What’s Wrong With Multiculturalism?
Friday, June 22, 2012 | Categories: Past Episodes |
Writer, lecturer, and broadcaster Kenan Malik
How should European societies respond to the influx of peoples with different traditions, backgrounds and beliefs? In the 2012 Milton K. Wong Lecture, Kenan Malik looks at multiculturalism policies in Europe, at the ways in which different countries have approached immigration and diversity, and at the reasons for the current dissatisfaction. The lecture is presented by the Laurier Institution, UBC Continuing Studies and CBC Radio One. For more details, please visit the Milton.K. Wong Lecture website.
You can follow Kenans blog here http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com
I am giving the Milton K Wong Lecture in Vancouver in June. Entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perspective’, it will try to explain to a Canadian audience, for whom multiculturalism has a very different meaningthan it does to a European one, the contours of the European debate, as well as my disagreements with both sides. In particular I want to show why both multiculturalists and many of their critics (particularly their rightwing critics) buy into the same set of myths about the history of immigration into Europe, these three in particular:
1 ‘European nations used to be homogenous but have become plural because of mass immigration’
It is a claim that might appear to be common sense. After all, immigration has transformed Western European societies, and many seem to be riven by the kinds of cultural and religious conflicts that were rare in the past – from the controversy over The Satanic Verses to the debate about whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa. In fact, most European nations are less plural now than they were, say, a hundred years ago. The reason we imagine otherwise is because of historical amnesia and because we have come to adopt a highly selective standard for defining what it is to be plural.
Consider France. At the time of the French Revolution, less than half the population spoke French. The historian Eugene Weber has shown how traumatic and lengthy was the process of what he calls ‘self-colonisation’ required to unify France and her various constituent populations. These developments created the modern French nation. But they also reinforced in the elite a sense of how alien was the mass of the population. Here is the Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez addressing the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857:
Consider a population like ours, placed in the most favourable circumstances; possessed of a powerful civilisation; amongst the highest ranking nations in science, the arts and industry. Our task now, I maintain, is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.
One only has to read the novels of Émile Zola - Nana, for instance – or the works of Count Arthur Gobineau, one of the leading racial scientists of his day, to recognize how widespread was this sentiment. Gobineau, for instance, had this to say about social distinctions in France in his Essay On the Inequality of the Human Races:
Every social order is founded upon three original classes, each of which represents a racial variety: the nobility, a more or less accurate reflection of the conquering race; the bourgeoisie composed of mixed stock coming close to the chief race; and the common people who live in servitude or at least in a very depressed position. These last belong to a lower race which came about in the south through miscegenation with the negroes and in the north with the Finns.
The social and intellectual elite in France, far from viewing their nation as homogenous, regarded most of their fellow Frenchmen not as ‘one of us’ but as racially alien, and so inferior that they stood below the ‘most inferior savage races’ and were ‘beyond cure’. The concept of ‘race’ today is so intertwined with the idea of ‘colour’, and of the distinction between Europeans and non-Europeans, that it is often difficult to comprehend nineteenth century notions of racial difference. For nineteenth century thinkers, race was a description not so much of colour differences as of social distinctions. The lower classes were, in their eyes, as racially different as were Africans or Asians. The ‘Other’ were not peoples who came from without; they lived within the nation, and were part of it.
In Britain, too, the elite viewed the working class and the rural poor as the racial Other. In October 1865, a local rebellion by peasantry in Jamaica was put down with the utmost ferocity by the island’s governor Edward John Eyre. Eyre’s actions generated considerable debate in Britain. Most of those who defended his viciousness did so on the grounds, not that Jamaicans were black, but that they were no different from English workers. ‘The negro’, observed the planter Edwin Hood, ‘is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very likely often nearly a savage with the mind of a child.’
A vignette of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, is typical of English middle class attitudes of this era:
The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… Slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.
Modern Bethnal Green is no longer home to warehousemen or costermongers, but lies rather at the heart of the Bangladeshi community in East London. Today’s ‘Bethnal Green poor’ are often seen as culturally and racially distinct. But only those on the fringes of politics would compare the distinctiveness of Bangladeshis to that of slaves. The sense of apartness was far greater in Victorian England than it is contemporary Britain. And that is because in reality the social and cultural differences between a Victorian gentleman or factory owner, on the one hand, and a farmhand or a machinist, on the other, were much greater than those between a white resident and one of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green today. However much they may view each other as different, a 16 year old of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green, or a 16 year old of Algerian origin living in Marseilles, or a 16 year old of Turkish origin living in Berlin, probably wears much the same clothes, listens to the same music, watches the same TV shows, follows the same football club as a 16 year old white teenager in that same city. The shopping mall and the sports field, the TV and the iPod, have all served to bind differences and create a set of experiences and cultural practices that is more common than at any time in the past.
There is nothing new, then, in plural societies. From a historical perspective contemporary societies, even those transformed by mass immigration, are not particularly plural. What is different today is the perception that we are living in particularly plural societies, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. The debate about multiculturalism is a debate in which certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as important while others (such as class, say, or generational), which used to be perceived as important, have come to be seen as less relevant. The real question, then, is not about how to manage uniquely plural societies, but about why we imagine that contemporary societies are uniquely plural.
2 ‘Contemporary immigration is different to previous waves, so much so that social structures need fundamental reorganization to accommodate it’
In his much-lauded book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe the American writer Christopher Caldwell suggests that prior to the Second World War immigrants came almost exclusively from other European nations and so were easily assimilable. ‘Using the word immigration to describe intra-European movements’, Caldwell suggests, ‘makes only slightly more sense than describing a New Yorker as an “immigrant” to California’. Muslim migration, in particular, Caldwell sees as a form of colonization. ‘Since its arrival half a century ago’, Caldwell argues, ‘Islam has broken – or required adjustments to, or rearguard defences of – a good many of the European customs, received ideas and state structures with which it has come in contact.’ Islam ‘is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it’.
Caldwell is deeply hostile to multiculturalism. Many multiculturalists, too, however, see postwar immigration as different from previous waves, and demand major changes to social structures to accommodate those differences. The British sociologist Tariq Modood, for instance, suggests that the new immigration requires a new ‘equality encompassing public ethnicity’. This means an ‘equality as not having to hide or apologise for one’s origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.’ Both multiculturalists and their critics, then, view new immigration as distinct from old immigration and as demanding major social surgery. Multiculturalists see this as positive, or at least as an acceptable necessity. Their critics see it as an intolerable problem. Both are wrong.
I will come to the question of postwar immigration in due course. Let me deal first with the claim that prewar immigrants were perceived as little different from the indigenous populations. According to Caldwell, prewar immigration between European nations did ‘not provoke the most worrisome immigration questions, such as “How well will they fit in?” “Is assimilation what they want?” and, most of all, “Where are their true loyalties?”.’
In fact, those were the very questions asked of European migrants in the prewar years. In 1903, the British Royal Commission on Alien Immigration expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’ and there were fears that there might be ‘grafted onto the English stock… the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’.
Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, was designed primarily to bar European Jews, who were seen as unBritish. The Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, observed that without such a law, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution… nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’
In France, nearly a third of the population in the 1930s were immigrants, mostly from Southern Europe. Today we think of Italian or Portuguese migrants as culturally similar to their French hosts. Seventy years ago they were viewed as aliens, given to crime and violence, and unlikely to assimilate into French society. ‘The notion of the easy assimilation of past European immigrants’, the French historian Max Silverman has written, ‘is a myth’.
One of the consequences of postwar migration has been to create historical amnesia about prewar attitudes, just as it has created historical amnesia about the divided nature of European societies before such immigration. From a historical perspective, there is little that is unique about contemporary migrants with regard to the way that host societies perceive them.
3 ‘ European nations have adopted multicultural policies because minorities have demanded them’
The irony of multicultural policies is that they were imposed not because minority communities demanded that their differences be recognised but because it was useful for policy makers that they were. The question of the cultural difference of immigrants has always preoccupied the political elites. It is not a question, however, that, until recently, has particularly engaged immigrants themselves.
Take Britain. The arrival in the late 1940s and the 1950s of large numbers of immigrants from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean led to considerable unease about its impact upon traditional concepts of Britishness. As a Colonial Office report of 1955 observed, ‘a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken… the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached’.
The migrants certainly brought with them a host of traditions and habits and cultural mores from their homelands, of which they were often very proud. But they were rarely concerned with preserving cultural differences nor thought of it as a political issue. What inspired them was the struggle not for cultural identity but for political equality. And they recognized that at the heart of that struggle was the creation of a commonality of values, hopes and aspirations between migrants and indigenous Britons, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences.
This is equally true of the group whose traditions, beliefs and mores are widely perceived to be most distinct from those of Western societies, and hence the group that is supposedly most demanding that its differences be publicly recognized: Muslims. The patterns of Muslim migration have, in fact, been little different to that of other communities. The best way to understand it, as of much postwar migration to Europe, is in terms of three generations: the first generation that came to Europe in the 50s and 60s; the second generation that were born, or grew up, here in the 70s and 80; and the third generation that has come of age since then.
The first generation of Muslim immigrants to Britain, who came almost entirely from the Indian subcontinent, were pious in their faith, but wore it lightly. The British writer and theatre director Pervaiz Khan, whose family came to Britain in the 1950s, remembers his father and uncles going to the pub for a pint. ‘They did not bring drink home’, he says. ‘And they did not make a song and dance about it. But everyone knew they drank. And they were never ostracised for it.’ No woman wore a hijab, let alone a niqab or burqa. His family ‘rarely fasted at Ramadan’, Khan says, ‘and often missed Friday prayers. They did not boast about it. But they were not pariahs for it. It is very different from today.’ Khan’s experience is not unusual. My parents were very similar. And those of most of my friends. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all encompassing philosophy.
The second generation – my generation – was primarily secular. I was of a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or even often as ‘Asian’, but rather as ‘black’. Black was for us not an ethnic label but a political badge. ‘Officially, as it were’, observes Jamal Khan, the narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s novel Something to Tell You, ‘we were called immigrants, I think. Later for political reasons we were ‘blacks’… In Britain we were still called Asians, though we’re no more Asian than the English are European. It was a long time before we became known as Muslims, a new imprimatur, and then for political reasons.’ Or as thenovelist Tariq Mehmood, one of the Bradford 12, puts it, ‘In the 1970s, I was called a black bastard and a Paki, but not a coloured bastard and very rarely was I called a Muslim’.
The ‘Muslim community’, in the sense of a community that defined itself solely, or even primarily, by faith did not exist in the 1970s. Neither did the Sikh community, nor the Hindu community. ‘I had grown up in a profoundly secular environment’, recalls Balraj Purewal, who was a member of Asian Youth Movement in the 1980s. ‘As a Punjabi I did not think about Muslim or Sikh. At school the person next to me was never a Muslim or Hindu. It never occurred to me to think like that.’ Unlike our parents’ generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally fierce in our opposition to religion and to the traditions that often marked immigrant communities. Religious organizations were barely visible. The organizations that bound together migrant communities, were secular, often socialist: the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.
It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 80s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and ‘Westernised’ than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’. This in itself should make us question the received wisdom that multiculturalism has been a response to minority demands and an accommodation to their unwillingness to integrate. The shift in the meaning of a single word expresses the transformation through the postwar years. When I was growing up, to be ‘radical’ was to be militantly secular, self-consciously Western and avowedly left-wing. To be someone like me. Today ‘radical’ in a Muslim context means the very opposite. It describes a religious fundamentalist, someone who is anti-Western, who is opposed to secularism.
What is true of Britain is true also of many other European countries. In France, for instance, the irony is that, for all the current hostility of the French state to Islam, and to public displays of Islamic identity, such as the burqa, for most of the postwar years, while migrant workers were defiantly secular, successive governments regarded such secularism as a political threat and attempted to foist religion upon them, encouraging them to maintain their traditional cultural identities.
‘The right to a culture identity’, declared Paul Dijoud, minister for immigrant workers in the 1970s government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, ‘allows the immigrant, despite his geographical distance, to stay close to his country.’ The government sought in Islam ‘a stabilizing force which would turn the faithful from deviance, delinquency or membership of unions or revolutionary parties’. When a series of strikes hit car factories in the late seventies, the government encouraged employers to build prayer rooms in an effort to wean immigrant workers, who formed a large proportion of the workforce, away from militant activity.
The myth that multiculturalism was a response to minority demands gets cause and effect the wrong way round. Minority communities did not force politicians to introduce multicultural policies. Rather, the implementation of multicultural policieshelped entrench the politics of identity within minority communities and shaped the desire to celebrate one’s culture identity.
Most of the quotes in the first two parts come from my books Strange Fruit andThe Meaning of Race; most of those in Part 3 are taken from my book From Fatwa to Jihad. The photos are, from top to bottom, of the SS Empire Windrush, which brought the first group of Caribbean immigrants to Britain in 1948; an anthropometrics demonstration at the Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held in New York’s Museum of Natural History, 1921; a poster for an anti-immgration demonstration in 1902; an Asian mother and child arriving at Heathrow in 1968; and Jayaben Desai, leader of the Grunwick strike in 1976.
Kenan Malik and Hanif Kureishi author of My Beautiful Launderette discussing free speech, identity politics, Islamism, multiculturalism, racism etc. 45mins well spent.
IWCA article looking at the politics of race and identity.
Recent weeks have seen racial tensions in the news once more, with the antics of the ‘English Defence League’ and those responding to them featuring high in the headlines. Like the BNP, the EDL claim to be defending the rights of the majority culture in the same manner as minorities, with support from their liberal sympathisers, defend theirs. As times get harder and the economic cake shrinks over the coming years, the battle for the crumbs will, as things stand, be fought along racial lines. This is the legacy of identity politics and multiculturalism.
The purpose of this article is to start the process of taking our analysis of multiculturalism and identity politics to a new level. The aim is to ensure we have the tools to be able to challenge the stance of both the left and the right on this issue. With regard to the right, it is not just the BNP we want to challenge but the more deferential kind of conservatism that may fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the neo-liberal project. A key part of this challenge is to highlight how backward and reactionary the embrace of multiculturalism and identity politics is. In particular, we want to draw attention to the way in which identity politics traps people and denies them the opportunity to transcend their circumstances – a vitally important aim given the parlous state of the economy and the coming age of austerity.
The 30 year experiment with neo-liberalism has crashed and burned. The bubble economy of the last ten years was built on the triple pillars of a debt fuelled consumer boom, supposedly ever rising property prices that were meant to underpin that debt and last, but by no means least, the shenanigans of high finance. These three pillars have crumbled to dust leaving an economy with no dynamism and no means of renewing itself. Neo-liberalism has been responsible for the decline of upward social mobility from the working class over the last thirty years. With a moribund economy, the downward mobility of those who thought they could buy the middle class lifestyle on credit will, if anything, swell the ranks of the working class.
New Labour are in the process of self destructing, Unless Gordon Brown can pull off the miracle of all times, the Tories look set to form the next government. With the failure of neo-liberalism leaving a vacuum on the political right, conservatives are grasping around for a new narrative that will fit the looming age of austerity. Further investigation is needed to enable us to predict with some certainty what that narrative will be. However, in an age where prevailing economic circumstances have made upward social mobility from the working class almost an impossibility, an acceleration of the return to a more hierarchical, rigid society is pretty much on the cards, albeit one assuming a 21st century form utilising the green rhetoric of limits. In this kind of climate, any kind of thinking that implies peoples’ identities are fixed, whether they are cultural, religious or based on class, will only serve to reinforce social and cultural divisions, thwarting any attempts to move society onto a more dynamic, progressive footing.
We have a responsibility to challenge backward notions about the immutability of peoples’ identities and to fight for a vision of a society where the majority of ordinary working people, regardless of their ethnic, religious or social background, can fulfil their aspirations.
The left’s obsession with identity politics
To be brutally honest, there never was a golden age of the political left. But there was a time when there was more of a commitment to universal values and aspirations. The problem for the left was that they never had a convincing or successful programme that could deliver equality for all along with economic and social justice. The left certainly never had an analysis or programme that convinced the vast majority of working class people to fully place their faith in them. This failure inevitably led the working class to give up on the left and the left to emphatically turn their backs on the working class. The rest is the grisly history of the left’s retreat into the world of identity politics.
It is a travesty that so called progressives should embrace the politics of identity. For what are identity politics other than a celebration of what you were born into? Celebrating an accident of birth denies the possibility of transcending what you are and striving for a better future for yourself, your family and your community. The only people who would willingly embrace such a limiting and rigid society are the more traditional conservatives who long for a more stable and hierarchical society, even if upward social mobility is a casualty of this. Which makes it all the more odd that so called ‘progressives’ are quite happy to promote identity politics and multiculturalism when it is clear they only serve to consign people to a fixed status in society. It may not be the explicit intention of these ‘progressives’ to do this but it is certainly the unintended consequence. What they also fail to see is that conservative notions about identity and culture being immutable can also be applied to class. When a devastating economic crisis has effectively ended any chance of upward social mobility for the working class, championing the politics of identity is a betrayal of their aspirations.
So this begs the question, why has the left embraced identity politics? While the purpose here is not to undertake a post mortem on the failure of the left, the answer to the question does lie in some of the numerous wrong turns they have made in the past.
The liberal left’s inexorable drift into identity politics has its roots, in part, in the struggles against imperialism and racism. The problems the left has brought upon itself in the course of those struggles stem from an over-emphasis on the cultural aspects of these issues and an underplaying of the material and economic factors at play.
The failure of much of the liberal left in their analysis to effectively take on board the political, material and economic factors which fuelled imperialism from its inception in the 19th century have led to the cultural and moral aspects of the issue being over-played. The politics of guilt and self loathing that are the hallmarks of the liberal left are a direct consequence of this failure. A few of the more orthodox Marxist sects certainly had a much better understanding of the dynamics of imperialism but the very nature of these groups meant there was always going to be a very limited audience for their analysis.
This liberal left self-loathing guilt and the automatic, unthinking and uncritical reflex of West-equals-bad and anything non-Western must be good sits uneasily with the fact that many leaders of the liberation struggles from the 1940s onwards respected the learning and thinking of Western civilisation. These leaders wryly observed it was a great shame the colonial powers didn’t live up to the Enlightenment values they supposedly espoused. Kenan Malik describes this outlook thus:
Those who actually fought Western imperialism over the past two centuries recognised that their struggles were rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. ‘I denounce European colonialist scholarship’, wrote CLR James, the West Indian writer and political revolutionary. ‘But I respect the learning and the profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ 
The struggle against racism in Britain has been diverted into the sidings when it comes to upholding universal values such as economic and social justice for all. There have been plenty of barriers to immigrants over the generations that have prevented them from achieving their aims of building a new and better life – one being active racial discrimination and the other being the limits to the ability of the economic system we live under to guarantee the chance of improvement for all. While it was essential to fight racial discrimination, the left failed to effectively link this struggle with a challenge to the material, economic and social constraints that prevented immigrants and the working class as a whole from moving up the ladder. The consequence of this was to allow the issue of racism to become one of culture and attitudes with the material and economic aspects of the matter only paid occasional lip service.
Merely stepping onto the terrain of culture and attitudes sets in motion a chain of consequences that lead to blaming the majority population for the continuance of racism and the finger wagging, moralising approach to anti-racism that has been a hallmark of the left for over thirty years now. The situation was reached where the ethnic minorities could do no wrong and the white working class were condemned pretty much every time they expressed concerns over the impact of immigration or the unfairness of multiculturalism. The bitter legacy of the embrace of identity politics is the cleavage of the working class along the lines described by Frances Fox Piven thus:
Identity politics fosters lateral cleavages which are unlikely to reflect fundamental conflicts over societal power and resources and, indeed, may seal popular allegiance ‘to the ruling classes that exploit them. 
On the other hand:
Class politics, at least in principle, promotes vertical cleavages, mobilizing people around axes which broadly correspond to hierarchies of power, and which promote challenges to these hierarchies. 
The consequence of this is the division of the working class as the liberal left fawns over the ethnic minorities while barely concealing their contempt for the white working class. A contempt which once you examine the language used and the motivations behind it, is racist. The left long ago abandoned what was at best, an uneasy relationship with the British working class when it was judged that the class wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the political programme on offer. That breakdown of the relationship has over the decades, morphed into a despairing contempt for the British working class and the assumption that they are irredeemably reactionary and resistant to any attempts at enlightenment. In other words, the left has implicitly embraced the notion that there are certain characteristics of the British working class that are immutable and unchanging. When you consider the consequences of ascribing immutable characteristics to any social or ethnic grouping, then it has to be said the liberal left are on very dangerous ground indeed in their demonisation of the white working class.
The BNP are multiculturalists
The BNP claims to despise multiculturalism. While it can be said they deplore what they see as the consequences of the liberal left embrace of multiculturalism, the far right see each and every culture as immutable and unchanging, hence the need to preserve the cultural identity of the white majority by taking a stand against inter-marriage. The BNP will claim they respect the premise that other cultures have a right to their own existence, the proviso being that differing cultures have to be kept separate in order to preserve their ‘purity’. They also claim that cultural divisions are natural and attempts to eradicate or even dilute them run against the natural order. Alastair Harper writing in the BNP journal, Identity, stated that:
As the Duke of Wellington said “Being born in a stable does not make one a horse” – Britishness is chromosomal not residential. 
The far right have looked at how the left has embraced identity politics and have appropriated some of the terminology and language of the left to celebrate the culture of the majority white population. After all, when the BNP say that if such and such a group can celebrate their culture, then surely the white majority has as much of a right to celebrate theirs? If you are of a liberal left persuasion and have already signed up to the notion that minority cultures have a right to celebrate what they are, then it can be said it is hypocritical of them to deny that right to the white majority. Such is the dilemma faced by the liberal left as the consequences of their embrace of identity politics start to bite them back.
The BNP in their desire to defend and enforce cultural and ethnic boundaries face a potential flaw in their desire to portray themselves as the ‘friends’ of the working class. The fatal flaw is that the far right’s assertion that cultural divisions are natural can also quite easily be turned around by conservatives and applied to class divisions…
Why traditional conservatives love identity politics
With an allegedly reformist leader in the person of David Cameron who has been frantically re-branding conservatism to make it relevant to the 21st century, why are we talking about ‘traditional conservatism’? As stated in the introduction, the disintegration of the neo-liberal economic and social experiment has left a vacuum on the political right. We are moving into a period where even if there is a technical recovery from the recession, the pace of growth will be so sluggish that there will be no feeling of dynamism in the economy. Allied to this will be the inevitable raising of taxes and painful cuts in public spending as the government of the day attempts to work off the massive public debt, a considerable chunk of which was incurred in the desperate bid to avert systemic bank failure.
To put it bluntly, for any incoming government after the next election, the prospect they face is a nightmare of the worst order. Given New Labour’s complete and utter disintegration, it is more than likely that the next government will be a Tory one. The Tories are going to have to find a narrative to help them in presiding over at best a sluggish economy, austerity and the ever present threat of the IMF having to pay a visit if insufficient progress is being made in reducing the crippling level of public (and private) debt owed by UK plc. The Tories are going to have to find a way of telling the vast bulk of the population that they can forget about their dreams and aspirations as the nation hunkers down to generations of austerity.
Talk of economic growth, dynamism and the prospect of rising living standards will be off the agenda for a long while. Instead, the discussion will be about limits, making do, and accepting what you have and where you are in society. While it would be difficult for the Tories to openly return to the hierarchical view of society they embraced in the past, they will be making every effort to develop a narrative of limits and accepting what you have that will be relevant to the 21st century. There are considerably more subtle ways of promoting this notion, one being green rhetoric about limits to growth being appropriated and twisted around to a dialogue about people learning to be more content with what they have. As well as this, the Tories will have the extremely delicate task of having to explain why upward social mobility is an ever receding possibility for the bulk of the population. As stated earlier, the issue of how the Tories will develop this narrative will be the subject of further investigation.
Traditional conservatives claim that cultures do not mix successfully and that different peoples are best left to get on with their own affairs. This stems from the assumption that culture is an immutable characteristic of any given society and one that only evolves slowly. The same argument has been used by some conservatives to justify the continuance of class divisions, hence their making every effort to depict class as something that is more or less immutable with only a few being deemed capable of making an upward move out of their class. Obviously, it is a rare conservative who will explicitly state such open prejudice – most will choose a form of language that either implies or sows the seed of a notion in peoples’ minds that there is a natural and unchanging aspect to class divisions. One example of how these notions can be sown came in this recent utterance from the former chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead, on the issue of social class and life chances:
I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from those disadvantaged areas – the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better. But that doesn’t mean that there are not going to be DH Lawrences. 
With a long period of austerity, a moribund economy and upward social mobility a thing of the past, it will be tempting for at least some conservatives to revisit past thinking about class divisions having at least in part, a natural element to them, albeit that thinking will have to be re-presented in a form that has relevance to the 21st century. It is worth taking a brief look at the history of such thinking. Racial thinking in the 19th century had its origins in the deterministic notion that the poor were poor because of the lot dealt to them by nature and that in the main, there was little chance of the majority of them ever being able to transcend their circumstances. This account of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the Victorian era, typifies the English middle class attitudes of this era:
The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not yet quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and the comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.
In the 21st century, it would be hoped that this kind of deterministic thinking would have been thoroughly discredited. However, a scan through the comments left after any article on social mobility and class in a right wing paper such as the Telegraph will reveal that these prejudices are alive and well. The quote below is just one example of how these views can be expressed:
More children is not a solution or a good idea if those children are born to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Intelligence, either of the genetic or acquired variety, does not occur naturally at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder at anything like it does at the middle or upper ends. Having a disproportionate number of children born to parents at the bottom of the mental acuity scale will not save anything. It will create an intractable feudal society with an educated, intelligent elite and a far larger uneducable underclass. We must encourage educated women to bear more children or do it ‘artificially’ if we are to avoid this dysgenic nightmare. 
While conservatives condemn the obsession of multiculturalists with celebrating the identity of minorities while ignoring the majority, privately they must be delighted at the message that is implicitly conveyed by the liberal left. The left’s obsession with encouraging minorities to celebrate the culture they have in a world where upward social mobility is a fading dream, sends out an implicit signal that identities cannot be transcended and that people have little choice but to accept what and where they are. In other words, there is the danger that where there is little or no upward social mobility, class divisions become naturalised. This has to be music to the ears of those conservatives who hanker after a stable social order where people know their place in the pecking order…
Why multiculturalism and identity politics are reactionary and backwards
The celebration of a particular culture is in fact, a recognition that in a society where material and social progress can no longer be guaranteed for the mass of the people, cultural identity is the one constant that people can hang onto when times are hard. It is an implicit admission that the project of achieving material, social and economic progress for the mass of the people has effectively been abandoned by the left. As Kenan Malik states, this outlook is the consequence of the narrowing of political options.
As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’ 
The liberal left is unable to understand that there is nothing progressive in unthinkingly encouraging people to simply celebrate what they are. This is particularly the case when reactionary and backward social practices not only go unchallenged but are excused on the basis that they are an ‘integral part of the culture’. This unthinking encouragement for ethnic minorities to celebrate what they are is at odds with the prime motive of any immigrant which is to start a new life in a new country and to leave the past behind.
The major failure of the left was promoting this uncritical celebration of culture for pretty much every ethnic and religious minority while at the same time, strongly condemning and such expression of pride from the white working class majority. Not only did the left turn its back on the white working class, they embarked upon an ideological trajectory that would guarantee the white working class turning its back on the left in utter disgust!
Fairness for all
When the IWCA have been canvassing and the issue of race and multiculturalism has been brought up, the vast majority of white working class people we have talked to simply want fair treatment. They rightly object to public funding for community projects that benefit one small ethnic minority at the expense of the majority.
The liberal left’s encouragement for various minorities to celebrate their culture stands in stark contrast to their thinly veiled contempt for any of the white working class who simply want an acknowledgement of their Englishness / Britishness. As discussed earlier, part of this is down to liberal guilt about the colonial past plus an anti-imperialism that unthinkingly assumes that anything Western is bad, so by definition, anything anti-Western has to be good. However, that is only part of the explanation for their dismissive attitude towards any white working class assertion of English / British identity. Again, as discussed earlier, there is a thinly veiled contempt for the working class who had the temerity to snub the patronising, middle class, Fabian, social democratic political model. One clear consequence of this contempt is that the white working class majority can never expect fairness from a middle class left who despise them. This is why we need to have the argument out with the left on how backward, reactionary and ultimately their unthinking support for multiculturalism and identity is.
Despite the siren promises made by the likes of the BNP, the working class cannot expect a fair society to be delivered from an authoritarian political tendency that supports a rigid social structure. The far right’s implicit support for a rigid social hierarchy has to be brought out and shown as the barrier to working class advancement it really is.
Firing our guns in both directions at once is the only way we can offer a distinctive analysis and critique of identity politics that once and for all, labels it as a reactionary and backward doctrine that only serves to hold working class people back. This means paradoxically, de-racialising identity politics and showing it to be nothing more than support for a social hierarchy where people are expected to know their place. Once this can be achieved, the more fundamental questions of what kind of social economy we want can then start to be seriously addressed.
The following points are intended to act as a brief summary of why we think multiculturalism and identity politics have dangerously reactionary consequences.
1) Over recent decades, the left has increasingly abandoned the working class and class politics in favour of identity politics: the politics of race, gender and sexuality. In turn, this has caused the working class to increasingly abandon the left.
2) Taken to its logical conclusion, identity politics is a conservative, anti-human concept that sees society as static – a view that can translate just as easily to rigid class hierarchies as it can to competing and incompatible cultural and racial identities.
3) Defining people in terms of the ‘identity’ they were born into is a rejection of the idea of a dynamic society, where it is seen as possible – and desirable – for class and cultural identities to be transcended so that everyone can reach their full and unique potential.
4) The promotion of identity politics fosters artificial divisions within the working class and helps to encourage a racialised view of the world, preparing the ground for race-based politics. This view of society simply doesn’t reflect fundamental conflicts over economic and societal power yet it has the potential to fatally fragment each and every progressive working class movement in the future. Like the Labour Party, the BNP is fully signed up to the notion of identity politics, to the extent that their magazine is called ‘Identity’.
5) We support the concept of full equality, where people are judged on what they do rather than on what they are perceived to be. As a consequence of this, we oppose funding for initiatives that are restricted to particular ethnic and cultural groups as they undermine community solidarity. We support efforts to end discrimination, with the aim being equal treatment for all.
 Kenan Malik – Against multiculturalism – New Humanist, Summer 2002 –http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/against_mc.html
[2&3] Frances Fox Piven – Globalising Capitalism and the rise of
Identity Politics – http://socialistregister.com/socialistregister.com/files/SR_1995_Piven.pdf
 Alastair Harper – Blood of the Isles – Identity, June 2007 -
 Polly Curtis – ‘Don’t say I was wrong’ – The Guardian, 12 May 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/may/12/chris-woodhead-teaching
 Saturday Review – 16 January, 1864
 Comment made by Scott on: Can we pay for pensions without working until we drop? – Daily Telegraph, 7 May, 2009 –http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/edmundconway/5286906/Can-we-pay-for-pensions-without-working-until-we-drop.html
 Kenan Malik – Making a difference: culture, race and social policy – Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 39, no 4, December 2005 –http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/pop_multiculturalism.html
By Kenan Malik
A recent poll by the Pew Trust showed that virtually every American can remember where they were on the morning of 11 September 2001. Most recognize the profound changes that 9/11 has wrought to the nation. But America is divided down the middle on the question of whether the USA brought the attack upon itself. Forty-three percent of those polled thought that 9/11 was caused by US ‘wrongdoing’; 45% disagreed. Perhaps no set of statistics better expresses the confusions and ambiguities that still surround 9/11, the chasm between an acknowledgement of the significance of the event and the uncertainties about what it signifies. The Pew poll figures are particularly striking given the fear and suspicion of Muslims revealed in other polls and by the furore over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’.
Such ambiguity and unclarity is perhaps inevitable given that we still live in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Tower and continue to feel the reverberations, both of the event and of the West’s response to it. But the uncertainty also derives from the way that the very nature of the narratives we weave around historical events has changed. During the Cold War, the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological. Today, as the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes in his book The Fear of Barbarians, the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. Anti-Western sentiment results from a sense of ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred a sense of resentment, particularly within Muslim communities, towards Europe and the United States, which are ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness.’ And in the West, public attitudes and political policy have been shaped by fear of terrorism, of immigration and of the ‘other’, and resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and of the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ culture at home. The result has been a series of narratives about 9/11 that have combined a yearning for certainty with a profound sense of ambiguity.
For many the story of 9/11 is the story of a West under siege from the barbarian hordes, of a global struggle between good and evil. The idea of the ‘clash of civilizations’, first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington a decade before 9/11, has, in this view, come to define the decade after. It has become a means through which to express the sense of fear and resentment of which Todorov has written, a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than ideological terms.
The argument for a clash of civilizations might provide the certainty of a world divided by sharp lines. It is nevertheless a deeply ambiguous claim, not least because it is a worldview shared with Islamists, for whom too it provides a sense of identity and belonging by setting up a cartoon enemy. ‘There is no doubt that the clash of civilizations exists’, Osama bin Laden told an Al Jazeerajournalist a month after 9/11. ‘No true believer would doubt these truths.’
It is also a worldview at odds with reality. Atrocities such as 9/11, 7/7, or the Madrid train bombings are viscerally shocking and haunt our memories. They are also relatively rare. ‘Why is it so difficult to find a suicide bomber these days?’ was the provocative headline to a recent article in the journal Foreign Policy. The headline might have been glib, but the article, by sociologistCharles Kurzman, raised important issues. The real question we need to address, Kurzman observed, is not why there is so much terrorism but why there is so little. Given how easy it is to sow terror it is striking how infrequent terrorist attacks really are. ‘If terrorist methods are as widely available as automobiles, why are there so few Islamist terrorists?’, he asked. ‘If there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don’t we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?’ Even in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where terrorist attacks have become woven into the fabric of life, the devastation has not matched the levels of slaughter experienced, say, during the 1990s in Rwanda, Sudan, the Congo and Yugoslavia.
When US Navy Seals tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden earlier this year, there was great jubilation. His death, however, has had barely an impact upon the war on terror, largely because he was already a marginal figure. We have come to imagine al-Qaeda as the monstrous spider at the centre of an international web of terrorism, the grand orchestrator of the worldwide jihad. In fact, al-Qaeda barely exists as an organization and has not orchestrated a major successful terrorist attack for more than five years. Phillip Zelikow is professor of history at the University of Virginia and the executive director of the National Commission on Terrorists Attacks on the United States (the ‘9/11 Commission’), the bipartisan committee created by the US Congress to investigate the 9/11 attack. ‘The most serious threats’, he observes in an afterword to the original report, ‘are posed by a relatively tiny number of people, fewer in number and less well organized than the production crew of any one of Hollywood’s larger films.’
None of this is to diminish the historic significance of 9/11, nor to underplay the barbarism of jihadi attacks from Kabul to Casablanca, from Mumbai to Mombasa, nor yet to deny the need robustly to challenge such terror. It is however, to put such horrors into context. Terrorists derive their power not just from the carnage they cause, but also from the response of others to that carnage. In transforming the activities of a ragtag band of Islamists into a ‘global jihad’ and a ‘clash of civilizations’, the Western response to 9/11 has helped give credibility to jihadist groups and to sustain them.
Over the past decade conflicts, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Chechnya to the Yemen, and attacks, from 9/11 to 7/7, from Bali to Stockholm, have all become packaged together as different expressions of a ‘global jihad’. In fact these various clashes and conflicts constitute not a single war but a loose collection of local struggles and resentments, ‘a matrix of ongoing, overlaid, interlinked and overlapping conflicts’ as British writer Jason Burke, one of the more perceptive observers of contemporary jihadism, puts it in his new book The 9/11 Wars. These are conflicts with myriad different causes, myriad different actors. But they have come to be seen as part of a single struggle largely because of the narrative of ‘global jihad’ and ‘clash of civilizations’ promoted by both sides.
One key consequence of all this, as the historian Stephen Howe recently observed, has been the ‘reinvention of Islam’, both ‘by many of its adherents and by those who view it from outside, and often with fear and hostility’. Where once people might have seen themselves – and been seen – as Indians or Pakistanis or Bangladeshis or Turks, today they are more likely to see themselves, and be seen, simply as ‘Muslim’. And where once it was accepted that Islam comprised a myriad different beliefs and practices, now there is an increasingly insistence that there can only be one way of being ‘authentically’ Muslim.
This process had begun in the 1980s, well before 9/11, and was driven by many factors including the erosion of secularism, the rise of the politics of identity and the institutionalization of multicultural policies. Over the past decade, however, as Howe observes, the process ‘seemed suddenly to accelerate, to become global and ubiquitous’, to establish the idea of a worldwide Islamic ummah as a new kind of identity and attachment, and one ‘essentially uniform… across both time and space.’ The myth of the ‘clash of civilizations’ has helped transform the reality and make it more like the myth. Or, rather, it has transformed people’s perceptions of reality and in so doing transformed their actions too.
The myths of the global jihad and the clash of civilizations have helped fuel wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, destabilize Pakistan, and reinforce autocracies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. They have eroded rights and liberties, at home and abroad, from the imposition of draconian domestic anti-terror laws to the use of torture, from the obscenity of extraordinary rendition to the affront that is Guantanamo Bay. The recent revelations that the CIA and MI6 both made use of Colonel Gaddafi’s security forces to interrogate and torture supposed jihadis (including Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, military commander of rebel forces in Tripoli, and a member of the Transitional National Council) should have come as no surprise to those who have recognized the depths to which Western governments have already sunk in their prosecution of the war on terror. The very principles that the war on terror is supposed to defend are the very principles that the war terror has trampled upon.
If one narrative portrays 9/11 as an act in a global conflict to bring down Western civilization, another views it as an expression of a global struggle against Western imperialism. In an infamous piece for the London Review of Books, the Cambridge classicist and historian Mary Beard wrote of ‘the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming.’ 9/11, she suggested, was wages of sin for the West’s ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists” had to say’. Almost every Islamist attack has been met with similar kinds of ‘explanations’. Terrorist attacks may be unpalatable, runs the argument, but they are merely perverted responses to Western imperialism.‘The principal cause of this violence’, as the radical writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali put it after the 7/7 bombings in London, ‘is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world.’
The idea that there is anything ‘political’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ about such terror is to degrade the meaning of the real struggles people have fought – and are still fighting – to free themselves from imperialism. It is also belied by the actions of the terrorists themselves. The terrorists who, in July 2007, parked two car bombs outside Tiger Tiger, a central London nightclub, or Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the suicide bomber who attempt last year to blow himself up in the midst of Christmas shoppers in Stockholm, or the Islamist who set off a remote-controlled bomb in a Marrakesh café earlier this year – all were acting not as political soldiers driven to fury by Western policy, but as political nihilists motivated by a hatred for the world around them and a deep indifference to the consequences of their actions. However far one might stretch the concept of ‘political’, it is still impossible to imagine how flying planes into an office block, or blowing up commuters, or targeting Christmas shoppers or coffee drinkers could be any kind of political response. They are no more a response to Muslim grievances (real or perceived) than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in America was a response to the perceived evils of the US government. Those who pretend otherwise are both demeaning real anti-imperialist struggles and providing spurious moral cover for vicious, nihilistic violence.
The uncertainties and insecurities now felt by Western societies, the ease with which politicians have been willing to betray basic liberal values, the emergence of fear and resentment as dominant sentiments – all have made Islamists appear more potent than they are. They have also generated mindless, shocking responses – such as Anders Breivik’s homicidal rampage through Oslo and Utoya in the name of defending ‘Christian Europe’ from Muslims and ‘cultural Marxists’. As I wrote in Bergens Tidende shortly after the massacre, Breivik, like jihadists, was ‘driven not so much by political ideology as by a desperate and perverted search for identity, a search shaped by a sense of cultural paranoia, a cloying self-pity and a claustrophobic victimhood’. He was shaped by the same myths that produced both 9/11 and much of the response to it.
In the decade since 9/11 politicians and intellectuals have not only exaggerated the threat facing our societies but have also lacked the moral and political resources to respond to it. That is why the real challenge of 9/11 comes not from without but from within.
(This is a longer version of an essay published in the Norwegian newspaperBergens Tidende)
by Kenan Malik
Far right and populist parties have made major gains in many European countries. Such movements have certainly fed off a diet of racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment. It would be simplistic, however, to explain the advance of populism and the far right simply as an expression of an aggressive new climate of racism and Islamophobia. It would be more simplistic still to suggest that such a climate would inevitably create a horror such as the Oslo massacre.
Far right parties throughout Europe draw upon two distinct constituencies. The first is a core of hardline racist bigots– many of these parties, such as the British National Party and the Sweden Democrats emerged out of the neo-fascist swamp and many still live there. The bigots have, however, been joined by a swathe of new supporters whose hostility towards immigrants, minorities and Muslims is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity. Many have traditionally supported social democratic parties but feel abandoned by organizations that have largely cut links with their working class constituencies. Polls have shown that, even more than the rest of the population, such supporters appear dissatisfied with their lives, anxious about the future, and distrustful of any figure of authority.
There is little that can be done to sway the opinions of the hardline racists. We need, however, politically to engage with the wider support that now surrounds far right organizations. This does not mean pandering to their prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging those prejudices openly and robustly. It means, for instance, rebutting the idea that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Western societies are becoming ‘Islamized’.
Most mainstream politicians have, however, taken the opposite approach, responding to the advance of the far right not by challenging its prejudices but by appropriating its arguments, believing that the only way to stem support for such groups is by promising to further cut back on immigration, to step up deportation of asylum seekers, and to curtail civil liberties. ‘We know we need to target immigrants’, seems to be the argument, ‘but only respectable politicians should be allowed to do that, not those who belong to far-right organizations.’ It is an approach that can only deepen the belief that Europe’s social problems stem from too much immigration and so strengthen the hand of reactionary figures.
The question many Europeans are asking is ‘How can we stop the far right?’. The question they should be asking is ‘How can we challenge anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment?’ The answers to the two questions may seem to be the same. They are not necessarily so. The danger is that in being obsessed by the first question rather than by the second, politicians help strengthen, not weaken, xenophobic attitudes.
Over the past twenty years, I have lived through countless bombs in London. IRA bombs, neo-Nazi bombs, Islamist bombs. And yet, there was still something viscerally shocking about Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s attempt to bring carnage to the streets of Stockholm. The fact that Sweden has been largely free of terrorism can, I imagine, only magnify that sense of shock. So, are there any lessons that Stockholm can learn from the experience of a city like London?
The first lesson is the need flatly to reject the fiction that the bombing was a response, however perverted, to some sense of political grievance. Every such bombing is followed by an attempt by an army of commentators to rationalize it by suggesting that it was the inevitable result of a sense of injustice created by Western foreign policy or by anti-Muslim attitudes in the West. The audio message sent to a news agency shortly before the bomb went off, claiming that Sweden would be punished for failing to act against cartoonist Lars Vilks’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as a dog, and for the country’s 500-strong presence in Afghanistan, has provided perfect fodder for such rationalization. In fact the bombing was no more a response to Muslim grievances (real or perceived) than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in America was a response to the perceived evils of the US government.
Three years ago, Islamists parked a car bomb outside a central London nightclub. Thankfully it was discovered and defused before it detonated. Had the attack been successful, the bomb could have created far greater devastation than the 2005 attacks on the London underground. Just two minutes’ drive from that nightclub were the Houses of Parliament and the Foreign Office. Yet the bombers chose not to make a political statement (albeit a perverted one) but instead parked their deadly load outside a building full of party goers.
Like those London bombers, al-Abdaly seems to have been driven not so much by political fury as by a hatred for the world around him and a deep indifference to the consequences of his actions. However far one stretches the concept of ‘political’, it is nevertheless still impossible to imagine that setting out to murder dozens of Christmas shoppers could be any kind of political response to the Swedish authorities’ attitudes either to Vilks or to Afghanistan.
Much has been made of al-Abdaly’s British connection. He studied for a degree in physical therapy at the University of Bedfordshire and lived in Luton, a small town north of London with a reputation for being a magnet for Islamic extremists. It was here that the men responsible for the 7/7 bombings met before going onto London. And many suggest that it was here that al-Abdaly became radicalized. The local mosque claims that it expelled al-Abdaly for his extremist views.
The idea of Luton as a vipers’ nest of radical Islamism is vastly exaggerated. A handful of Islamic radicals in the area have made a lot of noise, attracting the attention of the press, the police and politicians. But there is little evidence that it is a major recruiting school for jihadists. In any case, ‘radicalization’, especially for a loner like al-Abdaly, might mean little more than trawling the internet for suitable jihadi websites or listening to some firebrand preacher.
At the same time, the obsession with ‘radicalization’ misses the point about someone like al-Abdaly. The real question is not so much how he came to be radicalized, but why someone, who by all accounts was intelligent, articulate and integrated, came to find such a medieval, murderous ideology so attractive. To understand that we need to look not so much at extremist preachers and websites as at public policy, and in particular the policy of multiculturalism.
In Britain, and elsewhere, multiculturalism has led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority communities not as citizens but simply as member of particular ethnic groups. In the name of multiculturalism, governments have abandoned their responsibilities for engaging directly with Muslim communities, effectively subcontracting out those responsibilities to so-called community leaders, who are often the most conservative voices. As a result, religious and Islamist voices have been given new legitimacy and come to be seen as the authentic voice of Muslim communities, while more progressive, secular movements have frequently been sidelined.
At the same time, many second-generation Muslims have found themselves detached from both the Muslim traditions and institutions of their parents, which they have often rejected, and from the wider secular society that insists in viewing them simply as Muslims. The consequence is that a few get drawn to the extremist Islamist groups through which they discover a sense of identity and of belonging to a world-wide gang. In a country like Britain, multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it helped create a space for it within Muslim communities that had not previously existed.
In the wake of the Stockholm bombing, it is imperative for the Swedish authorities not to follow the British template, or to imagine that ‘community leaders’ somehow speak for all Muslims. It is particularly important not to give an inch to Islamist demands over free speech and supposed Muslim sensitivities. The more that liberals concede on such issues, the more that Islamists gain a spurious moral legitimacy, and the more that the likes of al-Abdaly imagine that theirs is a noble cause.
But if it is important not to concede to Islamists on questions of free speech and liberties, it is equally important not to concede to the right on the questions of immigration and of Islam. Al-Abdaly’s actions will inevitably unleash a cacophony of calls for a clampdown on immigration and for stricter controls on Muslims. They must be resisted. A Muslim immigrant might have been responsible for the bombing. But it makes no sense to blame either immigration as a process or Islam as a religion. The same perverse logic that leads many on the left to view religious bigots as the authentic voice of Muslim communities, and to insist that we should accede to their reactionary demands, leads many on the right (and not just on the right) to blame Islam as a faith, or immigrants as a group, for the crimes of lone extremists like al-Abdaly, and to imagine that narrow-minded intolerance is the answer to fanaticism and terror. Cracking down on immigration or discriminating against Muslims to appease the far right would be as illiberal and as irrational as banning material deemed offensive to Muslims to appease the Islamists.
The Stockholm bombing revealed how easy it can be to cause mayhem and disruption in an open, urban, society. It is the arbitrary nihilism of Islamic terrorism that makes it so terrifying. Yet al-Abdaly’s actions should also remind us how infrequently such terror occurs. Society is based on trust. The aim of the bombers is to undermine such trust by sowing fear. We should not let them.
After al-Abdaly blew himself up, a passer-by named Pascal, a trained medic, came running over to help. ‘My first thought was that the man was a terrorist’, he said. Nevertheless, he tried to save his life. ‘I removed a Palestinian scarf from his face to free his airways and attempted CPR, but it was too late’, Pascal told reporters. In such moral courage and basic human instincts lie the best responses to the nihilism of the suicide bomber.