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assimilation's failure, terrorism's rise

new york times, 7 july 2011

Six years ago today, on July 7, 2005, Islamic suicide bombers attacked London’s transit system. They blew up three subway trains and a bus, leaving 52 people dead and a nation groping for answers. In one sense the meaning of 7/7 is as clear to Britons as that of 9/11 is to Americans. It was a savage, brutal attack intended to sow mayhem and terror. Yet, whereas 9/11 was the work of a foreign terrorist group, 7/7 was the work of British citizens. The question that haunts London, but which Washington has so far barely had to face, is why four men, three of whom were born and all of whom were brought up in Britain, were gripped by such a fanatic zeal for an irrational, murderous, medieval dogma.

In trying to answer this question, the British authorities have expended much effort on the question of ‘radicalization’. How did the 7/7 terrorists acquire their perverted ideas? In the immediate wake of 7/7 there was much discussion of the role of extremist preachers and of radical mosques. More recently the focus has shifted to universities as recruitment agencies for terrorists.

The obsession with ‘radicalization’, however, misses the point. The real question we need to ask ourselves is not how people like Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers, came to be radicalized, but why it is that so many young men, who by all accounts are intelligent, articulate and integrated, come to find this violent, reactionary ideology so attractive. To understand that we need to look not at extremist preachers or university lecturers but at public policy, and in particular the policy of multiculturalism.

The question of multiculturalism has become a fraught issue in European politics in recent years. A rancorous chorus of populist politicians, such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Jimmie Akesson in Sweden, have make major electoral gains by stoking fears about multiculturalism. Mainstream politicians have joined in too. British prime minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both recently made deeply critical speeches, while the Dutch government decided last month to dump the decades-old national policy of multiculturalism.

The debate about multiculturalism has been as misdirected as the one about radicalization. This is not because multicultural policies are worth defending – I have long been a critic of such policies - but because the real target of much of this criticism is not multiculturalism but immigration, and immigrants, especially Muslims. Mr Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, the third largest in the Dutch parliament, campaigns for an end to all non-Western immigration, a ban on the building of mosques and the outlawing of the Qu’ran. Mr Akesson, whose far-right Sweden Democrats shocked the nation by winning twenty seats in last year’s parliamentary elections, denounces immigration as the biggest threat facing Sweden since Adolf Hitler. Mainstream politicians have responded not by challenging such prejudice but by appropriating the arguments, believing that the only way to stem the advance of the far right is by reinforcing Fortress Europe.

Part of the difficulty in thinking about multiculturalism is that it has come to have two meanings that are rarely distinguished. On the one hand it refers to a society made diverse by mass immigration, and, on the other, to the political policies that governments employ to manage such diversity. The failure to distinguish between these two meanings has made it easier to use attacks on multiculturalism as a means of blaming minorities for the failure of policy.

Mass immigration has been a boon to Western Europe not only bringing great economic benefits, but also helping create societies that are less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan. The policies designed to manage immigration have, however, been largely a disaster. To see why we only need look at the experience of Britain and Germany. Both nations have adopted multicultural policies though they have taken different paths getting there. The consequences, however, have been similar.

Thirty years ago, Britain was a very different place than it is now. Racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. ‘Paki bashing’, the racists’ name for their pastime of hunting out and beating up Asians, was a national sport. I remember having to organise patrols on East London estates in the 1980s to protect Asian families from racist thugs. Workplace discrimination was endemic, police brutality frighteningly common. Anger at such treatment came to an explosive climax in the riots that rocked London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and other cities during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was in response to this rage that Britain’s multicultural policies emerged.

The British government developed a new political framework through which to engage with minority communities. Britain was in effect divided into a number of ethnic boxes – Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, African-Caribbean, and so on. The claims of minorities upon society were defined less by the social and political needs of individuals than by the box to which they belonged. Political power and financial resources were now distributed by ethnicity.

The new policies did not empower individuals within minority communities. Instead, it enhanced the authority of so-called ‘community leaders’, often the most conservative voices, who owed their position and influence largely to the relationship they possessed with the state. In 1997 the Islamist groups that had, a decade earlier, led the campaign against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses helped set up the Muslim Council of Britain. Its first general secretary, Iqbal Sacranie, had fronted the anti-Rushdie campaign, and had said of Rushdie that ‘death, perhaps is a bit too easy for him’. Polls showed that fewer that ten per cent of British Muslims believed that the MCB spoke to their views. Yet for more than a decade the British government treated the MCB as if it were the official representative of Britain’s Muslims.

Politicians effectively abandoned their responsibilities for engaging directly with minority communities, subcontracting out those responsibilities to often reactionary ‘leaders’. If the Prime Minister wanted to get a message out to the ‘Muslim community’, he called in the MCB or visited a mosque. Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens, politicians preferred to see them as people whose primarily loyalty was to their faith and who could be politically engaged only by other Muslims. As a result, religious – and Islamist – figures gained new legitimacy within their own communities and come to be seen by wider society as the authentic voice of those communities.

More progressive movements became sidelined. Today ‘radical’ in an Islamic context means someone who is a religious fundamentalist. Thirty years ago it meant the opposite: a secularist who challenged both racism and the power of the mosques. Secularist traditions were once strong within Muslim communities. No longer. The new relationship between the state and religious community leaders helped squeeze out the more progressive voices.

Many second-generation British Muslims now find themselves detached from both the religious traditions of their parents, which they have often rejected, and the wider secular society that insists on viewing them simply as Muslims. A few inevitably are drawn to extremist Islamist groups through which they discover a sense of identity and of belonging. It is this that has made them open to ‘radicalization’.

A similar process has taken place in Germany. Postwar immigrants, primarily from Turkey, came not as potential citizens, but as gastarbeiter, or ‘guest workers’, who were expected to return to their countries of origin. Over time, immigrants became transformed from a temporary necessity to a permanent presence, partly because Germany continued relying on their labour, and partly because they, and especially their children, came to see Germany as home.

The German state, however, continued to view them as outsiders and to refuse them citizenship. Unlike the practices in Britain, France or the United States, German citizenship is based on blood not soil. It was granted automatically not to those born in Germany but only to those born of German parents. There are nearly 4 million people of Turkish origin in Germany today. Barely three-quarters of a million have managed to become citizens. Multiculturalism became the German answer to the ‘Turkish problem’. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep own culture, language and lifestyles. The consequence was the creation of parallel communities.

Without any incentive to participate in the national community, many Turks became dangerously inward-looking. First generation immigrants were broadly secular, and those that were religious wore their faith lightly. Today, almost a third of adult Turks in Germany regularly attend mosque, a higher rate than in Turkish communities elsewhere in Western Europe, and higher than in many parts of Turkey.

Not only are Turks isolated from mainstream German society, they are also estranged from the communities from which they had originally emigrated, and from the traditional institutions of Islam. Combined with their growing religiosity and inwardness, the increasing isolation of second generation German Turks from social structures in both Germany and Turkey has made some more open to radical Islamist tendencies, just as they have been in Britain. The uncovering last year of German jihadis fighting in Afghanistan should have come as no surprise.

In Britain, the promotion of multicultural policies led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority communities not as citizens but simply as member of particular ethnic groups. In Germany, the formal denial of citizenship to immigrants led to the policy of multiculturalism. The consequence in both cases has been the creation of fragmented societies, the scapegoating of immigrants and the rise of both populist and Islamist rhetoric. In neither Britain nor Germany did multiculturalism create militant Islam, but in both it helped clear a space for it within Muslim communities.

The challenge facing Europe is that of rejecting multiculturalism as a political policy while embracing the diversity that immigration brings. There is unfortunately no ready-made template for doing this. In principle, the French assimilationist resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not simply as inhabitants of particular ethnic boxes, is to be welcomed. Yet from police brutality against North African youth to entrenched discrimination in the workplace to the state ban on the burqa, in the name of ‘colour blindness’ France tolerates, even encourages, discriminatory practices that have created a deeply divided society. The relationship between Muslims and the state is healthier in America than in most European countries. Yet the furore over the proposal to build an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, and the continuing panic about immigration, reveals the same fears and problems as haunt Europe. There may be no off-the-shelf solutions. The anniversary of 7/7 should remind us of how much is at stake in finding one.