In 1997, Trevor Phillips invited a wandering vampire in for tea. As Chair of the Runnymede Trust think tank, he popularised (without coining) the term Islamophobia in a report examining hostility towards Islam and Muslims. His intentions were noble and historically, whenever he’s made public interventions on matters of prejudice, he’s striven to be measured and thoughtful, and to get his facts straight.
Last week, Phillips discovered that once you’ve let them in, vampires never leave. UK Labour suspended him from the party for ‘Islamophobia’.
This suspension (pending potential expulsion) took place against the background of the ongoing and utterly shambolic Labour leadership campaign. This is, I remind you, a contest between three vapid mediocrities — only one of whom, Sir Keir Starmer, appears to have an IQ above room temperature. Recall in this context that Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey (the other two contenders) signed Labour’s ‘Trans Pledge’, which among various things mandates those who say ‘women don’t have penises’ also be expelled from Labour, even though Phillips’s sins against wokeness are horses of another colour.
Unlike the situation with Jeremy Corbyn, Phillip’s credentials as a ‘lifelong opponent of racism and bigotry’ appear not to work in his defence. Versions of that line have been wheeled out as a standard response for the past five years whenever Corbyn’s dalliances with racists and bigots were noted. Things that don’t get you expelled from the Labour party: hosting the IRA, Hamas, or Hezbollah in parliament; sharing platforms with people who endorse the ‘Blood Libel’; picketing the Brighton Bomber’s trial. Things that do get you expelled from the Labour party: being Trevor Phillips.
Phillips was chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the days when it was no tit assignment. London’s Met Police really did have a bad habit of letting leads in murder cases go cold where the victim was black. Combat 18 really was on foot, dangerous and fond of planting nail bombs in gay bars. And yet — while he clearly wasn’t fighting the sort of phantasms the modern anti-racist Left sees lurking behind every lamp post — Phillips never resiled from the view that ‘multiculturalism’ as a policy was ill- conceived. He maintained it legitimised ‘separateness’ between communities, and argued the state should ‘assert a core of Britishness’.
Even in 1997, Phillips was aware the concept of ‘Islamophobia’ was not ideal, although it is notable that nowhere in the Runnymede Trust report he published is Islam conflated with race, which is why he’s so angry about ‘his’ term’s misuse now. ‘One great attraction of Islam is its pan-racialism,’ he told the Times. ‘Islam does not belong to any ethnic group’. Unlike the word ‘Jew’, which can refer to both a religion and a race (non-Jews, recall, don’t have to get genetic screening for Tay-Sachs), Islam has only ever been a religion, much like Christianity. Defining it racially really would ensure Muhammad spins so hard in his grave he’d power Mecca for all eternity: his religious raison d’être was a desire to eliminate tribalism and destructive kin-group loyalties in first his home city, then throughout Arabia.
The neologism’s ‘phobia’ suffix was especially unfortunate. ‘Phobia’ suggests irrational fear, and when originally deployed drew on psychiatric research showing a connection between hatred of homosexuals and an irrational fear that homosexuality was somehow catching. Related to the pseudoscientific dread of contagion was a propensity for gay-hatred to mask latent homosexual tendencies: the tub-thumping fundamentalist preacher with a secret profile on Grindr became for this reason a genuine comedic stand-by. Of course, ‘homophobia’ has also been abused, stretched, and wrenched out of context, but the original term described something real.
That is not the case with ‘Islamophobia’, which conflates blasphemy with bigotry and — while some anti-Islamic prejudice may be irrational — forgets that some fear of Islam simply isn’t. It is rational, if one is atheist, feminist, or homosexual, to be frightened of Islamic theology and doctrine with respect to non-believers, liberated women and the same-sex attracted, and (for example) to avoid travel to Muslim-majority countries. This may be unfair to the many people in Muslim-majority countries who are tolerant in spite of their religion, but ‘unfair’ and ‘irrational’ are not the same thing.
What, then, is the substance of Labour’s allegations against Phillips? He seems to be in most strife for stating facts. One charge criticises him for quoting the results of an opinion poll. Another invokes his repetition of the Rotherham Inquiry’s main finding. That is, he discussed how a third of British Muslims would prefer their children to be educated separately from non-Muslims, and that a quarter were ‘sympathetic’ to the aims of the terrorists who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris. He also observed that ‘grooming gangs’ are overwhelmingly comprised of Pakistani Muslims. These things are facts, in that they were, without doubt, results from a polling exercise carried out by a legitimate opinion-survey company and findings from two reports written at parliament’s behest.
Based on them, Phillips says Muslims in Britain are statistically different from the Western populations surrounding them and from other recent immigrants, and argues this will make integration difficult in the long term. This, too, is to state observable facts. It is also, at least in some respects, to compliment the religion. Like Christianity, Islam takes pride in not automatically accepting the secular world at its own valuation.
I wonder if Phillips sometimes regrets foisting the concept of ‘Islamophobia’ on an unsuspecting public. Perhaps he doesn’t, because his woundedness at the term’s collapse into a form of racism seems real. Maybe he thinks he can reclaim it, although I suspect that ship has already sailed. In any case, the episode is a reminder of the risk of trying to shut down debate through censure and the coining of boo-words like ‘Islamophobia’. The neologism was dangerously vampiric in 1997, and it still is now, in part because it has bitten one of its own.
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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for The Hand that Signed the Paper and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel is Kingdom of the Wicked.
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