“HOISTED by his own petard”, ran the headlines on the news that the former chief of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips is under investigation by the Labour Party for Islamophobia, a term he helped promote in the 1990s. This follows on from his friend and political ally in the 1970s, newsreader Alastair Stewart, being pushed out of ITN for using another of Shakespeare’s phrases about an “angry ape”. Stewart was labelled a racist, now it’s Phillips’ turn.

Phillips and Stewart are the student radicals who first introduced the anti-racist No Platform policy into the National Union of Students. The policy was directed at fascists. But, as anyone who understands the importance of free speech should recognise, first they came for the fascists and we said nothing, then they came for the racists, or apparent racists and we were buggered.

Having initially promoted the idea of Islamophobia, to his credit, Phillips has spent the last decade raising questions about the problem of multiculturalism and about how it runs the risk of creating segregated communities and closing off discussion and debate about aspects of society, culture and religion. His criticisms include a critique of Islam and of the authorities and politicians turning a blind eye to reactionary ideas and illegal practices carried out by sections of the Muslim community, in case they cause “offence”.

Some of Phillips’ views are problematic. He has for example, argued that Muslims see the world differently – as if all Muslims are the same – which of course they are not. An irony of this, however, is that this is one of the problems with multiculturalism itself, that it encourages the idea that we are, to our core, “different cultures”: Or as the misguided government posters used to tell us, we have, “One Scotland: Many Cultures”.

Some of Phillips’ views are wrong and need to be challenged. Some are useful and raise what should be an important discussion in society about religious tolerance and the importance of open criticism in society.

Unfortunately, by suspending his party membership Labour demonstrate Phillips’ point better than he could ie that there is little or no space in British society to have a mature, nuanced debate about culture and religion without being denounced as a racist heretic. Having said that, he should face any political challenge thrown at him. But so too should other individuals and groups, whether Islamic or Christian. It’s called living in a free society.