THE TRAP OF IDENTITY POLITICS. 'ISLAMOPHOBIA' IS A MUST FOR FREE SPIRITS
Trevor Phillips: How I fell victim to Labour’s inquisition
The party’s investigation of me for alleged Islamophobia shows it’s becoming an authoritarian cult
Tyranny is often represented as the pounding of a fist on the door in the middle of the night. In fact, in my short time as chairman of the free speech charity Index on Censorship, I have learnt that many people living under authoritarian regimes first encounter it in the dry language of a bureaucrat’s warning: recant, repent, denounce your fellow deviants and you may save your livelihood. Your soul may, just, escape damnation.
When I glanced at the 11-page letter sent to me recently by the Labour Party, the phrase “administrative suspension” grabbed my attention. These words signal banishment from a community that I have inhabited for decades: friends, colleagues, even family may be compelled to shun me. Significantly, my indictment concerns matters of faith, doctrine and dissent. It is written, not in the language of a democratic, open political movement but in the cold-eyed, accusatory prose of the zealot. In essence, after more than 30 years of promoting the Labour cause, I am accused of heresy, and threatened with excommunication.
Last year a cross-party parliamentary group proposed that “Islamophobia” should be defined in broad terms as a “kind of racism” hostile to “Muslimness”. In a pamphlet for the Policy Exchange think tank, I responded that Islam is not owned by any ethnic group and that Muslims are not a race. Worse, the undefined concept “Muslimness” implies that all adherents agree on doctrine, dress and behaviours: it’s the far-left equivalent of the racist cliché “they all look the same to me”. It was therefore only a matter of time before this “definition” would lead to the persecution of dissidents. But I never imagined that I would be one of its first victims.
Labour’s threat to expel me has been drawn up in secret and my fate will be decided in absentia. I am forbidden from repeating the charges but I can reflect on what is not alleged. There is no suggestion I have done anything unlawful or offended any individual. All my “sins” can be seen by anyone who can use Google.
It doesn’t take much effort to accuse anyone who has tried, like me, to expose the poison in identity politics. Each year, an Iranian-backed, LGBT-hating extremist group publishes a list of alleged “Islamophobes”. It has featured Barack Obama, the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the slain staff of Charlie Hebdo — and me. Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, joked that he was offended at being left out.
My 2016 essay “Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence” observed that many men involved in the grooming and sexual abuse of children in towns such as Rotherham, as exposed by The Times, came from Pakistani-Muslim backgrounds. This was branded prejudice by some — but surely honest journalism, unburdened by fear of causing offence, should be beyond contention? And even though I described Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in the same essay as “a ghastly testament to the power of unbridled free speech”, I was accused of racism by some for merely mentioning his name.
Readers will appreciate my perplexity. I am a person of colour, with a family heritage of Fulani and Mandinka Muslims going back 1,000 years until ripped apart by transatlantic slavery. Some of my relatives have made the return journey to embrace Islam. It also seems peculiar to make an example of someone who introduced the term “Islamophobia” to British politics by commissioning the Runnymede Trust’s 1997 report on the issue; and who then, as head of the Commission for Racial Equality, worked closely with Labour on the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 that protects Muslims from incitement.
No one inside or outside the Labour Party has ever suggested that I have broken any rules. I have never been “no-platformed”. In the final week of the 2019 election campaign, I even celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Sickle Cell Society alongside one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies, Dawn Butler. She has known me for decades — would she really have agreed to appear on stage with a bigot?
So what accounts for this extraordinary turn of events? Some will see it as payback by Corbynistas for public criticisms I made of the leadership’s failure to tackle antisemitism in the party. Another possibility is that it’s an attempt to scare the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which I used to lead and which is investigating Labour’s handling of antisemitism. Weaponising Islamophobia to attack political opponents may seem like clever tactics but trying to intimidate a legally independent organisation is pure political gangsterism. Perhaps someone in Labour HQ has been reading up on the Inquisition’s methods; in 1578, one official defined its purpose thus: “That others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.”
I accept that I may not share all the views of Labour’s current leader or even of the majority of members. But I have never belonged to any other party and I have stuck by it through thick and thin. If this is how Labour treats its own family, how might it treat its real opponents if it ever gains power again? It would be a tragedy if, at the very moment we most need a robust and effective opposition, our nation had to endure the spectacle of a great party collapsing into a brutish, authoritarian cult.