Trevor Phillips and the MCB: The Case Against Governmental Re-Engagement

12th March 2020

Trevor Phillips, the founding chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has been suspended by the Labour party on allegations of ‘Islamophobia’. The charge sheet can be read here. It includes his mockery of a pressure group which calls itself the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) for nominating him as “Islamophobe of the Year” in 2017. In 2015, the IHRC had awarded that title to the murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a mere two months after the massacre. 

Phillips is also being disciplined for his suggestion that multiculturalism has failed and that a more muscular approach to integration could be required. That is a position with which I disagree in part. Multiculturalism is, or should be, the natural product of cosmopolitanism. By contrast, what is commonly termed “multiculturalism” is in practice what Amartya Sen calls “plural monoculturalism”: a very different thing altogether. With respect to the ‘charges’ against Phillips, I largely share the view of James Bloodworth, in his recent article, “Trevor Phillips’ suspension shows how far Labour has fallen”.

Nevertheless, these are debates worth having. 

That being so, the suspension of Trevor Phillips is an extraordinary development. Few have done more to raise awareness of the rights of British Muslims, and highlight the challenges they have faced in British society, than Phillips. As chair of the Runnymede Trust in the 1990s, he brought the term ‘Islamophobia’ into mainstream discourse. Then, in 2006, Phillips pushed the government to pass legislation that made it an offence to stir up hatred on religious grounds. 

None of these accomplishments restrained  the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – an umbrella group comprised of around 500 mosques, schools and charities – from joining in the denunciation of Phillips, alleging that his “incendiary” and “dangerous” comments were “familiar tropes taken up by the far right”. 

These are grave allegations. For that reason, it is worth recalling once again who the MCB are; why they are not engaged with by the UK government; and why we should not take them as our guide as to the manner in which British Muslims view Phillips.

The MCB was created in 1997, supposedly to reflect British Muslim communities’ voices and concerns. However, from the start, it was strongly influenced by the ideologies of particular Islamist political parties. 

According to a Communities and Local Government paper, the South Asian Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami “helped to create and subsequently dominate the leadership of the MCB”; while the government’s Muslim Brotherhood review concluded that the Egyptian group “played an important role in establishing and then running the Muslim Council of Britain”. 

Through the agency of the MCB, Islamist politics, priorities, and grievances were injected into the bloodstream of British Muslim politics. Because the MCB was the largest Muslim group, at a time at which the Labour Goverment was looking for partners and interlocutors, it was showered with taxpayer money and became the trusted gatekeeper of British Muslim opinion for successive UK governments. 

The stranglehold the MCB had over Muslim access to Whitehall came to a crashing halt in the spring of 2009 when Daud Abdullah, then Deputy Secretary General of the MCB, signed a letter – sometimes referred to as the Istanbul Declaration – which appeared to support attacks against countries supporting an arms blockade against Gaza. Because the Royal Navy was being considered for that very mission at the time, the statement was understood as a call for attacks on the British military. 

Hazel Blears, then Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government, called the MCB out. Yet neither the MCB’s leadership nor Abdullah backed down. Instead, Abdullah denied calling for attacks on British troops and described Blears’s position as “misguided and ill-advised”. Abdullah also threatened defamation proceedings against Blears, although the proposed action appears not to have gone anywhere. The government subsequently cut contact with MCB in March 2009. 

The MCB’s hand was weakened further by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition’s revamped counter-radicalisation Prevent strategy of June 2011, which raised the bar for government engagement. The strategy was explicit: “we will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values of universal human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society.”

This was hardly an impossible ask, one might think. Yet it proved to be one the MCB was incapable of meeting. It dug its heels in over the Istanbul Declaration. For that reason, the group was left out in the cold.

A variety of incidents since that episode have vindicated the government’s stance.

For example, the MCB loathes Prevent, the safeguarding programme that aims to intervene with individuals who adhere to extremist ideology – not only of the Islamist variety – before they carry out acts of terrorism. After the June 2011 review, the MCB stated that the programme was “state-sponsored sectarianism” to set “arbitrary measures on who is, and who isn’t an extremist” and “likely to increase Islamophobia”. In 2015, it said that Prevent “has flawed analytical underpinnings and leads to the Muslim community being viewed through the prism of security.” 

Given that Prevent concentrated attention on the content of Islamist ideologies and the conduct of preachers and groups which subscribe to that ideology, the MCB’s stance is unsurprising. They are correct to think that the paradigm shift that Prevent triggered within public and official understanding of the ideological component of extremism further weakened their position in Whitehall.

Or take the Trojan Horse schools scandal, where a government inquiry discovered a “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action” to “introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos” into British schools. The key man in this plot was Tahir Alam, who was subsequently banned from involvement with the management of a school. Alam was the former chair of MCB’s Education Committee.

Yet instead of feeling embarrassment, the MCB’s response was to call Trojan Horse a “witch-hunt”. It downplayed the importance of Alam’s work for them, and warned against “[u]nfounded and malicious allegations”.

One further example illustrates the extent to which today’s MCB is an unreformed organisation, unfit for governmental engagement. Harun Khan, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain was until recently, a trustee of Redbridge Islamic Centre. The Redbridge Islamic Centre is one of the chief promoters and hosters of extremist speakers and organisations in the United Kingdom. They have allowed the Friday sermon to be delivered by Ismail Menk: a supporter of hudud punishments who engages in coarse anti-gay rhetoric. They have hosted their former Imam, Shakeel Begg: who lost a libel case against the BBC, who reported accurately on his unpleasant views. The notorious hate preacher, Haitham al-Haddad has also spoken there. They have held events with Azad Ali, formerly of MEND and now of CAGE: who lost a libel action against the Daily Mail who reported on his praise for the Al Qaeda recruiter, Anwar Al Awlaki and apparent support for attacks on British troops. Earlier this year, Asim Khan – the Imam of the Redbridge Islamic Centre – saw his conference at Ilford Town Hall banned, after the intervention of the two local Labour MPs, Sam Tarry and Wes Streeting, who were horrified at the views of some of the speakers at the planned event.

Perhaps the Secretary General of the MCB is similarly repulsed by the goings on at the Mosque. Perhaps he tried to reform it from within, but resigned when he failed. If so, he has said nothing publicly to that effect.   

The MCB are entitled to their views. They can expect them to be debated and opposed. It is a grave error, however, to regard them as neutral observers on the issues that Phillips is trying to address. They have a dog in this fight.  

Throughout his career, Phillips has never shied away from discussing the thorny issues that arise in the field of race and faith. In 2017, he presented a show on Channel 4 –  “What British Muslims Think” – based on one of the most in-depth pieces of polling ever conducted on the issue. Naturally, the MCB were critical of the show’s findings, calling them “divisive”. 

The MCB’s reaction was entirely understandable. As guardian of the narrative as to what British Muslims allegedly think, they want to be the ones dictating the terms of that question.  Phillips threatens the MCB’s hoped-for role as interlocutors for British Muslims. They know that the man who helped coin the word ‘Islamophobia’ is not an Islamophobe. But it is politically advantageous for them to say that he is. 

Perennially, government officials – understandably nervous about getting policy on Islam and Muslims right – push for re-engagement with the MCB. 

That would be a mistake. The MCB may be an umbrella organisation. But at the level of its leadership, it continues to embody a particular clerical-political position, derived from a narrow strain of Islam. It continues to hold problematic views on a range of key issues. It repeatedly works with even more problematic organisations such as CAGE and the Charlie Hebdo-mockers, the IHRC. Ultimately, the MCB only represents itself and its ideological fellow travellers, not wider British Muslim opinion. 

Its stance on the Phillips issue should serve to remind government why it is advisable to continue to steer clear of this organisation.