Islam and Muslim’s have been used as the new vehicle to rally cynicism around the idea of multiculturalism. This happens from time to time. Take any period in history and you will see, not the absence of cynical demagoguery against the diversity of cultures, but a consistent ebb and flow of zealotry around the purity of ‘our’ way of life. Admittedly, every culture and tradition defines itself against some Other; but the truth is that when it happens in the West, a profound sense of hypocrisy airs itself. Take for example a crude article in the Daily Telegraph which begins by telling its readers
Shahid Malik, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, spoke for almost the entire nation yesterday when he told Aisha Azmi – the Muslim teaching assistant suspended for wearing a veil – “to just let this thing go”. An employment tribunal has rightly rejected Mrs Azmi’s case for unfair dismissal, though – absurdly – it has awarded her damages for “victimisation” by her local council. Now is indeed the time for her to drop the matter, though, needless to say, she intends to take her case to a “higher court”. (Radical Muslims in Britain are quick to explore legal avenues that are not open to Christians in the countries they admire.)
The writer casually makes Aisha Azmi into a radical as if to wear the veil immediately qualifies you to that title, or perhaps it’s because when a member of a minority community insists on something, he or she is belittled as radical. Whatever the case may be, the real hypocrisy creeps in as an aside at the end of the paragraph. Azmi may not admire these vague “countries” to which reference is made, but that seems hardly troubling to this writer. Secondly, pitting Christians against Muslims is a shameful and irresponsible rallying of group loyalties, especially when many are quick to frown upon the emotional ties a Muslim has to other Muslims through the concept of ‘ummah’. But the biggest hypocrisy is the very ability to preach the superiority of ones own values only to then deny them to a people from a different ethnic background on the grounds that their ethnic tradition does not (supposedly) reflect these same values, a point which is stressed to show ones own superiority in the first place. The fact is, these other (supposed) nations do not claim universality, nor do they expound (rightly or wrongly) grandiose claims of plurality and diversity such as the West makes, hence the argument is baseless and down right hypocritical, for in the proverbial sense, it is to have your cake and eat it too.
But then the above quote is from the Daily Telegraph, hardly a paper of intellectual integrity. Sadly though, as Phil Cohen notes,
[It is through] reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, or watching TV, in the apparent “privacy” of one’s own home…in these small quiet moments of “withdrawal”, as much as in the grand occasions and narratives of History that the work of nation building goes on’.
And this is what the present upheaval is about. What the right wing media and its ideologues are in fact doing is seizing an opportunity to attack the liberalist welfare state which has made Britain what it is, and today is in danger of forgetting. A veiled rallying of fear at Britain loosing its character and values – as expressed by Melanie Phillips over the past few weeks – is actually a hidden attack on the liberal values which have made life in Britain relatively comfortable for so many. This is not to say that Britain is utopian nor to minimise or overlook its self destructive foreign policy, but merely to state that Britain has kept relative equilibrium (though this is as much to do with its ethnic minorities as it is with any magnanimous toleration of the British).
Hence what we have in fact is a struggle not to rediscover “Britishness”, but to redefine it in strict and closed terms. While there is little doubt of a growing Islamaphobic atmosphere, heightened by the backdrop of the dubious “war on terror”, the real centre of all of this furry is actually a resurgence of right wing ideology. Michael Freeden reminds us that an analysis of the political sphere must focus on the ‘symbols by which political actors find their way and comprehend their social surroundings.’ In this light it is ironical and plausible that far from being a marker of separation, the veil, worn by less than one percent of Britons, has been emphasised as a “symbol” by politicians and their ilk to further their agenda, because to make it into a marker of separation fits their ideological bearings.
The veil in reality is a potent symbol of multiculturalism. Its very existence is a celebration of the fact that a woman feels able to wear such a garment in this country. But the way in which it has been used in the debate and to raise the “debate”, highlights that what is happening underneath is a drawing of attention away from real issues. As such there is no debate, for what is being broadcast and printed for our information is red-herring journalism and politics. Similarly, the uneasiness over “ghettoization” and communities who live parallel lives is again diverting attention from real issues. Tensions exist in and amongst communities. The riots in Oldham for example, had a racial dimension no doubt, but they were in Oldham, an old industrial northern town. Indeed many of the existing trouble spots for potential race conflict are former industrial towns in the midlands. The true root of the problem then is actually one of class and not race alone. The later extenuates and makes palpable the frictions of class and unemployment that underlie these towns. Poor funding from central government and poor investment means that the residents are living in conditions which breed resentment and ghettos. Furthermore, ghettos exist on both sides.
It is a recognised pattern that minorities tend to congregate together whenever they arrive in a different country. This seems obvious enough, since ethnicity is more defined when confronted with other ethnicities. Confidence and a sense of identity are bolstered by collective solidarity in both geographical and social terms. The category of ethnicity is also used to establish roots in the host country – the building of mosques and temples, the following of ones home traditions, far from statements of segregation can in fact be read as the desire by the ethnic minorities to make this new country their new home. While these sights can become markers of difference they do not, in and of themselves, generate segregation. Similarly, the desire to live together with other members of ones own ethnic group – especially when there may well be many relations living together in a neighbourhood – is not in itself segregation.
Language constructs both the scope of our vision and the shades in which we see the world. The subtle manoeuvres by which narratives shift are felt even if they remain unexpressed, and recently – for all the Muslim stories that have poured into the public domain – the Muslims do not feel slightly under siege, they feel overwhelmed. It is true that the majority of the rest of Britons also feel irritated at the amount of coverage being devoted to “Muslim” stories. But the effort to flood the public domain with Muslim stories is neither coincidental nor accidental (it may be subconscious, but that is another paper). Rather, the effort is to underscore the central theme of the debate which is that “these” Muslims are a threat/problem because “they” have not understood “our” way of life/integrated. As such the individual stories do not matter as much as the overall impression. So, we have comments by members of the public like, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”, and, “when we go to their countries we follow their rules, so why shouldn’t they?” All the while, the subtle shifts in these seemingly reasonable comments are lost. “Do as the Romans do” when your visiting Rome, not when your living there. When one is living somewhere they comply with the laws but exercise the right to express their thoughts and beliefs – without harming another person – and this seems not only a fundamental principal, but essentially democratic. This is why when such a debate arises it proves hollow or else proves democracy hollow.
While those were the views of the public, the expression of a more public figure such as Melanie Phillips is only a little more subtle but no less problematic. Phillips writes constantly on the issue of a ‘third column’ in Britain, the hidden threat from within, and more generally about the need to retain Britain’s values and character. In her recent book, Londonistan, she says for example that ‘while no one thinks that the majority of Muslims are anything but peaceful and law abiding’ there is also, according to her, ‘an unquantifiable number of British Muslims’ who have been radicalised by the likes of Abu Hamza. The two statements when taken together seem not only at odds, but impress upon a reader the need to perceive, even if apologetically, an entire ethnic group suspiciously. This can be seen clearly from the recently leaked edict that was heading to Universities from Whitehall. Melanie Phillips and others like her fuel the sense of us and them by using language and arguments that are pathologically coded in these terms.
Yet, to brand the likes of Phillips as merely Islamapohbic would be to not look deep enough. Such commentators have a more entrenched position and that is against liberalism. They are employing Islam as the latest vehicle by which to mount an assault on an older system. A detailed study would show that while Islam has particularly ruffled their feathers – for historic and ideological reasons – it is being used to show the cracks within the liberal set up prevailing in Britain. With the loss of Labour into hands of individuals who seem to draw it further away from its historical position; the move of liberal thought into the ever jargonised realm of theory; and a general atmosphere of fear of the Other; liberal views on immigration, welfare, arms, and multiculturalism appear naively idealistic. In such a state the right wing are out in full. The latest casualty are Muslims. It should be stressed however that this is not accidental; Islam presents a dynamic code of life, which in this age of fragmentation provides a means of constructing a meaningful and cohered identity. The right wing, embittered by this and the lack of it in their own cultural matrix perceive two antagonists – Islam, and liberalism that has produced the present conditions.
Multiculturalism is not specific to liberalism or the West – it never has been. Historically, every civilisation when it is doing well (at least materially) attracts other people who bring with them something of their culture. Hence without the –ism it is an adjective serving merely a descriptive function. As a noun it becomes more complex. Multiculturalism as a concept therefore must negotiate the diversity of cultures; must produce just and equitable procedures by which to uphold each culture as distinct; but most importantly, it must protect each culture from victimisation. It stands to reason then, that the victimisation of Muslims is a fundamental compromise of the concept of multiculturalism and the ethos of liberal society. In the recent outburst at Muslims, the West has deeply contradicted its own philosophical premises. What has assisted this has been news stories and arguments which are dubious and left unchallenged. The public domain has been so dominated by a culture of quick short bulletins that doesn’t allow sufficient space in which to consider a proposition. In fact, the argument is so fuelled by media moguls that adequate debate is always ransom to editorial and share holder views. A good example recently is that of faith schools.
The rather basic view that faith schools are divisive was an unchallenged premise in the entire discussion. The belief was that faith schools admit members of only one faith. It is truer to say that people of one faith (or no faith) do not wish to send their children to another faith’s faith school – very rarely do faith schools practice a policy of faith based admittance. In a pro-choice context the very fact that this was not made clear illustrates the fractured nature of the debate and the sheer absurdity of the claim itself. Moreover, it would amount to the belief that merely putting people together eradicates racism or religious prejudice. The truth is that racism and prejudice of varying and complex types exist within schools and the education system. It is also true that religious schools provide a service to a community and to interpret this as the cause of the existence of social friction is to focus the blame in the wrong place. Moreover, the fear that children in faith schools will have less understanding of the wider society if they lack interaction with fellow pupils from a variety of social backgrounds is in many ways a selective argument. Consider the fact that in many leafy suburbs the vast majority of pupils in any given school will naturally be from the same social and ethnic background (middle/upper-middle class; white). Surely pupils of such schools have the most skewed perception of all since their social surrounding (unlike that available to many ethnic minority children, living in inner cities with a greater concentration of different immigrants as well as white Caucasians) does not provide any opportunity to interact, however minimally, with people from different social and ethnic backgrounds. Should these schools bus in a quota of children from inner cities so that they may experience what parts of Britain is like?
A lot of this is nonsensical because the true motives underlying the debate are left unspoken about. Britain has had faith schools alongside state schools for over a hundred years, if today there is an issue it is because there is resistance to the idea of Muslim schools. Having a tradition of providing parents the choice of sending their children to faith schools, many commentators know that they cannot stop the process of establishing Muslim schools. Confronted in this way, but desiring to resist such schools nonetheless, the debate is presented in all sorts of bizarre and convoluted ways. The desired result however is calculated, since an attack on the availability of choice to parents and children alike limits the concept of multiculturalism and supersedes it with a more defined monocultural British-ness.
Schools do not exist in a vacuum. What happens outside, the ideas that are pushed in the public domain and the notions born in the home influence children manifold over. By permeating the public domain with a discourse of some hidden menace of individuals who do not understand Britain (as if they have had no hand in making it what it is); a discourse of “us” and “them”; a discourse in which terms of references are branded around without definition (I’m thinking of terms like, ‘radical’ or ‘extremists’) does more to damage community relations than anything else. If we wish to assist people in understanding one another, a more honest and open debate is required, where topics of discussion are the manner in which history is taught in schools; the core texts in English syllabuses that reflect the middle class white men and women who draw these up; the slow drip feeding of funding and resources to underprivileged areas; the lack of initiatives to link different schools through sport and voluntary exercises. There is a lot that is not being done. Promoting a single issue as the problem misses the point.
A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.