Yay, I won an award. The Editorial Intelligence 2016 ‘Society and diversity’ comment award. (No, I am not quite sure, either, what ‘Society and diversity comment’ amounts to, but I am immensely pleased to have won it.) The Editorial Intelligence awards have grown over the past decade to become perhaps the most important journalistic comment awards in the UK. Other winners this year included Jonathan Freedland as ‘Commentariat of the Year’, Gary Younge for ‘Comment Piece of the Year’, Sam Leith as ‘Columnist of the Year’, Roula Khalaf for ‘Foreign Commentator of the Year’, and Nabila Ramdani as ‘Contrarian of the Year’. My award was for a series of articles in the Observer, mainly on issues of Islam, immigration, identity, multiculturalism and assimilationism (‘Society and diversity’, I suppose…). My thanks to Editorial Intelligence for the award and to Robert Yates, comment editor of the Observer, for affording me the space to write on these issues. And here are excerpts from, and links to, the articles…
Phillips’ pamphlet is more measured and nuanced than his documentary. There is much in it with which I could agree. Phillips’ argument about free speech is both welcome and brave. We should ignore the claims that speech should be restricted because it causes offence, Phillips argues; only speech that incites violence should be prohibited. At the same time, Phillips’ argument about Muslims and integration is flawed. British Muslims, he suggests, are different from previous waves of migrants because, as he said in his documentary, they ‘don’t want to change’ but ‘still hold views from their ancestral backgrounds’. The real problem is the opposite. British Muslims have changed but many by becoming more socially conservative. Had ICM taken its poll 30 years ago, it would probably have found very different results. The first generation of Muslims to Britain, in the 1950s and 1960s, were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab. The second generation – my generation – was primarily secular. Our struggles were defined by political beliefs, and our desire for equality led us to challenge not just racism, but religious obscurantism.
This is not to say that Asian communities of the 1970s or 1980s were particularly liberal. British society was conservative on issues such as homosexuality, and minority communities were no different. But the same radical currents that challenged conservatism in wider society were also present. ‘Radical’ in the Muslim context meant being leftwing and secular, not, as now, being fundamentalist and regressive. The transformation in the meaning of that single word embodies the transformation of Muslim communities.
It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has become important. Only then did Muslims imagine a ‘Muslim community’. And only then did the chasm between Muslim attitudes and those of wider society begin to develop.
In immigration policy, there are no quick fixes that allow us to tie together the moral, the workable and the democratic. The migrant crisis is a longstanding one and whatever policies are conjured up will not solve it this year or next. Indeed, the key problem lies not at the level of policy at all, but at the level of attitude and perception. That is why we need to think more in the long term.
Liberal immigration policies can be enforced only by winning public support, not in spite of public opposition. Winning such support is not a chimera, there is no iron law that the public must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Large sections of the public have become hostile because they have come to associate immigration with unacceptable change. That is why, paradoxically, the immigration debate cannot be won simply by debating immigration, nor the migration crisis solved merely by enacting migration policies. Anxieties about immigration are an expression of a wider sense of political voicelessness and disengagement. Until that underlying political problem is tackled, the arrival of migrants on Europe’s shores will continue to be seen as a crisis.
When we talk of an act as depraved or evil, we are not merely describing something particularly abhorrent. We are making a claim about the boundaries of morality itself.
People often disagree about the most fundamental of moral issues. Some, for instance, view torture as always wrong; others think it acceptable to obtain vital information. Each may view the other as immoral. Yet they are likely to agree that both are debating questions of right and wrong. If someone were to say, however, that ‘Torturing people is an unalloyed good’, few would see him as making a moral argument at all. And most people would call such a claim ‘evil’.
Evil, in other words, is not simply about defining an act as being particularly wicked. It is also about defining the space within which we can have a meaningful debate about good and bad, virtue and wickedness.
What makes the actions of jihadis so inexplicable is that they seem to take place beyond the moral universe most of us inhabit.
Terrorism has come about in assimilationist France
and also in multicultural Britain. Why is that?
15 November 2015
In the past, when London was seen as the capital of Islamism and of terror groups – Londonistan, many called it – French politicians and policy-makers suggested that Britain faced a particular problem because of its multicultural policies. Such policies, they claimed, were divisive, failing to create a common set of values or sense of nationhood. As a result, many Muslims were drawn towards Islamism and violence. ‘Assimilationist’ policies, French politicians insisted, avoided the divisive consequences of multiculturalism and allowed every individual to be treated as a citizen, not as a member of a particular racial or cultural group.
So how do we account for the way that terrorism has been nurtured in assimilationist France too? And how different are French assimilationist and British multicultural policies?
Many of the French criticisms of multiculturalism were valid. British policy-makers welcomed diversity, but tried to manage it by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. They treated minority communities as if each were a distinct, homogenous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined by a singular view of culture and faith. The consequence has been the creation of a more fragmented, tribal society, which has nurtured Islamism. The irony, though, is that the French policies, from a very different starting point, have ended up at much the same place.
Disaffection with the old order has fuelled revolt throughout the Arab world. But, in the absence of a broad, secular progressive movement, opposition to the old order has increasingly taken a sectarian or regional form. In some cases, as people have associated secular modernism with repression, so they have lent support to Islamist organisations. In other cases, the authorities have been able to present the struggle for freedom as a sectarian challenge, turning it into a struggle, for instance, between Sunni and Shia. In Egypt, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood has led many ‘progressives’ to welcome military repression.
This tension between disaffection with the old order, and the sectarian fragmentation of opposition to that order, is not confined to the Arab world. Consider India. Its political structures, social institutions and historical development are very different from those in Turkey or Egypt or Syria. Yet, many of the same tensions and trends are visible here, too. Unlike in Turkey, or in many Arab states, the Indian National Congress built a mass movement through the struggle for independence. In the eyes of many in post-independence India, the Congress party was India. In the first half-century of independence, Congress won every election bar one. But the party was run almost as a family fiefdom by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and became an increasingly corrupt and dissolute organisation.
Until the 1990s, popular disaffection with Congress found no national voice. Opposition parties were almost exclusively regional. When a national opposition did emerge, it was rooted in sectarian religious identity – the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), or Indian People’s party, a Hindu nationalist party. First coming to power in the late 1990s, it crushed Congress in last year’s general election.
Two events last week, some 2,000 miles apart, captured the fraught character of the current debate about multicultural Britain. On Wednesday, nine Britons from Rochdale were stopped in Turkey, apparently as they tried to cross the border into Syria. One was the son of a local Labour councillor Shakil Ahmed, who said he was “shocked” to hear of the arrests. ‘My son’, he added, ‘is a good Muslim and his loyalties belong to Britain, so I don’t understand what he’s doing there.’
The next evening in Salford, a hop and a skip from Rochdale, came the general election leaders’ TV debate. Nigel Farage elicited outrage by blaming foreigners for seemingly all Britain’s social ills. But while his claims about ‘health tourism’ and foreigners with HIV undermining the NHS might have enraged liberals, they seemed to play well to his core constituency. While many despise what they regard as racism, others applaud the Ukip leader for, as they see it, speaking the truth.
From Salford to the Syrian border, the question of how to respond to multiculturalism remains fraught and divisive. Some celebrate multiculturalism for having transformed Britain into a vibrant, cosmopolitan nation. For others, Britain has become too diverse. Too much immigration and too little integration have, they suggest, combined to erode social cohesion, undermine national identity and corrode public trust.
The two groups foregrounded last week have, for very different reasons, come to dominate the debate: Muslims and the ‘white working class’.
The growing numbers of young Britons drawn to jihadism are, for many, emblematic of the refusal of Muslims to integrate and revealing of the failures of multiculturalism. According to a YouGov poll last month, 55% of the population think there exists ‘a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society’. Meanwhile, rising support for Ukip has drawn both fear and contempt. Many fear that without mainstream politicians adopting tough anti-immigration policies, support for populism will grow. Hence the ramping up of anti-immigration rhetoric in recent months.
Fear of Ukip is often mixed with contempt for the supposed racism of the Ukip-voting masses. Times columnist Matthew Parris described Clacton, where last October Tory defector Douglas Carswell became Ukip’s first MP, as ‘Britain on crutches’. Its ‘voters are going nowhere’, Parris sneered, for ‘this is tracksuit-and-trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain’.
What draws most wannabe jihadis to Syria is, to begin with, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for ‘belongingness’, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.
There is, of course, nothing new in the youthful search for identity and meaning. What is different today is the social context in which this search takes place. We live in a more atomised society than in the past; an age in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions and in which moral lines often seem blurred and identities distorted.
In the past, social disaffection may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to anti-racist campaigns. Today, such organisations often seem equally out of touch. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics but the politics of identity.