Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), has been suspended from the Labour Party over alleged Islamophobia in order to “protect the party’s reputation”.
According to an exclusive report in The Times, the former UK equality watchdog chief received an 11-page letter informing him he was being investigated for allegations dating back several years.
Amongst the allegations, it was said Phillips made comments about Pakistani Muslim men from northern towns sexually abusing children, and expressed concerns that Muslims were becoming a “nation within a nation”, rhetoric which was adopted by the former head of the far-right English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.
Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Phillips was critical of the Labour general secretary Jenny Formby’s decision to suspend him:
“I’m kind of surprised that what is and always has been an open and democratic party decides that its members cannot have a healthy debate about how we address differences of values and outlook,” Phillips said.
Addressing concerns that were also raised over previous claims that Muslims were “different”, he said:
“They say I am accusing Muslims of being different. Well actually, that’s true. The point is Muslims are different. And in many ways I think that’s admirable”, he said.
In 1997, when Trevor Phillips was chair of the Runnymede Trust when it commissioned a report into anti Muslim prejudice and coined the term ‘Islamophobia’ to describe unfounded hostility towards Islam, resulting in discriminatory attitudes and behaviours towards Muslims.
Since then, the definition has been the centre of vigorous debate about the relationship between race, ethnicity and religion and how they intersect; and to further define the target of the hostility – beliefs or culture.
In March 2019, Labour adopted a definition of Islamophobia proposed by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims. The definition says: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
Phillips criticised Labour’s decision to adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia as “nonsense”.
“My objection is very simple. That definition said…that Islamophobia is rooted in a kind of racism – expressions of hostility towards Muslimness.
“First of all, Muslims are not a race. My personal hero was Muhammad Ali, before that Malcolm X.”
More about Islamophobia on our fact sheet here
Dr Chris Allen, Associate Professor in Hate Studies, School of Criminology, University of Leicester:
“The public reaction to Trevor Phillips’ suspension from the Labour Party, which throws the spotlight back on how we understand and define Islamophobia at the expense of the allegations, is to miscast the issue.
At the root of this is whether Islamophobia is a form of racism as the much maligned – and subsequently rejected – working definition put forward by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims stated it was, back in 2018.
Instead of arguing that Islamophobia is racism, it would be better to state that Islamophobia –like all other discriminatory phenomena including homophobia, disablism and antisemitism among others – functions in the same way as racism. In doing so, it is possible to see how some of the comments made by Phillips about Muslims communities in recent years have been prejudicial, discriminatory and stereotypical, positing Muslims as an undifferentiated, indistinguishable and homogenous ‘Other’: the opposite to ‘us’ and ‘our’ culture, values, way of life or more.
Simply substituting Muslims with ‘Jews’ or ‘black people’ therefore not only illustrates how different discriminatory phenomena function in much the same way, but also why they are problematic and rightly warranting of rebuke.”
A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said:
“Mr Phillips has made incendiary statements about Muslims that would be unacceptable for any other minority. Many of these sweeping generalisations are unfounded, wildly exaggerated and are familiar tropes taken up by the far right…. Mr Phillips would have us believe that he is a martyr for free speech and tolerance. But the fact remains that the deployment of these sweeping generalisations and tropes would not be acceptable for any other community. We are not commenting on the internal processes of the Labour Party, its choices or prioritisation of this case versus others. We expect the Party to follow appropriate process and investigate its members over all allegations of Islamophobia, and all other types of racism.”
An assistant secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, Miqdaad Versi, welcomed the suspension. Writing on Twitter, he said:
“It is this very divisive notion that he propagates that “Muslims are not like us” which is hugely problematic.. What Phillips consistently does is create a special category for Muslims – that we are uniquely bad”.
“If your response to the news that Trevor Phillips has been suspended from Labour is to immediately claim it must be a malicious act by the party, then you should think carefully about whether you are contributing to the real fears felt by Muslim people in this country.
I do not know the details of the case and therefore – unlike some – I am not going to speculate on what is a confidential disciplinary process. But the rush from some quarters to dismiss it out of hand is all too familiar to Muslim people. We are seen as fair game, and the burden of proof for discrimination and hurt somehow always seems to be set higher for us.”
(photo: CC-BY-SA Stephan Röhl / www.boell.de)