"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

Identity Politics

#LeeJasper: RESPECT Find Their Next Sleazeball Candidate To Fight Croydon North By-Election


If ever there was a party that made the left look pathetic, weak, self-serving and reeking of multicultural opportunism you can’t find better than the Respect Party. 

So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Lee Jasper Inc has joined George Galloway Inc to attempt to try and shore up the black vote in Croydon. 

For those not quite in the know about dear Lee, below we reproduce an article by the IWCA from back in 2008. Just remember folks, class isn’t the issue any more, it’s all about race and which pocket of funding you can squeeze out as a self appointed representative of your chosen racial identity. The sleazier your character the better and bags of money for everyone especially if you’re a friend of Ken Livingstone. And when you don’t deliver? Take cash and move to the next town and start over leaving the ‘community’ you’ve chosen to ‘represent’ in a worse state than they were before.

Let’s hope the working-class people of Croydon North put Jasper and the Respect Party right where they belong…firmly on their opportunistic segregationist money grabbing arses….

Some are more equal than others…

In the land of ‘equal opportunities’ some are clearly more equal than others, if the grants by the London Development Agency (LDA) described as the Mayor’s ‘business arm’ are anything to go by. Under the guiding hand of Lee Jasper, the principle race adviser to Mayor Ken Livingstone, the LDA, has been doling out grants to his friends and cronies, as if there is no tomorrow.

Of course with police currently investigating four of the beneficiaries there may indeed be no political tomorrow for Jasper and Co; so ‘make hay while the sun shines’ seems to be the motto. And with good reason.

On Tuesday Rosemary Emodi, the deputy to the Mayor’s adviser on race, was exposed as a liar and forced to quit her £64,000 job, after initially denying she had accepted a free weekend at a £200-a-night beach resort in Nigeria without telling her employers. Her stay was paid for by the resort, La Campagna Tropicana , near Lagos.

When journalists made inquiries about the trip, Ms Emodi told her employers that she had never been to the resort, and the Mayor’s office issued a statement which later turned out to be untrue. The BBC obtained confirmation that Ms Emodi had in fact flown to Nigeria on Friday 30 November, returning the following Monday. The Mayor’s office has emphasised that no public money was involved.

But Brixton Base, run by a friend of Mr Jasper, Erroll Walters, a long-standing friend of Ms Emodi, who accompanied her to Nigeria, has however benefited hugely from public money. Brixton Base has received more than £500,000 in the shape of LDA grants to be precise. The London Evening Standard claims that, to date, nine students have complained to the LDA of intimidation and lying by Brixton Base staff.

In all it is believed that approximately £3 million of taxpayers money has been invested in similar projects with no discernable return. For example Diversity International, a company run by another business associate of Mr Jasper, received a £295,000 grant from the London Development Agency – all the money has disappeared without trace.

Of the total of thirteen projects under suspicion, not one thought it worthwhile to invest even a tiny fraction of the money in covering their tracks. Had they done so there would be something, anything, to show for their efforts, when the auditor or police came calling. As the story is breaking in increments, initially and inevitably the greatest shrieks of outrage from the media have been on behalf of the London taxpayer.

This is perfectly understandable, but there are other victims in all of this, and they are the supposed beneficiaries of the LDA largesse; London’s black working class. They, and their interests are after all supposedly Jasper’s reason for being.

His entire career from when he first emerged in the late 1980’s has been based on the premise that when you come down to it race remains the determining factor that transcends all else. He is, as one critic put it, ‘some one who would play the race card in a game of solitaire’. And he would also go to extraordinary lengths to prove his point.

Race riot

In 1991 he organised a march through the predominately white class neighbourhood of Bermondsey simply to prove that racism did exist there and because of that fact a grant funded initiative he himself had proposed was needed to tackle it. Jasper chose to march on a day and a time that made conflict with fans of the local football club, Millwall, who were playing at home, inevitable.

The result was a race riot, with attacks carrying on long into the night. Whether he subsequently got his grant is not known, but whatever the outcome, it was the black working class locally and not Jasper who paid a high price for this particular political misadventure. But then again having others pay the price is hardly novel. When the Lib Dem candidate for Mayor, Brian Paddick, was a serving police officer, he and Jasper’s often crossed paths in the run up to the annual Notting Hill Carnival.

Predictably Jasper had cast himself as a ‘community leader’ in west London even though he was born in Oldham and actually lived south of the river. According to Paddick’s account, Jasper’s real interest in the affair was restricted to one long street that he, Jasper, insisted was ‘controlled by the community’, which in Jaspers eye’s entitled the ‘community’ to collect the monies from stall-holders that would normally go to the organising authorities. A standoff would normally ensue, with Jasper invariably emerging as triumphant. ‘An example of entrepreneurship’ was how Jasper would describe it.

That Jasper appears to have taken ‘affirmative action’ as a personal entitlement is beside the point. In terms of race relations there is more to this than the odd rotten apple, or indeed barrel.

Observer Columnist Nick Cohen recently appeared on a panel to discuss the forthcoming Mayoral election. A question came up on the issue of ‘affirmative action’. The substance of Cohen’s criticisms was that it always went to the ‘wrong people’. In his experience he told the meeting the principal beneficiaries of such schemes were ‘already middle class’.

This is undoubtedly true, but that objectively is the entire purpose of the stratagem: talk up equal opportunities for all but in reality work to create and sustain a black middle class as a buttress to the existing white middle class in order to maintain the political equilibrium, with the working class, white and black alike, picking up the tab in one way of the other.

‘Rosemary Emodi Plc’

A case in point is the career of Rosemary Emodi herself. Nigerian born to a middle class professional family she moved to London with her sister to study. She qualified as a barrister and in the late 1990’s became active in the Society of Black Lawyers (set up in 1973 to fight racism).

Ms Emoldi was fond of arguing that SBL should remove obstacles to “black success.” She certainly tolerated no obstacles to her own success. Within the black business community she was, it is alleged, widely known as “Rosemary Emodi PLC”. At the Town Hall her persona was of course very different. There she talked ‘the good fight’, both eloquent and consistent in her appeals on equality issues which endeared her to minority campaigners.

The likelihood is she didn’t believe a word of it. For when she took a free holiday in a 5 star holiday in Nigeria with her hosts believing that she and her companion, Errol Walters, were on an official mission from the GLA to investigate ‘funding visits for London youngsters with African roots’, she was consciously exploiting the inequalities, real or contrived, she was paid £64,000 a year to address.

And just because the scheme in question was an absurd improvisation of no imaginable merit, there can be little or no doubt that Emodi would have been just as eager to leech off it, had it been authentic and worthwhile. So what does that say about the integrity of the man that had her appointed his deputy, Lee Jasper? And indeed the probity and judgement of the individual who in turn had hand-picked Jasper?

Livingstone stated recently that he believes he can ‘trust Lee with his life’. Who knows, he may even believe It? But if Livingstone was anyone other than the High Priest of Multiculturalism, Jasper and company would already be toast. However startling it might appear, Jasper and Emoldi may not be the final word in self-serving hypocrisy.

Especially when compared to the unedifying crew responsible for running the Major’s administration, serving as the well lubricated liason between City Hall and the City. As is now widely known the main stringpullers are former members of a group called Socialist Action.

In 1990 following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Socialist Action (no. 7, Summer 1990) had this to say: “The destruction of at least some of the workers’ states, in Eastern Europe, and the imperialist reunification of Germany are both the greatest defeats suffered by the working class since World War 2…” The reference to only ‘some of the workers states’ was because SA still had high hopes for Romania!

If, as Channel 4’s programme Dispatches claims, the Mayor has of late taken to indulging in the odd tipple, prior to, with, or instead of his museli, it is not too surprising. What will be probabaly hard for Livingstone to stomach if, as it appears, the old fraud’s entire career and legacy is hanging by a thread, is that he really has no one to blame but himself. As the old saying goes, ‘show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are’.



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.


#IdentityPolitics, #Feminism and Social Change

Interesting article by Joan D. Mandle of Colgate University author of  ‘Can we wear our pearls and still be feminists?’

Second Wave Feminism

One of the best known and most important political slogans of the early Women’s Liberation Movement in which I was involved in the middle 1960s claimed that “the personal is political.” That phrase was honed in reaction to struggles within the 1960s social movements out of which the Women’s Liberation Movement first emerged. It captured the insight that many of what were thought to be personal problems possessed social and political causes, were widely shared among women , and could only be resolved by social and political change.

In the l960s social movements – the Civil Rights Movement, the movement against the War in Vietnam, and the student movement which called for more student rights and decision-making power on college campuses – women were central actors. Within all these movements, however, women activists were denied the recognition and the responsibility that they deserved and that they had earned. Despite their commitment and contributions, they were all too often refused leadership positions, treated as second class citizens, told to make coffee, and put on display as sex objects. By the middle 1960s many of these women began to react to and organize around the strong contradiction within social movements which fought for self-determination and equality and yet which denied these same basic rights within their own ranks. First in the civil rights movement, with a statement written by Mary King and Casey Hayden, and soon afterward and more frequently in the anti-war movement, SDS, and other social movements, women radicals began to demand equity and respect as activists.

The reaction of many of their male and female comrades seems predictable in retrospect, but was shocking and demoralizing at the time. Women’s claims were met with derision, ridicule, and the political argument that they were worrying about “personal” issues and in this way draining movement effectiveness in fighting the “political” injustices of racism and imperialism. How could women be so selfish, it was asked, to focus on their personal disgruntlement when black people were denied voting privileges in Mississippi, peasants were being napalmed in Vietnam, and students were treated as numbers in large faceless bureaucratic universities?

Movement women had no shortage of responses to these objections, but the one that became a mantra of the new women’s movement emerging out of these struggles was the claim that personal lives – relationships with friends, lovers, political comrades – were not personal at all but characterized by power and fraught with political meaning. Women argued that assumptions that they were followers and men leaders, that women naturally were “better” with children and men “better” at organizing, that women should type and men should discuss issues – that all these assumptions were deeply political, denying women not only equality within progressive movements, but even more basically the freedom to choose for themselves what they could and should think and do. When most men and some of the women involved within the 60s movements refused to listen, many women left the movement to, as they put it at the time, “organize around our own oppression.” They began a liberation movement dedicated to eliminating the ways in which women were constrained and harmed by sexist assumptions and behavior.

By and large the early women’s movement, emerging from a political critique of what was defined as “personal” both in progressive movements and in the wider society, pressed for the removal of the social barriers and obstacles that had constrained women’s choices. This was true with respect to a wide range of issues including reproductive choice, educational and occupational options, legal rights, as well as sexual orientation and personal relationships. The movement was intent on achieving social justice which it defined as providing women and men with similar opportunities to grow, develop, express, and exercise their potential as people. The political analysis underlying this vision of personal fulfillment asserted that elimination of the sexism which pervaded political and social institutional arrangements and attitudes was the best way of ensuring that every one, regardless of sex, would have the ability to exercise personal freedom.

Successes were many during those early years. The decades of the 60s and 70s were in fact characterized by enormous change in the range of behavior and choices open to women in our society. Consciousness was raised, and attitudes of both men and women underwent significant change concerning women’s capabilities and rights, while the notion of equality between the sexes gained increased legitimacy. Change was especially rapid in the law during those years. Indeed, Jane Mansbridge notes that had the ERA been passed in l982, its effect would have been largely symbolic because almost all sex-differentiated (sexist) laws which such an amendment would have changed had already been altered by that time.

The social and political changes effected by the early women’s movement thus were in the service of a sex-neutral model of society. In this, each individual would be afforded an equal opportunity to shape her or his own life regardless of sex. The notion of gender difference was deemphasized by a movement focused on equality, as women sought to gain the right to fully participate in all aspects of society. Differences between women and men, which had consistently been a central ideological and behavioral component of limiting women to a separate stereotyped “feminine” sphere, came under attack. The personal fact of one’s sex became an arena of political struggle, as increasing numbers of feminists challenged the prevailing ideology that sex and gender were legitimate constraints on the right to self-determination. Political justice demanded that gender make no difference. Expectations were high that women would achieve the freedom they had been denied and that sexism would be defeated.

But in the 1980s much of this changed. The country as a whole became more conservative in all areas of political life, as the Right, with Ronald Reagan as its standard bearer, launched what Susan Faludi has referred to as a “Blacklash” against the progressive changes of the previous decades. As the gains of the women’s movement began to slow, many feminists became discouraged with the continuation of sexist attitudes and behavior. The gap between incomes for women and men narrowed but remained stubbornly persistent, abortion rights came under renewed attack, and awareness of and concern about the extent of harassment and violence against women increased. This latter ironically reflected the Women’s Movement’s earlier success, for due to its efforts behavior previously regarded as legally unproblematic, such as sexual harassment at work or marital and date rape, was criminalized, and increased reporting of violence occurred. In addition, growing numbers of women found themselves doing what Arlie Hochschild has called the “Second Shift” – working at full time jobs during the day and a second job at home as they continued to assume most or all of the burden of home and child care in their families. Finally, even though the 1970s were the heyday of the Movement, increasing numbers of young girls at that time were being raised in poverty because their single mothers’ former husbands or lovers contributed nothing to support them, were becoming painfully aware of the dangers of abuse, rape, and sexual harassment, and were discouraged by their mothers struggles with the double burden of work and family care. As these girls matured into young women in the 1980s, many were far from convinced that the women’s movement had liberated anybody. All of these problems affecting women seemed to fly in the face of feminism’s promises and expectations of equality, and some women, discouraged with the pace of change and the persistence of sexism, reacted by retreating from claims for equality and from demands for social change.

But as the 1980s progressed, it was not only feminists who were experiencing disillusionment and increasing pessimism. In an era when the conservative politics of Reaganism were dominant, the tragedy was that no compelling alternative progressive world-view was being constructed. A vision of a society of fairness and justice was not offered to counter the conservative hegemony, and the attainment of an egalitarian society seemed less and less possible.


Identity Politics

Out of this situation there emerged what has been called identity politics, a politics that stresses strong collective group identities as the basis of political analysis and action. As political engagement with the society as a whole was increasingly perceived to have produced insufficient progress or solutions, and in the absence of a compelling model of a society worth struggling for, many progressives retreated into a focus on their own “self” and into specific cultural and ideological identity groups which made rights, status, and privilege claims on the basis of a victimized identity. These groups included ethnic minorities such as African-Americans, Asian- Americans, Native Americans, religious groups, lesbian women and gay men, deaf and other disabled people. The desire to gain sympathy on the basis of a tarnished identity was sometimes taken to absurd lengths, as for example when privileged white men pronounced themselves victims based on their alleged oppression by women and especially by feminists. Indeed in the last decade there has been an explosion of groups vying with one another for social recognition of their oppression and respect for it. This has been especially exaggerated on college campuses where young people have divided into any number of separate identity groups.

Identity politics is centered on the idea that activism involves groups’ turning inward and stressing separatism, strong collective identities, and political goals focused on psychological and personal self-esteem. Jeffrey Escofier, writing about the gay movement, defines identity politics in the following fashion:

“The politics of identity is a kind of cultural politics. It relies on the development of a culture that is able to create new and affirmative conceptions of the self, to articulate collective identities, and to forge a sense of group loyalty. Identity politics – very much like nationalism – requires the development of rigid definitions of the boundaries between those who have particular collective identities and those who do not.”

Many progressive activists today have come to base their political analysis on collectively and often ideologically constructed identities which are seen as immutable and all-encompassing. These identities, for many, provide a retreat where they can feel “comfortable” and “safe” from the assaults and insults of the rest of the society. Today it is the case that many of those who profess a radical critique of society nonetheless do not feel able, as activists in the 60s and 70s did, to engage people outside their own self-defined group – either to press for improvement in their disadvantaged status or to join in coalition. Identity politics defines groups as so different from one another, with the gap dividing them so wide and unbridgeable, that interaction is purposeless. Not only is it assumed that working together will inevitably fail to bring progressive change that would benefit any particular group. In addition, identity groups discourage political contact because of their concern that the psychological injury and personal discomfort they believe such contact inevitably entails will harm individuals’ self-esteem and erode their identity.

Identity politics thus is zero-sum: what helps one group is thought inevitably to harm another; what benefits them must hurt me. It is a politics of despair. In the name of advancing the interests of one’s own group, it rejects attempts to educate, pressure, or change the society as a whole, thus accepting the status quo and revealing its essentially conservative nature. Identity politics advocates a retreat into the protection of the self based on the celebration of group identity. It is a politics of defeat and demoralization, of pessimism and selfishness. By seizing as much as possible for one’s self and group, it exposes its complete disregard for the whole from which it has separated – for the rest of the society. Identity politics thus rejects the search for a just and comprehensive solution to social problems.


Feminism and Identity Politics

Like other progressive social movements, feminism has been deeply affected by the growth of identity politics. Within feminism, identity politics has taken two often-related forms which, together, I believe to be hegemonic today. One is generally referred to as difference or essentialist feminism, and the other as victim feminism. Difference feminism emphasizes the unique identity of women as a group, stressing and usually celebrating essential female characteristics which it believes make women different from – indeed even opposite to – men. Victim feminism also assumes that women have a unique identity, but the focus of that identity is women’s victimization on the basis of sex, typically at the hands of men.

In defining difference feminism, Wendy Kaminer has stated that, by suggesting that women differ from men in a myriad of ways, it identifies “feminism with femininity.” In what is perhaps the most influential version of this ideology, popularized in the work of Carol Gilligan, difference feminism emphasizes that women share “a different voice, different moral sensibilities – an ethic of care.” According to Kaminer, this notion of female difference is attractive to feminists and non-feminists alike for a number of reasons. Difference feminism appeals to some feminists, she asserts, because it revalues previously devalued characteristics such as emotionality and social connectedness which women are thought to embody. In declaring female traits superior to those such as aggression and rationality which characterize men, difference feminism seems to reject sexism by turning it on its head. It thus provides a clear group identity for women which stresses the way they are special.

According to Kaminer, difference feminism is also attractive to feminists in another manner. She argues that it allows feminists to be angry at men and challenge their hegemony without worrying that they are giving up their femininity. Because they are socialized to fear the loss of femininity, the advocacy of radical change in gender roles is deeply threatening to many women, including feminists. Difference feminism’s reassertion of the value of femininity helps to assuage these fears and thus seems to make feminism more acceptable. Finally, even some non-feminists are drawn to difference feminism because it legitimates a belief in immutable and natural sex differences, a central tenet of conservative claims for support of the status quo. As noted above, this conservative bias is a pivotal element of difference feminism.

What Naomi Wolf has called victim feminism also reinforces identity politics, for victim feminism also assumes women’s diametrical difference from men as a central component of its view. According to victim feminism, however, what is unique about women’s difference is that they are powerless to affect the victim status by which they are primarily defined. Wolf argues that victim feminism “turns suffering and persecution into a kind of glamour.” The attractiveness of this model is partially due to the fact that feminists understand all too well the discouraging reality that women have been and continue to be victims of sexism, male violence, and discrimination. But victim feminism is attractive to others primarily because it absolves individuals of the political responsibility to act to change their own condition. Its emphasis on personal victimization includes a refusal to hold women in any way responsible for their problems. It thus implies that, as a group, women are helpless in the face of the overwhelming factors which force them to accept – however unhappily – the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Such a view of women resonates with many non-feminists as well because it pictures women as passive and in need of protection, a view consistent with traditionally sexist ideas of women and femininity. And finally, victim feminism is popular because it is consistent with the explosion of self-help programs and talk shows where individuals – disproportionately women – compete for public recognition of their claims to personally victimized status. These shows try – all too successfully – to convince their audiences and even perhaps their guests that exposing personal problems on television is itself a solution to them, in this way delegitimating the serious political changes which many such problems require for their elimination.

The hegemony of identity politics within feminism, in my view, has helped to stymie the growth of a large scale feminist movement which could effectively challenge sexism and create the possibility of justice and fairness in our society. On the one hand identity politics makes the coalitions needed to build a mass movement for social change extremely difficult. With its emphasis on internal group solidarity and personal self-esteem, identity politics divides potential allies from one another. Difference feminism makes the task for example of including men in the struggle against sexism almost impossible, and even trying to change men’s behavior or attitudes is made to seem futile because of the assumption that the sexes share so little. Indeed some difference feminists assert that women and men are so different from one another that they can hardly communicate across sex at all. The phrase “Men don’t get it” too often implies that they “can’t” get it, because, it is argued by difference feminists, only women have the capacity to really understand what other women are talking about. This of course is nonsense without any empirical validity, but identity politics so strongly stresses sex differences that this has come to be the accepted wisdom.

But it is not just coalitions across sex that are assumed to be impossible, but coalitions among women as well. One of the problems with identity politics is that its assumptions can lead to an almost infinite number of smaller and smaller female identity groups. Identity politics puts a premium on valuing and exaggerating differences existing among women as well as those that are cross-sex. This makes large and potentially powerful feminist organizations difficult to sustain. One example of this effect was the problem of fractionalization within the National Women Studies Association (NWSA) some years ago, largely due to the many splits that occurred within its ranks. Identity groups organized within the organization pitting academic women against non-academic, Jewish women against non-Jews, women of color against white women, lesbians against straight women, lesbians of color against white lesbians, mothers against non-mothers and more. Each group focused on its own identity, its own victimization which it set up in competition with others’ claims of victim status, and ins response to which it demanded recognition and concessions from the organization. The center – if it existed – simply could not hold and the organization, which had played a very important role in creating and supporting women’s studies programs on campuses, was wracked by years of conflict from which it has only recently recovered.

Thus, by stressing the characteristics which divide us, the logic of identity politics is that ultimately each individual is her own group. If each individual is different from all others, then to protect herself adequately she needs to be selfish – to ally with no one and to count only on herself to protect her interests. It is obvious that this stance makes it completely impossible to bring together the large numbers of people necessary successfully to press for social change. Coalitions fail to develop or are not even attempted. In this way, identity politics within feminism, as elsewhere, is basically conservative, working against progressive change and supporting the status quo.

The divisions promoted by identity politics are especially pronounced today on college campuses. Not only between male and female students but also among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, differences are perceived as unbridgeable barriers and victimized status is a badge of honor. It is especially ironic that this separation is occurring at precisely the moment in history when real differences among students are less pronounced than ever in the past. American society is in fact culturally very homogeneous, as almost all young Americans who attend college grow up watching the same television programs, shopping at the same malls, listening to the same music, and eating the same fast food for large portions of their lives. Beginning salaries for students who graduate from elite universities have increasingly become similar by race and sex. But the identity politics which is hegemonic on such elite college campuses emphasizes difference above all else, even when students have trouble actually articulating what, in concrete terms, those significant differences are.

The focus of attention within the context of identity politics becomes building solidarity and loyalty within one’s own group. The outcome divides students from one another. Female students of different ethnic groups, for example, come to see themselves as having nothing in common with one another, and to compete over their relative degree of victimization. Feminist women of color, for example, on many campuses including Colgate’s separate from white feminists, and take as a major task the goal of criticizing and creating guilt in white women students for their alleged racist attitudes. Similarly, within groups of women of color the same process occurs, with different ethnic groups dividing off and emphasizing the large differences among them. On other campuses, it is lesbian women who claim an especially oppressed status and, stressing their differences from straight women, critique the attitudes and behavior of heterosexual women towards them. Regardless of the merit of any particular critique, this model of identity politics effectively divides from one another those who could be allies in facing the many real problems – of poverty, violence, reproductive control, and work/ family conflicts – that women share when facing the world outside the university. Though in fact female college students share large numbers of issues around which they could build an inclusive movement to attack sexist behavior and attitudes, they turn inward, reinforcing their own feelings of victimization and loyalty, and typically turn outward only to attack one another.

In addition to dividing potential allies from one another, identity politics’ dominance of feminism creates other obstacles to effective struggles for social change. Its focus on personal identity produces a kind of a-political narcissism. Its attempt is to redefine politics as the attempt to know and assert “who I am” as part of a specifically narrow group. The notion that politics should involve responsibility toward others as well as toward oneself and toward whatever one defines as one’s “own group” has been lost. The assertion of one’s selfhood, concern with one’s own self-esteem, as well as group loyalty become ends, the primary goals of political expression. In addition to its inward-looking focus, the strong emphasis on group loyalty characteristic of identity politics creates exaggerated emotional dependence on the group and consequently enormous pressure towards conformity and away from dissenting or independent thought. Stephen Carter, in his Confessions of An Affirmative Action Baby, exposes the damage done to independent and creative individual thinking that such a situation produces, again especially on college campuses. This exaggerated loyalty, then, also serves as an obstacle to the creation of an inclusive and thoughtful feminist politics.


The Future of Feminism

So where do we go from here? It is no doubt clear from my presentation today that my own politics are in strong contrast to identity politics. For a successful progressive politics to emerge again in our society, I believe that we need to create a political atmosphere where the zero-sum model of group competition gives way to coalitions among progressive groups to work on specific social problems; where personal issues of identity and self-esteem do not stymie individuals and groups’ abilities to act politically; and where a unifying vision of fairness and social justice replaces the pessimistic focus on difference.

For those of you who agree with me, we have a difficult but important task in front of us. Difficult especially now as we see in so many parts of the world from Kosovo to Rwanda the strength of identity politics in the form of nationalism – whether organized on religious, or cultural, or regional grounds – as a rallying cry for the most inhumane acts of violence among neighbors. Our task, then, does seem to run counter to a deep-seated tendency for human beings to react with fear and even hatred to differences, whether those differences are real, socially created, or imagined. For those of you who believe as I do, our task is to convince individuals and groups mired in the search for and affirmation of difference and victimization that it is in their interests to alter the sources of their victimization by joining with others to create a just society for all. This is not to say that individual or group conflicts will or can completely disappear. There are legitimate conflicts of interest in any society. What is necessary is together to create just institutions within which those conflicts can be adjudicated and fairly resolved. Indeed we must recognize that the only possible solution to the legitimate problems and conflicts groups face is such a broad movement for social justice.

For feminism, these issues presently constitute a crisis of definition, as well as a choice about how to proceed. In Fire With Fire, Naomi Wolf offers a number of different definitions of feminism. Two however seem particularly instructive in the present context. In one portion of the book she advocates a definition of feminism that focuses on difference, on “more for women,” including anything as feminist that “makes women stronger in ways that each woman is entitled to define for herself” and allowing that a woman is a feminist if she “respects herself” and is “operating at her full speed.” This identity and difference-oriented definition is one direction in which feminism may continue to go. Feminists in this view would include Phyllis Schlafly and Margaret Thatcher for surely they respect themselves and believe they have defined ways to make women stronger. This brand of feminism would focus on getting more for women regardless of the implication for others and would advocate the use of their newly attained power for good or evil, as they individually decide. For reasons outlined in this paper, I reject this view.

In the same book, however, Wolf proposes another definition of feminism. Here she emphasizes feminism’s essence as a movement for a socially more just society. This then is the other possible direction that feminism today could take, reaching out to others who share a commitment to a just and egalitarian society and building the coalitions necessary to exercise the power to move in that direction. Concrete examples of such possibilities abound. Poor women, especially the young who cannot afford abortions, could join with middle class pro-choice advocates in pressing for the federal funding necessary if all women are to have real reproductive control. The crisis in day care – both its inadequate availability and quality – has the potential to unite working parents of all ethnicities and social classes. Issues such as rape, battering, and sexual harassment cut across class and race and age, pointing the way to broad-based coalitions of women and men who are outraged by these crimes. And the continued low-pay, dead end, and sex stereotyped jobs in which women find themselves could be addressed as part of the broader fight for better education and higher paying jobs in the American economy as a whole, as feminists join with unions and other advocates of higher incomes for working people.

These and other issues have the potential of combining the political influence of disparate groups which can agree on specific issues and are willing to work together to effect concrete change in the functioning of our laws and institutions. As we look to our future, we also need to be cognizant of our past. In the early 1960s when the Second Wave of feminism began, the women’s movement was separate, but at the same time part of a larger number of groups – Civil Rights, anti-war, New Left, student groups – committed to and optimistic about constructing a more just society for all. These earliest feminists understood that women’s personal problems had social origins and that they thus required political solutions, necessarily involving the entire society. If today we focus only on ourselves, our differences, and on our own victimization, we risk repeating the mistake made by feminism in the later l960s and early 1970s. At that time, some feminist activists began using small consciousness raising groups in a therapeutic fashion, as a way of focusing primarily on their own personal problems. Discouraged about the extent of sexism they had uncovered and demoralized by seeing themselves as its victims, they turned inward, preoccupied with the personally damaging effects of sexism. They abandoned consciousness raising groups as a way of linking themselves with others, as a way of connecting personal issues to political activism in the wider society. Isolated from larger struggles for social justice, most consciousness raising groups collapsed within a very short number of years.

Today’s identity politics, both in the form of difference and victim feminism, poses a similar danger to a successful struggle to overcome sexism. The personal in these contexts is not political, primarily because it involves separation from political engagement with others in society. Rather it accepts the pessimistic – ultimately conservative – view that victimization is not amenable to change through political struggle. It accepts the notion that difference between women and men makes coalition impossible and sexism inevitable. In contrast, we need to affirm the early women’s movements’ insight that the personal – sexism in personal relationships, the tragedy of sexual violence or abuse, the division of housework within families, or the poverty that women disproportionately experience – can be an important factor in creating a politics of engagement. By so doing, we can join with others to construct a vision and politics that promises real democratic participation, self-determination, and egalitarian justice for all.


From Kenans blog Pandaemonium which you can sign up to for his updates as well as comment on this piece itself. You can also find an archive of  his work at kenamalik.com.


I gave a talk called ‘Beyond the sacred’, on the changing character of ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy, at a conference on blasphemy organised this weekend by the Centre for Inquiry at London’s Conway Hall on Saturday. Here is a transcript.

To talk about blasphemy is also to talk about the idea of the sacred.  To see something as blasphemous is to see it in some way as violating a sacred space. In recent years, both the notion of blasphemy and that of the sacred have transformed. What I want to explore here is the nature of that transformation, and what it means for free speech.


For believers, the idea of the sacred is key to moral life. Detachment from the sacred, the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor claimed at the installation ceremony for his successor, Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, has been responsible for war and terror, sin and evil. In this view the acceptance of the sacred is indispensable for the creation of a moral framework and for the injection of meaning and purpose into life.

I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the relationship between religion and morality. As an atheist, I do not see myself as lacking a moral compass, or being unaware of boundaries, or being burdened by a sense of a purposeless life. What I do want to do is look more carefully at what we mean by the ‘sacred’. Religion, Leszek Kolokowski, the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, acknowledged, ‘is man’s way of accepting life as inevitable defeat’. ‘To reject the sacred is’, as he puts it, ‘to reject our own limits.’  In this Tragic view of the human condition, the sacred exists to protect human beings from the flaws of their own nature. ‘The sacred order’, as Kolokowski observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’

The sacred, in this sense, is less about the transcendent than it is about the taboo. The sacred sphere, as French sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out a century ago, constitutes a social space that is set apart and protected from being defiled: a set of rules and practices that cannot be challenged. It provides a means of protecting not the kingdom of heaven but the citadels of earthly power. The sacred, Kolakowski observes, ‘simply reaffirms and stabilizes the structure of society – its forms and its systems of divisions, and also its injustices, its privileges and its institutionalized instruments of oppression.’ Blasphemy, and the sacred, in other words, are not simply about theology and religion, but also about politics and power. We can see the way that blasphemy and the sacred have helped speak to social and political power if we look at the history of blasphemy in Britain.

Until the abolition of the offence in 2008, blasphemy was committed in British law if there was published ‘any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject using words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive, and which tend to vilify the Christian religion’. The origins of the law go back a millennium. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 two orders of courts were established. Church courts decided all ecclesiastical cases, under the guidance of canon law, which legislated on moral offences. The civil or king’s courts were concerned with offences against the person or property. In 1401, King Henry IV empowered bishops to arrest and imprison suspected heretics, including ‘all preachers of heresy, all school masters infected with heresy and all owners and writers of heretical books’. If a heretic refused to abjure, or if he later relapsed, he could be ‘handed over to the civil officers, to be taken to a high place before the people and there to be burnt, so that their punishment might strike fear into the hearts of others’.

Despite the concern with God and Christianity, the outlawing of blasphemy was less about defending the dignity of the divine than of protecting the sanctity of the state. In 1676 John Taylor was convicted of blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ was a ‘bastard’ and a ‘whoremaker’ and that religion was a ‘cheat’. ‘That such kind of wicked and blasphemous words were not only an offence against God and religion’, observed the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, in front of whom Taylor was tried, ‘but a crime against the laws, States and Government; and therefore punishable in this court; that to say religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved; and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.’

Any challenge to Christian doctrine was, in other words, also a challenge to the secular social order. The heresy that troubled Lord Chief Justice Hale was the kind of heresy that promoted ‘subversion of the law’, the kind of dissent that might unstitch civil society. The outlawing of blasphemy was therefore a necessary defence of traditional political authority.

Four hundred years after Taylor’s conviction, Lord Denning, perhaps Britain’s most important judge of the twentieth century, made, in 1949, much the same point about the relationship between blasphemy and social disorder, though he drew the opposite conclusion about the necessity of the law. Historically, he observed, ‘The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded on Christian religion.’ But, Denning added, ‘There is no such danger in society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.’

Not only had Christianity become unwoven from the nation’s social fabric, but over the next half-century other faiths and cultures wove themselves in. The multicultural transformation of Britain made even less plausible the traditional arguments for the blasphemy law. In 1985, three years before the Rushdie affair, the Law Commission published a report on blasphemy entitled Offences against Religion and Public Worship. ‘In the circumstances now prevailing in this country,’ the Commission argued, ‘the limitation of protection to Christianity and, it would seem, the tenets of the Church of England, could not be justified.’ It should be abolished ‘without replacement’.

But if the reweaving of Britain’s social fabric provided an argument for the abolition of the blasphemy law, it also provided a reason, in some people’s minds, for its refashioning into a new offence that embraced non-Christian faiths and cultures. ‘A significant number of lawyers, clergymen and laymen’, wrote Richard Webster in A Brief History of Blasphemy, a book that came out a year after the Satanic Verses controversy and was highly critical of Rushdie and his supporters, ‘have begun to take the view that some protection of people’s religious feelings is necessary not primarily for religious or spiritual reasons but in the interests of social harmony.’

One such figure was Lord Scarman. Two years before he wrote his famous report on the Brixton riots, he was one of the Law Lords who presided over thelast great blasphemy trial in Britain. In 1977 Mary Whitehouse had brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the newspaper Gay News. It had published a poem by James Kirkup called ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’, about the love of a centurion for Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. Whitehouse won the case and Gay News appealed against the conviction.

In 1979 the case finally came to the House of Lords, then the highest appeal court in Britain. The Law Lords, one of whom was Lord Scarman, upheld the original verdict. ‘I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law,’ Scarman wrote in his judgement. But such a law must be extended ‘to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians’. Blasphemy ‘belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom. In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, ridicule and contempt.’ ‘The internal tranquility of the kingdom’: the role of blasphemy, in other words, is again acknowledged not as protecting religion but as defending social peace.

In 1985 the Law Commission looked into this and rejected such an extension, arguing that the deficiencies of the law ‘are so serious and so fundamental that… no measure short of abolition would be adequate to deal with these deficiencies’. The Commission dismissed the idea that religion should have special protection, observing that ‘Reverence for God… does not differ fundamentally in character from reverence accorded to any person against whom those according respect are unwilling to entertain grounds of criticism.’ It pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’.

The Law Commission inquiry was, however, far from united in its view. Two of the five members appended a Note of Dissent to the majority report. The dissenters were particularly influenced by an outside working party that had insisted that some legal constraints were necessary for the protection of social harmony. ‘If scurrilous attacks on religious beliefs go unpunished by law,’ the working party suggested, ‘they could embitter strongly held feelings within substantial groups of people, could destroy working relationships between different groups, and where religion and race are intimately bound together could deepen the tensions that already are a disturbing feature in some parts of this country.’ The Note of Dissent proposed the replacement of blasphemy by a new offence that recognized ‘the duty on our citizens, in our society of different races and people of different faiths and of no faith, not purposely to insult or outrage the religious feelings of others’.

In the end both the majority and minority views came to fruition. The blasphemy law was finally repealed in 2008. But it had already been replaced by a number of laws that secularized the offence of blasphemy. Two years before the blasphemy law was abolished, parliament had passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which made it an offence to incite hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. The aim was to extend to Muslims, and other faith groups, the same protection that racial groups, including Sikhs and Jews, possessed under Britain’s various Race Relations Acts. In fact, it was already an offence to perpetrate hate speech. In 1998 the Public Order Act had been amended to make it an offence to ‘display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’.

Blasphemy was a form of social regulation for society that thought of itself as homogenous. For a society that thinks of itself as plural, blasphemy can no longer play that role, at least in its traditional sense. Society was, in fact, never as homogenous as we now imagine that it used to be. Contemporary society is not as plural as many insist.  What matters, however, is the perception of this shift, and the consequences of this perception for ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy.  As people came to see themselves as living in a far more plural society, so blasphemy became reworked to be an offence not primarily against God, or even religion, but against an individual’s identity.

Consider, for instance, Ziauddin Sardar’s account of his encounter with The Satanic Verses. Sardar is a liberal Muslim, highly critical of Islamism and other fundamentalist strands. In his book Distorted Imagination, he describes reading Rushdie’s novel on a plane from Kuala Lumpur to London. By the time he landed at Heathrow, he writes,

It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity. Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.

Sardar’s friend Gulzar Haider, Professor of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, was ‘lying on a sofa’ when he heard the news of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. ‘So catastrophic was the effect’, Sardar reports, ‘he couldn’t move, it was as though his body had been struck down by a disease. He was sofa bound for almost a year. His friend and colleague Merryl Davies ‘bellowed like a fiery dragon goaded by a million arrows, writhing by turns with sorrow and rage.’ It is almost as if Sardar and his friends were driving themselves into a kind of self-induced hysteria, as if they felt that they had to suffer personally for their faith to be meaningful.

This intensely personal, deeply emotional response marks a shift in the way that believers understood their relationship to belief. Faith has always had an emotional components and for some faiths such emotional spirituality has been  central to their outlook. Nevertheless there has been a fundamental shift in the character of religious belief in recent decades. Sociologist talk of  the rise of the ‘therapy culture’ to describe the growing emotionalism of our age.  Scholars such as the philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Olivier Roy have described how such emotionalism has become central to new forms of ‘expressive’ faiths.  Faith, as Charles Taylor observes in his book A Secular Age, has become disembedded from its historical culture, and reconstituted instead as part of the culture of ‘expressive individualism’, forms of spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and rooted in the social values of what the writer Tom Wolfe has called the ‘me generation’. ‘All religious revival movements of the late twentieth century’, Olivier Roy writes, are marked by an ‘anti-intellectualism that favours a more emotional religiosity’, so that ‘feelings are more important than knowledge’. This is true not just of radical Islam but also of other ‘born again’ religions such as charismatic Christianity, the Lubavitch, one of the largest Jewish Hasidic communities, and the Hinduvta, a Hindu revivalist movement. Such faiths, in Roy’s words, ‘play on emotion through ritual and collective expressions of faith, using symbolic and ostensible markers of belonging’.

In Spiritual Revolution, their study of religious practices in a small town in northern England, the sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead show that while traditional religious congregations are on the decline, ‘New Age’ forms of spirituality are beginning to fill the gap. But more than this, many once-traditional believers are beginning to adopt New Age attitudes and rituals, developing new forms of faith that celebrate the emotional aspects of spirituality and seek to fulfil the believer’s inner needs. Such congregations often combine a literal reading of the Holy Book, and an insistence on the unchanging character of religious truths, with a God that speaks to their individual, subjective needs. ‘We don’t go to mass because we feel like it, or not go because we don’t feel like it, we go because the church gave us an obligation to go to mass’, an elderly Roman Catholic lady explained to Heelas and Woodhead. For all the literalism of the new forms of faith, such obligation is alien to them. Instead, they provide ‘more space for each every individual participant to explore and express his emotions in his own way, and to let those emotions set the agenda of the religion rather than vice versa.’

In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics.  Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness.  The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity. That is why for Sardar, ‘Every word [of The Satanic Verses] was directed at me and I took everything personally’, why he imagined that Rushdie had ‘despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity’. This is also why many laws these days that ostensibly protect faith – such as Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act – are framed primarily in terms of protecting the culture and identity of individuals or communities. In today’s world, identity is God, in more ways than one.

The transformation in the meaning of blasphemy has not, however, transformed its underlying role. The prohibition of blasphemy remains a means, in Kolokowski’s words, of ‘reaffirming and stabilizing the structure of society’, of ‘proclaiming “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”’. But it has become a means of protecting beliefs deemed essential not to society as a whole, but to specific communities, and to an individual’s identity and self-esteem. What, however, defines a community? And who defines which beliefs are essential to a community? Or to the identity of individuals within it?  These, too, are matters not of theology, or even of culture, but of power. The struggle to define certain beliefs or thoughts as offensive or blasphemous is a struggle to establish power within a community and to establish one voice as representative or authentic of that community. What is called offence to a community is in reality usually a debate within a community. – but in viewing that debate as a matter of offence or of blasphemy, one side gets instantly silenced.

Take the row over Salman Rushdie’s appearance, or rather non-appearance, at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The Islamists who, with connivance from the state and the festival organizers, successfully prevented Rushdie from appearing, even by video link, no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within different Muslim communities. And this has been true since the beginnings of the Rushdie affair. Back in the 1980s Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in then was deeply entrenched within Asian communities. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part becausesecular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.

The same is true of, say, the controversy over Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti which was driven off stage by protestors in 2004. The protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by Kaur Bhatti’s play no more spoke for the Sikh community than did Kaur Bhatti herself. Both spoke for different strands within that community.  But, as in the Rushdie affair, only the protestors were seen as authentically of their community, while Kaur Bhatti, like Rushdie, was regarded as too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic or truly of her community.  To be a proper Muslim, in other words, in secular liberal eyes, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti.  The argument for the necessity of blasphemy laws, or for the outlawing of offensiveness, is, then, both rooted in stereotypes of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce those stereotypes. This, of course, has nothing to do with the reality of being a Muslim or a Sikh, but everything to do with the reality of identity politics. Identity politics has rendered communities into homogenous, distinct, authentic groups, composed of people all speaking with a single voice, all driven by a single understanding of their faith. Once authenticity is so defined, then only the most conservative, reactionary figures come to be seen as the true voices of those communities.

The idea that certain views are off limits because they are offensive or blasphemous is both an expression of an essentialized view of what constitutes a community and a means of justifying that view. On the one hand, the contemporary, identity-driven notion of blasphemy only makes sense if we accept the myth of communities as homogenous, distinctive, authentic, composed of people all speaking with a single voice. On the other, it is a means of instantiating that myth by asserting the power of one strand of opinion within that community, by establishing that strand as the true authentic view, and hence of silencing all opposing views. Or, to put it another way, ‘You can’t say that!’ is the response of those in power to having their power challenged.  To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be contested, that certain beliefs are so important or valuable or essential that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned.  It is the creation of a sacred space safe from the prospect of violation.

The idea of blasphemy or offensiveness speaks to power in a second sense too. It has become an important means not just of grounding the power of particular community leaders, but of allowing the state to regulate relations between social groups. The modern argument for blasphemy laws from liberals such as Lord Scarman or Richard Webster is that such laws are necessary ‘in the interests of social harmony’, to protect ‘the internal tranquillity of the kingdom’. In fact the consequence of such laws has been the creation of greater disharmony and turmoil. Every group has sought  to create its own sacred space, upon which no one may encroach, leading to an explosion of sectarian rivalries as each one demands its right not to be offended or blasphemed against. As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’

But the marketplace of outrage has created not just a problem but an opportunity too. For in a fragmented, tribal society, the state is able to step in as peacemaker. Speech regulation has become a mechanism through which to regulate social relations between groups in an era of identity politics. And that only establishes even more securely the need for a secular sacred space, or rather for a plethora of secular sacred spaces, none of which must not be violated.

The importance of blasphemy is in providing a language of power. To decree certain views, certain ideas, certain practices, even certain thoughts, as taboo is to demand that certain forms of power cannot be contested. The importance of the principle of free speech is, on the other hand, in providing a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence in acting as an ever-present test to authority. Its importance is in insisting that nothing is so sacred that it cannot be questioned or debated. Once we give up the right to offend or to blaspheme, once we accept the idea of a sacred space, whether religious or secular, then we erode our ability to defy those in power. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’

My thanks to Jesus and Mo for the cartoons. If you have not already done so, do check out, and support, the J&M website.






The offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were this morning firebombed, just as it was about to publish its latest edition, a spoof issue ‘guest edited by Muhammed’, in response to the Islamist Ennahda party’s victory in the Tunisian elections. Caustic and vulgar (think of a cross between Private Eye and Viz), Charlie Hebdo prides itself on being an equal opportunities offender, as happy to draw the ire of Christians and Jews (and, indeed communists) as of Muslims. The French press has, so far, been almost unanimously in support of the magazine. But already there have been rumblings elsewhere that Charlie Hebdo went too far, that this was the wrong time and the wrong issue upon whichto be so provocative.  I am republishing here my original response to the Danish cartoons controversy. This essay was first published in Prospect almost six years ago. It shows how little the debate has moved on that it is still seems necessary to make elementary points about the right to challenge, to provoke, to be downright offensive.

‘I believe in free speech. But…’ That has become the rallying cry for the liberal left in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Guardian ‘believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend’. For Jack Straw freedom of speech is fine but not if it leads to an ‘open season’ on religious taboos. ‘I respect freedom of speech’ UN Secretary general Kofi Annan has said. ‘But of course… it entails responsibility and judgment.’

Free speech is good, runs the argument, but it has to be less free in a plural society. ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict’, the sociologist Tariq Modood points out, ‘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 more plural society seems to be that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

I believe the opposite is true. I think that Danish newspapers should be free to publish insulting cartoons about the prophet Mohammed; that Muslim demonstrators should be able to carry placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam; and that both the radical cleric Abu Hamza and British National Party leader Nick Griffin should be free to spout racist hatred. And they should all be free to do so because we live in a diverse society not in spite of it.

In a truly homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then giving offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. ‘If liberty means anything’, as George Orwell once put it, ‘it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

Ah, say the would-be censors, the problem is that you poor secularists simply do not understand religious believers’ depth of attachment to their faith, and hence their outrage at any insult to it. As Ian Jack, editor of Granta magazine, has put it, an individual might have the abstract right to depict Mohammed, but the price of free speech is too high when compared to the ‘immeasurable insult’ that the exercise of such right causes – even though ‘we, the faithless, don’t understand the offence’.

This argument might reveal how little attached many liberals are to their own beliefs (one can imagine Jack arguing about Galileo 400 years ago, ‘He has an abstract right to depict the earth orbiting the sun, but imagine the immeasurable insult that the exercise of such a right would cause…’) but there is no reason to treat Muslims (or, indeed, any religious believer) as a special case. Communists were often wedded to their ideas even unto death. Many racists have an almost visceral attachment to their prejudices. Should I indulge them, too, because their beliefs are so deeply held? In any case I would challenge anyone to show me how my humanism is any less intensely felt than the faith of a Muslim or of any other believer. There is something deeply pernicious, almost racist, about the claim that Muslims are somehow so different from everyone else.

Last October, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr published the cartoons in full– without a murmur of protest. The violence over the cartoons has less to do with religion than politics. It has emerged from a sense of grievance and victimhood that many Muslims feel about their treatment by Western societies, a sense that has been skillfully exploited by some Muslim organizations for their own ends.

Yet, even within this climate many Muslims remain opposed to censorship. Bünyamin Simsek is a councillor in the Danish city of Aarhus who helped organize a counter-demonstration to the cartoon protests. ‘There is’, he says, ‘a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society’. He is not alone. But his is the kind of voice that gets silenced in the rush to censor that which is deemed to cause offence. In the name of pluralism, the censors are helping to strengthen the hand of the most conservative elements within Muslim communities.

It is true that there is nothing particularly laudable about the cartoons themselves. They are at best childish, at worst distasteful. But free speech is nothing if it is not the right to be distasteful, even racist.

The ‘I believe in free speech but…’ argument leads to a pick ‘n’ mix attitude to what is tolerable. When British Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie’s comments on homosexuality led recently to a police investigation, 22 Muslim leaders wrote to the Times demanding the right to be able to ‘freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying’. Those same leaders deny such a right to newspapers publishing cartoons about Mohammed. Nick Griffin wants to be free to promote racist hatred, but wants to lock up Islamic clerics who do the same. Many of those happy to see cartoons lampooning Mohammed draw the line at anything mocking the Holocaust. It is fast becoming a case of ‘My speech should be free, but yours is too costly’. What is, in fact, too costly is giving in to the demand not to cause offence. If we really believe in free speech, there can be no buts.