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A letter to Trevor Phillips, Chair of the CRE

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

Dear Trevor

I heard you speak at the Muslim News Awards ceremony on 31st March 2004. You said that the Council for Racial Equality (CRE), of which you are the distinguished chair, “intends to play its part in giving British Muslims a louder voice”. A few days later you dropped a bombshell by calling for an end to multiculturalism. This has left your friends and admirers confused, given your track record. Please do come clean and tell us exactly where you stand.

In your previous job as Chair of the Greater London Assembly (GLA), you were someone welcoming to all faith groups, including Muslims. In November 2000 you participated in a roundtable discussion on policy issues with the Muslim Council of Britain at which you supported steps to enable faith-based organisations to access public funding and grants. As a result of this apparent empathy, when your name came up in December 2002 as a candidate to head the CRE, you had a groundswell of support even though there were two Muslims also in the frame – Naz Coker and Zahida Manzoor – both individuals with an impressive track record of service delivery that compared favourably to your largely media experience. Your appointment of high-flier Faz Hakim, a former assistant political secretary at Downing Street, as your advisor at the CRE also appeared to signal a desire to keep in touch with the Muslim community. Faz after all was instrumental in the inclusion of a religion question in the 2001 Census, a step which more than any other has given faith communities a presence in the public sphere (which is what multiculturalism is all about).

Your positive engagement with the Muslim community continued once you were in post. In May 2003 you kindly accepted an invitation to be a guest of honour at the launch of MCBDirect, an initiative of the Muslim Council of Britain to promote the sharing of information and experiences within the community.

Moreover the public stand that you took on the ‘Goodhart’ article further enhanced your stature with Muslims – at least those of us who are Guardian readers. Goodhart had argued (in the Prospect magazine, February 2004) that Britain faced falling apart because it was difficult to share the public services of the welfare state in the absence of a racial or kinship bond: “To put it bluntly,” he wrote, “most of us prefer our own kind”. You then responded to this atavistic vision in an article that was published in The Guardian on 16th February 2004:

“The xenophobes should come clean. Their argument is not about immigration at all. They are liberal Powellites; what really bothers them is race and culture. If today's immigrants were white people from the old Commonwealth, Goodhart and his friends would say that they pose no threat because they share Anglo-Saxon values. They may not even object to Anglophile Indians - as long as they aren't Muslims”.

In you Trevor, we now had a public figure associated with New Labour stating publicly what all of us know for a reality - that Islamophobia is the new racism.

Your Guardian article immediately made the CRE relevant. Muslims in Britain after all form a third of the ‘black and ethnic minority’ population of the country. Did we now have a CRE chair willing to use the ‘hard tools’ at the organisation’s disposal to redress discrimination and prejudice? It is only the CRE that has the clout and experience to monitor public sector employers to ensure their labour force represents the faith mix of the local population, or that legal assistance is forthcoming for those facing religious discrimination or harassment at the workplace. After all if the CRE does not do something about this new racism, what is it about? It would be left with only two issues – the problems facing Afro-Caribbean young men (the women are doing very well in economic terms) and the travellers/gypsies.

Imagine therefore my consternation and extreme disappointment when I read the interview you gave to the Times, published on 3rd April 2004:

But is not multiculturalism the whole point of the Commission he [Trevor Phillips] runs? Not any more. “The word is not useful, it means the wrong things”. Shall we kill it off? “Yes, let’s do that,” he replies. “Multiculturalism suggests separateness. We are now in a different world”.

There was no inkling of this change of heart at the Muslim News awards ceremony. Clearly two days is a long time in politics.

Trevor, Muslims in Britain are not defined by race or class or language – solely by their cultural distinctiveness. Who are the Muslims in Britain if not a cultural community whose members share certain core moral values, life styles, dress codes and rituals? Why do you think such a large section of the ethnic community so strongly supported the religion question in the 2001 Census? Why is there such a demand for Muslim faith schools? If you kill off multiculturalism, you are effectively making Muslims invisible.

The future of Britain rests with the success of the multicultural project. Trevor, you will not have the time to look up ‘The Parekh Report – the future of multi-ethic Britain’, but here is an important quotation:

“The cultural identity of some groups (‘minorities’) should not have to be confined to the private sphere while the language, culture and religion of others (‘the majority’) enjoy a public monopoly and are treated as the norm. For a lack of public recognition is damaging to people’s self-esteem and is not conducive to encouraging the full participation of everyone in the public sphere. Public respect for different cultural identities is intrinsic to democratic equality and must be two-way – the pressure to change, to compromise, to assimilate must not all be on the so-called minorities”.

Multiculturalism does not mean separateness, but holding out an inclusive vision of our country as a community of communities. You will regain our respect if you now state that you hold to Biku Parekh’s description of a multi-ethnic Britain.

Given the suddenness of your volte-face, I cannot help thinking that this is because of political instructions from on high – much as you responded by criticising ‘institutional racism’. Not that long ago (September 2003) you said that the term ‘institutional racism’ was ‘counterproductive’, but then claimed that you had been misinterpreted. All I remember is that your criticism was quick on the heels of a similar comment by Blunkett. Just because New Labour is now ditching multiculturalism, please be your own man.

I appreciate that there is an expectation for you to be on-message. After all as your predecessor at the CRE, Sir Herman Ousley noted so perspicuously, “ there is a general election around the corner, and the immigration debate can only get more heated…New Labour and the Conservatives are determined to strike a knock out blow against the BNP by stealing its thunder” (The Guardian, 10th April 2004). Denigrating asylum seekers, playing the race card and now belittling multiculturalism are all a potent election mix. What is at stake is your integrity, the future of the CRE and most importantly, good community relations.

Yours sincerely

Al-Maktabi

Links
  • Trevor Phillips, ‘Genteel xenophobia is as bad as any other kind’, The Guardian, 16th February 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1148847,00.html
  • Institutional racism used as excuse for doing nothing, says CRE chief
    http://www.guardian.co.uk