I have long been a critic of multiculturalism. And I have debated the issue with Tariq Modood more times than I care remember, including on Start the Week, Newsnight Review, and at public meetings in London, BristolManchester and countless other places. So when The Moral Maze decided this week to debate multiculturalism, in the wake of David Cameron’s speech, and invited Modood to be one of the witnesses, it seemed inevitable that I would be grilling him.

If only life were so simple. As it turned out, I ended up on the ostensibly pro-multiculturalism side, grilling not Modood but Douglas Murray, the self-described ‘neo-conservative’, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, and himself an acerbic critic of multiculturalism.

Why? Not because I have suddenly converted to the dark side. Partly, it was because of the way that The Moral Maze works. The panelists have to take sides, and on a complex issue, such as that of multiculturalism, you might, as a panelist, end up in a strange place. The ‘taking sides’ aspect of The Moral Maze is both its strength and a potential weakness. By polarizing the debate, it forces you to think through the logic of moral arguments and to put pressure on the witnesses. In that way it can clarify the debate. But ocassionally it can also obscure the complexities and nuances inherent in any debate (though I don’t think that was the case this time).

The multiculturalism debate is a complex one. I am unreservedly opposed to multicultural policies. But the debate about multiculturalism  often conflates two issues: the idea of diversity as lived experience and that of multiculturalism as a set of policies to manage such diversity:

The experience of living in a society transformed by mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is positive. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different.  It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

This conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious:

On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.

Douglas Murray is a classic example of someone who sees the problem as mass immigration, and in particular Muslim immigration. In a speech to the Pim Fortuyn memorial conference in Holland, Murray argued that Europe had to

turn around the demographic time-bomb which will soon see a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities. It has to. All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop… Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition.

Not only must Europe ban any more Muslims from  entering its borders, but it should also deprive those already here of basic citizenship rights. In a remarkable passage in that same speech, Murray suggested that:

Muslims in Europe who for any reason take part in, plot, assist or condone violence against the West… must be forcibly deported back to their place of origin… Where a person was born in the West, they should be deported to the country of origin of their parent or grandparent.

In other words Muslims who are born in Europe, and are thereby citizens, should be deprived of basic rights of citizenship that non-Muslims would automatically possess. Murray does not (and would not) demand that a Christian, say, born in Britain who had committed a terrorist act should be deported to the country of origin of his or her parents or grandparents. But, he insists, a Muslim should. A British citizen who happens to be Muslim is not, in his eyes, truly a citizen of this country, but remains simply defined by his faith and really belongs to the country in which his forefathers lived. (Unfortunately the transcript of the speech is, as far as I can see, no longer online.)

Does all this not suggest, I asked Murray on The Moral Maze, that his primary target is not multiculturalism but Muslims? Why does he not see Muslims as citizens? And why does he seek to differentiate between people by the ethnic and faith box to which they belong? The problem with multiculturalism is that it trends to treat people, especially from minority communities, not as citizens, but as members of ethnic or faith groups. For all his criticism of multiculturalism, that’s exactly how Murray himself views immigrants, and especially Muslims.

Unfortunately Murray seemed less interested in answering my questions than in ranting about my far left past (and, bizarrely, in suggesting that I had a vendetta against him because he had once given me a poor book review; if he thinks that was a poor review, he should see some of the ones I have penned). So there was nothing illuminating about the exchange, apart from Murray’s refusal to engage.

Murray’s view of Islam derives in large part from the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. And the most deep-set of these would be between the Christian West and the Islamic East, which would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The West would need vigorously to defend its values and beliefs against Islamic assault.

What is striking about multiculturalism and the clash of civilizations thesis is how much the two approaches have in common. It is true that there is little love lost between multiculturalists and clash of civilization warriors. The former accuse the latter of pandering to racism and Islamophobia, while the latter talk of the former as appeasing Islamism. Beneath the hostility, however, the two sides share basic assumptions about the nature of culture, identity and difference.  For at the heart of both arguments is a confusion of peoples and values. Multiculturalists claim that the presence in a society of a diversity of peoples limits the possibility of common values. Clash of civilization warriors insist that such values are impossible within an ethnically diverse society. Neither is right.

And that is because both assume that minority communities are homogenous wholes whose members will forever be attached to the cultures, faiths, beliefs and values of their forebears. Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia? Multiculturalists and the clash of civilization warriors have different views about the nature of Islam. Both, however, look upon Muslims as constituting a distinct population, defined almost solely by its faith, and whose difference must dictate the way that wider society deals with it. In viewing cultural differences in this fashion, both sides have been led to betray basic liberal principles.

Multicultural policies have helped erode freedom of speech and undermine the most progressive movements within minority communities. Elected politicians have abandoned their responsibility for engaging directly with minority communities, subcontracting out that responsibility instead to so-called community leaders. In the process they have allowed the most conservative elements to promote themselves as the true representatives of their communities.

The clash of civilization thesis, too, has signaled an abandonment of basic liberal values. It is often presented as a defence of Enlightenment values. Yet, in the hands of clash of civilizations warriors, the Enlightenment often seems less like a set of values through which to create a progressive politics than a myth by which to define the West. And once the Enlightenment becomes a weapon in the clash of civilizations rather than in the battle to define the values and attitudes necessary to advance political rights and social justice, once it becomes a measure as much of tribal attachment as of progressive politics, then everything from torture to collective punishment becomes permissible, and the pursuit of Enlightenment itself becomes a source of de-Enlightenment.

‘For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow?’ Salman Rushdie asked in The Satanic Verses about his two anti-heroes, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta. One might ask the same question about the multiculturalist argument and the clash of civilization thesis. These two responses to both fatwa and jihad appear as conjoined opposites, each as the other’s shadow, each betraying fundamental liberal principles.

One abandons the basic Enlightenment idea of universal values, suggesting instead that we should accept that every society is a collection of disparate communities and that social harmony requires greater censorship and less freedom. The other turns belief in the Enlightenment into a tribal affair: Enlightenment values are good because they are ours, and we should militantly defend our values and lifestyles, even to the extent of denying such values and lifestyles to others. Or, as Rushdie says about Saladin and Gibreel, ‘One seeking to transform into the foreignness he admires, the other seeking contemptuously to transform.’

That’s why we need to challenge both the Saladin Chamchas and the Gibreel Farishtas of the contemporary debate about multiculturalism, diversity, identity and Islam.  And that’s how I ended up on The Moral Maze questioning Douglas Murray rather than Tariq Modood. Both, in my view, are wrong.


  1. Step Left

    Good stuff Kenan. Reactionary right wing bigots like Murray are gaining currency. There is as much more need to slam them than the polite but misguided Modood. At least Modood doesnt argue for the denial of rights for certain people based on almost racial criteria.

    What Murray and Mad Mel say, echoes with what the street fighting army, the EDL bang on about all the time. It is scary that both those figures get such a hearing in todays society. Not just for their odious views, but also the nature of how they express them. They are hardly well read or considered on history, philosophy or anything to do with what they style themselves on.

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  3. DC

    I’m no fan of multiculturalism as government policy either, but let’s not forget that the greatest driver for this policy is the pressure exerted by ethnic minorities to get recognition and exception based upon cultural and religious differences. Even moderate Muslims (I appreciate it’s a generalisation) would say they are Muslim first, British second, and would require exceptions to be made in dress codes, children’s education, security at airports etc. Ditto for Sikhs and probably for others. By far the biggest threat to entrench these positions has to be current bias towards more faith schools.

    In this respect the driver for more governmental meddling would appear to be the push by minorities and well-meaning liberals/multiculturalists (and their votes) to get ever more special dispensation and recognition for the DIFFERENCES between members of our society.

    Personally I would like to see government wash its hands of the whole thing – people can have a culture or not, religion or not but everyone should have the same laws and norms applied to them in everyday life.

    • Actually, the driver for multiculturalism did not come from minorities. First and second generation black and Asian migrants were concerned less about preserving cultural differences than about fighting for political equality. Our demands were political rather than cultural – opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the struggle against workplace discrimination; the fight against racist attacks; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality. We recognised that at the heart of the fight for political equality was a commonality of values, hopes and aspirations between blacks and whites, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences. The driver for multiculturalism came primarily from the top, a response to the anger created by entrenched racism. I deal with this at length in my book From Fatwa to Jihad. Or look at my essay on The real value of diversity.

  4. Interesting article, I like your honesty, and agree with your last paragraph. I’ve been a libertarian all of my life, and see no reason for most laws. If you say you stand up for freedom, you should know what the word means. Look it up in a dictionary friend, and then you may begin to understand that a Libertarian stands for the truth and nothing else.
    BTW, I’m a Muslim guy, because I accept the truth for what it is. No man has ever been god, and no man ever will. I HOPE you know that will never CHANGE, so why would anyone follow Obama. That guy manipulated HOPE&CHANGE, to get all the power.

    Since everything is going just as GOD planned it, I don’t see any reason to complain. I like all the cultures of man, and Islam is the family of man.
    If you just Let It Be, and stop imagining lies,
    you may learn to understand Islam, and join the peace train.

    • Hypatia

      ‘everything is going just as GOD planned it’

      is a meaningless phrase

      ‘things are going as they are’ is axiomatic
      and assuming ‘god’ exists then of course it follows things are going as it planned
      because humans can have no way of knowing what the plans of ‘god’ would be, the phrase would apply to ANYTHING that occurred
      nuclear holocaust =god planned it
      mass extinction of humanity =god planned it
      gay sex =god planned it
      muslim womens rights- god planned it
      theory of evolution in schools – god planned it

      QED a meaningless phrase

  5. What is the “pursuit of enlightenment”? I’m an enlightened being, and I didn’t pursue it. In reality it struck me like a lightening bolt. I wasn’t sitting under a Bodhi Tree, lost in the dessert, or even in a cave. Therefore, I’m not Buddha, jesus 1.0, or even Mohammad (PBU all of them).
    But to tell you the truth I’m Mr. Jesus 2.3, and the U.S. government delivers my mail.
    In this virtual domain we communicate in, i’m jesus christ, and I maintain the website too!
    Buddha left a good job in the city, but he wasn’t working for any man. He was destined to become the king, but through it all away.
    If you want to be enlightened too, get rid of all your belongings, and take responsibility for all you think & do, and maybe you’ll reach Nirvana, the freedom one feels when they know the truth, and I’m not the liar.
    Assalamu Alaikom, my friends, which means peace be upon you. Never forget these other words, and you may discover the truth: Allahu Akbar!

  6. Ani Sharmin

    “And that is because both assume that minority communities are homogenous wholes whose members will forever be attached to the cultures, faiths, beliefs and values of their forebears. Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia? Multiculturalists and the clash of civilization warriors have different views about the nature of Islam. Both, however, look upon Muslims as constituting a distinct population, defined almost solely by its faith, and whose difference must dictate the way that wider society deals with it. In viewing cultural differences in this fashion, both sides have been led to betray basic liberal principles.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you times a million for writing the above. I’d just been thinking about this as well. I was born in the US, am from a Muslim family, and have left the faith. It seem to me that both sides assume that what a person believes should be based on their family background and/or the country they live in or are from, whereas I believe a person should think about an idea before deciding whether they agree with it.

    Concerning multiculturalism, I tend to support some parts of it and not others. I see no problem with living alongside people who are different from me in ways that are not hurting others. In fact, I think that makes a better society than a homogeneous one. However, if someone is doing something that is hurting others (e.g. violence, discrimination), I think it’s wrong to pretend that their actions are just as right as the actions of someone who is not hurting others.

    Thanks again!

  7. I think the language we use plays a big part. When we talk of a “clash” of civilisations or cultures, the image conveyed is one of solid monoliths colliding. In fact, culture is an ephemeral thing, ever shifting, merging, remixing, and evolving. The former viewpoint leads to the ‘state multiculturalism’ you criticise and the reactionary politics of Douglas Murray and your colleague on the Moral Maze, Melanie Phillips. But the later conception leads to the ‘lived experience’ idea which I do think is something to support.

    I’ve been grappling for years about how to best make this distinction. If we don’t use the word ‘multiculturalism’ to refer to the ‘lived experience’, what do we use? ‘Diversity’ is, I think, similarly tainted, and ‘Melting Pot’ (the American preference) implies a teleological process towards cultural uniformity.

    • Robert, I don’t think that the problem is that poor language leads to poor concepts, but rather that the conceptual ways in which we think of culture leads us to accept the language of ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘the clash of civilizations’. We imagine, for instance, that Britain is a society composed of a number of different cultures all dancing around each, rather than as a single culture with many threads that is constantly changing as the different threads interact. Britain today, socially and culturally, would have ben a very different place from Britain of 60 years ago whether or not there had been mass immigration. We falsely imagine that Britain (or France or Germany or Sweden) used to homogenous but has become plural. In fact Britain has always been plural, and is probably less plural now than it was a century ago. The social and cultural differences between, say, a Victorian gentleman and a Victorian farmhand or machinist were probably greater than those between a native white Briton and a second generation British Asian or African Caribbean today. Indeed a 60-something white Briton would probably find a 20-something white Briton more culturally alien than either would an Asian or an African Caribbean of their own generation. There is nothing new in plural societies. What is different today is the perception that we are living in a particularly plural society, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. The debate about multiculturalism is a debate in which certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as important and others (such as class, say, or generational) as less relevant.

  8. Whoops. Really should have commented with my personal e-mail address. The inclusion of the Gravatar logo above rather implies I’m writing on behalf of my employers. I’m not!

  9. BenM

    And that is because both assume that minority communities are homogenous wholes whose members will forever be attached to the cultures, faiths, beliefs and values of their forebears. Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia?

    I would expect that when confronted with this, most people would agree that it’s straightforward and true; however, doing a cursory search I couldn’t really find good information on rates of assimilation or differentiation. If anyone knows of good sources for this sort of information on any country I’d be interested. Lacking that, I must say that from personal experience the extent that people are like their parents seems quite high. Though an individual immigrant may be likely to assimilate, the prevalance of “China Towns”, “Little Italies”, etc. lends credence to the idea that either immigrant communities strive for differentiation from the general culture, or the general culture excludes them.

    This is not the same thing as saying that minority communities are homogenous, but wouldn’t it be wrongheaded to assert that there isn’t a great amount of transfer of values and beliefs from parent to child?

  10. melior

    I found a copy of Mr. Murray’s modest proposal here.

    There’s nothing quite so fervently yet contentedly self-righteous as a fundamentalist with a clearly identified target for sanctimonious condemnation in his sights.

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  12. Andy

    It really is sad to see so many people falling for this anti-Murray rubbish. You all do the same thing – band him in with the EDL, say he has the same stance, fail to quote him when he speaks about moderate Muslims and how there is no issue with them. It really is pathetic.

    You need to wake up from that Lefty Loon slumber you’re all in and realise that it isn’t racist to want to protect our country from being changed beyond recognition. Murray doesn’t want ANY nation to overpopulate Britain, it just so happens that it is the Muslim population that is the one doing it. Not just our nation actually – all of Europe.

    It’s so easy to take soundbites from Murray and present them to make him appear controversial. Actually listen to him in a full debate and you will see he is actually far more fair and considering than you would like to believe.

    • I have no idea what you mean by Muslims ‘overpopulating’ Britain. Perhaps you mean that there are too many of them in this country and that there should be a quota to ensure that only certain numbers of Muslims are allowed to live in Britain. And, yes, that would be a racist view. Muslims, incidentally, form 3 per cent of the British population. I’m not sure how that constitutes ‘overpopulation’ however you define it. If you (and Murray) have ‘no issue’ with ‘moderate Muslims’, then why make an issue of Muslims ‘overpopulating’ Britain? Finally, I did not realize it was ‘loony left’ to believe in equal treatment for all.

  13. Mina

    I was born to immigrant parents. I love this country but it must stay the way it is. We need to make it clear there can be no Islamic state and start separating mosque from state. If a large number of people in Britain believe in practicing Islam, then Islam will creep into everything including our government. Douglas is very fair with his analysis. If you believe in Sharia, there are sadly places where you can get it. Trying to overthrow democracy in any way is unacceptable. Whether you’re foreign or not you must be stopped.

    • It’s one thing to oppose sharia law and an Islamic state. It’s quite another to suggest that having a large Muslim presence in this country is somehow antagonistic to democracy. Unless you want to suggest that the very fact of being a Muslim somehow makes you anti-democratic – which is an absurd notion. Maryam Namazie, founder of, and driving force behind, One Law for Law, the principal anti-sharia campaign in this country is as critical of Murray as I am. And, like me, she’s critical of Murray for the same reason as she is opposed to sharia – we both want equal treatment for all.

  14. Ballpointpen

    Very cute, I must say. Why is it that even genuine reformers and long on the self-pity and short on the self-criticism? Why is the problem seen as being a Muslim one? Well, here’s a hint: Who was it who was marching with banners reading “Behead those who insult Islam”, and “Freedom go to hell”, and so on? It wasn’t Christians or Hindus or Buddhists, immigrants or not. Further: can you name a single Muslim majority society where non-Muslims enjoy full rights and are free of persecution?

    Yes, yes, “minority”, “not fair” blah-blah-blah. Well, tough. The concern of infidels is whether or not we will survive with our basic freedom intact, not how hurt your feelings are. You are going to have to get it straight that, as long as your coreligionists behave this way, the more distrustful and suspicious infidels will get of you. After all – ignoring for a moment the aforementioned’s murderous intolerance of apostates – you don’t have to remain a Muslim. You don’t have be associated with this stuff. If you choose to do so, well, that’s your choice.

    • ‘As long as your coreligionists behave this way, the more distrustful and suspicious infidels will get of you’. Oh, the irony. Your sentiment exactly mirrors that of the Islamists: ‘So long as some non-Muslims treat Muslims badly we consider all of you enemies’. You and the Islamists would get on fine: you speak the common language of bigotry.

      ‘You don’t have to remain a Muslim. You don’t have be associated with this stuff’. Most Muslims aren’t associated with this stuff. Does the fact that some Christians in America bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors mean that all Christians should be under suspicion? Do you tell every Christian ‘You don’t have to remain a Christian. You don’t have be associated with this stuff. If you choose to do so, well, that’s your choice.’ There is a word to describe such discrimination against individuals simply by virtue of the fact that they happen to belong to a group: racism. Funny how bigots who rant and rave about freedom and rights are the first to demand the removal of such freedom and rights from those who do not think exactly as they do.

      Oh, and I am not a Muslim. Only your prejudices make you assume that I am.

  15. ecks why

    muslims do not assimilate into western society because islam is a theocracy and demands supremacy. there is no radical, moderate, hijacked or any other nuanced semanticism type of islam. there is only islam which is based on the life of a murdering 8th century warlord.

    the twin fogs of political correctness & ignorance must be dispersed before western society better understands this menace. even a brief review of islamic theology & history quickly exposes the deadly roots of this evil ideology.

    see the links in the pdf version below for more accurate info about islam

    islam is a horrible ideology for human rights

    5 key things about islam

    1. mythical beliefs – all religions have these (faith) because its part of being a religion: having beliefs without proof until after the believer dies. the problem is people will believe almost anything.

    2. totalitarianism – islam has no seperation of church and state: sharia law governs all. there is no free will in islam: only submission to the will of allah as conveniently determined by the imams who spew vapors to feather their own nests. there are no moderate muslims: they all support sharia law.

    3. violence – islam leads the pack of all religions in violent tenets for their ideology & history: having eternal canonical imperatives for supremacy at all costs and calling for violence & intimidation as basic tools to achieve these goals.

    4. dishonesty – only islam has dishonesty as a fundamental tenet: this stems from allah speaking to mohamhead & abrogation in the koran which is used to explain how mo’s peaceful early life was superseded by his warlord role later.

    5. misogyny – present day islam is still rooted in 8th century social ethics: treating females as property of men good only for children, severely limiting their activities, dressing them in shower curtains and worse.

    conclusions ??

    there really are NO redeeming qualities for this muddled pile of propaganda.

    islam is just another fascist totalitarian ideology used by power hungry fanatics on yet another quest for worldwide domination and includes all the usual human rights abuses & suppression of freedoms.

    graphics version

    1 page pdf version – do file/download 6kb viewer doesn’t show fonts well, has better fonts header footer links, great for emailing printing etc

  16. ballpointpen

    As a matter of fact, I _do_ tell, say, Catholics that it’s their problem if they object to being associated with their Church’s habits of child-rape and fascist collusion. That said, on this shopworn equivalency of abortionist shootings – those in America who kill abortion doctors do so because they believe that grown adults are engaged in serial child-murder. In the backstreets of Britain, they kill little girls for some insane concept of “honor”. If you don’t see that difference, you don’t see that difference.

    Now, to this _day_ people insult Germans and those of german descent, with this basic assumption that German=Nazi. Maryam Namazie does it, in an article linking this one. But to be “German” is something you are born as, something as unchoosable as any racial category. It has no bearing on your character or behavior. But your religious beliefs are a matter of choice, and have a great effect on both your behavior and character. This genuine bigotry still goes on, despite the herculean efforts of the German state and the German people to genuinely make amends and hold any psycho who wants to repeat the Third Reich to account. The Ummah does nothing like that; what we get to hear are either sulky apologetics for atrocity, or self-pitying drivel about “offense”. It will be a very long time and needs a lot more work before it can even begin to honestly ask for an end to suspicion.

    BTW, I used the term “you” as a generic. I could have used “one”, but that would have seemed slightly pretentious.

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