I am an admirer of our PM’s political skills, but like his predecessor, Tony Blair, he has a weakness for half-baked thinking. We see this in the Big Society. His speech last Saturday and its critique of “multiculturalism” is another example.
The kerfuffle was predictable. One example, and the only one I have read in full, is Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s piece in The Independent, headlined “David Cameron’s message is that Muslims are not wanted”. What to make of it? I decided to take a drastic step. I read David Cameron’s speech in full.
The first point to make is that Mr Cameron delivered this speech at a security conference. Islamic terrorism (and I can find no better words with which to describe this phenomenon), is a clear security threat, whether or not it is the biggest one the country faces, as Mr Cameron claimed. As a clear threat it is a legitimate topic to make a speech about. Ms Alibhai-Brown has it entirely back-to-front when she complains that it is an insult to Muslims to talk about Islam in the context of terrorism. If you are going to talk about security, you have to talk about the specific phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. Mr Cameron went out of his way to explain he wasn’t talking about Islam itself. He describes Islamist extremism (from which terrorism stems) as a political phenomenon and not a religious one.
Mr Cameron described the process by which young Muslims become disenchanted with our society, and find identity in the ideology of Islamist extremism. This creed may be nominally peaceful at first, but they then get drawn into groups that espouse terrorism. So far, so good; the insight that there is often an intermediate step of hostile but peaceful preachers is an important one. The trouble starts when Mr Cameron goes on to make a further point: that “multiculturalism” is part of the problem, because, by accepting or even encouraging different communities to live separately, it creates a vacuum of identity. He advocates stronger engagement to establish a national identity, promoted through “muscular liberalism”.
“Multiculturalism” is a vague word, and no doubt to some it does mean “hands-off” – complete disengagement from different cultural groups by the establishment. But the term is best understood as the antithesis to “assimilation” – the process by which minority cultures are destroyed so that everybody has the same cultural identity. Assimilation should have no part as an official ideology in modern British society. We should celebrate diversity and draw strength from it. The problem about attacking multiculturalism is that it sends a dog-whistle signal of support to assimilationists and nativists. It is much better to try and redefine multiculturalism in a more helpful way than to attack it.
Multiculturalism is not incompatible with different cultural groups interacting, finding out about each other – and challenging each other’s values, if this is done according to proper liberal norms. We should never use it as an excuse just to shrug at the abuse of women and promotion of intolerant attitudes, for example. If that’s what we are doing then we should stop. If people want to associate with other members of their cultural group, they should be free to do so; if they form exclusive monocultural communities, we must tolerate it. But toleration doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticism. But when we criticise we shouldn’t simply attack the attempt to maintain cultural identity – we should raise specific issues which we think are wrong – such as intolerant attitudes. Engage, challenge, listen, find common ground, progress.
But the most worrying aspect of Mr Cameron’s speech was that it his attack on multiculturalism, in practice if not in theory, singles out the Muslim community – and here I agree with Ms Alibhai-Brown. Is he saying the same about Hassidic Jews? Or about the religiously exclusive schools being set up with government support by various groups? Mr Cameron started by talking about terrorism and he should have stuck to the subject.
In fact, it is pretty unconvincing to suggest that the disaffection of young Muslim men in Britain has much to do with a hands-off attitude by the establishment. Surely any attempt to promote our liberal values in a more “muscular” way would raise hackles further. Many Muslims see an apparently amoral and degenerate society, promoting drunkenness and promiscuity; to find all the evidence they need to support this view they need go no further than the Daily Mail. They are constantly open to slights and humiliations from other communities. Our entirely muddled involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and confused attitude to the Israel/Palestine problem, adds grist to the mill. To them this is evidence that we apply our vaunted values selectively. Challenging their attitudes to women and gays may be necessary, but it has nothing to do with preventing terrorism.
Mr Cameron may be right the government engages some of the wrong Muslim groups under the aegis of preventing terrorism; he inherited a very muddled strategy. We do need intelligence and support from Muslim communities. But the way forward is to promote genuine multiculturalism – and not sending implicit messages of support to those with anti-Muslim prejudices.