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 organisations 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, lets 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 peoples 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 Parekhs 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
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