Mush: Timothy Garton Ash Seeks the Center

Timothy Garton Ash tackles the problems of Islamism and the inadequacy of such terms as “multi-culturalism”. He looks for a middle ground, but his plow mostly scratches the surface and turns over little soil.

The demagogic cliches of right and left can only make things worse

Beyond boo-words like multiculturalism, the reality is that young British Muslims are deeply alienated

Timothy Garton Ash
Thursday February 1, 2007
The Guardian

The following correction appeared in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Friday February 2 2007

The comment piece below said that a Populus poll commissioned for Policy Exchange showed a majority of British Muslims saying they had more in common with Muslims in other countries than they did with non-Muslims in Britain. In fact this was based on a misreading of one graph from the poll, which showed a majority disagreeing with that statement.

Multiculturalism is under attack. The Daily Mail runs a front page story saying “the doctrine of multiculturalism” has alienated an entire generation of young Muslims. David Cameron delivers a speech describing multiculturalism as one of five “Berlin walls of division” that we must tear down, along with extremism, poverty, uncontrolled immigration and educational apartheid. According to Cameron, Ken Livingstone has been messing up London with this ghastly ism. A conservative thinktank, Policy Exchange, and a Conservative party working group both issue reports describing multiculturalism as part of the problem for which the party claims to be the solution.

So, plainly, multiculturalism is a bad thing of the left, which the right will fight. But apart from being a bad thing, what is it? In a speech last autumn, Cameron gave this answer: “When I say ‘multiculturalism’, let’s be absolutely clear what I’m talking about. I’m not referring to the reality of our ethnically diverse society that we all celebrate and only embittered reactionaries like the BNP object to. I mean the doctrine that seeks to Balkanise people and communities according to race and background.” Well, I’m glad we’ve got that clear. Multiculturalists are people who have a doctrine that leads them to seek to Balkanise Britain – meaning, presumably, to separate into ethnically based communities in a state of violent hostility to each other. Livingstone is the Slobodan Milosevic of Greater London. Readers will instantly recognise in Cameron’s “absolutely clear” definition that oldest of politician’s friends, the straw man. Set him up so as to knock him down.

If I can just suggest an explanation here, Cameron is skipping a step in his logic. The point is not that multi-culturalism seeks to do this — on the contrary, it couldn’t be more desirous of the opposite! — but that the unintentional consequences of its foolish application lead to this result. And in that sense, Ken Livingstone is the balkanizer of London, not because he’s a Milosevic type, but because he hugs that kind of type, especially when they are “people of color,” and takes gratuitous swipes at committed citizens who happen to be that type’s favorite whipping boy. Taking someone else’s straw men to set up your own may “work” as a rhetorical ploy, but I don’t think it helps your readers deal with a difficult problem.

Whenever I hear the word multiculturalism, I reach for my dictionary. When that’s no help, I go to my library and the web, and find there such a total confusion of woolly definitions that I conclude the term is now virtually useless. The critics of multiculturalism say we need a stronger sense of shared Britishness. I agree – and constructing heated arguments around abstract isms of uncertain meaning is a deeply un-British activity. Let us, instead, say what we mean and mean what we say. Call a spade a spade, rather than attacking it as a manifestation of the dangerous ideology of gardentoolism.

It’s really not so hard. Multi-culturalism is a fine and reputable notion: respect for what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference.” It’s a noble goal, a very evolved cultural notion (not characteristic of say, theocratic Islam or Christianity, or any imperial hierarchy), and it demands exceptional levels of tolerance for the “other.” Multi-culturalism as a dirty word refers to misguided notion of “moral equivalence” in which all cultures are equal — tolerant ones and intolerant ones. Moral Equivalence makes a mockery of the very forces that have labored so long in European history to overcome both theocracy and aristocratic dominion and achieve a modicum of freedom and well-being for the common man… in short, to produce a civil society. By pretending that people who have zero-sum mentalities and primitive notions of “rule-or-be-ruled” are just as “good” as any modern participant in civic life, one trashes the last thousand years of painful evolution of Western democracy. It assumes that democracies, human rights, and tolerance are standard issue items that everyone gets without any reciprocal demands, that freedom does not really involve responsibility. When idiotarians like George Gallaway then take the moral equivalence of papers like the Guardian one step further — not only is Tony Blair as bad as Ahmadenijad, but he’s worse, even deserving death — then you have a form of self-destructiveness that I think the British “right” may, in its own syncopated idiom, be trying to contest.

Behind these hopelessly vague terms such as “multiculturalism” (boo-word for the right) and “Islamophobia” (boo-word for the left) is a deeply worrying reality, which these conservative reports, like others from thinktanks of the left, do an important job of probing. That reality is one of far-reaching alienation among younger British Muslims. In an NOP poll last year, less than half the British Muslims interviewed identified Britain as “my country”. An international poll by Pew showed that younger British Muslims overwhelmingly put their religious identity before their national one, unlike French Muslims. A Populus poll commissioned for the well-researched and thought-provoking Policy Exchange report shows a majority of British Muslims saying they have more in common with Muslims in other countries than they do with non-Muslims in Britain.

Shockingly, more than one in three of the 16-24 age group in the Populus poll agree with a formulation of sharia law, saying that “Muslim conversion is forbidden and punishable by death”. At the extreme, this alienation from the country in which they live was expressed by the July 7 2005 suicide bombers and those arrested while allegedly planning an attack last summer. Perhaps we will find similar biographical elements among some of those arrested in Birmingham yesterday. Around the small hard core of active extremists there is what Shamit Saggar, writing in the latest Political Quarterly, calls a “circle of tacit support” that embraces tens of thousands of young British Muslims. Their alienation is exacerbated by the negative stereotyping of Muslims in the media and experiences of everyday prejudice.

Now that’s an interesting segue, and made with such authoritative finality, despite years of press efforts to play down negative information about Islam in order to avoid accusations of Islamophobia, and public policy that allows Muslims a wide range of unacceptable behavior. It may be that these negative stereotypes and hostility play a role in Muslim attitudes, but the case can be made that their hostility throve on the sustained silence of the press on how serious the problem with Islam. After all, Muslim apologists are deft at reversing historical causality, and Western bien-pensants are eager to agree.

Certainly, one might argue, negative press could have the opposite effect. If Muslims felt that their public image was negative, there could be strong efforts on their part to improve it. What makes these (belatedly) negative images have the opposite effect is a larger context, one in which hostility to the West and a sense of Muslim triumphalism are on the rise. Ten years ago, almost no British Muslims, even if they believed it, would have admitted to such openly Islamist attitudes publicly. The fact that they do today, suggests a dramatic shift in momentum has taken place.

london demo
Demonstrators in London protesting the Danish Cartoons, February 2006.
Who but the most exalted Muslim triumphalist could have imagined such a demonstration a decade earlier?

And to get a sense of how that could have happened, one needs to look at the other contribution of the media to the problem: the compulsive anti-Zionism of the BBC and other British media outlets like the Guardian in producing Jihadi attitudes. We know this is true in France (where, apparently, the Muslims are less hostile to the state). There is at least anecdotal evidence in Britain: two years before 7-7, two British Muslim youth were, among other things, inspired by the sight on their British TV news to blow themselves up at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv.

The “multiculturalism” slogan of the right is crude shorthand for the worrying facts of separation. These are the “parallel lives” identified in the 2001 Cantle report, which memorably quoted a British Muslim of Pakistani origin: “When I leave this meeting with you, I will go home and not see another white face until I come back here next week.” Ghettoes is the less polite term. This separation, which is cultural and psychological as much as physical, was not originally created by policies of multiculturalism, but what went by the name of multiculturalism in some British cities in the 80s and 90s did reinforce the separation. It privileged group identities, defined by origins or religion, over British or individual ones. It did not bring home to the children of Muslim immigrants any strong sense of shared Britishness. And it sometimes allowed the oppression of women to continue under the cloak of cultural respect.

If the French went to one extreme, of attempted monocultural integration, we in Britain erred in the other direction. Cameron and Gordon Brown both agree that a correction is called for. At a minimum, the English language, British history and the core values of citizenship should be better conveyed. But there are tough calls they are shying away from. Take, for example, the contribution of faith schools to cultural separation. The Cantle report recommended that at least 25% of places in single-faith schools, be they state or private, should be given to children of alternative backgrounds. Why is it, I wonder, that we don’t hear either Cameron or Brown calling for that recommendation to be implemented? One can just imagine how their middle-class voters would react to the prospect of Muslim children being bused in to the London Oratory school.

The “Islamophobia” slogan of the left is crude shorthand for the worrying facts of prejudice and stereotyping, which the right ignores at its peril. There is also overwhelming evidence, acknowledged by the intelligence services as well as by most independent analysts, that both the Iraq war and the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have contributed to the radicalisation of British Muslim youth.

Again we find the incapacity of people to process their problems. It’s the Iraq War, it’s the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s not how our foolishly and openly “multi-cultural” media and public opinion makers have inflamed people against the US, Tony Blair, and the Israelis with a politics of outraged compassion for the victim — best illustrated in the stunning exhibit of anti-Iraq War ephemera on exhibit at the Tate Gallery. Misindentify the problem, and you’ll come up with mistaken solutions — and in the current struggle, mistakes can be fatal.

Then there are elements that don’t fit easily into the clichés of either left or right. For example, the Policy Exchange report highlights the way in which young British Muslims react against the hedonistic, promiscuous, binge-drinking, value-lite culture they see among their contemporaries. “I decided to wear hijab because I didn’t like the way that women are portrayed as sex objects” (Female, Muslim, 21, Oxford). “The bad thing, and I don’t know how we can solve this, is that they [the British] don’t really know what their values are. So when they are attacked they kind of seem to be making it up…’ (Female, Muslim, 22, Leeds). These are voices worth listening to.

Despite the danger of taking these expressions of “authenticity” at face value, overall, I agree with the thrust of this last comment. If nothing else, the challenge of Islamism is a call to the West to reconnect with its core values, including both the preciousness of freedom and its responsibilities. When four German students from Heidelberg told me in the summer of 2004 that the reason there were democracies in Europe but not in the Arab world was… “luck”, I knew we were in trouble. (Not coincidentally, they were very well informed on all the problems, personal and political, of George Bush.)

If leaders of the right merely squawk “multiculturalism”, some readers of the Daily Mail will understand them to be saying “these people should adapt to our ways or go back where they came from”. If leaders of the left merely squawk back “Islamophobia” and “Iraq”, Muslims and city councils will not be compelled to ask the hard questions they need to ask about some of their own community representatives and policies. And both the Tories and Labour will be tempted to nourish these misunderstandings in the run-up to the election, lest those voters turn elsewhere. But this battle is too serious to be reduced to a battle of straw men. At stake is nothing less than the future of Britain as a free and tolerant country.

I sincerely agree with the pious sentiments. But I wonder whether this bland “middle-of-the-road” presentation is not just part of a larger incapacity to see the broader dynamics — encouragement of Islamism by the British media’s and intelligentsia’s politics of resentment against the USA, and moral Schadenfreude about Israel have incited Islamist violence and triumphalism, and the subsequent appeasement of Islamists has given them a sense they can win. Until the British are ready to tackle those problems, they will continue to incite and appease/encourage the forces that want their destruction.

So if you want to win this battle, which we both agree is a worthy struggle, it will take a reappraisal of both British attitudes towards the US/Atlantic alliance, and to Israel/Judaism. That will be painful, among others both to British intellectual self-esteem, and to Muslim triumphalism. You have your choice: slow suicide (Roman style, bleeding to death), or the narcissistic injury of realizing just how wrong you’ve been — about multiculturalism, democracy, Jews and Israel, the Atlantic Alliance — for quite some time now.

One Response to Mush: Timothy Garton Ash Seeks the Center

  1. Robert Schwartz says:

    Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
    He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride
    “Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
    You will not die, it’s not poison”

    Bob Dylan said that.

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