The suspension of Trevor Phillips shows how whataboutery has invaded our politics – inews

Posted By on March 13, 2020

OpinionColumnistsThe Labour Party is trying to accuse its critics of racism as toxic as that of which they are themselves accused

Wednesday, 11th March 2020, 6:10 pm

In February of last year, the BBC journalist Lyse Doucet interviewed the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about Irans human rights record.

What was Zarif planning to do, she asked, about eight environmentalists jailed in Iran after protesting the regimes stance on conservation? Zarif changed the subject. What about the Saudi regimes murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he asked? With rising indignation, he continued: the West still sells weapons to Saudi Arabia, Irans regional rival, so what right had any British journalist to question Iran about human rights?

i's opinion newsletter: talking points from today

i's opinion newsletter: talking points from today

I thought of Zarif and his now-notorious interview when I read that the Labour Party has suspended Trevor Phillips, founding head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, over allegations of Islamophobia. Like most Labour Party processes, the mechanism by which charges have been brought against Phillips is secret.

In the cover letter Phillips has received from Labour, only one Islamophobic publication is specified: a think-tank pamphlet he co-authored in 2016 entitled: Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence. Phillips is accused of referencing Enoch Powells 1968 Rivers of Blood speech in the pamphlet which he did, in order to condemn it and condemn the deafening silence of the British Establishments refusal to confront Powell and his supporters in argument.

Phillips is the child of Windrush-era migrants from British Guiana and last year he was interviewed on Newsnight, shaking with anger, to condemn the Tory governments treatment of the Windrush generation. He is clearly no Powellite. But he has been a prominent critic of Islamist (and Iran-backed) attempts to define the word Islamophobiasince 2016, which was the year in which he presented a controversial Channel 4 documentary: What Do British Muslims Really Think?

The true question is why now, in early 2020, the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is being charged with racism over a 2016 publication.In a few months, the EHRC is due to publish its formal investigation into charges that the Labour Party is institutionally anti-Semitic. Phillips, although no longer at the EHRC himself, has welcomed that investigation and spoken publicly to condemn the Labour leaderships perceived tolerance of anti-Semitism.

Since the news of the EHRC investigation broke, parts of the Labour Party have appeared to embark on a strategic campaign to distract from the mote in its own eye: accuse its critics of racism as toxic as that of which they are themselves accused. In the case of the Conservative Party, that means consistently raising accusations of Islamophobia. And under this pressure, the Conservatives have announced an independent review into Islamophobia: Trevor Phillips sits on that panel.

Since the news of the EHRC investigation broke, the Corbynite faction of the Labour Party has undertaken a strategic campaign to distract from the mote in its own eye: accuse its critics of racism as toxic as that of which they are themselves accused. In the case of the Conservative Party, that means consistently raising accusations of Islamophobia.

And under this pressure, the Conservatives have announced an independent review into Islamophobia: Trevor Phillips sits on that panel. As I understand from Labour figures, Corbyns office are determined to discredit that inquiry, and to discredit the ability of any of its critics to speak to political racism, so that the public conversation is as muddy as possible before the ECHR bombshell hits.

No wonder one is reminded of the Iranian approach to foreign affairs. We are living in the age of whataboutery as political life-support system, adopted by global superpowers and national political parties. Corbyns Labour has perfected the game, but the Tories are equally keen players. Asked yesterday by Jeremy Corbyn to apologise for offensive remarks about women (including Muslim women), Boris Johnson retorted: I will take no lessons in sexism from a party where good women MPs are bullied out of their party. Hed used a similar line last week, when Corbyn referenced the ongoing inquiry into claims that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is a workplace bully.

Across the Atlantic and in the Middle East, things are much the same. Donald Trump and Joe Bidens outriders are gearing up for an election in which both accuse the other of mental decline and mistreatment of women. Apologists for Bashir Assad, who has used chemical weapons on his civilian population, parrot Russian and Iranian talking points that condemn rebels as the real genocidaires. Whataboutery or whataboutism was, of course, originally a Soviet propaganda technique; the Russia expert Luke Harding has described whataboutism as practically a national ideology in Putins Russia.

Whataboutery is a close relative of false-equivalence. But there are important, invidious differences. False equivalence is the posture of the detached spectator, when intellectual cowardice masquerades as moral superiority. Whataboutery is deployed by people who are themselves accused of a charge, and who wish to distract rather than defend themselves it is a misdirection technique of the guilty.

It trivialises the charge. Take the anti-semitism/anti-Islamaphobia fight. When British Jews speak about anti-Semitism, they are referencing of recent traumas, still fresh in family memory. Those of us of partial Jewish heritage, perhaps raised in other traditions, who have stood with the mainstream Jewish community this year do so because we share a hereditary memory of genocide, a marker in the bloodstream that twitches when we see again the old tropes of money-grubbing Jews. We know the line between a hook-nosed cartoon and our great-grandmothers deportation to Auschwitz.

When the first words we hear in response to an anti-Semitism complaint are what about Tory Islamophobia?, we hear that our communal PTSD doesnt matter. We hear that a communitys fear is just someones political weapon.

It doesnt have to be this way. Hatred of Muslims is a real issue in this country, and whether alleged of Tories or of Labour dissidents like Phillips, deserves to be investigated on its own merits, not tethered to a political point-scoring contest. The fact that it is now impossible to assess the charges against Phillips without referencing the context of Labour anti-semitism tumult, as I have done here, is all part of the same problem.

Many Jewish leaders have been struck by the support theyve received recently from Muslim communities, who know what it is to face prejudice. The Rabbi Julia Neuberger, speaking at Jewish Book Week last Wednesday, paid tribute to the improving relationships between synagogues and Muslims: Ramadan is now one of her busiest periods in the year, she noted, because theres an interfaith Iftar to attend every night.

No wonder authoritarian regimes love whataboutery. It divides us, pitching the concern of one community against another. It distracts us from the real sins of governments. (Those eight environmentalists in Iran, by the way, were sentenced to 58 years in jail last month, their leader found dead in his cell.) It should be beneath British politics. Yet it is firmly entrenched.

Kate Maltby is a writer and critic. She is on the board of Index of Censorship, of which Trevor Phillips is the chair

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The suspension of Trevor Phillips shows how whataboutery has invaded our politics - inews

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