"I have long argued that the giving of offence, and even hate speech, should be a moral matter but not a matter for the criminal law. That is as true on the football pitch as on the streets. We should always challenge racism. We should also always challenge attacks on liberties in the guise of faux antiracism." Kenan Malik


Kenan Malik’s ‘What’s Wrong With Multiculturalism?’ Audio Download


What’s Wrong With Multiculturalism?

Friday, June 22, 2012 | Categories: Past Episodes |

Writer, lecturer, and broadcaster Kenan Malik

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.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad (2009),Strange Fruit (2008), Man, Beast and Zombie (2000), and The Meaning of Race (1996). He has also written and presented a number of radio and TV documentaries including Disunited 
Kingdom, Are Muslims Hated?, Islam, Mullahs and the Media, Skullduggery, and Man, Beast and Politics. He is currently writing a history of moral thought.


This is a combined two part article of a recent lecture given by Kenan Malik. If you wish to comment on the article after having read both parts please head over to Kenans blog Pandaemonium. Why not sign up over there for updates while you’re at it!

Kenan also has a website here http://www.kenanmalik.com/


I gave the Milton K Wong lecture in Vancouver on Sunday.  I very much enjoyed the event- it was a stunning venue, a superb audience and a good discussion of the issues. My thanks to the Laurier Institution, University of British Columbia and CBC for inviting me. Entitled ‘What is Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perpective’, the lecture pulled together many of the themes about immigration, identity, diversity and multiculturalism of which I have been talking and writing recently. It was a long talk, so I am splitting the transcript into two. Here is the first part; I will publish the second part later this week. It will be broadcast in full on 22 June on the CBC’s Ideas strand.

It is somewhat alarming to be asked to present the European perspective on multiculturalism. There is no such beast. Especially when compared to the Canadian discussion, opinion in Europe is highly polarised. And mine certainly is not the European perspective. My view is that both multiculturalists and their critics are wrong. And only by understanding why both sides are wrong will we be able to work our way through the mire in which we find ourselves.

Thirty years ago multiculturalism was widely seen as the answer to many of Europe’s social problems. Today it is seen, by growing numbers of people, not as the solution to, but as the cause of, Europe’s myriad social ills.  That perception has been fuel for the success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe from Geert Wilders in Holland to Marine Le Pen in France, from the True Finns to the UK Independence Party.  It even provided fuel for the obscene, homicidal rampage last year of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo and Utøya, which in his eyes were the first shots in a war defending Europe against multiculturalism. The reasons for this transformation in the perception of multiculturalism are complex, and at the heart of what I want to talk about. But before we can discuss what the problem is with multiculturalism, we first have unpack what we mean by multiculturalism.

Part of the problem in discussions about multiculturalism is that the term has, in recent years, come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish.  It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.

As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different.  It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity 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. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious.  On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity. That is why it is critical to separate these two notions of multiculturalism, to defend diversity as lived experience – and all that goes with it, such as mass immigration and cultural openness – but to oppose multiculturalism as a political process.

To make my case I want to begin by questioning three myths of immigration. Three myths at the heart of the discussion about multiculturalism. Three myths created by the confusion I have just described. Three myths that have also helped maintain that confusion. The first is the idea that European nations used to be homogenous but have become plural in a historically unique fashion. The second claim is that contemporary immigration is different to previous waves, so much so that social structures need fundamental reorganization to accommodate it. And third is the belief that European nations have adopted multicultural policies because minorities demanded it. Both sides in the multiculturalism debate accept these claims. Where they differ is in whether they view immigration, and the social changes it has brought about, as a good or as an ill. Both sides, I want to suggest, are wrong, because these three premises upon which they base their arguments are flawed.

*  *  *  *  *

The claim that European nations used to be homogenous but have been made diverse by mass immigration might appear to be common sense. In fact, most European nations are in fact 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 of France 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 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 or the works of Count Arthur Gobineau, one of the leading racial scientists of his day, to recognize how widespread was this sentiment.

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 racial alien, and so inferior that they stood below the ‘most inferior savage races’ and were ‘beyond cure’.

In Victorian England, too, the elite viewed the working class and the rural poor as the racial Other. 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:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of a quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… Slaves are separated from 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 not home to warehousemen or costermongers, but lies 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’s 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, weremuch 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 kid 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 the same clothes, listens to the same music, watches the same TV shows, follows the same football club as a 16-year-old white kid 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 cometo be regarded as important and others (such as class, say, or generational), which used to be perceived as important in the past, have come to be seen as less relevant. Why this has happened I will come to later.

*  *  *  *  *

The second myth I want to challenge is the claim that contemporary immigration to Europe is different, and in some eyes less assimilable, than previous waves. In his much-lauded book Reflections on a 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’. According to Caldwell, prewar immigration between European nations was different from postwar immigration from outside Europe because, ‘immigration from neighboring countries does notprovoke 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, or in the way that host societies perceive them.

*  *  *  *  *

The third myth that underlies much of the discussion of European multiculturalism is that European nations have become multicultural because minorities wished to assert their differences. The question of the cultural difference of immigrants has certainly 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 in the 70s and 80; and the third generation that has come of age since then. This is, I know, a somewhat crude characterisation, but it is also a useful to have a broad-brush understanding of the changing relationships between migrants and European societies. The illustrations I am giving come primarily from Britain. But the structure applies to immigration to other European countries too.

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 was 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 am 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. The ‘Muslim community’, in the sense of a community that defined itself solely, or even primarily, by faith did not exist when I was growing up. Neither did the Sikh community, or the Hindu community.

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, in my youth, barely visible. The organizations that drove migrant communities were primarily 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 1980s, that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important.  A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’. That in itself should make us question the received wisdom about how and why multicultural policies emerged.

The shift in the meaning of a single word expresses the transformation I am talking about. 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 I have said of Britain is true also of other European countries, Germany, for instance, or France. The irony in France 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 threat and attempted to foist religion upon them, encouraging them to maintain their traditional cultural identities. Paul Dijoud, minister for immigrant workers in the 1970s government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, declared that ‘The right to a culture identity 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 claim that minority communities have demanded that their cultural differences be publicly recognized and affirmed is, then, historically false. That demand has emerged only recently. 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, as I shall show later, the desire to celebrate one’s culture identity has itself, in part at least, been shaped by the implementation of multicultural policies.

* * * * *

The three myths I have talked about are important because they underlie so much of the discussion of immigration and multiculturalism in Europe, and shape both sides of the debate. Having hopefully laid them to rest, I want now to rethink both multiculturalism and the criticism of it. And to begin to do that by looking at how multicultural policies historically have developed.

This is, however, not a single story. Throughout Europe, multicultural policies have developed in response to mass immigration. But they have done so in different ways. Britain and Norway, Sweden and Germany, Holland and Denmark  – every country has its own specific multicultural history to tell.  What I want to do, therefore, is to look at two contrasting histories –  that of Britain and Germany – to understand what these histories have in common despite their differences.

Let us begin in Britain. While the question of cultural differences preoccupied the political elite in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not one, as I have already suggested, that particularly troubled immigrants themselves. What preoccupied them was not the desire to be treated differently, but the fact that they were treated differently. Racism and inequality, not religion and ethnicity, were, for them, the key issues.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, four big issues dominated the struggle for political equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the struggle against workplace discrimination; the fight against racist attacks; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality.

These struggles politicised a new generation of black and Asian activists and came to an explosive climax in the riots that tore through Britain’s inner cities in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The authorities recognized that unless black communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustration could threaten the very stability of British cities. It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism emerged.

Local authorities in inner city areas pioneered a new strategy of making black and Asian communities feel part of British society by organising consultations, drawing up equal opportunity policies, establishing race relations units and dispensing millions of pounds in grants to minority organisations. At the heartof the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different.  The old idea of British values or a British identity was defunct. Rather than be expected to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity, different peoples should have the right to express their own identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.

Scepticism about the idea of a common national identity arose in part from cynicism about the idea of ‘Britishness’. There was widespread recognition among blacks and Asians that talk about Britishness was a means not of extending citizenship to all Britons, whatever their colour and creed, but of denying equal rights to certain groups.  But the new strategy did not simply challenge old-fashioned ideas of Britishness. It transformed the very meaning of equality. Equality now meant not possessing the same rights as everyone else, despite differences of race, ethnicity, culture or faith, but possessing different rights, because of them.

In 2000, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by the philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, published its report that famously concluded that Britain was a ‘community of comunities’ in which equality ‘must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner’. The Parekh report has come to be seen as defining the essence of multiculturalism. But the arguments at its heart had emerged out of the response, two decades earlier, to the inner city riots. The consequences of these arguments I will come to later. But first I want to turn to the question of multiculturalism in Germany.

*  *  *  *  *

Germany’s road to multiculturalism was different to Britain’s, though the starting point was the same. Like many West European nations, Germany faced an immense labour shortage in the postwar years and actively recruited foreign workers. Unlike in Britain, the new workers came not from former colonies, but initially from Italy, Spain and Greece, and then from Turkey. And these workers came not as immigrants, still less as potential citizens, but as ‘guest workers’, who were expected to return to their country of origin when no longer required to service the German economy.

Over time, however, immigrants became transformed from a temporary necessity to a permanent presence. This was partly because Germany continued relying on their labour, and partly because immigrants, and more so their children, came to see Germany as home. But the German state continued to view them as outsiders and to refuse them citizenship. There are nearly 4 million people of Turkish origin in Germany today. Barely half a million have managed to become citizens. Nor is it just first generation immigrants who are denied citizenship; their German-born children are excluded too.

Instead of creating an open society, into which immigrants were welcome as equals, German politicians from the 1980s onwards dealt with the so-called ‘Turkish problem’ through a policy of multiculturalism. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep their own culture, language and lifestyles. The consequence was the creation of parallel communities. The policy did not so much represent respect for diversity as provide a means of avoiding the issue of how to create a common, inclusive culture.

First generation immigrants were often secular, and those that were religious wore their faith lightly. Today, almost a third of adult Turks in Germany regularly attend mosque, a far higher rate than among Turkish communities elsewhere in Western Europe, and higher than in most parts of Turkey. First generation women almost never wore headscarves.  Many of their daughters do. Without any incentive to participate in the national community, many did not bother learning German.

At the same time as Germany’s multicultural policies encouraged immigrants to be at best indifferent to mainstream German society, at worst openly hostile to it, they also made Germans increasingly antagonistic towards Turks. The sense of what it meant to be German was in part defined against the values and beliefs of the excluded migrant communities.  And having been excluded, it has become easier to scapegoat immigrants for Germany’s social ills. A recent poll showed that more than a third of Germans think that the country is ‘over-run by foreigners’ and more than half felt that Arabs were ‘unpleasant’.

In Germany, the formal denial of citizenship to immigrants led to the policy of multiculturalism. In Britain, the promotion of multicultural policies led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority communities not as citizens but simply as members of particular ethnic groups. The consequence in both cases has been the creation of fragmented societies, the alienation of many minority groups and the scapegoating of immigrants.


The story I have told so far is of a Europe that is not as plural as many imagine it to be, and of immigrants less assertive of their cultural identities than they are claimed to be. Multicultural policies emerged not because migrants demanded them, but primarily because the political elite needed them to manage immigration and to assuage anger created by racism.

Why, then, have we come to imagine that we are living in particularly plural societies,  in which our cultural identities are all-important? The answer lies in a complex set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century, changes that include the narrowing of the political sphere, the collapse of the left, the demise of class politics, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Many of these changes helped pave the way for multicultural policies.  At the same time, the implementation of such policies helped create a more fragmented society. Or, to put it another way, multicultural policies have helped create the very problems they were meant to have resolved. I want to demonstrate this through two examples. The first is a riot in Britain, of which you may not have heard, the second a cartoon crisis in Denmark, about which everyone has heard.

In 1985, the Handsworth area of the English city of Birmingham was rocked by riots.  Blacks, Asians and whites took to the streets in protest against poverty, unemployment and, in particular, police harassment. In the violence that followed, two people were killed and dozens injured. It was almost the last flicker of the Eighties inner city conflagrations.

Twenty years later, in October 2005, another riot erupted in the area. This time the fighting was not between youth and police but between blacks and Asians. An unsubstantiated – and almost certainly untrue – rumour that a Jamaican girl had been raped by a group of Asian men, led to a weekend of violence between the two communities, during which a young black man was murdered.

Why did two communities that had fought side by side in 1985 fight against each other 20 years later? The answer lies largely in the policies introduced by Birmingham Council after the original riots. In response to those riots, the Council proposed a new political framework for the engagement of minority communities. It created nine so-called Umbrella Groups, organizations based on ethnicity and faith that were supposed to represent the needs of their particular communities while aiding policy development and resource allocation. These included the African and Caribbean People’s Movement, the Bangladeshi Islamic Projects Consultative Committee, the Birmingham Chinese Society, the Council of Black-led Churches, the Hindu Council, the Irish Forum, the Vietnamese Association, the Pakistani Forum and the Sikh Council of Gurdwaras.

Birmingham Council’s policies were aimed at drawing minority communities into the democratic process. The trouble was, there was precious little democracy in the process. The groups themselves had no democratic mandate, and indeed no mandate at all. After all why should the Council of Black-led Churches presume to speak for the needs and aspirations of African Caribbeans in Birmingham? Why should all Bangladeshis be represented by an Islamic organisation, or all Sikhs by the gurdwaras? And indeed what is the Bangladeshi community or the Sikh community and what are its needs and aspirations?

Imagine if the council had set up a ‘White Forum’ to represent the needs of the white community in Birmingham. Could such a group have represented the interests of all white people in the city? Clearly not. Why should we imagine that Bangladeshis or Sikhs or African Caribbeans are any different?

This points up a paradox in the multicultural vision. The staring point of multicultural policies is the acceptance of societies as diverse. Yet, there is an unstated assumption that such diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. Birmingham council’s policies, like much multicultural policy, treated minority communities as homogeneous wholes, ignoring conflicts within those communities. As the council’s own report put it,

The perceived notion of the homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.

Multicultural policies, in other words, have not responded to the needs of communities, but have helped create those communities by imposing identities on people. And they have created communities by ignoring internal conflicts – conflicts that arise out of class, gender and intra-religious and other differences. What multicultural policies do is empower not minority communities, but so-called ‘community leaders’, who achieve power not because they represent their community but because they have a relationship with the state.

At the same time as they ignored conflicts within minority communities, Birmingham’s policies created conflicts between them.  As one academic study of Birmingham’s policies observes,

The model of engagement through Umbrella Groups tended to result in competition between black and minority ethnic communities for resources. Rather than prioritising needs and cross-community working, the different Umbrella Groups generally attempted to maximise their own interests.

Once political power and financial resources became allocated by ethnicity, then people began to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and only those ethnicities.

Imagine that you are a secular Bangladeshi living in Birmingham. You don’t think of yourself as a Muslim, you may not even think yourself as Bangladeshi. Over time, however, you come to see yourself in those terms, not just because those identities provide you with access to power, influence and resources, but also because those identities possess a social reality through receiving constant confirmation and affirmation. It is how you are seen; so it is how you come to see yourself.  You come to fear and resent African Caribbeans and Sikhs and the Irish, partly because they are competitors for that pot of council largesse and power, and partly because the rules of the game are that your identity has to be affirmed as distinctive and different from the identities of other groups.  Being Muslim also means being not-Irish, not-Sikh and not-African Caribbean.

The consequence is what the great Indian-born economist Amartya Sen has called ‘plural monoculturalism’ – policy driven by the myth that society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures that dance around each other.  And policy makes such a segmented society a reality. The result in Birmingham was to entrench divisions between black and Asian communities to an extent that sparked inter-communal rioting.

*  *  *  *  *

Not only have multicultural policies entrenched the idea of homogenous communities, with disastrous consequences. They have also enabled the most conservative figures to be seen as the authentic voices of those communities.

Consider, for instance, the controversy over the Danish cartoons. We all know what happened. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a series of inflammatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Islam forbids the depiction of the Prophet. So millions of Muslims worldwide were enraged to the point of violence.

Except it never happened like that. For a start, there is no universal Islamic prohibition on the representation of the Prophet. It was, in fact, common to portray him until comparatively recently. A number of Islamic, especially Shiite, traditions continue to accept the pictorial representation of Muhammed.

Shortly after Jyllands Posten published the cartoons, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr reprinted them. They were accompanied by a critical commentary, but Al Fagr did not think it necessary to blank out Muhammad’s face, and faced no opprobrium for not doing so. Egypt’s religious and political authorities, even as they were demanding an apology from the Danish Prime Minister, raised no objections to Al Fagr’s full frontal photos.

So, if there is no universal prohibition to the depiction of Muhammad, why were Muslims universally appalled by the caricatures? They weren’t. And those that were driven by political zeal rather than by theological fervour. The publications of the cartoons in September 2005 caused no immediate reaction, even in Denmark. Journalists, disappointed by the lack of controversy, contacted a number of imams for their response. Among the first was Ahmed Abu Laban. He seized upon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesman for Denmark’s Muslims. Even so, it took more than four months of often hysterical campaigning, and considerable arm-twisting by Saudi diplomats, to create a major controversy.

Why did journalists contact Abu Laban in the first place? His Islamic Society of Denmark had little support. Out of a population of 180,000 Danish Muslims, fewer than a thousand attended the Society’s Friday prayers. He was, however, infamous for his support for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. From a journalistic viewpoint, it made sense to get a quote from someone so controversial. But politically, too, it made sense.

Western liberals have come to see figures like Abu Laban as the true, authentic voice of Islam. The Danish Muslim MP Nasser Khader tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing newspaper highly critical of the caricatures. ‘He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims’, Khader recalls.  ‘I said I was not insulted. He said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”.’ In liberal eyes, in other words, to be a real Muslim is to find the cartoons offensive. Once Muslim authenticity is so defined, then only a figure such as Abu Laban can be seen as a true Muslim voice.

The myths about the Danish cartoons – that all Muslims hated the cartoons and that it was a theological conflict – helped turn Abu Laban into an authentic voice of Islam, and to silence other voices.  At the same time Abu Laban’s views seemed to confirm the myths about the Danish cartoons.

The question at the heart of the Danish cartoon controversy is not simply ‘what is offensive?’ but also ‘who decides what is offensive?’ In other words, ‘Who speaks for the community?’ Abu Laban or Nasser Khader? That is also the question at the heart of many of the flashpoints about ‘offensiveness’, from the global confrontation over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to the local struggle over Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Bezhti which was forced off stage in 2005 by Sikh activists in Birmingham who objected to it.

The issue of free speech and the giving of offence has become central to the multiculturalism debate. Speech, many argue, must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For such societies to function and be fair, we need to show respect for all cultures and beliefs. And to show respect for all cultures and beliefs requires us to police pubic discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs, and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it,

If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.

One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

Leaving aside the question of whether there is anything morally wrong with giving offence (and I don’t believe there is), the problem with this line of argument is that what is often regarded as offence to a community is in reality a debate within that community.  That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, but also Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on.

Take the Rushdie affair. Neither Rushdie nor his critics spoke for the Muslim community. Each represented different strands of opinion in that community. Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in the 1980s was deeply entrenched. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots, but, rather, to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the truev oice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.

Just as Abu Laban was seen as an authentic Muslim and Nasser Khader as not a proper one, so Rushdie’s critics were seen as authentic Muslims and Kaur Bhatti’s critics as proper Sikhs, while Rushdie and Kaur Bhatti themselves were regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. The consequence  is that the most conservative voices are often seen as the authentic representatives of those communities, while the progressive voices get marginalized.

*  *  *  *  *

Having explored the problems of multiculturalism, I want briefly to look at the criticisms of multiculturalism. Much of that criticism is undoubtedly driven by racism, bigotry and sheer hatred for the Other. Nowhere is this more savagely evident than in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer.

Many feel that faced with a monster like Breivik, we must close ranks and defend that which he wishes to destroy. It is a version of an argument that has gained ground as rightwing leaders, from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Britain’s David Cameron to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have in recent years become more fiercein their criticism of multiculturalism. It is an argument that misunderstands both multiculturalism and Breivik’s hatred. The real target of Breivik’s assault is not so much multiculturalism as immigrants, immigration and diversity.

The problem with multiculturalism, I have suggested, is that in putting people in ethnic boxes it undermines diversity. I am critical of multiculturalism precisely because I want to defend diversity. Breivik, however, does not oppose multiculturalism because he wants to defend diversity. Rather, he opposes diversity because he wants to put people into cultural boxes, in his case primarily labeled ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’. In his twisted, fantasy world the presence of Muslims in the Christian box pollutes and defiles it and needs to be eliminated.

Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet, many agree with his intellectual assault. The idea that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat, that Muslim immigration amounts to an invasion, and that ‘Western civilization’ is facing collapse finds a widespread hearing. In a television debate during the French Presidential elections, Nikolas Sarkozy called for a restoration of border controls and passport checks in order ‘to defend a European civilization’. Christopher Caldwell, whose work I mentioned earlier, suggests that Islam has ‘broken’ the fundamentals of the European tradition, ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’, but ‘supplanting it’. In his polemical screed America Alone, the Canadian journalist Mark Steyn talks of the Madrid train bombings and of 7/7 attacks on the London transport system as the ‘opening shots of a European civil war’ that will lead to ‘societal collapse’, ‘fascist revivalism’ and a never-to-return journey into ‘the long Eurabian night’.

Such ideas draw their power from a vision of a world torn apart by a ‘clash of civilizations’. An idea first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon a decade before 9/11, it has, for many, come to define the decade after.

What is striking about these two approaches – multiculturalism, on the one hand, the clash of civilizations, on the other – is how much they have in common. It is true that there is little love lost between multiculturalists and clash of civilization warriors. The former accuse the latter of pandering to racism and Islamophobia, while the latter talk of the former as appeasing Islamism. Beneath the hostility, however, the two sides share basic assumptions about the nature of culture, identity and difference. Both view the key social divisions as cultural or civilizational. Both see cultures, or civilizations, as homogenous entities.  Both insist on the crucialimportance of cultural identity and on the preservation of such identity. Both perceive irresolvable conflicts arising from incommensurate values.

It’s not just multiculturalists and clash of civilizational warriors who draw upon these themes. The far right, too, in recent years, has increasingly, in public at least, swapped the old language of biologicaldifference, for the new idiom ofcultural identity. At the heart of the far right and populist assault on multiculturalism is a defence of ‘my culture’, ‘my history’, ‘my tradition’.

Listen to the language that Breivik employs. Multiculturalism, he told his trial, is a ‘hate ideology’. He lamented its ‘deconstruction of European cultures and traditions’, and saw himself as acting ‘in defence of my culture and of my people’.  This is precisely the language of culture and identity that multiculturalism has done so much to foster in recent years.

If the far right has appropriated the language of pluralism, many pluralists have slipped into the idiom of exclusion. The late Isaiah Berlin was probably the pre-eminent philosopher of modern pluralism, hugely influential, not least on that torchbearer of Canadian liberalism, Michael Ignatieff. Shortly before his death Berlin was interviewed by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Was it possible, Lukes asked, for peoples of different cultures to live together?

‘When you have two peoples of different origins and cultures’, Berlin replied, ‘it is difficult for them to live together in peace… it is quite natural that each side should think that they cannot lead free lives in an integrated society if the others are there in quantity.’ Black immigration to Western Europe, he added, was ‘a problem’ because ‘cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided’.

Berlin is not alone in making a multiculturalist case for ‘keeping them out’. Will Kymlicka, who gave this lecture four years ago, has perhaps inherited Berlin’s mantle as the most important and cogent philosopher of multiculturalism, a highly subtle thinker, and an unswerving liberal. In his book Multicultural Politics,Professor Kymlicka makes a case for the right of cultures to protect their unique characters from changes wrought from the outside. ‘It is right and proper’, he argues, ‘that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its  members’.  But ‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world’, he insists, it is quite another ‘to be swamped by it’.

That is a telling phrase. For the fear of being ‘swamped’ has long been a rightwing trope, used to whip up fears about immigration. It’s at the heart of the current hysteria about Islam. Professor Kymlicka is liberal to his bones, resolutely hostile to the arguments against immigration and Islam. Yet, once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist the anti-immigration arguments of the right.

The irony of the polarised debate in Europe is that the assault on multiculturalism is all too often pursued through the language of multiculturalism.  Perhaps the biggest indictment of multiculturalism is that it has transformed racism into another cultural identity.

*  *  *  *  *

I began this talk by distinguishing between the idea of diversity as lived experience and that of multiculturalism as a political process. I want to end this talk by returning to that distinction.

The real failure of multiculturalism as a political process, it seems to me, is its failure to understand what is valuable about diversity as lived experience.

When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflicts. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is the very thing that many people fear. And that fear takes two forms. On the one hand, you have the nationalist sentiment: immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of Britishness or Frenchness or Germanness. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions it brings in its wake.

To say that clashes and conflicts can be good does not mean, of course, that every clash and conflict is a good. Political conflicts are often useful because they repose social problems in a way that asks: ‘How can we change society to overcome that problem?’ We might disagree on the answer, but the debate itself is a useful one.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, by reposing political problems in terms of culture or faith, transforms political conflicts into a form that makes them neither useful nor resolvable. Multicultural policies both constrain the kinds of clashes of opinion that could prove politically fruitful, and unleash the kinds of conflicts that are socially damaging. They transform political debates into cultural collisions and, by imprisoning individuals within their cultures and identities, make such collisions both inevitable and insoluble.

The lesson of Europe, it seems to me, is that if we want to preserve diversity as lived experience, we need also to challenge multiculturalism as a political process.


Kenan Malik and Hanif Kureishi author of My Beautiful Launderette discussing free speech, identity politics, Islamism, multiculturalism, racism etc. 45mins well spent.


Time ‘To Dump’ Multiculturalism by Joe Reilly

Reproduced from Red Action Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 12, July/Aug 2001
Lightly edited by Libcom
A decade on and just as relevant..
The Bradford riots

Currently there is much discussion on how the rise of the far right can be halted. The truthful answer, says Joe Reilly, is that an anti-fascism joined at the hip with multiculturalism cannot do so.

Britain ‘has the highest number of interracial relationships in the world’ according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research. This supremely natural and healthy state of affairs, is however, not due to multiculturalism but in spite of it. For multiculturalist ideology, which believes that ‘culture makes man’ rather than the other way round, sets its face firmly against miscegenation, integration and assimilation – on principle.

“Multiculturalism actually promotes racism. It engenders confusion, resentment and bullying and prevents people developing a shared British identity. This idea should have been dumped long since”, claimed Minette Marrin in a Guardian article on May 29.

Though evidence to support her claim is legion, in the same paper on the same day, Vivek Chaudry a Guardian journalist rather underlined her point, by inverting the Norman Tebbitt ‘cricket test’. He castigated England captain Nasser Hussain for bemoaning the fact that people with origins in the Indian subcontinent continue to support teams from that part of the world rather than England. “My message to Hussain is this. You need to get in touch with your brown side” Chaudrey advised.

Though small, a not insignificant number of journalists are now beginning to publicly ask questions of multiculturalism. Marrin’s though is not a typical liberal view, nor is she a typical Guardian journalist. She is in fact a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, which explains why her article was entitled ‘A view from the right’. But is it? Might it not as easily, or more accurately have been entitled ‘A view from the Left’?

Mainly, what prevents the conservative left assessing the multicultural impact honestly, residual dullness aside, is the fear of being denounced. So instead of properly mocking the Robin Cook ‘chicken tikka’ statement, the conservative left feel under obligation to denounce any misgivings as ‘right wing’, and from that same standpoint feel under obligation to push the agenda toward what it sees as the opposite fundamentalist conclusions, when, and where ever, the opportunity presents itself.

Thus in Oldham, while the British National Party canvass the white working class neighbourhoods, the Socialist Alliance (SA), whose analysis sees the white working class as the sole culprits, nevertheless distributes its propaganda, only in the exclusively non-white areas.

What political purpose, one asks, is served by such tokenism, when if it took its responsibilities at all seriously the SA would have put up candidates against the BNP in the area to begin with? As it is, while the SA ‘intervention’ allowed impeccably white liberals to wear their multicultural heart on their sleeve for a few hours, the BNP went about its business establishing a bridgehead for the local elections in 2002 unhindered. None of this is not to suggest that the SA is politically equipped to win white working class minds. It is merely to point out that it has no ambition to do so. Instead it is perfectly happy to strike a pose, and pronounce on events from a thoroughly partisan, that is to say dishonest, perspective.

Other factors detected within the debris of multiculturalism that is Oldham, are also worth mentioning. First of all, there is the carefully cultivated myth that anti-racism is the preserve of social groups A, and B. Only with ‘education can there be enlightenment’ The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee announced recently. This is so often said, that it is now widely believed among all sections of society, to such an extent that for many, to be properly anti-racist it is necessary to be anti-working class.

Indeed to be properly anti-racist, it may for some, be necessary to instinctively feel ‘anti-white’. “What we now have is a new version of the deserving and undeserving poor – the noble new British working class, who are ethnic, and the thoroughly swinish old working class, who are white”. (Julie Burchill, The Guardian, 5.5.01)

Yet, even a casual glance at the make up of any inner-city community, reveals the conceit of an ‘inherently racist’ white working class to be a lie. It is among the working classes, and statistically, only among the working classes, that interracial relationships thrive. Elsewhere, apart from genially nodding to the man behind the counter in the corner shop, classes A and B contribute nothing to the project they loudly proclaim loyalty to.

On top of that there is the self-serving multicultural pretense that all ethnic communities are homogeneous, and in an ideal world, all would be treated as such.

Not only that, but while some such as ‘Operation Black Vote’ for instance, insist Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as African and those of West Indian and even Chinese descent, must for general electoral convenience you understand, be treated as ‘black’, along side this form of forced integration, other multiculturalists are working just as hard to see the term ‘black’ further sub-divided on the grounds of ethnicity and religion.

The aim? To have strict segregation in schools and housing (to begin with), not only for Blacks and Asians but, for Muslims, Hindus, Bangladeshis and so on, ad infinitum, finally ending in racial, cultural and political balkanisation.

Of course, in the midst of this racial engineering, one word is carefully avoided. That is the word ‘class’. For the very good reason that the promotion of cultural diversity is intended to kill off, and replace the idea of social diversity.Yet despite such sleight of hand, that ‘class’ is as big a factor in the sense of alienation experienced by ‘Pakistani’ youth in Glodwick, as it is in the predominately white Fitton Hill is undeniable. For what is striking about their situation, is that unlike many Indians, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi inhabitants of Oldham show little sign of the fabled enterprising spirit, all of Asian origin, are we are told possess.

They came here with nothing, to work in the mills as labourers, and labourers whether in work or not, they largely remain. They have not broken out – or up. Some pious humbugs like Ken Livingstone, will insist that this is entirely due to endemic racism in British society. But if true, how to explain the equally downtrodden white counterparts with whom they are at war? If racism is the root cause, how to explain the inability of ‘Fittonhillites’ to rise out of the ghetto? ‘Oh them, they are you know, just so much white trash’, many a multiculturalist will explain without blushing.

Recently describing for the New Statesman, a visit to Oldham a couple of years ago when he more or less predicted the ‘backlash,’ Darcus Howe uses that very expression, unashamedly, and apparently in ignorance of its American Deep South origins. No matter, his observations make a nonsense of the working assumptions of the ANL/SA, that there is ‘a uniform access to power for all whites, denied to all blacks’.

“For the first time in this country, I had seen people who fitted the American description ‘white trash’. Their homes had a stench of decay: of damp, sweat, and stale food cooked days before. The little picket fences were collapsing. The roofs were leaking and pallid faces staring.” These are the labour aristocracy, benefitting from imperialism and eager to protect their privileges and ill-gotten gains by voting BNP are they?

For a further insight into how skewed mainstream multiculturalism thinking really is, it is necessary only to take stock of the racially loaded invective of the ‘anti-fascist’ visitors to the National Front ‘guest-book’. These startlingly ugly contributions are, bear in mind, should you be tempted to look, all products of a multicultural education of thirty years standing.

In a further tribute to the influence of such teaching, one Asian group, allegedly set up to fight the NF and Combat 18 has chosen for itself the title; ‘Combat 786′. Like Combat ’18’ which represents the A and H in the alphabet, ‘numbers 786′ are The Observer reports, ‘a numerical representation of Allah’. The similarities do not, I suspect, end there.

Meanwhile that the segregationist ‘peace line’ solutions proposed by the BNP, are these days impeccably multiculturalist in tone and delivery is the final irony. ‘In one area’ an Observer article mentions ‘where an alleyway leads from Fitton Hill into an Asian street, the council plans to erect a metal gate to separate the communities’. Remarkably, the metal gate has since been erected in line with the Griffin edict.

How effortlessly euro-nationalism has appropriated the language of multiculturalism to meet its own objectives, also demonstrates just how far the anti-racism of the 1970’s has drifted. Furthermore, the ease and comfort of the euro-nationalist fit, unmasks the lie that multiculturalism is naturally progressive.

In reality it is more trouble than it’s worth. Not to say that people from the Indian subcontinent or anywhere else ought to be compelled to meet the ‘Tebbit cricket test’. But neither should it be demanded of them out of some sense of racial fidelity that they meet the Chaudrey test either. Multiculturalism however, more or less insists they must. And it is largely when the the left promotes or defends multiculturalism’s right to do so, that it becomes a politically dangerous liability, Oldham has exposed it to be.

Like many of the second generation Irish, whose support for the Republic at football is not entirely separate from an antipathy to England, similarly, as the unprovoked attacks of as many as 30 pubs in the Oldham area have illustrated, being pro-Muslim is not always entirely divorced from being anti-white. Clearly, such an ideology does not enhance authentic anti-racism – it subverts it.

Some commentators on the ‘SPIKEONLINE’ website (ex-Living Marxism magazine) have arrived at precisely such conclusions. “There was a time when the left was accused of stirring up race riots. Now it is the the far right that is accused of starting the violence. Where politicians once denounced violent blacks, today they are more likely to denounce violent racists. The establishment no longer relies on traditional British nationalism, but is more likely to talk in the language of anti- racism.”

Continuing in a similar vein another adds: “When every issue and incident is racialised and seen through the prism of race, it is not surprising that people start to see their problems in racial terms. The end result can only be more division and conflict.”

Professor Frank Furedi, one time mentor to the now defunct RCP is sure-footed on this subject at least: “today it is the race relations lobby and particularly New Labour that finds it difficult to avoid the temptation of playing the race card. By treating every routine conflict as racially motivated they are racialising everyday life. This process is as destructive as the old-fashioned racism.”

It is a process he warns that can only end in “Everyday human contact” becoming “recast in racial terms, with the consequence that racism becomes normalised. This confuses and disorients people, breeding a climate of suspicion and mistrust.” A by-product of this racialistion is that “it also trivalises the real experience of racism and distracts from confronting real cases of injustice” he concludes.

Currently there is much discussion on how the rise of the far right can be halted. The truthful answer is that an anti-fascism joined at the hip with multiculturalism cannot do so. Indeed the higher the activity of the likes of the ANL, and now, and even more ridiculously the SA, the more entrenched the respective working class communities will become. Put bluntly, ‘racialising social problems’ is the motive force of both euro-nationalism and multiculturalism alike. For purposes of anti-fascist strategy, if for no more principled reasons, multiculturalism is ‘an idea that should have been dumped long since’.



By Kenan Malik from his Pandaemonium blog.


Here is my introduction to the discussion on ‘immigration and citizenship’ at last week’s Trudeau Foundation conference on ‘The Making of Citizenship’, about which I have already written. I was part of a double act with Ruben Zaiotti, whose job it was to talk about the Canadian experience. Mine was just to be provocative.

The debate about immigration and citizenship in Europe is often presented as a debate between multiculturalism and assimilation. Not only does this oversimplify the debate, but the similarities between the two sides are often more important than the differences.  Both sides have broadly bought into a series of common myths about immigration and citizenship:

1. The starting point for both multiculturalists and assimilationists is the need to manage the pluralism created by immigration. But Europe is today perhaps less plural than ever before.

Both multiculturalists and assimilationists begin with the presumption that European nations used to be homogenous but have become diverse, though clearly they advocate different policies in response to this diversity. Both sides, however, are suffering from a collective memory loss. The homogeneity of Europe in the era before mass immigration is a myth.

Take, for instance, Britain in the nineteenth century. Here’s a view of the urban poor in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the mid-Victorian 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… 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.

The working class and the rural poor are not simply culturally distinct, they are the racial other.  As the historian of empire David Canadine has shown in his book Ornamentalism, the English ruling class viewed East End costermongers as alien as they did Jamaican peasants but saw Indian princes and West African tribal chiefs as ‘one of us’.

Similarly in France.  Here is Christian Buchez, a Christian socialist, addressing the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, about social differentiation in France:

Our task now… 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 classes below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

We are so used to seeing difference, particularly racial difference, as between Europe and the Other, that we forget that for the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the Other lived inside the borders.

It was not simply a question of perception. The social and cultural differences between a Victorian factory owner and a machinist were probably greater than those between a native white Briton and a second generation British Asian or Afro-Caribbean today.  Unlike the factory owner and the machinist, a 16-yr old white boy born in Bradford and 16-yr of from Bradford of Pakistani origin probably wear the same kinds of clothes, listen to the same kind of music, support the same football teams.

The current narrative about immigration and citizenship has been created by erasing the history of difference with European societies, including the history of past immigration. In the 1930s, for instance, nearly a third of the French population 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 alien as Muslims are today, given to crime and violence, and unlikely to assimilate into French society. ‘The notion of the easy assimilation of past European immigrants’, the historian Max Silverman has written, ‘is a myth’.

What all this suggests is that there is nothing new in plural societies. What is different today is the perception that we are living in a particularly plural society, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. For both multiculturalists and assimilationists, certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as particularly significant and others (such as class, say, or generational) as less relevant. The combination of historical amnesia and a one-eyed view of what constitutes ‘difference’ has come to shape the arguments of both multiculturalists and assimilationists.

2. The real debate is not between multiculturalism and assimilationism. It is between two distinct conceptions of multiculturalism and two distinct conceptions of assimilation.

Part of the problem in discussing multiculturalism is a confusion between two different meanings of the term. The first is the lived experience of diversity, the experience of societies enriched by mass immigration. The second is the set of political policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. Or, to put it another way, multiculturalism has come to define both a society made diverse by immigration, and the policies necessary to manage such a society. It has come to embody, in other words, both a description of society and aprescription for managing it.

There are similarly two notions of assimilation. On the one hand, assimilationism has come to mean the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. On the other it has come to mean an insistence that equality requires a certain degree of cultural homogeneity, and hence requires  immigrants to give up some of their differences, because too great a degree of cultural diversity would undermine social cohesion and national unity. This was one of the arguments underlying the various bans on the burqa. ‘The wearing of the burqa’, French immigration minister, Eric Besson,  claimed in 2009 should  ‘be systematically considered as proof of insufficient integration into French society, creating an obstacle to gaining  nationality.” A year earlier Mme M, a Moroccan immigrant married to a French citizen with whom she had had four French-born children, was refused French citizenship on the grounds that because she wore a burqa, her practice of her religion was incompatible with the essential values of the French nation. Assimilationism is this sense is a means not of enforcing equality but of pointing up differences, of tolerating, indeed institutionalising racism.

If I were to construct an ideal immigration/citizenship policy, it would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of enhancing the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. In practice what European nations have done is the very opposite. Different countries have institutionalised either multiculturalism, in the sense of policies to place minorities in boxes, or assimilationism, in the sense of equality as meaning the giving up of cultural or religious differences. Both, in other words, have rejected the best aspects of their outlook, and institutionalized the most wretched parts.

3. Both sides in the debate confuse the idea of peoples with that of values

‘Can Europe be the same with different people in it?’ asks the writer Christopher Caldwell in his controversial book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. His answer is a clear ‘No’. Caldwell is a columnist for the Financial Times and an editor of the conservative American magazine the Weekly StandardReflections on the Revolution in Europe is the latest in a succession of books by authors such as Mark Steyn, Oriana Fallaci, Bruce Bawer and Melanie Phillips warning of how immigration, and in particular Muslim immigration, is threatening the very foundations of European civilization. All immigrants, they argue, but most especially Muslim ones, bring with them a different set of values, incompatible with those of Western nations. The only solution is to stop immigration.

It is not difficult to see the problems with Caldwell’s line of reasoning. Not only does he erase the history of the ‘Other’ in Europe in which, as I’ve suggested, Europeans themselves were viewed as Muslims are today, but he confusespeoples and values. Being born to European parents is no passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia?

What is striking is that both multiculturalists and assimilationists, in their different ways, express the same confusion. Multiculturalists argue that the presence in a society of diversity of peoples erodes the possibility of common values. Assimilationists suggest that such values are possible only within a more culturally, and indeed ethnically, homogenous society.

Multiculturalists insist that different groups have their own given values and lifestyles which should be respected. ‘Justice between groups’, as the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has put it, ‘requires that members of different groups are accorded different rights’. The British sciologist Tariq Madood takes this line of argument to make a distinction between what he calls the ‘equality of individualism’ and ‘equality encompassing public ethnicity: 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.’ So society must protect and nurture cultures, ensure their flourishing and indeed their survival.

For assimilationists diversity is the very problem. Europe, Christopher Caldwell bemoans, has been turned into a ‘bazaar of world cultures’. Muslim immigration must be stopped because Muslims are ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’ but  ‘supplanting it.’ The melodramatic title of Caldwell’s book is a nod to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, his polemic against the 1789 Revolution, and reflects Caldwell’s belief that the impact on European of postwar immigration has been as dramatic as the fall of the ancien regime in 1789. There is, he suggests, no ‘fundamental difference between colonization and labor migration’, when such migration involves people who are not like us.

The result of both multiculturalism and assimilationism are policies supposedly designed foster integration but whose consequences are to define minority communities as being distinct from the rest of society and, in so doing, fostering division and disengagement: Consider, for instance, some of the consequences of multicultural policies:

    • The tendency to treat individuals from minority communities more as members of a group than as individual citizens, and to shape public policy according to group membership rather than to individual needs. As, Joy Warmington, director of the equalities organization Birmingham Race Action Partnership has put it, ‘Rather than thinking of meeting people’s needs or about distributing resources more equitably,, organizations are forced to think about the distribution of ethnicity.’
    • The tendency of politicians to subcontract out their responsibility to so-called community leaders, who effectively become the voice of those communities and the mediation between the state and those communities.
    • The failure to acknowledge the diversity of minority communities and conflicts within them. One of the ironies is that multiculturalists appear to believe that nations are diverse, but that such diversity stops at the edge of minority communities. Differences and conflicts of class, gender, nationality and generation that exist within minority communities  often get ignored in multicultural policies.

Similar points can be made with respect to the impact of assimilationist policies, too. So long as both sides confuse the diversity of peoples and the diversity of values, so there can be no rational discussion of immigration and citizenship.

4. Immigration does not create a problem of citizenship. The fraying of citizenship creates the perception that immigration is the problem.

The starting point of virtually all discussions about immigration and citizenship is the belief that immigration creates a problem of integration and of citizenship. Indeed, without such a belief there would probably be no debate about immigration and citizenship. The problem is usually seen as a failure of immigrants to integrate into civil society, or to identify with the nation, or to act like citizens. And the demand is for policies to address that failure.

The trouble is, the evidence for the failure is at best mixed. There have been polls that have revealed that, for instance, almost 40% of British Asians do not feel British. But others, show that, on both sides of the Atlantic, those of immigrants background, including Muslims, are often more likely to identity with the nation than many sections of so-called indigenous population. The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES), the results of which have not been fully published yet, has revealed that Asian communities tend to bemore satisfied with democracy, and more likely to identify with Britain, than the white population. In other words, insofar as there is a problem of integration and of citizenship, it is not simply a problem of immigrants, and those of immigrant background, but also of the indigenous population. And what needs to be addressed is less the specific failure of immigrants to integrate than the broader sense of social disengagement, afflicting many communities, including migrant communities.

One of the key characteristics of our era is that of political disenchantment, a sense of being rendered voiceless, of political institutions as remote and corrupt. There is a crisis of political representation.  It is true that many within migrant and minority communities have given vent to that sense of alienation. And, yet, the sense of political detachment has probably been most acute, not within migrant communities, but within the traditional working class, particularly as social democratic parties have sought new constituencies. And because the myths and assumptions about immigration and citizenship have not been challenged, but rather have been reinforced, so such alienation has often taken the form of scapegoating migrants for the fragmentation of society. Hence the success of many populist, reactionary movements across Europe.

Not only does the belief that immigration creates a problem of integration and of citizenship misunderstand the real issue, but in fostering hostility against immigrants, whom many come to believe are incapable of integrating, or unwilling to, such belief also establishes new tensions. In so doing it not only makes life harder, and often more violent and dangerous, for immigrants and minorities, it also constructs new barriers to integration.  The very belief that there is a problem of immigration and citizenship helps create the problem of immigration and citizenship.



From Kenan Maliks blog Pandaemonium

For someone like me, a European in favour of mass immigration but critical of multiculturalism, the Trudeau Foundation conference on ‘The Making of Citizens’ that took place last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was both intriguing and  fascinating. The Foundation was set up in 2001 in memory of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a key architect of Canada’s multicultural policy. Its aim is to promote and fund research in the humanities and social sciences and, while not attached to any political party, the Foundation’s work is indelibly stamped with the liberal humanitarianism that many see as Trudeau’s principal political legacy and which, in many ways, has come to shape Canada’s self-definition. Multiculturalism, in this sense, is to Canada as the welfare state is to Britain.

Two themes seemed to run through ‘The Making of Citizens’ conference. The first was the belief that the debate between multiculturalism and its critics maps neatly on to the debate between those who favour immigration and those who are hostile to it; in other words, that those who oppose multiculturalism necessarily oppose immigration and that those who defend immigration can only do so by defending multiculturalism. The second theme was the insistence that Canadian multiculturalism is distinct from the European version, and suffers from none of the defects of the latter.

The first point is unquestionably false. In Germany, for example, multiculturalism developed as a means of denying citizenship to Turkish migrants. Turks had come to Germany originally as temporary ‘guestworkers’ but had subsequently become permanent residents, largely because Germany continued to need their labour. The German government, however, until the law was changed a decade ago, did not wish to grant citizenship, even to those of Turkish origin born in Germany. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep own culture, language and lifestyles.  Multiculturalism developed, in other words, not as a means of embracing immigration but as a way of keeping immigrants at arms’ length. In Britain, multiculturalism developed as part of the ‘twin track’ strategy on immigration: on the one hand the imposition of  increasingly restrictive immigration controls, initially designed specifically to exclude non-whites, and on the other, the creation of a social framework aimed at facilitating the integration of black and Asian communities into British society.

In Canada, too, the relationship between multiculturalism and immigration is far from straightforward. Historically, the policy developed as a way not of welcoming immigrants but of mitigating the impact of ‘biculturalism’ – the fracture and tensions between French and English speaking Canada. And, for all the insistence that Canada has a liberal immigration policy, Ottawa has in fact worked very hard to keep out the ‘wrong’ kind of immigrant. Canadian policy is largely about cherry picking middle class professionals and making it almost impossible for unskilled workers to cross the border. Little wonder that many European nations are now looking to Canada’s points system as a model for immigration control.

The second theme – about the distinctiveness of Canadian multiculturalism, and about its success in comparison to Europe – is, on the surface at least, more plausible.  Community relations in Canada have certainly remained relatively peaceful, and there has been far less of the violence and tensions found in Europe. I remain unconvinced, however, by the argument that all is rosy in Canadian multicultural garden for a number of reasons. Many of the problems in Europe to which Canadians often allude – inner city riots, for instance – are the products, not of multiculturalism, but of racism, though multiculturalism has certainly helped entrench old racial divisions and create new communal  antagonisms. Canada is no Utopia free of racial discrimination, nor of the tensions it generates. Moreover, the underlying problems with multicultural policies, problems that I have explored here andhere and here and here and here and here, don’t vanish on crossing the Atlantic. Indeed, many of confrontations that have marked European multicultural tensions – such as over free speech issues or the wearing of the burqa – are present in Canadian society too.

One of my criticisms of multiculturalism, and of the debate around it, has been about the confusion of the lived experience of diversity and the policies enacted to manage that diversity, confusion, in other words, between adescription of a society and a prescription for that society. A number of conference speakers suggested that Canadian multiculturalism amounts largely to a celebration of the lived experience of diversity, rather than the imposition of political policies. This seems to me unlikely for a number of reasons. First, because Canadian policy involves, as all multicultural policies must, a degree of prescription, and hence suffers, to some extent at least, from the problems that inevitably arise from all multicultural prescription – such as, for instance, the subcontracting out of political responsibility to so-called community leaders and the treating of individuals with a minority background as members of a group rather than simply as citizens.

Secondly, Canada, as I have already observed, does not have an open immigration policy but a highly restrictive one. The closed character of Canada’s immigration rules clearly impacts upon immigrants and potential immigrants. It also impacts upon Canada’s economic needs, which are often for the kinds of immigrants Canadian law deems socially unsuitable to be citizens. To get round this, businesses and both provincial and federal authorities are now drawing upon the services of hundreds of thousands of ‘temporary workers’.  Temporary migration has, indeed, become the biggest source of new labour in Canada -182,322 temporary workers entered the country in 2010, coming to be fruit pickers, labourers, factory workers, janitors, waiters and chambermaids. They have few rights, no access to the services available to other immigrants, and are excluded from permanent residency or citizenship. Sound familiar?

The irony is that just as European nations are looking to Canada’s points system as a way of restricting immigration, Canada is adopting the European policy of temporary immigration without rights or status to fill its economic needs. This suggests that the same kinds of problems that Europe has faced may well be in store for Canada, too.  It also suggests that when it comes to celebrating diversity, Canada has a highly restricted definition of the term.  It is the diversity of those who are ‘like us’, not in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of class and outlook.

All of which explains why I remain sceptical about the claims for the success of the Canadian model. I will write a proper post about this in due course. I will also, in the next couple of days, post my talk at the conference. In the meantime, my thanks to the Trudeau Foundation for inviting me to speak, for accepting my scepticism with good grace, for a thoroughly enjoyable event and for opening up this much needed debate.

Cameron and Faith: Where Is The Big Society Going?

From Paul Stott’s blog

An interesting insight into the vision David Cameron has for Britain comes from an article he has written for issue 68 of Keep The Faith magazine.

For the uninitiated, Keep The Faith styles itself, according to its blurb on Google, as ‘Britain’s leading magazine about black faith’. Personally I am not sure how ‘faith’ can be black or indeed any colour, and I feel rather perturbed by the suggestion that it can be. Then again I have always been a staunch atheist, so what do I know?

In a way, Cameron’s approach to Keep The Faith is far from unique. Issue 68 is devoted to a series of condemnations of this summers riots, and Cameron makes it clear that he sees faith as a way of countering such violence. Underwhelmed as I was by the political content of the riots, it is hard not be reminded of the way the 1980s urban clashes were followed by politicians embracing multi-culturalism, community leaders and religious figures in the inner-cities – all to buy off future problems. Put simply, the Prime Minister does not want to see young black kids on street corners, but in church. Here Christianity remains in its traditional role as far as British political leaders are concerned – it is for civilising black people.

What is also interesting, and deeply disturbing, is how Cameron sketches the big society to this audience. Consider this quote:

“I don’t agree with people who say there is no place for faith in society and public service. Just look at the good work of faith schools – including the one my own son and daughter attend – or the work of Street Pastors and the Salvation Army. In every town and every city, there are charities and voluntary organisations of all faiths doing teriffic things. And through the new Localism Bill, they are freed up like never before to transform their local communities. This revival is at the heart of what I want to achieve.”

The privatisation or reduction of public services, with religious organisations filling the gap, was envisaged in the US by the neo-Conservative right and by George W Bush. In Britain, it picked up pace in London with Ken Livingstone’s funding of East London Mosque’s welfare programmes, and is set to continue with the big society. On this issue at least, the right, the left and the centre-right appears in harmony.

Several problems emerge with this approach. Firstly, what about those who don’t want their local community ‘transformed’ by the church down the road? When Cameron praises faith schools, is he really unaware of the division they have fostered in Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent Scotland? Why is their promotion in England going to be different, especially when we already see significant differences between, to take one example, Muslim and non-Muslim communties in places like Birmingham and east Lancashire? What if traditionally antagonistic faiths compete for influence in the same area, both looking to ‘transform’ the community?

Writing for Shift magazine in 2010, I warned that the big society was likely to end up as an Islamist beanfeast. The reality now appears worse – a beanfeast for any religious current going.

Multiculturalism & identity politics – the reactionary consequences and how they can be challenged

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.’ [1]                      

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. [2]

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. [3]                                                                                       

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. [4]

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. [5]

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.[6]

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. [7]

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?’ [8]

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.


[1]        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 

[4]        Alastair Harper – Blood of the Isles – Identity, June 2007 -


[5]        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

[6]        Saturday Review – 16 January, 1864

[7]        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

[8]        Kenan Malik – Making a difference: culture, race and social policy – Patterns of PrejudiceVol 39, no 4, December 2005 –http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/pop_multiculturalism.html

History, Like Slavery, Isn’t A Matter Of Colour

With the annual black history month approaching here’s an article from a few years back discussing the view that ‘celebrations of difference’ such as BHM do far more to cause division than avoid it.

'William Cuffay - who has all too often been airbrushed out of history by the supporters of multiculturalism and Black Nationalism'

“While Leys News devotes much of this issue’s column inches to commemorate Black History Month, not everyone agrees that we should be joining the party. IWCA Councillor Stuart Craft believes it is time to pull the plug on publicly funded celebrations of ethnic differences. Here Stuart argues that those who claim to oppose the white nationalism of groups such as the BNP, while promoting the political strategy of multiculturalism and black nationalism, are hypocrites playing a dangerous game.

This article was written for the local paper, Leys News. The version which appeared in Leys News was edited for reasons of space. The version below is the complete article.

A generation ago, working class activists addressing the propaganda of the far-right had one major advantage – that most of this propaganda, such as statements about non-whites receiving special treatment was nothing more than the wishful thinking of those desperate for any justification for a race war. Today things are not so straightforward. With all the main political parties committed to a political strategy of divisive multiculturalism, which has seen a dramatic increase in the number of religious schools, segregated housing and youth clubs, the fascists at last have something concrete on which to base their ultra-conservative, political propaganda. And with 55 councillors at the last count, at least one party – the BNP – has not been shy to exploit this gift-wrapped new opportunity.

Those who are tempted to believe there is no cause for alarm in Oxford should think again. The African Caribbean Youth Project and Asian Young Men’s Youth Project in Blackbird Leys and Rose Hill respectively, were set up with local government funds. Recently the city council considered financing exclusive free swimming for ‘Muslim’ mothers at Hinksey Pool. There are plans to turn Peers School into a Church of England-backed Academy, which is likely to open the door to more ‘faith schools’ across the city. And only last week, Oxford’s South-West Area Committee discussed separate housing for ‘Black and Minority Ethnic People’.

If the far right had made any of this up only a handful of years ago, they would have been accused of being racist scaremongers, but those making such accusations now find themselves on shifting sand. Welcome to Blair and Brown’s Britain.

With the general reduction in the allocation of government/council funds to the working class (regardless of background), the political strategy of multiculturalism plays an important role. By encouraging people to exaggerate their cultural differences in order to ‘win’ funding for youth clubs/schools/housing etc, potential allies are dissuaded from working together for the common good, while middle class careerists from ethnic minority backgrounds are placated through potentially lucrative positions within the ‘race relations industry’ and through a myriad of state funded separatist projects across the country.

Yet in real terms (and especially in the context of what has been lost through the clawing back of universal gains over the last 25 years) these schemes benefit working class ethnic minorities very little. Inevitably, it also encourages resentment not just within the majority white working class, who understandably feel aggrieved at the injustice of racialised funding from which they are excluded, but also amongst different minority groups battling each other over funds.

In the confusion created by this complex situation, most overlook the fact that the slice of the pie that the working class receive, across the board, continues to be reduced at an alarming rate. Yet this (from the establishment’s point of view) is the whole point. The promotion of multiculturalism was never intended as a stepping-stone to universal social justice—but as a replacement for it.

Constructive criticism of multiculturalism is nothing new. As far back as the late 1960’s, across the Atlantic, The Black Panther Party for Self Defence had come to the conclusion that multiculturalism was a deliberate strategy devised to undermine pro-working class politics. The panthers believed that, ‘those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses of the people’

When an article by the Africa Research Group titled ‘The CIA as an Equal Opportunity Employer’ appeared in 1969 in Ramparts magazine presenting convincing evidence that ‘the CIA has promoted black cultural nationalism to reinforce neo-colonialism in Africa,’ it was reprinted in the Black Panther newspaper to support the analysis that similar tactics were being employed closer to home.

The Black Panthers recognised what they called ‘Black Cultural Nationalism’ as a tool created by the establishment to undermine the organised working class. The party’s co-founder, Bobby Seale, attacked the cultural nationalists on many occasions: ‘Cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do. The cultural nationalists say that a black man cannot be an enemy of the black people, while the Panthers believe that black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors’. Again: ‘The ruling class and their running dogs, their lackeys, their bootlickers, their Toms and their black racists, their cultural nationalists – they’re all the running dogs of the ruling class. These are the ones who help to maintain and aid the power structure by perpetuating their racist attitudes and using racism as a means to divide the people.’

That Bobby Seale’s criticisms of the political strategy of multiculturalism – jive talk aside – are as relevant today as when first applied in the USA, nearly four decades ago, is depressingly self evident and indicates the level of success that the ruling establishment has had in applying the politics of their American cousins to the UK.

Racial nationalism is dangerous in all its forms, most notably when adopted by the largest ethnic group. In theory this means that a minority black nationalism is less dangerous in this country than white nationalism. However, minority black nationalism can easily feed majority white nationalism. By playing up injustices, whether real or constructed, and more importantly by attempting to place the blame squarely on the ‘opposite national’ or racial group, minority nationalists can easily stoke up the kind of resentment that pushes people (and not just white people) towards the BNP.

Slavery has always been a major weapon in the Black Nationalist armoury; proof indeed that ‘the white man’ alone bears responsibility for the historic ills suffered by ‘black people’. The sense of grievance over the legacy of slavery coupled with the claim that black people are an especially oppressed group at this present time, allows (usually middle class) black nationalists to occupy the moral high ground over the guilt ridden white middle class liberals who are in turn able to influence the allocation of public funds and other resources.

There is no question that the millions of Africans who were enslaved or born into slavery under the plantation system instituted by the western colonial powers suffered horrific injustice. What is less obvious, at least from standard accounts, is who and what were to blame and what the legacy of that injustice is today.

The idea that chattel slavery was a crime thought up by whites to oppress blacks is a myth. Slavery existed in Africa for centuries before the arrival of white European colonialists and this barbaric tradition still continues in parts of Africa today. The prolific use of slavery throughout the Chinese, Ottoman and (multi-ethnic) Roman empires is also a slice of history, which sits uncomfortably with the Black Nationalist cause, as does the fact that White Europeans – including English men and women, were kidnapped and taken for use as slave labour throughout the 17th Century by black, North African pirates.

The English slave trade also, initially, preferred white slaves and looked to its closest neighbour and earliest colony for a ready supply of free labour. As early as 1612, Irish men and women were being shipped to the Amazon River settlements for use as forced labour. In 1625, the English authorities issued a Proclamation ordering that Irish political prisoners be transported and sold as slaves to English planters in the West Indies, (pre-dating the arrival of African slaves to the Caribbean). In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. The small island of St Kitts, alone, held 25,000 Irish slaves during this period and by 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves. Although Africans were thought to be better suited to work in the Caribbean sun, they had to be paid for. The Irish on the other hand cost nothing, so were inevitably the preferred option. African slaves did, of course, eventually outnumber the Irish, but in relation to the size of population, it can be argued, that Irish society paid the bigger price.

But in common with all racial nationalists, Black Nationalists are not interested in historical episodes that undermine their stake for lucrative victim status. Their cause is far better served by encouraging us to view the past through the skewed lens of storytellers such as Alex Haley, who’s book ‘Roots’, televised in the 1970’s, did much to colour our view of black history. Roots was a hugely popular television series in the 1970’s, and was for many black people, the book and, more importantly the television programme, that played a significant role in the awakening of their ‘racial consciousness’. American academic Jim Sleeper, commented on this in his 1997 book ‘Liberal Racism’:

Haley ‘Depicted a pre-colonial Eden that hadn’t existed; created his account of Kunta Kinte’s youth there more out of current anthropology than history; paired all that with the story of his own communing with village elders in postcolonial Gambia; and wildly inflated black Americans’ expectations of sub-Saharan Africa, past and present. Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire – one could double the list before finding a sub-Saharan nation that isn’t now run by thugs, wracked by bloody tribal wars, or watching hundreds of thousands starve. Black Americans visiting such places have experienced ‘solidarity’ with their inhabitants only by letting skin colour eclipse virtue and blaming everything on the legacies of colonialism. Africans can’t do that because they are busy fighting other black Africans, as did their pre-colonial forebears, who enslaved and sold millions of people to the whites who transported them here. This is not hyperbole; it is a reality which it takes hyperbole to deny, especially now that South Africa no longer serves as a foil against which black nations to its north can be made to seem more grand, or at least legitimate, simply for being black’.

The important thing to recognise in Western colonial slavery is that it was driven less by racism, than by money. In fact racism was largely constructed after the fact to motivate the perpetrators and justify what had become a highly profitable enterprise. It is also important to remember that no ethnic group has the monopoly on greed.

The move away from chattel slavery to wage slavery was purely down to the realisation by the capitalist entrepreneurs of the time, that more profit could be made if slaves were dispensed of and workers were hired for wages. In 1910, James Connolly, who himself suffered execution in 1916 for his part in opposing British colonialism in Ireland, explained this using the following parable: ‘A Negro slave in the Southern States of America was told by his owner to go up and fasten the shingles on top of the roof of his master’s dwelling. ‘Boss,’ said he to the slave owner ‘If I go up there and fall down and get killed you will lose the 500 dollars you paid for me; but if you send up that Irish labourer and he falls down and breaks his neck you won’t even have to bury him, and can get another labourer tomorrow for two dollars a day.’ The Irish labourer was sent up. Moral: Slavery is immoral because slaves cost too much.’

Having punctured the black nationalist myth that slavery was chiefly a matter of racial domination rather than economic exploitation, let us look at another staple of the nationalist repertoire – the appropriation of role models singled out for their membership of a particular ethnic group.

Only a racist would deny that this country has produced, and continues to produce great black men and women, but as is the case across the board, their greatness is not by virtue of their skin colour. If, however, we are looking for a role model in British history, who happens to have been black, a role model who believed that class, not race, is the main fault line in British society we could do worse that single out William Cuffay – who has all too often been airbrushed out of history by the supporters of multiculturalism and Black Nationalism.

Alongside Irishman Fergus O’Connor, Cuffay was leader of the ‘physical force’ wing of the British Chartist movement in the 1840’s. The Chartists were Britain’s first major working class movement of the industrial age, so- called because they campaigned for a charter of human rights including the right of working class people to vote. Cuffay, a tailor by trade and son of a freed slave, was respected as a leader by his almost exclusively white working class peers, regardless his skin colour. This respect was not inspired by liberal tokenism but because he was best man for the job and led to his election first to the five man National Executive of the Chartists and later to the role of President of the London Chartists. William Cuffay’s prominence at the forefront of the Chartists can be seen in the tone of newspaper accounts of the time, which positioned him as leader of the movement. The Times went as far as to describe militants in London as ‘the black man and his party’.

As part of a sustained attack on the Chartist movement by the establishment, which included violent police disruption of Chartist meetings, black propaganda, summary arrests and the destruction of property and offices, Cuffay was eventually set up by a Government spy, arrested and convicted of ‘Conspiracy to levy war against Her Majesty’. He was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania in the summer of 1848 where he spent the rest of his life. When sentence was passed Cuffay defiantly stated:

‘I say you have no right to sentence me. Although the trial has lasted a long time, it has not been a fair trial, and my request to have a fair trial – to be tried by my equals – has not been complied with. Everything has been done to raise a prejudice against me, and the press of this country – and I believe of other countries too – has done all in its power to smother me with ridicule. I ask no pity. I ask no mercy. I expected to be convicted, and I did not think anything else. No, I pity the Government, and I pity the Attorney General for convicting me by means of such base characters. The Attorney General ought to be called the Spy General. I am not anxious for martyrdom, but after what I have endured this week, I feel that I could bear any punishment proudly, even to the scaffold.’

We are lucky enough to live in England at a time when we have neither transportation to Australia nor the scaffold as punishment for having the audacity to stand up for working class interests.

Nonetheless, the militant working class can still expect to see underhand methods employed against it, one of which is the well-worn tactic of divide and rule.

While the study of any area of history is worthwhile in itself, it is particularly urgent, at a time when our communities come under threat – from the political establishment as well as white and ethnic minority nationalists – that we take heed of the rich history of militant working class struggle for equality and justice for all.”



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)


Kenan Malik: A Merkel Attack On Multiculturalism

‘Multiculturalism has totally failed’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent blunt comments on the fiasco of German race relations has, for many, injected a welcome dose of reality into the debate. I have been a critic of multiculturalism from well before it became fashionable to be one. Yet I am wary of Merkel’s criticisms. For hers is an assault not so much on multiculturalism as on immigration, and on immigrants.

Merkel’s comments came as part of a wider debate taking place over the place of Turkish migrants in German society. Former Bundesbank official Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial book Deutschland schafft sich ab – ‘Germany abolishes itself’ – which argues that Germany is in terminal decline because of the ‘Islamization’ of the nation, has become a bestseller. Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer, whose Christian Social Union is one of three parties in Merkel’s ruling coalition, argued recently for a halt of Muslim immigration. The family affairs minister Kristina Schroeder has condemned the anti-German ‘xenophobia and racism’ of Turkish communities. Faced with state elections next year, and a possible leadership challenge, Merkel has herself joined this rancorous chorus.

In one sense Merkel is right. Germany’s multicultural policies have been a disaster and should be scrapped. But the failure of multiculturalism – and indeed its introduction – has little to do with immigrants. Immigrant groups have actively resisted such policies as pernicious and destructive. To understand why, we need to retrace the story of postwar immigration to Germany.

Like many West European nations, Germany faced an immense labour shortage in the postwar years and actively recruited foreign workers, initially from Italy, Spain and Greece, and then from Turkey. These workers came not as immigrants, still less as potential citizens, but as Gastarebeiter or ‘guest workers’, who were expected to return to their country of origin when no longer required to service the German economy.

Over time, however, immigrants became transformed from a temporary necessity to a permanent presence. This was partly because Germany continued relying on their labour, and partly because immigrants, and more so their children, came to see Germany as home. But the German state continued to view them as outsiders and to refuse them citizenship. There are nearly 4 million people of Turkish origin in Germany today. Barely half a million have managed to become citizens. Nor is it just first generation immigrants who are denied citizenship; their German-born children are excluded too.

Instead of creating an open society, into which immigrants were welcome as equals, German politicians from the 1980s onwards dealt with the ‘Turkish problem’ though a policy of multiculturalism. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep own culture, language and lifestyles. The consequence was the creation of parallel communities. The policy did not so much represent respect for diversity as provide a means of avoiding the issue of how to create a common, inclusive culture.

As a consequence of multicultural policies, Turkish communities became dangerously inward-looking. Without any incentive to participate in the national community, many did not bother learning German. First generation immigrants were broadly secular, and those that were religious wore their faith lightly. Today, almost a third of adult Turks in Germany regularly attend mosque, a far higher rate than among Turkish communities elsewhere in Western Europe, and higher than in most parts of Turkey. First generation women almost never wore headscarves. Many of their daughters do.

Not only were Turks isolated from mainstream German society, they were also estranged from the communities from which they had originally emigrated, and from the traditional institutions of Islam. Combined with their growing religiosity and inwardness, the increasing isolation of second generation German Turks from social structures in both Germany and Turkey made some more open to radical Islamist tendencies. The recent news of German jihadis in Afghanistan was the inevitable consequence.

At the same time as Germany’s multicultural policies encouraged immigrants to be at best indifferent to mainstream German society, at worst openly hostile to it, they also made Germans increasingly antagonistic towards Turks. The sense of what it meant to be German was in part defined against the values and beliefs of the excluded migrant communities. And having been excluded, it has become easier to scapegoat immigrants for Germany’s social ills. A recent poll showed that more than a third of Germans think that the country is ‘over-run by foreigners’ and more than half felt that Arabs were ‘unpleasant’.

Germany has taken a different path to a multicultural society from a country like Britain. In Britain, immigrants arrived not as guest workers but as British subjects. They were excluded from mainstream society not by being deprived of citizenship but because of racism. The response of the British authorities to such exclusion was, however, the same as that of German authorities – the encouragement of minority groups to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.

In Germany, the formal denial of citizenship to immigrants led to the policy of multiculturalism. In Britain, the promotion of multicultural policies led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority communities not as citizens but simply as member of particular ethnic groups. The consequence in both cases, as in virtually every Western European nation, has been the creation of fragmented societies, the alienation of many minority groups and the scapegoating of immigrants.

Part of the reason that we find ourselves in this mess is that the debate about multiculturalism has become conflated with the debate about immigration. On the one side, many people argue, as Angela Merkel does, that immigrants have helped create social disunity. On the other side, many feel they can defend minority rights only by clinging to multicultural policies. Both sides are wrong.

Immigration has been a great boon, helping create societies that are less insular, more vibrant, more cosmopolitan. It is not immigrants who have created fragmented societies, but rather the multicultural policies designed to manage those immigrants. To find a way out of our current morass, we need to separate the debate about multiculturalism from that about immigration. It is time to ditch multiculturalism but celebrate immigration.


Kenan Malik-‘The Swedish Challenge’

While we don’t always follow Kenan Malik’s ideas ‘to the letter’ there’s always a lot we agree on and his writing brings much to debate.

I can understand the shock and despair in Sweden following the electoral breakthrough of the Sweden Democats. There was similar shock in Britain last year when the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European elections. Britain, like Sweden, had thought of itself as different from other European nations, as open, tolerant and progressive. It was a country in which fascists had never won mass support, nor tasted electoral success. The BNP’s electoral breakthrough at a national level – and the almost one million votes it won – seemed therefore all the more distressing, and led to a bout of national soul searching similar to that now gripping Sweden.

It is, however, in this very view of Britain and Sweden as exceptional that much of the problem lies. The question being asked in Sweden, as it was in Britain, is ‘How can we stop the far right?’. The question that Swedes should be asking is ‘How can we challenge anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment?’ The two questions might seem necessaily to lead to the same answers. They don’t always. The danger is that in being obsessed by the first question to the detriment of the second, politicians may help strengthen, not weaken, xenophobic attitudes.

Take Britain. In the wake of the BNP’s electoral success last year, there were two broad responses. Some dismissed BNP voters as racists and fascists. Others insisted that the only way to stop the BNP was by mainstream politicians taking a tougher line on immigration. Both strategies are flawed.

The roots of the BNP, like that of the SD, lie in the fascist swamp. In recent years, just like the SD, it has attempted to rebrand itself as a more respectable political party. This rebrading has not changed the fundamental nature of the organization. But it has helped transform the character of its support.

A core of hardline racist bigots continues to support the BNP. But the bigots have 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 are traditional Labour Party members who now feel abandoned by an organization that has cut links with its working class constituency. Even more than the rest of the population, they appear dissatisfied with their lives, anxious about the future, distrustful of any figure of authority.

Much the same seems to be true in Sweden. The crisis of social democracy has opened up new political space. SD supporters appear largely young, male, working class, unemployed or trade union members, drawn to the party by disenchantment with social democracy, fear of austerity, and a sense of being politically disenfranchised. In Sweden, as in Britain, such fear and insecurity often expresses itself through anti-immigrant sentiment.

The hardline racists that support the SD or the BNP are likely to remain hardline racists. Neither fact nor reason will change their minds. The wider support that now surrounds such organizations is different. We need to engage with them and their concerns and not simply dismiss them as racists. Taking the concerns of such voters seriously does not, however, mean pandering to their prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging them openly and robustly. Challenging the idea, for instance, 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. Politicians of both right and left have responded to the advance of the far right not by challenging its prejudices but by appropriating its arguments. They have come to believe that the only way to stem support for groups such as the SD or the BNP is by promising to further cut back on immigration, to step up deportation of asylum seekers, and to curtail civil liberties. They have even appropriated the language. The former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown talked proudly of ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan first popularized in the 1980s by the National Front, one of the fascist forerunners of the BNP.

The pressure on the next Swedish government to pursue a similar strategy will be immense. In the short term it may boost the electoral fortunes of mainstream politicians. In the long term it can only deepen the belief that all Sweden’s social problems stem from too much immigration and so strengthen the hand of reactionary figures such as SD leader Jimmie Akesson.

What makes worse the promotion of anti-immigrant sentiment by mainstream politicians is that it has all too often been combined with a knee-jerk reaction to close down debate and deny far-right supporters basic democratic rights. From legislation against hate speech to attempts to ban far-right members from public sector jobs, the aim has been to exclude obnoxious ideas – and people – from the public sphere. The decision in Sweden not to broadcast a controversial SD election video, that contrasted the supposed treatment of white pensioners with that of burqa-clad immigrants, because it might promote ‘hatred’, follows in this pattern.

It is a strategy that is illiberal, illogical and counter-productive. Censoring ugly ideas will not make them go away, especially when the mainstream assiduously sponsors milder versions of those very same ideas. The bigotry will simply fester underground, feeding belief in a malign liberal conspiracy against the indigenous population, and allowing the likes of Jimmie Akesson to portray themselves as victims of an establishment lynch mob.

Just as fear and insecurity is driving many towards organizations such as the SD and the BNP, it is also shaping much of the mainstream reaction to those organizations, creating an incoherent response that vacillates between demonising the far right and pandering to its prejudices. ‘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.’

That is not a judicious way of tackling the problem. In Britain, the BNP has suffered an electoral collapse. But anti-immigrant sentiment is probably stronger now than it was when the BNP tasted electoral success last year. The challenge in Sweden is to encourage a frank and honest public debate about immigration, multiculturalism and Islam while at the same promoting a robust defence of mass immigration, diversity and an open society.


The Argument Against Multiculturalism.

Interesting article by Phil Dickens over on Property Is Theft!

On my other blog, I often write in defence of migrants against the repression of the state. Because of this, and my opposition to border controls, my opponents on the right often presume that I am in favour of multiculturalism and mass immigration. This is not the case.

I have already explained, in The case against borders, why defending the rights of migrants and opposing border control systems does not equal support for mass migration;

Such an argument assumes that those who advocate an end to the border regime simply want to scrap border controls and then let a chaotic free-for-all happen. This is, quite simply, not true at all.

Mass migration has absolutely nothing to do with how “tough” or “soft” border controls may be. Mass migration is a product of the unjust and often violent military and economic policies that displace people on a massive scale. On important example is the General Agreement on Trade and Tarrifs (GATT) that came about in the aftermath or World War II has essentially kept the colonial system alive through the establishment of “free trade areas” – essentially meaning that we have pried open the third world to our plunder. It’s something we’ve always done, but now there’s international legislation barring them from using protectionist tariffs to prop-up their economies. This restriction enacted specifically to prevent the third world using precisely the measures that the developed world used to become developed.

This disparity is the driving force behind mass migration, and responsibility for it lies primarily in western hands. The United States and Great Britain have spent half a century imposing market fundamentalism through unaccountable bodies like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and legislation like GATT. This is not to mention military interventions, funding, arming, and mobilising of terrorist groups, propping up third-world dictators and pumping aid to them in order to keep corporate profits on a high.

The only way to end mass migration, then, is to end precisely these injustices.

Mass migration is already happening, and border controls won’t alter that. They will only make life more miserable for said mass of migrants. The real answer lies in drastic social and economic changes.

But what about multiculturalism?

My viewpoint on this is something that both the right and the (non-anarchist) left have trouble getting their heads around.

In part, this is because anarchist opinions on cultural identity don’t often enter into discourse on the subject. The spectrum of opinion is presumed to go from liberal multiculturalism to ethnic nationalism, with traditional conservatism somewhere in the middle. I will attempt to rectify that in this post, offering an anarchist and radical libertarian stance on this issue.

The other reason that many have trouble getting their heads around where anarchists stand is a misunderstanding of what exactly multiculturalism is. Before I go on, this needs to be cleared up.

The descriptive and the normative

Like so many other words in sociopolitical discourse, “multiculturalism” has more than one meaning.

Many people equate it to diversity. An area, or workplace, or society that contains people of different cultural backgrounds is described as multicultural. This, we can call descriptive multiculturalism, and I have no quarrel with it. The vast majority, if not all, objections to multiculturalism in this sense come from a cultural separatist or ethno-nationalist point of view.

On the other hand, we have normative multiculturalism. That is, the social policies aimed at achieving or promoting such diversity.

In this sense, multiculturalism linked to cultural relativism. In the field of anthropology, this simply means that “study of a and/or any culture has to be done with a cold and neutral eye so that a particular culture can be understood at its own merits and not another culture’s.”

However, it was after World War II and with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the concept of cultural relativism expanded into the philosophical sphere. Thus, people saw cultural relativism as synonymous with moral relativism, the conclusion of this line of thought being that all cultures are both separate and equal, and that all value systems, however different, are equally valid.

In Mirror For Man, Clyde Kluckhohn explained the problems with this idea;

The concept of culture, like any other piece of knowledge, can be abused and misinterpreted. Some fear that the principle of cultural relativity will weaken morality. “If the Bugabuga do it why can’t we? It’s all relative anyway.” But this is exactly what cultural relativity does not mean.

The principle of cultural relativity does not mean that because the members of some savage tribe are allowed to behave in a certain way that this fact gives intellectual warrant for such behavior in all groups. Cultural relativity means, on the contrary, that the appropriateness of any positive or negative custom must be evaluated with regard to how this habit fits with other group habits. Having several wives makes economic sense among herders, not among hunters. While breeding a healthy scepticism as to the eternity of any value prized by a particular people, anthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes. Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behavior of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable.

In essence, anthropology may not be concerned with absolute standards, but it does lend itself to the search for universal ones.

Nonetheless, the concept that entirely different (even contradictory) values have equal merit within the context of separate cultures came to manifest itself in the philosophy and practice of multiculturalism. For example, one might say that it isn’t appropriate to judge the practice of polygamy in Islam by the Judeo-Christian values that declare it wrong. After all, the people who engage in the practice are from a different culture, within which it is acceptable.

For ease, I will refer to descriptive multiculturalism simply as “diversity.” As previously stated, I have no opposition to this. It is the normative definition of multiculturalism, above, that I am referring to in the rest of this post.

The problems with cultural boundaries and moral relativism

It will not have escaped the notice of more astute readers that the definitions of multiculturalism and of nationalism are startlingly similar. The main difference is that, in nationalism, the separate but equal cultures exist across the globe, divided from one another by the borders of the nation-state. In multiculturalism, the different but equally valid cultures can co-exist alongside each other within a single country.

I also noted this parallel on the page On race and nationality, where I offer a broad overview of the arguments against nationalism.

The problem with both ideas is that they presume a “culture” to be a static thing, a constant with easily defined borders. But, as blogger Stiffkitten points out, “cultures are not static and nor are they pure or uncontaminated. On the contrary, cultures intermingle with each other, learn from each other, and thereby remain progressive, vibrant and dynamic.” People do not fit into neatly-packaged cultural blocks. As such, “isn’t any definition of the boundaries of culture(s) impossible, as all cultures are porous and absorbent?”

It is this false presumption, of cultures being static and rigidly defined, that justifies the moral relativism required by multiculturalism. An example of this is the accusation of “Islamophobia” aimed at gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in the essay Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’ (PDF download).

According to authors Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, Tatchell has “claimed the role of liberator and expert about Muslim gays and lesbians” and is “part of the Islamophobia industry.”
As evidence, they cite Tatchell’s criticism of UAF;

UAF [Unite Against Fascism] would not invite as a speaker someone who said that black people are immoral, harmful and spread diseases, or who vilified Jewish people as offensive, immoral and repugnant. Why, then, are they giving a platform to a bigot who says these things about gays and lesbians?

This “comparison between ‘black’ and ‘Jewish people’ on the one hand and ‘gays and lesbians’ on the other hand,” apparently “serves to construct them as non-overlapping groups who are in competition with each other.”

This, aside from being a non-sequitur, is a deliberate attempt at distraction. It is not too hard, if one isn’t deliberately looking for racism, to imagine the term “black” to include all black people regardless of sexuality, whilst the reference to “gays and lesbians” is equally indiscriminate on the matter of race.

Indeed, then-chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain Iqbal Sacranie has said precisely those things about the LGBTQ community. With no regard to the race of those he views as “repugnant.” Not to mention, of course, the fact that the majority of queers who suffer as a result of the homophobia of Muslim groups will be Arab and Muslim. Just as it is most often white Christians who suffer the homophobia of preachers in America’s bible belt.

It is not just white men like Tatchell and myself who make this point. In the words of Iranian feminist Azal Nafisi,

“I very much resent it in the West when people – maybe with good intentions or from a progressive point of view – keep telling me, ‘It’s their culture’ … It’s like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches.”

Another example concerns the English Defence League (EDL), and their now-abandoned plans to march on the Tower Hamlets in London in opposition to a meeting organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS).

Soon after the march was announced, the statement “Against Fascism in All Its Colours” was circulated by an umbrella of activist groups. It contained the following paragraph;

As we confront the fascist thugs of EDL we in the Bengali and the Muslim community are being asked to stand side by side with Islamic Forum in Europe (IFE). This we refuse to do. The IFE does not represent the Muslim community in Tower Hamlets. They do not uphold the glorious tradition of Cable Street, Altab Ali and the anti racist movement. Under the patronage of an exclusivist Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia they are attempting to impose it amongst the Bengalis in this borough.

Just as the EDL takes the guise of being ordinary English citizen to hide their true identity of fronting the fascist BNP so do IFE act as the sole representatives of ordinary Muslims but are in fact operating under the direction of their parent organisation Jamaat-e- Islami in Bangladesh. It is Jamaat that was party to the massacre of innocent Bangladeshis in the 1971 war of independence that establish the independent state of Bangladesh. A war Tribunal has been established in Bangladesh to try leaders of Jaamat-e- Islam who are IFE’s real ideological and organisational gurus. In other words IFE represent a virulent form of political Islam that is fascistic in nature like Jaamat Islam and verges on the anti-Semitic and is very exclusivist and undemocratic.

In defending the people of Tower Hamlets and especially the ordinary Muslims we do not have to defend IFE. EDL is attacking the Muslims of this borough and we must protect them. IFE must not be allowed to use this occasion to propagate their very reactionary version of political Islam.

Fair enough, one might think. Certainly, it offered far more political context than the UAF statement which only mentioned the meeting as “a peace conference, organised by a Muslim charitable foundation and aimed at building understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.” However, this difference of perspective triggered a rush of comments on the Socialist Unity blog accusing the Whitechapel Anargist Group (WAG, who have been open in their criticism of IFE and the Islamic far-right) of being racist and in league with fascists.

In part, such absurdities can boil down to a narrowness of perspective, and being unwilling to see beyond the black and white. But within the ideology of multiculturalism such a condition is systemic. It cannot be otherwise when you begin with the presumption that entirely different and opposing value systems are equal.

If multiculturalism is unpalatable, then, what is the alternative?

Polyculturalism and moral universalism

A rejection of multiculturalism, in its normative form, does not imply a rejection of diversity. In fact, going beyond the limited notion of “culture” which classifies people almost as one would insects, we can recognise a diversity that does not rample upon individuality and personal freedom.

In Revolutionizing Culture, Justin Podur makes this point in relation to the idea of “polyculturalism;

“Multiculturalism focuses too much on “cultures” having autonomy, resources, and so on. I would say a polycultural outlook puts the focus on people and on whole societies. Polyculturalism recognizes that a single person holds multiple identities, multiple allegiances and affinities. We speak different cultural ‘languages’, and we can change. And to go from the individual to the society, polyculturalism recognizes that cultures overlap, they change, they evolve over time. They cross-fertilize, and all societies are in a permanent state of flux, with all kinds of often very creative exchanges and interactions happening.

So if a multiculturalist says that a society should allow all cultures to develop autonomously, a polyculturalist says fine. But the “wider society” has a culture of its own, and that culture is one that everyone would have to relate to. It is in this shared space where people of different cultures interact that the basis for solidarity can be built. So in addition to having cultural autonomy, it would be important that the shared space be representative of everyone, and be based on things that are universal (and I believe there are some universals). No one is going to live sealed off in a single culture. There is just no such thing -and there probably never was.

Likewise if a nationalist says that you should owe your primary loyalty and cultural affiliation to the nation, a polyculturalist says no, there are many loyalties and affiliations, that overlap and merge and change.”

We can still, as multiculturalists do, recognise “that cultures, modes of communication and expression and group identification other than the dominant one are worthy and deserve a certain autonomy.” But this is no justification for the bigotries and injustices that may still exist in certain cultures. Nor does it define people according to tick-box idea.

It is “integration without assimilation” and “autonomy without separation.” Unlike multiculturalism, moral relativism is not a requirement. In fact, it works well in tandem with moral universalism.

This is the simplest of ideas and yet the most often overlooked. Too many people think that we either allow people to hold to distinct cultural identities or we have a central value system. Diversity is placed in opposition to “one law for all.” But, of course, there is no reason that we can’t uphold basic, universal values whilst allowing people to pray, dress, talk, or cohabit differently.

And what are those basic, universal values? In essence, freedom and equality. The freedom to live without coercion or violence, as long as you don’t impose the same upon others, and to do so without others having an artificial advantage over you, or you over them.

In Podur’s words, “there is a constant tension in polyculturalism, between autonomy and solidarity, between trying to ensure a shared space is really representative and realizing that the boundaries between the things that are represented are fluid and overlapping.” With a more authoritarian or discriminatory set of universals, it becomes impossible to maintain the balance. One side of the equation will override the other, and we return to either multiculturalism or nationalism and their inherent problems.

If we want an alternative to multiculturalism, then, there is only one choice. The answer, in short, is anarchist communism.

Original article

Multiculturalism Undermines Diversity

‘Has multiculturalism been good or bad for Britain?’ It’s a question to which the answers have become increasingly polarised in recent years. For some, multiculturalism expresses the essence of a modern, liberal society. For others, it has helped create an anxious, fragmented nation.

Part of the difficulty with this debate is that both sides confuse the lived experience of diversity, on the one hand, with multiculturalism as a political process, on the other. The experience of living in a society transformed by mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is positive.

As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.

The irony of multiculturalism as a political process is that it undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience. When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That’s all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement.

But the very thing that’s valuable about diversity – the clashes and conflicts that it brings about – is the very thing that worries many multiculturalists. They seek to minimise such conflicts by parceling people up into neat ethnic boxes, and policing the boundaries of those boxes in the name of tolerance and respect. Far from minimising conflict what this does is generate a new set of more destructive, less resolvable conflicts.

To say that clashes and conflicts can be good does not mean, of course, that every clash and conflict is a good. Political conflicts are often useful because they repose social problems in a way that asks: ‘How can we change society to overcome that problem?’ We might disagree on the answer, but the debate itself is a useful one.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, by reposing political problems in terms of culture or faith, transforms political conflicts into a form that makes them neither useful nor resolvable. Rather than ask, for instance, ‘What are the social roots of racism and what structural changes are required to combat it?’, it demands recognition for one’s particular identity, public affirmation of one’s cultural difference and respect for one’s cultural and faith beliefs.

Multicultural policies have come to be seen as a means of empowering minority communities and giving them a voice. In reality such policies have empowered not individuals but ‘community leaders’ who owe their position and influence largely to their relationship with the state. Multicultural policies tend to treat minority communities as homogenous wholes, ignoring class, religious, gender and other differences, and leaving many within those communities feeling misrepresented and, indeed, disenfranchised.

As well as ignoring conflicts within minority communities, multicultural policies have often created conflicts between them. In allocating political power and financial resources according to ethnicity, such policies have forced people to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and those ethnicities alone, inevitably setting off one group against another.

The logical end point of such policies came with Communities Minister John Denham’s announcement last year of £12m for white working class communities. There are clearly many working class, predominantly white, communities crying out for resources, not because they are white, because they have been politically and financially abandoned over the past decade.

Denham’s £12m will, however, do little to solve any of the structural problems facing such communities, such as a lack of jobs and social housing. What it will do is reinforce the idea that whites have an identity, and a set of interests, that is distinct from the identity and interests of other groups.

The aim of Denham’s policy is clearly to ward off the BNP in areas such Barking and Dagenham in East London. Its consequence, however, will be to feed the BNP’s own pursuit of white identity, and to legitimise the idea that such identity needs privileging. And that is perhaps the biggest indictment of multicultural policies: they have helped turn racism into another form of cultural identity.

To challenge all this, we need to separate the debate about immigration and diversity, on the one hand, from that about multiculturalism, on the other, and defend the one, but oppose the other. The lived experience of diversity has been good for Britain. Multiculturalism has been bad.


Too Late For Labour To Stop The BNP

Article Taken From The National Website Of The Independent Working Class Association

New Labour’s sudden concern for the wellbeing of the ‘white working class’ is a product solely of the threat they feel from the BNP. Aside from its cynicism, this move is too little, too late. New Labour made the conscious choice to turn its back on the working class once and for all in 1994. They have sowed the wind, now they will reap the whirlwind.

Reviewing the responses to Local Government Minister John Denham’s recent announcement on the race vs. class issue (see BBC News – Labour battles the BNP on class and race), it was noticeable that the right wing press (The Times, the Telegraph and the Financial Times) were able to respond to Denham’s statement in a rational, coherent manner. They were able to conceive that, just perhaps, class is at least as important a social factor as race. This stood in contrast to the reaction of The Guardian, which accused Denham of saying that racism no longer existed (which he didn’t) and pandering to lowest common denominator underclass prejudice.

Take, for instance, the response of Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph, who was able to articulate -as clearly as the IWCA has often done- how many social problems which are normally viewed as racial are in fact class-based:

“Class has always explained far more about Britain than race – and many of the problems we think of as racial are at least as much about class. Take British Pakistanis and British Bangladeshis. Undoubtedly two of the most disadvantaged groups, they are far more likely to be poor or jobless, than the average white person. The traditional liberal explanation was simple – they were the victims of racism. Of course, they did, and do, suffer from racism. But that simple diagnosis cannot explain why British Indians – exactly the same race as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – are, on average, richer, better educated and more likely to be employed than whites. Nor can it explain why members of Britain’s Chinese community are wealthier than whites. Most Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are Muslim – so perhaps it’s about faith? No – sadly for those ranting about “Islamophobia”, British Arabs, though mostly also Muslim, are almost as wealthy and advantaged as the Indians. The key factor is not race, or faith, but class. British Indians are mainly middle-class, the descendants of merchants and traders. So are Britain’s Arab and Chinese communities. British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are mainly working-class, the descendants of poor villagers brought here for factory work.

“Thirty years ago, there was not a single non-white MP, let alone minister, and it was perfectly acceptable to tell bigoted jokes on prime-time TV. Mixed marriages were almost unknown; the police were openly racist. Racism has undoubtedly diminished, but class discrimination has, in some respects, got worse. A working-class Londoner is more trapped, less likely to advance than he or she was 30 years ago. State education is no longer a force for mobility. Training in non-academic skills has collapsed. Housing is impossibly overpriced. Above all, work itself has become less secure. And though class discrimination affects all races, the largest group of victims is white. White working-class anger has become a force that no politician can ignore. And those politicians who do ignore it – such as Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London – get swept away.” (John Denham’s right: It’s class, not race, that determines Britain’s have-nots – Telegraph).

Even the rabidly right-wing Simon Heffer was able to get his head around the concept of ‘class not race’, though as a good Thatcherite he attributes the travails of the British working class not to the destruction of the productive economy and the triumph of finance capital, but to single mothers and the demise of grammar schools (How to help the white working class – Telegraph).

This stands in contrast to the reaction of the Guardian. To the liberal multiculturalist mindset, it is literally inconceivable that the issue of class might explain more than race; that it may not be the case that all whites have a uniform access to power, opportunity and influence, the type of which is denied to all non-whites; that non-white ethnic groups are not uniform, and significant class cleavages might exist within them. To the liberal multiculturalist, the notion of class unity and class politics across racial lines is a threat not only to their worldview, but also in many cases their paycheques and funding. Home affairs editor Alan Travers worried of Denham’s statement that “such a “sophisticated” message ends up falling between two stools and reassures neither the poorest of the white working class nor inner-city black and Asian “core” Labour voters” (John Denham’s subtler approach to race and class carries new risk | Society | The Guardian, the use of quotation marks around ‘sophisticated’ is Travis’s). But the most revealing reaction, the one truest to multicultural form, came from assistant comment editor Joseph Harker, who had this to say:

“New Labour abolished the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission and shoved all the “isms” into one overbearing, bureaucratic and malfunctioning equalities commission. Now Denham wants to repeat the thinking, merging minorities into an overall “social class” group which will represent all the economically disadvantaged. Well, this just won’t do, because Britain’s racial minorities do not fit neatly into its traditional class structure (emphasis added). Most minorities in Britain are from poor backgrounds, with little or no longstanding family wealth. Even those who have not faced direct or indirect discrimination have had to overcome economic and social obstacles. But do those who have done so, and gained a decent education or a decent job, immediately break free from all-pervasive racism and therefore no longer require any legal or other support?

“Not only that, but no one has yet come up with a decent, all-encompassing description of what “working class” really is. Does a man or woman automatically become middle class the moment they gain an A-level? Or a degree? In which case, class inequality will always be embedded, because the success stories are excluded from the figures – and it will always appear that the working class are worse-off than minority groups. Even if such distinctions were worked out, why would black and Asian people want to join with the white working classes, when some of them are signing up to the British National party and seem only too keen to blame non-whites for their own disadvantages? (emphasis added)” (Labour has not eliminated racism | Joseph Harker | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk).

So, Harker thinks it’s a bad thing that all the ‘economically disadvantaged’ might be thought of as an ‘overall social class’; disputes the existence of such a concept as ‘the working class’; believes that black and Asian people shouldn’t join with the ‘white working class’; accepts that ‘class inequality will always be embedded’, and believes that minorities ‘who have gained a decent education or a decent job’ are still in need of ‘legal or other support’. So: race over class (class no longer existing), support for political balkanisation and separatism, and the acceptance of existing class/economic hierarchies – not to mention inherent racial differences, at least among the lower orders – alongside continued support for the black middle class, all in the space of 250 words. Quite remarkable, even for the liberal left. It takes some doing to miss the point so spectacularly, but Harker has managed it.

We should finish by pointing out what should be obvious: that Denham’s concern for the ‘white working class’ is purely opportunistic and, in any case, comes years too late. It is motivated solely by the (justified) concern that the BNP have the potential to eat into what is left of Labour’s core vote. While it is not too late for the BNP to be taken on and stopped politically, it is too late for Labour to do the job: that ship has sailed. New Labour made the choice to turn its back on the working class, assuming it had nowhere else to go. That betrayal will not be forgotten or forgiven.


‘Deep ethnic segregation’ mapped in England’s schools

Isn’t it time we used more common sense? Multicultural and identity politics do nothing more than segregate. IF WE CAN’T GET THAT RIGHT IN OUR SCHOOLS, WHAT CHANCE EQUALITY IN THE REST OF ‘SOCIETY’?

Pockets of deep segregation are revealed in a mapping of the ethnic make-up of England’s schools.
University of Bristol researchers show that in Manchester, fewer than 1% of pupils of Pakistani origin are at schools which have a white majority.

It also shows changes – with the number of white primary school pupils in London falling by a quarter since 2002.

The project’s director says the overall trend is for more pupils to mix – with segregation “constant or decreasing”.

The Measuring Diversity project at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation provides an ethnic breakdown of pupils in local authorities in England.

Changing populations

This shows both the numbers of different groups and also the extent to which they might meet by attending the same schools.

The project’s website shows the great variation in the school population across the country – with some areas in which white pupils remain the overwhelming majority and others which are much more diverse.
In Hull, there are no primary schools which are defined as “minority white” – in which less than 30% of the school population are white.

In contrast, in London the number of white minority primary schools has risen from 22% to 36% between 2002 and 2008.

This reflects that the number of white pupils in London primary schools has fallen by about a quarter in six years – and only about 6% of primary schools now have a substantial white majority.

The figures, taken from the annual census of state schools, also reveal patterns of divided communities – with pupils much more likely to attend school with people from their own ethnic group.

In Oldham, about 80% of pupils from the sizeable Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities go to schools where they will meet few white pupils.

In Camden, north London, more than three quarters of Bangladeshi pupils go to mostly non-white schools.
In the same borough, only one in six white pupils go to schools in which white pupils are a minority.
But Simon Burgess, director of the centre at Bristol University, says that the overview of the statistics shows that there is no increase in segregation.

“The overall pattern is that segregation is either constant, or decreasing,” he says.
Professor Burgess wants the information on local areas to inform the debate about diversity and make-up of communities.

“It is a common saying that people’s attitudes are strongly influenced by their school days. So the peer groups that children play with, talk to and work with are important factors moulding their perspectives on society,” he says.

“The extent of ethnic diversity in schools is an important issue of public debate. This website provides some facts to enlighten this debate.”

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that schools were obliged to “promote community cohesion through twinning, sports and art to equip young people to live in a multicultural country”.



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