Pushing Trevor Phillips out of Labour won't fix anything

Pushing Trevor Phillips out of Labour won't fix anything
Comment: It is easy to get rid of people, it is much more difficult to take on their oppressive views, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
17 Mar, 2020
Trevor Phillips, who has been suspended from the Labour party over alleged Islamophobia [Getty]
Trevor Phillips has been suspended from the Labour party over allegations of Islamophobia, after the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was investigated by the organisation over racism targeted at the Muslim community.

A quick skim through the comments made by Phillips would point to the fact that the accusations made against him are completely justified.

Yet, because it's targeted at Muslims - that exceptional group the British state doesn't believe is entitled to the same human rights and civil liberties as everyone else – it remains up for discussion. 

The former EHRC chair may have a legacy of anti-racism behind him, including having published a report on Islamophobia over two decades ago, during his days as a student when he had served as the first black president of the National Union of Students, but his growing move to the right has been a reality for many years.  

In 2016, he presented the hugely problematic documentary What Do British Muslims Really Think? in which Phillips ticked so many Islamophobic boxes it became hard to keep up.

From homogenising over 3 million Muslims living in Britain with weak survey data, to portraying them as deceitful, a "looming threat to our very way of life",
homophobic, sexist, terrorist sympathisers, you name the trope, he covered it, and concluded that the "views and values of many British Muslims are still so out of line with rest of society". 

Furthermore, his continued insistence that Muslims be regarded as a faith group and not a racialised one is baffling in light of growing Islamophobia across the UK and - you'd imagine - his personal insight into racism, its roots, manifestations and impacts on people of colour.

Phillips even actively
opposed the attempts to define Islamophobia, a project led by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG)on British Muslims'.  

The political space in which Phillips can build a career based on Islamophobia should be shut down

However, the question should not be so much over whether the views Phillips has expressed are racist or not; they absolutely are. And similarly, the public discussion should not fixate on whether he is right in refusing to accept that the targeting and repression of Muslims or perceived Muslims in the UK is racially charged.

It is obvious that Muslims do not seek to be homogenised, systematically oppressed, profiled and endlessly judged on the grounds of their faith. They too, would much rather be regarded as a faith group just like any other, but that just is not the reality. Instead, the focus should be on the consequences of these portrayals on Muslim communities in the UK, and how to tackle the violence we face. 

Yet, the mainstream debate has only loosely touched on the hate experienced by Muslims. It has also largely been politically empty, especially on the question of effective, sustainable anti-racism. It may be controversial to say at a time of unhelpful binaries which force you to choose between condemning or condoning, but the suspension and potential expulsion of Trevor Phillips is not the answer, and will do little to address the problems we face.

Read more: Why Riz Ahmed's short film on Islamophobia is a call to action

Don't get me wrong, I do not wish to come to his defence. I find many of the views he has expressed and defended repeatedly since his suspension to be deplorable, for a supposed equality champion. Instead I believe that what plays out within the Labour party, from Islamophobia to anti-Semitism, sexism and other forms of oppression, is symptomatic of our society as a whole.

Therefore, our response should involve work, organising, and mobilising. It requires us to organise, to lead campaigns, lobby, to fight on a policy level as well as out on the streets, and build strong coalitions that bury all forms of hate into inexistence.  

The political space in which Phillips can build a career based on Islamophobia should be shut down through shifting the balance of power on the question of racism, or the so-called War on Terror, to name just a couple. The ideas in Phillips' head are not the issue, the problem is that we live in a society in which there are no consequences to him publishing them, expressing them in public, and making documentaries about them.

Broadcasters, newspapers and event organisers make more profit by having him on, and polite society continues to think he makes good and interesting points. In fact, his ideas do have consequences for Phillips' career, but positive ones.

Pushing him out of the Labour party does not change this reality, nor does it change the fact that many on the right wing of the party agree with him, and have actively participated in setting up the institutions that target and discriminate against Muslims in the UK. They need to be taken on publicly, organised against, written about and defeated in the political arena, not pushed out of the party as if this solves the issue. 

The "equality and diversity" industry as it has become, is all too happy to encourage a culture of rejecting and immediately disassociating from complicated and problematic political thoughts, actions or previously held views.

One has to wonder where views like those held by Phillips and others, are being "thrown out" to? It certainly doesn't make them disappear.

Since his suspension, far more effort seems to have been put behind the defence of Phillips, than into support for spaces where people are fighting growing racism and fascism across our society.

A Labour party without Trevor Phillips, and even a few others who may be under similar investigations, will not rid it of Islamophobia

A Labour party without Trevor Phillips, and even a few others who may be under similar investigations, will not rid it of Islamophobia. But it does allow whoever goes on to lead the party, its bureaucrats and the liberals who champion these tactics to state that action was taken.

It is easy to get rid of people, it is much more difficult to take on their oppressive views, and fight for long-term, institutional changes. But this is what we should be demanding from the only political party in the UK that can boast of being a truly mass organisation, with organic links to the working class, however weakened by decades of defeat.

Trevor Phillips is not the problem. He is the symptom. We can keep focussing on him, but we will achieve little else than building his career and platform. Meanwhile the deportations, the Prevent referrals, the street harassment, and the curtailing of political liberties imposed on our communities continue to gather pace. These are what we should worry about and resist.

It is in the process of winning these practical battles, that the Phillips' of this world will vanish into irrelevance.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.