Islamophobia in British Politics: What 300 Allegations and the Suspension of an Anti-Racism Campaigner Tell Us
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the spectre of Islamophobia again raised its ugly head in the UK’s political spaces with both of the main political parties finding themselves implicated.
For Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, this involved the Muslim Council of Britain publishing a dossier of more than 300 allegations of Islamophobia among the Party’s membership. For the outgoing leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party came under scrutiny when news broke that it had suspended a member for allegations of Islamophobia: the member in question being the prominent anti-racism campaigner and former head of the Commission for Race Equality and Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips. While separate, the close proximity of the two instances — as also the clear overlap that exists between them — afford a unique opportunity to understand how Islamophobia is both understood and duly responded to in Britain’s contemporary political spaces.
The Muslim Council of Britain’s Islamophobia Dossier
Allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party are far from new; the Muslim Council of Britain having been producing similar dossiers of evidence for near on two years. The latest set out evidence of various Islamophobic comments and actions by those at all levels of the Party, from the grassroots through to those close to the Prime Minister including those elected in the Conservative Party’s landslide general election victory last December. These included Sally-Ann Hart who shared a post on social media claiming that a women’s march had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood to promote the ‘Muslim agenda’ and Karl McCartney who retweeted Islamophobic posts by the former leader of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson and ‘celebrity extremist’ Katie Hopkins. At the grassroots level, one former local government candidate tweeted following the death of a Muslim shopkeeper “1 down, 1.6 million to go”; another tweeted, “Wake up Britain or it will be too late we will ALL be Muslim!”.
The latest dossier was the second to be sent to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UK’s watchdog with responsibility for promoting and enforcing equality and non-discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales. The first was sent just under year ago and included an additional 150 allegations of Islamophobia. Part of the remit of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is the protection against discrimination on the basis of religion and belief. Because of this, the Muslim Council of Britain claims that the evidence it has repeatedly provided is enough to prompt an investigation into the Conservative Party. Claiming the watchdog has relinquished its responsibilities, the Muslim Council of Britain’s Harun Khan added “we find it extraordinary that the Commission has failed to give any response, let alone inform us and British Muslims as to whether action will be taken”. To date, no investigation has been announced in spite of the seeming scale of the issue.
Trevor Phillips: Anti-Racist and Islamophobic?
When he was suspended for alleged Islamophobia, Phillips released the letter he received to the media. In it, the allegations of Islamophobia included statements he made about Britain’s Muslims being “a nation within a nation”, about how few Muslims seemingly chose to wear poppies in the run up to Remembrance Day, and about the high incidence of Pakistani-heritage Muslim men being involved in child sexual exploitation cases. Wholeheartedly dismissing the allegations against him, Phillips turned the focus back on Labour and criticised Corbyn. This was not the first time Phillips had been publicly critical of the Party or Corbyn, as a member he was one of 24 high profile figures who just last year publicly stated their refusal to vote for Labour due to its alleged association with antisemitism.
Born in London to emigrant parents from then British Guiana in the 1950s, Phillips was a writer and broadcaster before joining the Labour Party in 1996 having befriended former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Unsuccessful as Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London in 1999, Phillips subsequently took on the role of head of the Commission for Racial Equality in 2003 before being appointed chairman to its 2006 successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It is worth noting that as part of the new, much broader remit the Equality and Human Rights Commission was required with protecting against discrimination on the basis of religion. While in these roles, Phillips began to emerge to some at least as something of a divisive figure. As Baroness Sayeeda Warsi put it, “anti-racism campaigners have over the years become increasingly bemused at his pronouncements”. Calling on the UK to ‘scrap’ multiculturalism, Phillips was also accused pandering to the more populist and nationalist elements within British society for his widely criticised 2015 documentary, “Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True”.
Five Insights into Islamophobia in the British Political Spaces
If nothing else, the two incidents highlight the extent to which Islamophobia remains a very real issue in the today’s political spaces. Their juxtaposition however does afford us a number of additional insights.
The first relates to how the victims of Islamophobia — ordinary Muslims going about their everyday lives in today’s Britain — continue to be invisible in the political spaces. Whether in the lack of response to the dossier of evidence published by the Muslim Council of Britain or the allegations against Phillips, it is the perpetrators for whom the focus of attention is duly and asymmetrically lauded. In none of the ensuing debates was there much concern shown by anyone about who such allegations or statements detrimentally impact. That invisibility does change however in any situation where Muslims are seen to be the perpetrators or can be attributed with ‘blame’.
The second relates to ongoing perceived ‘need’ to define Islamophobia continues to obstruct all political responses and any ensuing due process. Ongoing for far too long, the perceived ‘need’ to define Islamophobia has seem multiple definitions not only put forward but so too immediately rejected by successive Conservative governments (and let’s not forget, it is always Conservative governments). Accordingly, formal governmental and political responses to Islamophobia have been non-existent. Cynically, this is conducive for the Conservatives. Despite widespread allegations of Islamophobia being made against a growing number of its members, the Party immediately dismisses such allegations out of hand by claiming it is not able to investigate it until it better understands exactly what it is they need to be investigating. Never agreeing a definition means they will never need to investigate nor act (for more on how this cyclical argument functions, take a look at my new book “Reconfiguring Islamophobia: a radical rethinking of a contested concept”).
Which leads to the third and the inherent failings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Despite being tasked with protecting against discrimination on the basis of religion, the Commission has long had a reputation for not taking Islamophobia seriously. Whether this is a mere reflection of the leadership of Phillips and his own misgivings about the ‘reality’ of Islamophobia is open to debate. However, as it has emerged in the debates that have ensued following his suspension, Phillips clearly does not feel that making sweeping stereotypical generalisations about Muslims is comparable to doing the same about black, Asian, Chinese or indeed any other ethnic group of people. For him — and maybe even the Commission under his tutelage — it is possible that a hierarchy of discrimination exists, one where Islamophobia is some way down the pecking order.
A fourth relates to the extent to which the UK is mature enough to debate whether people of colour can be racist. An overly simple way of responding to this is to categorically state that only white people are racist: as Dr Richard Stone did in the foreword to the second Islamophobia report from the Commission for British Muslims and Islamophobia a decade and a half ago. Not only is such a statement unequivocally wrong, it also affords legitimacy to an argument deployed by some within the far-right that all white people without differentiation are simultaneously blamed and victimised as a consequence of the UK’s diversity and multiculturalism. So let’s end this here: you can be both black and a racist, no question.
The final insight relates to how Islamophobia is wholly and arbitrarily politicised. While the Conservatives — as indeed their supporters in the mainstream media — continue to claim that allegations of Islamophobia cannot be investigated due to there not being a definition, as soon as Phillips was suspended for allegations of Islamophobia those same politicians and media voices dismissed his allegations with certainty. Even without a definition, those defending Phillips seemingly knew what was — and duly was not — Islamophobia. While the question that remains might be ‘how’, the most appropriate answer might be to say that when Islamophobia can be used to attack opponents — in this instance, Corbyn and the Labour Party — the Conservative Party and media cronies are clearly quite happy to acknowledge Islamophobia, let everyone know that they themselves know what it is and importantly, engage in public and political debates about it.
A contradictory and unquestionably cynical process, while Islamophobia is clearly not going to quietly retreat from the UK’s public and political spaces, at least we know exactly where the critics and deniers of Islamophobia sit and what the rules of engagement are.
(A Turkish language version of this article was first published in 2020 in the German publication Perspektif)