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There is a paradox at the heart of modern progressivism. It is ostensibly a doctrine of inclusivity, a forward-thinking and open-minded movement for change. The most aggressive of progressives pride themselves on being aligned with the forces of good and on the right side of history.
And yet, it seems, in order to attain the progress they seek, intolerance and the repression of dissent can be justified – indeed, they become necessary. To the progressive mind, being on the right side of history allows inherently noble, and unquestionable, principles to be imposed upon opponents. The logic of perceiving oneself as being on the progressive side of history makes one’s opponents blind reactionaries, and turns dissenters into subversive heretics.
Now, Trevor Phillips, the former Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has fallen foul of this toxic logic. After thirty years of supporting the Labour Party, he has had his membership unceremoniously suspended. The root cause is his criticism of the party’s abject failure to deal with the anti-Semitism which has been allowed to thrive under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
That silencing criticism of the party leadership is the true motive behind Phillips’ suspension is revealed by the farcical nature of the allegations brought before him. As Phillips wrote in self-defence in The Times today, he is being accused of “Islamophobia” for suggesting that the term itself – Islamophobia – should not be defined as a “kind of racism” hostile to “Muslimness”.
Instead, Phillips had the temerity to point out that Islam is not a race, but a religion. Last year, in a paper written for Policy Exchange, he argued that to categorise Muslims as a race implies an homogeneity, a uniformity of doctrine, customs, and behaviours.
In reality, Islam is a faith with great inner diversity. It also embraces a great variety of people from different races across the world. To suggest otherwise – and argue that all Muslims are the same –shows how the modern regressive left are the true practitioners of the “Orientalism” which Edward Saïd decried in the 1970s.
Further charges made by the Labour Party take aim at Phillips’ authorship of a 2016 essay, “Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence”, in which he observed that many of the men involved in the grooming scandals exposed in Rotherham and elsewhere were Muslim men from Pakistani backgrounds.
The great irony in all of this is that Phillips is himself a descendant of Fulani and Mandinka Muslims. Some of his more recent ancestors were taken from their native Africa by the transatlantic slave trade. As the head of the Commission for Racial Equality under Tony Blair’s government, he was among the figures who introduced the awareness of “Islamophobia” into British politics. He worked on pioneering legislation to protect British Muslims from hate crimes.
In a sane world, Phillips would be a hero of the left, a Labour grandee given the respect warranted by his wealth of experience as public policy-maker in what is still Labour’s last spell in power. The way that he has been treated shows that there is no terror like that which is reserved by the left for fellow lefties who refuse to toe the dogmatic line
He has been denounced, and the list of crimes have been drawn up against him in a distant room, where he has had no representation and no chance to defend himself. Like Franz Kafka’s Joseph K, he has been summoned one morning to face his trial.
What is truly unsettling about this episode, as Phillips himself explains, is its chillingly bureaucratic tone. The eleven-page letter sent to him by the Labour Party announces his “administrative suspension” from the party. His excommunication is declared not in grand public spectacle but in a quiet, clandestine – and utterly vindictive – use of paperwork. The sinister anonymity of his accusers epitomises their cowardice.
Phillips finds in this a disturbing parallel with the Roman inquisition of the sixteenth century, whose mission was, as one contemporary official said, “That others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.”
I would add another parallel to this list which is more historically proximate and equally concerning – that of the Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia after 1917. Boris Pasternak, in his magnum opus Dr Zhivago, defined the Bolshevik mentality with penetrating concision, writing of one revolutionary that:
“Filled with the loftiest aspirations from his childhood, he had looked upon the world as a vast arena where everyone competed for perfection, keeping scrupulously to the rules. When he found that this was not a true picture, it did not occur to him that his conception of the world order might be over-simplified. He nursed his grievances and with them the ambition to judge between life and the dark forces which distort it, and to be life’s champion and avenger. Embittered by his disappointment, he was armed by the revolution.”
The modern inquisitors no longer wear the robe of the Roman cleric or the red of the Bolshevik thought police. Instead, they often speak the language of “progress” and “inclusivity” while practicing cultish authoritarianism.
Everyone who wishes to live in a free society has a duty to stand with Phillips against the inquisitors ranged against him. And a tolerant society must always be ready speak truth to the scourge of intolerance, wherever it resides.