Trevor Phillips: back race-baiting, this time with junk research

Note: I started writing this last Tuesday and finished today (Sunday) as work made it impossible to complete during the week.

A front page from the Daily Mail, with the headlines "Warning on 'UK Muslim Ghettoes'".I’d rather not be writing this entry. Last week there were two important documentaries: a Channel 4 Dispatches on disabled people being humiliated by benefits assessors, and a BBC Panorama about young mentally-ill people being held hundreds of miles from home and in some cases dying for lack of decent mental health care anywhere near home (the Humber region comes up yet again). But Trevor Phillips has been out race-baiting again, saying “things you can’t say” about race and race relations in a mass-circulation daily newspaper and on a prime-time TV documentary, as he was in March last year. This time, on the basis of a dubious interpretation of a tiny study (PDF) of British Muslims, he’s telling everyone else “what we really think” and scaremongering about the “dangers” of allowing Muslim “ghettoes”, or “a nation within a nation”, to exist. (More: Manchester Policy Blogs

Trevor Phillips (and his publishers) repeatedly stress his authority as the head of a racial equality watchdog and more recently the head of the pan-equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, set up under the last Labour government. He also repeatedly stresses that he was the chair of the Runnymede Trust when it commissioned its groundbreaking report into Islamophobia (summary here; PDF) in 1997. Khalida Khan of the An-Nisa Society published a blog article which noted that Phillips’s role in that was minor, that he was not chair when it was published, that it was Robin Richardson and Khaushika Amin who initiated the report and took it forward and that he is believed to have lobbied against the report with the Labour government behind the scenes. This incident is presented so as to give Phillips’s new stance greater authority — that “one of the Muslims’ biggest supporters” has done a big U-turn — but in fact he was never a great advocate for Muslims.

His article for the Daily Mail contains a number of plainly inaccurate, scaremongering claims. He alleges that “we have recently seen the murder of a leading Scottish Muslim, the killer citing ‘disrespect’ of the faith”. Asad Shah was not “a leading Scottish Muslim”; he was a shopkeeper who had broken away from a sect that was already rejected by Muslims by claiming to be a new prophet and Messiah. He was a crank and may have been mentally ill. This does not justify his murder by any means, but being famous and having a Muslim name does not make you a “leading Muslim”. He claims that a fifth of Muslims have not entered a non-Muslim house in the past year; how many white people have never entered a Muslim’s house in their lifetime? In some places I would wager it was much greater than a fifth. Allegedly 4%, “the equivalent of more than 100,000 British Muslims”, reported sympathy for suicide bombers; except that the equivalence is false, because that 4% is only 40 people (you may recall similar tricks in the ThinkProgress study of converts in the USA in February). And there is the broad claim that “all the while, girls are shipped off to have their genitals mutilated, young women and men are being pressured into marriages they do not want, and teenagers are being seduced into donning suicide vests or becoming jihadi brides”, without a shred of evidence to back it up. FGM is principally an African problem that does not only affect Muslims.

Others (such as Miqdaad Versi and Abdul-Azim Ahmed) have picked apart the findings of the survey and what Phillips has done with the results. Only 1,081 people were asked, 405 whom were in London. That’s an astonishing bias. Only 144 people were in the north-west (this includes Manchester and all the towns of Lancashire), 120 in the Yorkshire/Humber region — that includes Leeds, Bradford, Dewsbury, Keighley, Sheffield — and only 56 in the East Midlands, where the populations are indeed smaller but it includes strong Muslim minorities. If one takes a survey of Muslim attitudes in Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Loughborough (an important university town) and asks only 56 people, this would be dismissed as entirely worthless and unscientific, yet these tiny numbers are being judged as representative of Muslim attitudes in that and every other region. The sub-groups of sub-groups dwarf the total size of the survey and no amount of ‘weighting’ will change that.

A major flaw in the study was that the control group consisted of generic “non-Muslims”, rather than specific groups of them, in particular practising followers of other religions, and people with familial or cultural links to conflict zones: Jews, Tamils and north Indian Hindus for example. This is because questions were asked about Muslim views on homosexuality and about whether they agreed with the use of suicide bombings or other acts of violence to pursue political goals, and during the documentary Phillips remarked that Hindus and Sikhs were better integrated than Muslims. The survey found that a large proportion of the Muslims asked said homosexuality should be illegal, but hostility to homosexuality can be found among other strongly religious people, including whites, and significantly all the court cases related to discrimination against gays have involved white and African Christians, not Muslims, and as I have mentioned here in the past, the websites which support the Christians involved in those cases (and even one who wanted to get out of caring for disabled children on a Sunday) also promote Islamophobia by complaining of and overstating concessions to Muslims. (Phillips’s survey found that 35% of the Muslims asked believed Jews had too much power; he did not ask his control group whether they believed that Muslims got special treatment as regards hijab, removals of offensive material etc., which is commonly alleged in the mass media.)

Similarly, the questions about support for terrorism or suicide bombings were fallaciously compared with a generic “non-Muslim” control group which would have consisted mostly of white people with no particular reason to sympathise with Hamas or Tamil Tiger suicide bombers. In other conflict zones where there are links to the diaspora here, the government or paramilitary groups with popular support have committed atrocities against civilians or used typical terrorist methods such as bombings or suicide bombings against civilians. It’s well-known that there is widespread (though not universal) support among the three minorities mentioned for the perpetrators of abuses in Palestine, Sri Lanka and Gujarat (and elsewhere in northern India); there has also been fundraising for the Hindu far right and the Tamil Tigers here. Phillips presents it as particularly worrying that Muslims who favour living separate lives from non-Muslims are more likely to support terrorism or political violence than those who favour integration, but the other three minorities mentioned do not live scattered among the general population either. They live in areas with heavy concentrations which are easily identified from the shops.

This is not a matter of “what about” or “tu quoque”. Phillips is presenting the Muslims as particularly unintegrated, particularly prone to reactionary attitudes and particularly given to support for violence, yet he chooses to shine no light on similar attitudes among other minorities or, indeed, equivalent views among the white population. If you ask whether it is acceptable to bomb civilian areas of countries during a war situation where there is an indirect benefit to the war effort, a good percentage will answer yes. It’s been part of the western way of winning wars for the past century. The majority of people are not pacifists, for the simple reason that lying down in front of tanks does not win wars or end oppression (they tried it in Tiananmen Square, you may remember). Pacifism had a brief flowering in Britain in the inter-war years and was discredited by the rise of Hitler. Non-violent ‘resistance’ is the method favoured for groups one would like to see defeated; this is why Zionist sympathisers from Michael Moore to Charles Moore have recommended it to the Palestinians.

Phillips also brings out his familiar complaint about Muslims forming “ghettoes”. He uses this term (along with “segregation”) a lot. Never mind that ghettoes are districts either legally designated or socially engineered to consist entirely of a given minority, and that segregation was a legal régime that dictated where Black people could live, shop and eat, who they could marry and so on. Diasporas have always lived together; they do so for protection in numbers against racism and so as to be close to their food shops and places of worship, neither of which would be sustainable if they scattered themselves among the general population. Such assimilation occurs where a minority is similar in both appearance and culture to the majority, such as the various north European migrants to the USA; it rarely occurs when there are even minor differences that could encourage prejudice (e.g. Italians in the USA). His solutions are imperialist, casting over-powerful minorities as a problem. He suggests “ensuring that schools … are not taken over by any single minority group”; a white-controlled school is no problem. He demands “strict monitoring of the ethnic composition of housing estates to prevent them becoming ‘ghetto villages’, little islands separate from the rest of their districts”. That boat has already sailed; no new council estates are being built, at least not in the south-east; all we are seeing built is exclusive flats and expensive “starter homes”. Newcomers now simply have to live where there are homes to live in.

Why is Phillips so hostile to Muslims? After all, there are enough problems in his own community for him to have made at least two hour-long documentaries about: gangs, territorialism, street stabbings, violence against women. Is he trying to deflect public attention away from those problems? Perhaps, but he’s also part of an “old guard” of secular race relations politicians who were challenged in the 1990s by Muslims who were seeking to revive a Muslim way of life and to challenge specific prejudices and discrimination against them on grounds of religion, which the old race industry would not concern itself with unless there were clear racial overtones to it. Much as is the case with white feminists in Europe, the likes of Trevor Phillips are single-minority, ‘respectable’ figures who believe they have a right to leadership over all minority ethnic people, and resent anyone who challenges or rejects their presumed authority. This sense of entitlement, and his political connections (Tony Blair, for example, favoured him to be mayor of London in 2000), has never won him elective office; he has had to settle for being a quangocrat. “What British Muslims Really Think” is an unnecessary, inflammatory and dishonest programme based on a survey so tiny as to be worthless from a man who has spent the past ten years since his mayoral ambitions were thwarted using his media connections and the right-wing tabloids to foment hatred against a minority that challenged his authority.

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