Trevor Phillips & the politics of intimidation

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Trevor PhillipsIs it right Trevor Phillips should chair Britain’s Commission for Equality & Human Rights?

Writing in the Sunday Times on 22 October, the current head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and forthcoming chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), had this to say, “The so-called Muslim leaders who initially attacked Straw were wrong. They were overly defensive and need to accept that in a diverse society we should be free to make polite requests of this kind… the defensiveness of some in the Muslim communities has hardened into a sensitivity that turns the most neutral of comments into yet another act of persecution. This is not what anyone intended and it is the last thing Britain needs. This could be the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago. Only this time the conflict would be much worse”.

So Mr Straw’s comments were ‘neutral’ i.e. it is OK to deny Muslim women parity with respect to their right to wear what they wish. Muslim leaders who disagreed with Jack Straw’s attitude on the veil are ‘so-called’ i.e. they are self-appointed and not speaking for the community at large. Sections of the community are ‘defensive’ because they are prepared to state their disagreement publicly.

In Phillips’ view, not only is the Muslim community not wisely led, but suffers a pathological self-pity. Muslims should put up and shut up. This is not the first time that Trevor Phillips has used an intimidating turn of phrase directed at Muslims.

In previous speeches Phillips has painted a picture of a hospitable and good-natured Britain taken in by alien forces: ‘We have allowed tolerance of diversity to harden into the effective isolation of communities, in which some people think special separate values ought to apply’ (September 2005).

In February this year he pronounced that “Muslims who wish to live under a system of shariah law should leave Britain – we have one set of laws … and that’s the end of the story. If you want to have laws decided in another way, you have to live somewhere else.” This was blatant scaremongering and ill-informed comment.

As Lord Nazir put it so lucidly in Muslim Weekly: ‘halaal and kosher meat too is part of Shariah. We allow such slaughter methods in Britain in accordance with Shariah Law. Islamic burials, including purification of the deceased through a prescribed method, is allowed in Britain in accordance with Shariah Law. Islamic banking and finance are advertised by international banks on our high street, in accordance with Shariah Law. A few years ago I stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community, especially the women, when they felt a change in British Family Law was required to recognise a Jewish religious divorce. It was unfair that Jewish women had to wait months, sometimes years, for the religious divorce to be finalized, when Christian women had the whole thing over within one procedure through the civil courts. It was unequal treatment of British citizens on grounds of faith. The Law was changed. And I didn’t hear any [one] asking any Jewish woman to ‘go back to Israel for making such a demand’ (Lord Nazir Ahmed in The Muslim Weekly, 22 September 2006).

In October 2005 Phillips raised another spectre: “We are becoming more segregated residentially-  to the formation of communities that are shut off from the outside world; that simply makes the situation worse. But that is what we are seeing emerging”. However the statistics point to greater ethnic mixing at the ward level, and where neighbourhoods are left with predominantly Asian populations, this is from ‘white flight’, rather than any self-imposed Asian self-segregation.

Trevor Phillips is a clever man and this is where the problem lies. If the boss is focused on media headlines and keeping up with new Labour rather than the back room slog, institutions suffer. The Public Interest Research Unit has published some eye-openers on the work of the CRE – it does not reflect well on Phillips’s tenure (appointed 2003): in the period 1983-1986 it completed 22 formal investigations; in the period 2003-2006 this number is 2! Yet all the indicators are that racism has not diminished in society. The CRE had not conducted a single formal investigation in 2006. It is as if there are now no discrimination or non-compliance problems left, and no vulnerable sections in society!

Similarly when Phillips was Chair of the London Assembly (2002-2003) it was felt he did not wish to get to the nitty gritty. In fact when Ken Livingstone offered him the job of deputy Mayor – an invaluable training ground – the apparent response to this generous act was to deem it ëracist’!

Trevor Phillip’s latest intervention includes a quote from James Baldwin “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, Said no more water, but the fire next time.” It is a sad indictment of the politics of our times that the protest which greeted Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 is now muted in the face of similar scare-mongering sentiments.

James Baldwin spoke for the Black African underclass and he knew the poverty of Harlem first-hand. He found refuge in cosmopolitan and multicultural Paris and Istanbul for ten years. His words in the famous ‘Notes to a Native Son’ can be easily transposed to our times – for Black read Muslim: “The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the only one that matters; all previous civilizations are simply contributions to our own) and are therefore civilization ís guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.”

Trevor Phillips believes that the Muslim struggle for parity will lead to social unrest and they should take the blame. That other great Afro-American, Malcolm X had interesting things to say on co-opted Black leaders.