For many years now, Trevor Phillips OBE has been one of the most prominent individuals of black ancestry in the United Kingdom. He is a multitalented individual who has played significant roles in business, politics, journalism, and more throughout a long life (he is now 66). A full list of his achievements would take up most of this article. Here are only a few examples:
He was, until June 2018, the President of the John Lewis Partnership, Europe’s largest employee-owned company. He has also Chairman of Index on Censorship, the international campaign group for freedom of expression, and was founding chair of both the Greater London Authority, and of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. Originally chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, and as head of the EHRC, Phillips was a controversial figure: he was an opponent of multiculturalism, apparently preferring a more constrained policy towards integration, a view he still maintains. Although a member (until recently) of the left-wing Labour party, he is still a senior fellow with the leading Conservative think tank, Policy Exchange.
Shockingly, on March 9, Phillips was suspended from the Labour Party on the grounds of “Islamophobia.” That this exclusion is shocking should be obvious given the man’s long history of anti-racism, principled and critical support for national counter-terrorist laws, rejection of Islamic terrorism and Muslim rape gangs, and his focus on faith-based integration. This latter is discussed in his 2016 book for the Civitas think tank, Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence.
As chairman of Index on Censorship, Phillips has a policy largely derived from the First Amendment of the US Constitution, in order to permit freedom of speech and the press. Although there are some restrictions in the UK regarding hate speech and national security, free speech remains a broad principle. It is here that Phillips apparently fell afoul of “politically correct” criticism.
“Political correctness”, whatever its commendable origins in a wish to protect minorities on a basis of race, sexuality, or religious belief, has come to do great damage in its sometimes neurotic condemnation of anything its advocates find offensive.
For many, especially, it seems. on the left, the notion of what is called “Islamophobia” has come to the fore as the perfect expression of politically correct speech and writing. This acceptance seems to have taken place despite the appalling use of anti-Semitic hate speech and anti-Jewish activism before and during the era of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Britain’s Labour Party. One is inclined to think of pots calling kettles black. If the politically correct can get it so wrong about antisemitism, may they not be equally wrong about “Islamophobia”?
It is not hard to define antisemitism if we are guided by the Working Definition given by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, but defining Islamophobia is fraught with difficulties. That it exists in some form, as do most prejudices, is hardly controversial. In the UK alone, 2018 saw a record number of attacks on Muslims, sometimes, not surprisingly, in response to Muslim attacks on non-Muslims.
In 2019, an Australian, Brenton Tarrant, murdered 51 Muslims in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — crimes to which he has now pled guilty. Such attacks, and often the speech that goes with them, reflect a deep-seated racism and bigotry that is rightly condemned across most countries. Less violent but equally unacceptable is the persecution of its Uighur population by China’s Communist Party.
It should go without saying that Trevor Phillips — and often many people accused of seemingly the most innocuous transgressions, such as a British teacher in the Sudan naming a children’s teddy bear Mohammed, or in present-day Nigeria, simply being a Christian — bears no resemblance to any of these.
In 2016, before the current row, Gatestone Senior Fellow Douglas Murray penned an article in the Spectator expressing admiration for Phillips and defending him against early accusations of Islamophobia. Yet, four years on, he has been termed an “Islamophobe” by a major political party and many in the press. Among some individuals, the word “Islamophobe” seems to have replaced the word Communist as sort of a new form of McCarthyism with which to smear, defame and neutralize anyone with whom one might disagree — presumably to shut down any kind of discussion before it can even start.
Phillips himself has worked alone and with colleagues on the problems surrounding the definition of Islamophobia. In 2018, he wrote the foreword to Policy Exchange’s response to an extremely flawed definition from the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims. The definition had been heavily criticized, not least by the police, for undermining free speech and counter-terrorism work. Phillips supported the author, Sir John Jenkins KCMG, who exposed the risks to free speech and a healthy democracy if the APPG report were to become law. The following year, Phillips — with Jenkins and Dr. Martyn Frampton — wrote for the same think tank a piece entitled, On Islamophobia: A Problem of Definition. In it, he differed materially from the views of Nathan Lean, the left-wing author of The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, who takes even the mildest criticism of Islam or Muslims as Islamophobic in nature.
One of the concerns expressed in Phillips’s responses to the APPG lay in the fact that the parliamentarians involved might have allowed themselves to be influenced too broadly by Muslim lobbies that seemed not truly representative, such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Engagement and Development group (MEND).
While it is appropriate to recognize Jewish contributions to definitions of antisemitism (such as the internationally supported IHRA version mentioned above) and to bring in balanced Muslim opinions about how to define Islamophobia, organizations with links to more radical Muslim groupings are most likely not the most helpful partners. To eradicate hatred for balanced and peace-loving Muslims, it is probably not all that productive totally to avoid references to Islamic radicalism or issues surrounding women’s rights, treatment of non-Muslims, prescribed punishments, treatment of children, and blasphemy to name but a few — which is what more traditionalist Muslims might prefer we did.
Without a serious debate on these issues, no one — from schools to political parties, think tanks, parliaments, churches and synagogues — can engage in comprehensive discussions about how Western societies should handle the problems of discrimination, integration, citizenship, free speech, secular values, human rights and all the areas of our collective lives that have come to the fore with the revival of radical and traditionalist Islam in recent decades.
Trevor Phillips is uniquely placed to bring light to these discussions. A well-respected man in both British and international society, he should never be shut down by anyone for the ostensible sake of political correctness.
Following Labour’s condemnation of Phillips as a supposed “Islamophobe”, Policy Exchange published another piece The Trial: The strange case of Trevor Phillips, again by Frampton, in which he dissected the charge raised against Phillips. In the end, it appears that however many enemies Phillips may have, he is assured of having many friends. This conclusion is reflected in that the UK government has just appointed him as an advisor to a formal inquiry into the disproportionate number of deaths from Covid-19.