This is a collection of three interviews that I have recently given on issues of identity and diversity. The first is a short video interview I gave at the Riksantikvarieämbetet (Swedish Heritage Board) conference on the ‘Struggle for Cultural Identity’, which I addressed last week. The second is an interview on Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion and Ethics Report on diversity and multiculturalism in Europe. The final interview is with the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, which I have loosely translated from the Swedish. The interview was by Håkan Lindgren.
Diversity and identity
Riksantikvarieämbetet video, 12 November
Does Europe need a new approach to multiculturalism?
ABC Religion and Ethics Report, 18 November
‘The focus on identity has made conflict insoluble’
Svenska Dagbladet, 17 November
Håkan Lindren: Seven years ago you wrote that Salman Rushdie’s enemies lost the battle of The Satanic Verses, but they won the war. No one dares to take a similar risk today. What has changed since then? Have self-censorship has become stronger?
Kenan Malik: It’s become much stronger. And not only self-censorship, but more broadly, rules and regulations about speech, for instance on university campuses.
What I meant by that phrase is that Rushdie won the battle because The Satanic Verses continued to be published. But his critics won the war because the perception which formed the core of the conflict, the notion that it is morally wrong to say or do something that offends other cultures, has become almost received wisdom in liberal, democratic societies. If you argue against it, you are perceived as adopting an extreme position. Almost anything critical one might say about another group or another culture can be seen today as offensive.
HL: Self-censorship can be difficult to prove, I say, but Malik gives an example. In 2013, two students at the London School of Economics were told by the student union that they could not wear t-shirts with pictures of Jesus and Mo, a cartoon strip mildly critical of religion, and poking fun at Jesus and Muhammad. Maajid Nawaz from the anti-extremist think-tank Quilliam Foundation, who is a practicing Muslim, tweeted a link to the cartoons, saying he saw no problems with the t-shirts and that God was above such trifles. He received numerous death threats and a campaign was launched to deselect him as a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate. The incident led to television debates on the BBC and Channel 4 – but no television channel dared to show pictures of the t-shirts with the cartoons.
KM: The incident summed up the zeitgeist of our time. Someone says that something is not offensive – so they are denounced for being offensive. There was a debate on Channel 4 News about whether or not the images were offensive, and in which Maajid Nawaz and his detractors both book part. Channel 4 showed the cartoons – but blanked out the face of Muhammad. In blanking out the image of Muhammad, Channel 4 effectively prejudged the outcome of the debate. It insisted that the images were so offensive that it could not show them. Channel 4 took sides in the debate it was supposedly hosting – and took the side of the reactionaries. That’s where we are now: Liberals are so imbued with the notion that one must not give offence that they line up with the reactionaries.
HR: Kenan Malik is one of Britain’s most interesting social commentators. He writes quiet, intelligent and principled books and essays about the contemporary hottest issues. This year, when the little word race has become fashionable again, it is helpful to read his book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. Much of his work can be found on his blog Pandaemonium.
I meet with Malik at a hotel in Solna, where he is one of the speakers at the National Heritage Board’s conference on cultural heritage. In his speech he questioned the way we think of diversity. We imagine that before immigration, Europe was homogenous and conflict-free and, he says. But that Europe never existed.
KM: European societies have always cut through with differences and conflicts. What is different now is not that we have conflicts over values or ideals. It is the way that these conflicts are expressed. We perceive conflicts primarily as cultural, which often means that they become insoluble. People sit in their separate identity silos and shout at each other.
HR: Malik was born in India and grew up in Manchester at a time, he says, when ‘Paki-bashing’ was a British national sport. Racism led him to politics, and since the early 80’s, he has been an anti-racist activist. Thirty years ago both British society and immigrant communities were very different. Religion was not a huge issue in his generation or that of his parents.
KM: Muslims of my parents’ generation were religious, but in a very different way from today. Many men drank and went to the pub. They were not ostracized for it. No woman felt the need to wear a hijab, let alone the burqa or niqab. People went to the mosque if they felt like it. Few of my parents’ generation thought of themselves as having a ‘Muslim identity’. When they talked about themselves, they might call themselves Sylhetis or Punjabis or Gujaratis, but rarely Muslim.
HR: His own generation, says Malik, was largely secular. Many young people of Indian or Pakistani origin called themselves ‘black’. Malik himself channeled his frustration by getting involved politically with the left. So, why is it so different now?
KM: Many things have changed. The left has imploded and the idea of universal values has weakened. Movements for social change have declined, the power of labour organizations and of trade unions have been eroded, social democratic parties have largely cut their links with their traditional working class constituencies. It’s all helped created greater disenchantment with politics. The market has intruded into many aspects of social life. We live in a much more fragmented society. People began to see themselves and their identities in much more limited ways.
When I was growing up the main struggles of minority communities were political – the struggle against racist attacks, against discriminatory immigration controls, against police brutality and against discrimination in the workplace. By the late 1980s, most of those struggles had become not political but cultural. Muslims began to see themselves in narrower terms of identity and the demand grew for separate schools for boys and girls, the demand for halal meat in school lunches, and so son. And the most explosive of the new cultural struggles was the Rushdie affair.
Racism had created anger in minority communities, an anger that exploded onto streets in the the riots of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Central and local government responded to that anger and to the riots by introducing what we now call multicultural policies. Such policies sought to manage diversity by putting people into the ethnic and cultural boxes and defining their needs and aspirations by virtue of the boxes in which they had been put. One result was that people began to see themselves more and more in terms of those narrow identities defined by the boxes in which they had been put. Public policy reinforced wider social trends. We shifted towards a more identity-based society. Muslims began to think of themselves in a more tribal fashion than they had done even ten years earlier.
HR: How should we destroy identity politics?
KM: The rise of identity politics is linked to the shrinking of the political realm and to the erosion of wider social notions of belongingness. We have lost faith in universal ideals of democracy and equality. Challenging identity politics requires re-establishing the belief that there are certain political ideals, institutions, and forms of governance under which all people best flourish. There are unfortunately no easy answers. We have to work to create movements and institutions that can help sustain a more universalist form of politics.
HR: Those who do not think that identity politics is the best answer to racism and aggressive populism end up in a difficult two-front war. They must both argue against identity politics, and fight against racism and populism.
KM: Racism and populism are also forms of identity politics! To use identity politicts to combat racism or populism is counterproductive. It just amplifies the same mindset.
The painting is ‘Nataraja’ by Bridget Riley. Photo is by Lars Pehrson/ Svenska Dagbladet. Cover image is ‘Abstract no 22’ by Diana Ong.