Charlie Hebdo – time for cosmopolitans to show leadership

As the dust settles from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, an ugly picture emerges. The consensus that holds society together is breaking down. We may all agree that murder is wrong, but we disagree on how to combat extremists, how to live with foreign cultures and, indeed, the scope of free speech. The cosmopolitanism that prevails amongst society’s elite is challenged. And yet the only solution is to embrace cosmopolitan ideas yet further.

On the one hand we have the Islamic extremists themselves. We haven’t learnt much new here. Their alienation is such that they feel at war with western (and not just western) states, and they have ceased to see their opponents as human beings. The Paris assailants drew a distinction between “civilians”, whom they should not attack, and others, including journalists and Jews, whom it was OK to kill. This will no doubt aid the process of self-justification in their own circles – but the contradictions are too obvious to everybody else. The extremists appear to have momentum, especially led by the success of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But their attacks, and their revelling in the power of life and death, should alienate them from the rest of society, outside the failed states in the Middle East and Africa.

We could take comfort from that if it wasn’t for dark forces working within the rest of society. Foremost amongst these is the rise of nativism in Europe and America. Nativists are intensely suspicious of any foreigners in their land. As we come to the end of the era of easy economic growth, and as technology destroys swathes of stable, clerical and factory jobs, faith in the idea of progress wanes. Nativists hark back to an earlier age that seemed simpler. They blame immigration for its undermining. Islamic immigrants have become a particular focus of suspicion. Ideas of a clash of civilisations, even a war, take currency. Nativism seems particularly strong in places with small immigrant communities, such as Clacton in England or, on an altogether larger scale, Dresden in Germany. But large, unintegrated ethnic minority communities provoke similar fears in neighbouring communities too. This accounts for the rise of perhaps the most important nativist movement: the National Front in France.

In Britain the rise of nativism is led by Ukip. Originally  Ukip focused on Britain’s membership of the European Union, but it struck electoral gold when it shifted to opposition to immigration. The mainstream Conservative and Labour parties started to panic as Ukip ate into their core support, giving nativism further impetus. Tabloid newspapers stirred things up. As a result public attitudes to ethnic minorities have soured in much of the country. The idea of “freedom of speech” is now used to defend the open expression of Islamophobic views – though the idea that such freedoms should extend to the expression of Islamist or anti-Semitic views is not aired.  The outcry of the Charlie Hebdo killings has given such nativists and their prejudices a real fillip.

Which makes matters worse. The entire Islamic community finds itself under attack. People say that all Muslims are to blame for extremists, and should apologise for them. Now the Muslim communities must face up to some important questions about how they are to progress and integrate into a modern world – questions that many are reluctant to confront. But ignorant prejudice serves only to alienate them, and prolong the sense of grievance on which the extremists feed.

And so we face the prospect of an unravelling.  Globalisation is integral to the western way of life. Just think of the rise of the British Empire and the cities that have been built on the back of the African slave trade in the 18th Century if you think it is anything recent. Large immigrant communities are simply a continuation of that process, in an actually much more benign way. Denying globalisation is as futile as Britons denying that their country is European. Nativism is a road to nowhere, or rather a road to poverty and conflict.

Instead we must embrace the values of cosmopolitanism. These are articulated most clearly by the Ghanaian-born author Kwame Anthony Appiah (as in Cosmopolitanism – Ethics in a world of Strangers). We must accept that our culture is the product of many cultures melding together in a process that has being going on for millennia, and which is destined to continue. There is no such thing as cultural purity, and no point in trying to defend it. This is not the same as relativism, which backs away from defining any kind of right or wrong ethical values. It means embracing ethical values which accept that all the globe’s inhabitants are part of an “us”, even though we recognise stronger affinities with some rather than others. People of different cultures should enter conversations with each other, and accept that their outlooks may change as a result.

Cosmopolitanism has always been embraced by elites, especially in the west after the nightmare of Fascism, which showed the futility of its opposite. That accounts for the many cosmopolitan aspects of our institutions. But now it is vital that it is taken up by all of society: amongst working class communities and ethnic minorities too. Here in London, perhaps, this process is quite well advanced, though hardly complete (I’m afraid that Islamophobic attitudes remain commonplace). Different communities are forced to mingle. We go to school together; we work together; increasingly we have children together. Elsewhere, though, we have just taken a backward step.

But I remain hopeful. The young are more cosmopolitan than their elders. Our cultural and business leaders, by and large, remain firm. At a time when elites are under attack for being out of touch, it is time for them do what elites should: to show leadership.

4 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo – time for cosmopolitans to show leadership”

  1. I’m tempted to say two+7 = 16, since I don’t like excluding anyone even those who are more robotic than the rest of us.

    Chancing on this website, researching someone I know a little, I was delighted to discover a useful quite-new-to-me word: NATIVIST, while reading a good essay that I m now seeking to share with a few friends: also a first time thing.
    Thanks, whoever you are!

    1. I picked the word up from The Economist, which likes to use the word in the context of anti-immigrant feeling in the US>

  2. The extremist jihadi tendency and the support or at least sympathy for it within mainstream the Muslim community has no comparable counterpart in other prominent European belief systems. Catholics are not going on murder sprees for mocking the Pope, Hindus are not suicide bombing on tube trains because someone drew a cartoon of Shiva, Calvinists in Switzerland are not blowing up their local bus because Coptic Christians they have never met are being discriminated against in Egypt. Islam is struggling with modernity and as a whole is less enlightened now than it has been at various points in its past when it was an ark of learning and knowledge far superior to Christian Europe.

    The internal contradiction is important. Europe offers the benefits of rationalism, enlightenment and liberalism which is lacking in authoritarian regimes in Islam’s traditional heartlands. But European Islamists are happy to use these things but not extend them to others. They don’t want to be the subject of authoritarianism, they want to be the authoritarians.

    1. Well there’s no denying that Muslims in the west (and elsewhere for that matter) have a lot of work to do to reconcile them to the benefits of modern society. There are, of course, other examples of religious militancy and murder outside Europe (Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Hindus in India) and in our own UK we have Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. And as for examples from history…

      I’m not sure if anything worthwhile is achieved in demonising the faith because of the particular problems of integration in Europe. I firmly believe these are a matter of circumstance rather than anything different or special about the religion itself. There is also the very malign influence of Saudi Arabia in using its oil wealth to promote its particularly benighted version of Islam. The important thing is to offer a path to reconciliation for those that wish to take it that will serve to isolate those that don’t.

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