A former head of the country’s equalities watchdog has accused the Labour Party of attempting to gag members after he was suspended over allegations of Islamophobia.
Trevor Phillips, an anti-racism campaigner who previously chaired the Equality and Human Rights Commission, faces an investigation and could be expelled from the party.
The Times reported that Mr Phillips – who ruled out voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s outfit at the last election over its failure to deal with anti-Semitism – is being investigated over past comments, including remarks on Pakistani Muslim men sexually abusing children in northern British towns.
The paper said many of his statements date back years but that Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, had suspended him as a matter of urgency to “protect the party’s reputation”.
But Mr Phillips has defended himself and accused Labour of attempting to restrict members from having a “healthy debate” about how British society could “address differences of values”.
Speaking to the BBC, he argued that society had to learn to deal with Islamic differences rather than hope Muslims would assimilate to a British way of life.
Answering allegations of Islamophobia, Mr Phillips told the Times there was no suggestion that he had done anything unlawful and “no-one inside or outside the Labour Party has ever suggested that I have broken any rules”.
On Monday, he accused Labour of attempting to stifle debate among members on the topic of Islamophobia.
He said the party had sent him an 11-page letter and told him he was forbidden from publishing the details of his suspension.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m surprised about what is and always has been an open and democratic party deciding that its members cannot have healthy debate about how we address differences of values and outlooks.
“Let us be clear about this. They say I’m accusing Muslims of being different.
“Well, actually, that’s true. Muslims are different and, in many ways, I think that’s admirable.”
The 66-year-old said it was “nonsense” to define being anti-Islam as racist, arguing that Muslims do not identify as a race.
He has in the past rallied against the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims’ move to define Islamophobia – a definition adopted by the Labour Party.
The anti-racism campaigner told the BBC: “My objection is very simple. That definition said, to words of the effect, that Islamophobia is rooted in a kind of racism – expressions of hostility towards Muslimness.
“First of all, Muslims are not a race. My personal hero was Muhammad Ali, before that Malcolm X.
“They became Muslims largely because it is a pan-racial faith. This is not a racial grouping, so describing hostility to them as racial is nonsense.”
Asked about his assertion that British Muslims are “becoming a nation within a nation” being adopted by far-right campaigner Tommy Robinson, Mr Phillips replied: “As my grandmother says, just because the devil picks up a tune doesn’t mean it is a bad tune.”
Writing in an opinion piece for the paper, Mr Phillips said: “If this is how Labour treats its own family, how might it treat its real opponents if it ever gains power again?
“It would be a tragedy if, at the very moment we most need a robust and effective opposition, our nation had to endure the spectacle of a great party collapsing into a brutish, authoritarian cult.”
In the run-up to the general election, Mr Phillips was among 24 public figures who last year declared their refusal to vote for the Labour Party because of its association with anti-Semitism.
In a letter to the Guardian in November, the group said the path to a more tolerant society “must encompass Britain’s Jews with unwavering solidarity” and said Jeremy Corbyn has “a long record of embracing anti-Semites as comrades”.
A Labour Party spokeswoman said: “The Labour Party takes all complaints about Islamophobia extremely seriously and they are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures, and any appropriate disciplinary action is taken.”