News that the UK Labor Party has suspended former Equality and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Phillips over allegations of Islamophobia broke on March 9. His suspension centers around multiple comments he has made about Muslims in recent years, including claims that they form “a nation within a nation,” and that “Muslim communities are not like others in Britain and . . . will never integrate.”
These are horrendously Islamophobic remarks which paint Muslims as a monolithic fifth column incompatible with the rest of society. With the alarming rise in anti-Muslim hate crime in Britain and throughout the world, it is critical that we swiftly and decisively condemn such bigotry, especially when expressed by an ostensibly veteran anti-racism campaigner. We can’t be scared to use the word Islamophobia.
When confronted with Trevor Phillips’ remarks that Muslims “see the world differently from the rest of us” and are “resistant to the traditional process of integration,” Lisa Nandy repeatedly refused to call them Islamophobic.
Alas, Lisa Nandy—a contender in the current Labor leadership election—chose not to issue such a scathing rebuke during her interview for the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show on March 10. When confronted with Phillips’ remarks that Muslims “see the world differently from the rest of us” and are “resistant to the traditional process of integration,” she repeatedly refused to call them Islamophobic. Instead, Labor Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s would-be replacement opted for far softer language, emphasizing that the comments make her “deeply uncomfortable” and are “problematic.”
In refusing to use the word Islamophobia, the Member of Parliament for Wigan blurred the line between right and wrong. Just as the label racist bears such a potency that even die-hard fascists contort themselves in a bid to avoid it, so too does an accusation of Islamophobia leave us in no doubt as to the speaker’s moral stance on an issue. Despite even providing the precise reason why Phillips’ statements are Islamophobic—namely their unfair characterization of Muslims as constituting one homogenous group—she still couldn’t bring herself to use the word, and that isn’t good enough.
A comment that is “problematic” or even “deeply uncomfortable” can still be seen to have elements of truth to it. Perhaps the argument was badly phrased, maybe it needed significant refiguring, but something being problematic alone does not make it inherently wrong. Had she termed Phillips’ statements Islamophobic, all those watching would have had no doubt that Nandy deems them beyond rehabilitation. As a powerful and respected politician, her views help shape public discourse; she should have done more to push hatred out of the mainstream by simply saying it as it is.
That said, the former Shadow Energy Secretary did make some attempt to justify herself. When challenged on her refusal to use the “I-word,” she responded that she would not pronounce on individual cases because she believes in a disciplinary process independent from the party leadership, and by extension those fighting for the top job.
Nandy later released a Twitter follow-up to the interview, which happily did mention Islamophobia and seemed to indirectly call Phillips’ remarks Islamophobic. Unfortunately, she still stopped short of making the connection explicit and appeared to reinforce her previous view by attaching a newspaper write-up about it. In any event, the damage was already done.
While I do not feel that a leader or prospective leader’s definitive pronouncement would necessarily compromise the neutrality of the party’s internal disciplinary mechanism, this excuse might have been more convincing were it not for a rather pernicious double standard in Nandy’s recent past.
That is, along with dozens of other Labor parliamentarians, she signed a statement in June of 2019 which called on Jeremy Corbyn “to show leadership” by requesting that then-MP Chris Williamson’s readmission to the party “be overturned and reviewed.” Williamson had been suspended over antisemitism.
It appears that intervening—not only in passing judgment but by actively changing the outcome of the disciplinary process—is good leadership when dealing with antisemitism, but bad in cases of Islamophobia.
It appears, then, that intervening—not only in passing judgment but by actively changing the outcome of the disciplinary process—is good leadership when dealing with antisemitism, but bad in cases of Islamophobia. What message does this send to British Muslims? Doesn’t it just reinforce the time-old message that Islamophobia really doesn’t matter? That there is a hierarchy of racism in which anti-Muslim hate is placed below all other types of bigotry?
Moreover, this threatens not just Muslims but also British Jews. A key focus of Nandy’s leadership campaign has been her pledge to address once and for all the antisemitism crisis in which her party has been embroiled for years. But by showing one community that racism against them doesn’t matter, you destabilize your image as a committed anti-racist in general. Jews might now be left asking how long it will be before Nandy replaces antisemitic with problematic too. Is her fight against antisemitism in truth all about political utility? If so, what happens when that calculation changes?
Furthermore, in the era of globalization, the next Labor Party leader will have to stand up to Islamophobes worldwide. Boris Johnson has set the UK firmly on the side of the anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian states of America and Israel. As I have opined elsewhere, I am seriously concerned that in the event Johnson becomes desperate for a post-Brexit US trade deal, he might follow Washington in relocating Britain’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
As Chair of Labor Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, one would naturally expect that Nandy would vociferously oppose such a move. But since Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian prejudice frequently go hand-in-hand, by showing weakness on anti-Muslim sentiment, there is always that disturbing feeling in one’s stomach that she might cave under pressure. I’m sure many Palestinians know that feeling only too well.
Can Nandy be trusted to deal with international crises impacting Muslims more broadly? The war in Yemen and the plight of the Rohingya people serve as perhaps the quintessential examples.
This, in fact, poses a broader question: Can Nandy be trusted to deal with international crises impacting Muslims more broadly? The war in Yemen and the plight of the Rohingya people serve as perhaps the quintessential examples here. Will she do the right thing when faced with the harsh realities of leadership, when it’s inconvenient?
And, although Nandy indeed polls a relatively distant third to Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey in this leadership race, there remains a high likelihood that whoever is the eventual victor appoints the other two to their Shadow Cabinet. That means significant power and control over specific areas of Labor’s—and in four years potentially the country’s—policy. Anyone in such a position of trust needs to show themselves capable of standing up for all marginalized communities.
Let us not forget, however, the other two candidates’ deafening silence. Neither has, at the time of writing, released a public statement on the Phillips issue. Saying nothing is almost as bad as saying the wrong thing and contrasts with, for instance, Starmer’s open declaration that the decision to readmit Chris Williamson should be overruled and referred to Labor’s National Constitutional Committee.
I find myself, therefore, in the rather depressing situation of having to finish by calling on all three leadership candidates to denounce Trevor Phillips’ comments as Islamophobic, prior to the April 2 conclusion of this leadership election. There is still time left; they must do better than this. Muslims in Britain and around the world deserve that much at least.