he now stands accused.

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