I recently gave a long interview to Dutch journalist Marco Visscher about Brexit, migration, democracy, politics, being offensive, growing up in racist Britian, and not being in a Hollywood movie. It was published in the Belgian magazine Knack (and a shorter version in the Dutch paper Trouw). The interview has been translated from English to Dutch then (roughly) back to English, so may not read very coherently in places. I have edited it lightly. It was published in Knack under the headline Het ‘Europese migratiebeleid is ten diepste immoreel’ (‘European migration policy is deeply immoral’)
Naturally, the cosmopolitan Kenan Malik lives in London, the city in which about a third of the population was born abroad. The outcome of the referendum on the European Union still echoes like a sledgehammer. But the chaos and anarchy which many papers report is little in evidence in the Turkish coffeehouse in southeast London where we meet.
MARCO VISSCHER: I assume you are embarrassed by how xenophobic your countrymen have been revealed to be in the EU referendum?
KENAN MALIK: Why should I be? I am responsible for my actions, not for those of everyone in Britain. In any case, a rejection of the European Union is not necessarily a sign of xenophobia. Norway has voted against the EU and one would hardly call Norway more xenophobic or inward looking than, say, EU members such as Austria or Hungary. Internationalism is not about accepting the top-down structures of the EU. It is rather about the creation of pan-European solidarity built from the bottom up, to defend the peoples of Europe – and beyond – from the regressive policies of both nations states and of the EU.
MV: The Brexit camp has seized the referendum as a vote on immigration. Support for ‘Leave’ suggests at least a desire among many Britons to close the borders.
KM: That may be true, but it is not a uniquely British attitude. It is a sentiment felt and expressed much more widely. You can see it in France, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, in the United States.
MV: How would you describe that sentiment?
KM: There is a growing dissatisfaction with the established political parties. One of the great changes in recent political history has been the erosion of the old ideological divisions that characterized politics for a long time. Differences between the parties have become much smaller. Politics is no longer a fierce debate about competing visions of social change; it is more an exercise in technocratic management.
MV: But there is still a difference between left and right?
KM: In the sense that I am still on the left, yes. But the great political divide, in Britain, right across Europe, in America, too, is not between left and right, or between social democracy and conservatism, as it was for most of the twentieth century. It is rather between those who feel at home in a globalized, technocratic world, or at least are prepared to accommodate themselves to it, and those who feel left out, dispossessed, voiceless. Many sections of the electorate, particularly many working class sections, see mainstream political organizations as remote and indifferent to their concerns. Many have been drawn towards populist groups, such UKIP in Britain, National Front in France and the PVV in the Netherlands, as they seem to them the only parties giving them a voice.
MV: Those are precisely the parties that celebrate Brexit as their own victory.
KM: Yes, populist and far right-wing parties have often been able to speak to that constituency, in large part because the parties of the left have failed to address the pressing issues of their traditional supporters. Hence, many people have turned to populists who seemingly address their girievances better.
MV: And blame ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees for everything.
KM: Yes. And falsely. The problems faced by working class communities are the result of a mix of social and economic changes – such as the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – and political changes, including the transformation of social democratic parties and the erosion of trade union power. Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive these changes, the symbol of unacceptable change.
MV: But immigration still has something to do with rising unemployment, stagnant wages and proliferating crime?
KM: The relationship is complex, but most of the claims that immigration is responsible for higher unemployment or falling wages or rising crime are usually false.
MV: You think that immigration has nothing to do with the problems of people who do not feel heard and in Britain have voted for Brexit?
KM: I do, yes.
MV: So they have been misled by right-wing populists?
KM: It’s not so much a case of being misled as that immigration has for them become a symbol of unacceptable change. And that’s largely because of the way that the issue has been dealt with by both sides of the political spectrum over the last half century. Politicians have recognized the economic need for immigrants, but they have also always talked about immigration as a fundamental social problem. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for the masses whom many regard as deeply racist, and incapable of adopting a rational view of immigration. So, we have had a poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt, which has helped to stigmatize both migrants and the working class, and created popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration.
MV: The criticism from the right is that the left is refusing treat immigrants as a ‘fundamental social problem’, as you claim.
KM: It is true that we’ve heard much hostile commentary on immigration from right-wing populists and from the Leave campaign during the referendum. But not only from rightwing populists or Leave campaigners. Politicians from the left and prominent figures from the Remain campaign have also contributed to creating a mood of hostility to immigration. Gordon Brown, when he became Labour leader and Prime Minister in 2007, spoke in a speech to the Labour Party conference of Labour policy as being ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan that in the 1970s and 1980s was pushed by organizations of the far right. It was David Cameron who led the campaign against ‘benefit tourism’, claiming that many EU migrants from eastern Europe came to Britain simply to claim welfare benefits even though the government’s own studies showed otherwise.
MV: At the same time Remainers were extremely critical of Leave slogans such as ‘I want my country back’.
KM: It was often derided as a hollow and meaningless slogan by Remain supporters. But for many sections of working class voters, whose world does seem to have been turned upside down by forces they could not shape, it was a sentiment that resonated deeply. The slogan also played to the feeling that immigrants or the European Union have changed society. The point is that there have been many developments that have changed society, sometimes for good, sometimes or bad, from the decline of manufacturing industry to the rise of consumerism, from the erosion of the power of traditional institutions such as the Church to the changing role of women in social life. Even if not one single immigrant had been allowed into Europe in the past fifty years, European societies would be very different today than they were then. But it is immigration that has become the primary symbol of change, and of unacceptable change.
MV: You are a supporter of open borders. Why?
KM: I don’t think we should throw open all borders tomorrow. The question of whether or not one has open borders depends on circumstances and context. I oppose arbitrary restrictions on people, and am in favour of freedom of movement. I also think that many of the fears about the negative impact of open borders are misplaced. The idea for instance, that the whole world will simply walk in. An open door, as the writer and economist Philippe Legrain puts it, is usually a swinging door. People come when there is work, they leave when there isn’t. Ironically, the closing of borders often leads to the very problems that the closure was meant to solve.
MV: Can you give an example?
KM: When Spain joined the European Union in 1986, it had an open border with North Africa. Africans came for seasonal work and then returned home again. The open border worked fine. A condition for accession to the EU, however, was that Spain had to close the border. So, in 1991, Spain closed its North African border. That did not stop North Africans coming to Spain. But now they took to boats to smuggle themselves in. That was the actual beginning of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In May of that year the first bodies were washed up on Spanish beaches. And those that smuggled themselves into Spain did not return to North Africa – because if they had it would have been much more difficult to return – but stayed, and often brought their family. The ‘problem’ that many thought had to be solved by closing the border, was in fact in many ways created by border closure. Much the same is true, for instance, of the closure of the US-Mexican border.
MV: But open borders are still an invitation for terrorists?
KM: I am not opposed to checks on people coming into a country, just arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement. Nor do I think we should simply wave in every known terrorist that wants to enter.
MV: The perpetrators of the attacks in Paris in November last year could return easily to Molenbeek
KM: Immediately after the Paris attacks the French authorities established border controls and road checks. But the terrorists who carried out the attacks were able to return to Belgium because they were allowed through those road blocks and border checks. The problem was not the absence of borders, but the absence of a functioning system of police and information coordination.
MV: Everyone would surely come our way if the borders were open?
KM: That’s always the fear, and it’s not justified. When Spain had an open border to Africa, did the entire African continent decide to move to in? Has everyone in East European countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria moved to Western Europe, even though they could, as EU citizens, do so if they wished? The vast majority of people in the world don’t migrate, and the vast majority of those that do migrate, don’t want to come to Europe.
MV: There is great fear in Europe about the huge numbers of migrants.
KM: Yes there is. And the numbers are large. But we should put the numbers in context, and not exaggerate or speak of an ‘invasion’. In Europe last year there were around a million irregular migrants and refugees. There are around a million refugees in Iran alone. Even more in Pakistan. Turkey is home to more than two million Syrian refugees. One million migrants represent 0.2 percent of the entire population of the European Union. In Lebanon, refugees make nearly 20 percent of the population. The EU has recently signed an agreement with Turkey, to deport migrants and refugees back to Turkey. The logic of that agreement is that a country with only one-seventh of the population of the EU, and a much lower per capita gross national product, should take primary responsibility for the care of migrants and refugees, while the EU absolves itself of such responsibility.
MV: You find that wrong?
KM: Absolutely. It is immoral that poorer countries should bear the heaviest burden. If these countries had adopted the same stance as the EU, then there really would be a migrant crisis.
MV: How do we go forward from here?
KM: The dilemma we face is this: on the one hand, any moral and workable immigration policy will not, at least for the moment, possess a democratic mandate; on the other, any policy that has popular support is likely to be immoral and unworkable. That dilemma exists not because the public is particularly drawn to immoral or unworkable policies, but because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all political hues in the past few decades. That’s why it’s so important to have a broad debate on the underlying issues and concerns.
MV: You want a wide-ranging debate, but in the meantime immigrants will continue coming to Europe. Why don’t you just say: Brussels should make migration rules more liberal right now?
KM: Because a more liberal immigration policy can only be implemented with public support. Without a democratic mandate a more open policy will not work. You have to convince people that liberal policies are right.
MV: I wish you luck with that.
KM: Why do you think it’s impossible? There is no iron law that says that people are opposed to immigration. They have become so partly because of the ways in which the debate has been framed. That’s why it’s important to have an open, public debate on the issue.
MV: More and more commentators and opinion leaders, such as Richard Dawkins and Slavoj Žižek, are claiming that ordinary people should not make decisions about complex subjects. Otherwise people will vote for Brexit or support Donald Trump.
KM: The elite idea that people have to be kept in check, because they are too impulsive, biased or irrational, is one that fundamentally undermines democracy. It is an argument that has a long history, going back to ancient Greece. It also echoes arguments from a century ago, from the period when the right to vote was extended to workers, women and blacks. Francis Galton, and other leaders of the eugenics movement, disapproved of extending the right to vote to people from ‘undesirable’ classes. They were convinced that societies would fail if ‘unfit’ people could have a say.
MV: Do you mean that in 2016 the critics are returning to eugenic ideas?
KM: Not in the sense of advocating sterilization of the unfit or a genetic programme to improve humanity. But the eugenics movements also expressed fear and contempt for ordinary people, and that is certainly echoed today. Many intellectuals profess verbal support for the idea of democracy, but seem to have a problem with it in practice. They accept democracy so long as it produces the right results. But anyone who argues that does not understand what democracy is.
MV: You were active in the fight against racism in the eighties. What exactly did it involve?
KM: I grew up in a very different Britain. Racism was woven into the fabric of society. Racism has not disappeared, of course, but the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that defined Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. I have a vivid memory as a boy of 8 or 9 years old, getting on a bus, and the woman next to whom I sat deliberately getting up and sitting somewhere else instead – and not because I was a snotty schoolboy. That kind of overt racism was commonplace. Racist attacks, stabbings, firebombings – these were weekly events. In the 1980s, I was organizing street patrols in East London to protect Asian families from racist gangs, who were harassing them – smashing windows, throwing firebombs. We canvassed the local area to talk to people, build support, identify perpetrators. We often stayed in the homes of families being targeted, in anticipation of an attack.
MV: And what did you if there was such an attack?
KM: We confronted them, chased them away.
MV: With knives or guns?
KM: No, it was not a Hollywood movie. But there were regular confrontations.
MV: Why did you quit it? Racism has not disappeared, right?
KM: I never ‘quit’. But the issues that matter to me have become much broader. The experience of racism, and the struggle against it, introduced me to politics. Politics allowed me to move beyond the confines of anti-racism, beyond what came to be called identity politics, introducing me to a wider world of ideas and concepts. I began to realise that injustice was not simply something done to me. Politics opened my mind to concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Increasingly, though, many on the left travelled the other way. They began to see universalist values as obsolete and dangerously naive. More and more, they abandoned a universalist perspective, embracing instead identity politics and the politics of multiculturalism.
MV: Why do you see multiculturalism as a problem?
KM: First, we need to distinguish between the lived experience of diversity and multiculturalism as a political process. The experience of living in a society that’s less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is positive. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It means forcing people into particular ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes, rather than people’s needs, to shape public policy. Multiculturalism suggests that your origins should determine how the state should treat you. It means that people belonging to a minority group get lumped together and treated as if they constitute a homogeneous group. It also transforms the idea of equality, from the belief that everyone should be treated equally despite racial and cultural differences, to the insistence that people should be treated differently because of them.
Diversity within minority groups becomes ignored. We tend to sideline progressive voices within minority communities and to look on reactionaries as if they expressed the authentic views of those communities. Naser Khader, a Danish member of parliament and a Muslim, tells of a conversation he had with a leftwing journalist, shortly after the controversy surrounding the Mohammed cartoons, ten years ago. The journalist claimed that ‘the cartoons insulted all Muslims’. When Khader responded that ‘I am not insulted’, the journalist told him he was ‘not a real Muslim’. From this supposedly ‘leftwing’ perspective, to be a Muslim you have to be reactionary.
We also have only a limited notion of diversity. We think of diversity largely in terms of culture, religion or ethnicity; many other forms of diversity – class, say, or gender, or age – are often ignored.
MV: But European societies used to be homogeneous until the coming of immigration.
KM: We have that image of European societies because we suffer from historical amnesia. We worry, for instance, about conflicts with Muslims and imagine their values are incompatible with Western values. But less than a hundred years ago there were exactly the same concerns about Catholics, especially in Northern Europe. Until the late nineteenth century Britain, for instance, had a whole series of laws that discriminated against Catholics because they were deemed unfit for a democratic society. There were similar sentiments in the USA after the Second World War, when it was faced with immigration from southern Europe. And, of course, in the eyes of many people, Jews constituted a mortal threat to European identity, values and ways of being, so much so that they became victims of the world’s greatest genocide.
Europe was rent not just by religious and cultural but by political conflict, too. From the English civil war to the Spanish civil war, from the German Peasants’ rebellion to the Paris commune, European nations were deeply divided. Even the perception today that Europe was racially and ethnically homogenous, was not how Europeans of the time looked upon their societies. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the working class and the rural poor, for instance, were seen by many as racially distinct. So, the idea that Europe was homogeneous but has been made plural by mass immigration is wrong.
MV: How should we deal with all the different cultures in our society?
KM: We should look upon diversity positively. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse.
MV: But does this not lead to tension and conflict?
KM: Ideological and cultural clashes can be useful. They allow us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create a more universal language of citizenship. The trouble with multiculturalism, as a way of managing diversity, is that it can shut down social engagement, insisting in the name of respect or tolerance, that one should not offend others or even criticize their deeply-held values. Hence, multiculturalism undermines precisely that which is good about diversity. If you believe that diversity is good, you also have to defend freedom of expression and expand it as broadly as possible.
MV: Many people believe that in a plural society racist or offensive comments should be censored. How do you see that?
KM: I think that it is precisely because we live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a plural society, it is both inevitable and important that people should be able to offend others. The boundary of free speech lies, for me, only at direct incitement to violence.
MV: Why do you think is useful to give offence?
KM: Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The importance of free speech is that it provides provides a challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a challenge to authority. Once we give up the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice. That is why it is minorities who suffer most when freedom of expression is curtailed.
KM: Because the idea that certain things cannot be said is a way protecting those with power from having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. If we impose restrictions on free speech, ostensibly to protect vulnerable groups, we actually limit the ability of these groups to challenge those in power and their ideas.
MV: How did you vote in the referendum?
KM: I abstained.
KM: Because neither side addressed the underlying issues. One side ignored the democratic deficit, the other pushed immigration as the cause of our social problems. In my view, the European Union is a deeply undemocratic institution. But for Britain, or for any other nation, simply to leave the EU will not solve the democratic deficit. The problems run much deeper.
MV: You don’t find that ironic?
KM: What should I find ironic?
MV: You complain of a democratic deficit but you do not vote in the referendum.
KM: The right to vote does not mean one has to vote. Abstention is as much part of the democratic process as is voting for one side of the other, so long as you can make a case for doing so. And democracy is not just about voting, but also about having a robust, public debate. That is what, I hope, I am engaged in.