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.
By Kenan Malik
A recent poll by the Pew Trust showed that virtually every American can remember where they were on the morning of 11 September 2001. Most recognize the profound changes that 9/11 has wrought to the nation. But America is divided down the middle on the question of whether the USA brought the attack upon itself. Forty-three percent of those polled thought that 9/11 was caused by US ‘wrongdoing’; 45% disagreed. Perhaps no set of statistics better expresses the confusions and ambiguities that still surround 9/11, the chasm between an acknowledgement of the significance of the event and the uncertainties about what it signifies. The Pew poll figures are particularly striking given the fear and suspicion of Muslims revealed in other polls and by the furore over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’.
Such ambiguity and unclarity is perhaps inevitable given that we still live in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Tower and continue to feel the reverberations, both of the event and of the West’s response to it. But the uncertainty also derives from the way that the very nature of the narratives we weave around historical events has changed. During the Cold War, the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological. Today, as the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes in his book The Fear of Barbarians, the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. Anti-Western sentiment results from a sense of ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred a sense of resentment, particularly within Muslim communities, towards Europe and the United States, which are ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness.’ And in the West, public attitudes and political policy have been shaped by fear of terrorism, of immigration and of the ‘other’, and resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and of the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ culture at home. The result has been a series of narratives about 9/11 that have combined a yearning for certainty with a profound sense of ambiguity.
For many the story of 9/11 is the story of a West under siege from the barbarian hordes, of a global struggle between good and evil. The idea of the ‘clash of civilizations’, first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington a decade before 9/11, has, in this view, come to define the decade after. It has become a means through which to express the sense of fear and resentment of which Todorov has written, a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than ideological terms.
The argument for a clash of civilizations might provide the certainty of a world divided by sharp lines. It is nevertheless a deeply ambiguous claim, not least because it is a worldview shared with Islamists, for whom too it provides a sense of identity and belonging by setting up a cartoon enemy. ‘There is no doubt that the clash of civilizations exists’, Osama bin Laden told an Al Jazeerajournalist a month after 9/11. ‘No true believer would doubt these truths.’
It is also a worldview at odds with reality. Atrocities such as 9/11, 7/7, or the Madrid train bombings are viscerally shocking and haunt our memories. They are also relatively rare. ‘Why is it so difficult to find a suicide bomber these days?’ was the provocative headline to a recent article in the journal Foreign Policy. The headline might have been glib, but the article, by sociologistCharles Kurzman, raised important issues. The real question we need to address, Kurzman observed, is not why there is so much terrorism but why there is so little. Given how easy it is to sow terror it is striking how infrequent terrorist attacks really are. ‘If terrorist methods are as widely available as automobiles, why are there so few Islamist terrorists?’, he asked. ‘If there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don’t we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?’ Even in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where terrorist attacks have become woven into the fabric of life, the devastation has not matched the levels of slaughter experienced, say, during the 1990s in Rwanda, Sudan, the Congo and Yugoslavia.
When US Navy Seals tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden earlier this year, there was great jubilation. His death, however, has had barely an impact upon the war on terror, largely because he was already a marginal figure. We have come to imagine al-Qaeda as the monstrous spider at the centre of an international web of terrorism, the grand orchestrator of the worldwide jihad. In fact, al-Qaeda barely exists as an organization and has not orchestrated a major successful terrorist attack for more than five years. Phillip Zelikow is professor of history at the University of Virginia and the executive director of the National Commission on Terrorists Attacks on the United States (the ‘9/11 Commission’), the bipartisan committee created by the US Congress to investigate the 9/11 attack. ‘The most serious threats’, he observes in an afterword to the original report, ‘are posed by a relatively tiny number of people, fewer in number and less well organized than the production crew of any one of Hollywood’s larger films.’
None of this is to diminish the historic significance of 9/11, nor to underplay the barbarism of jihadi attacks from Kabul to Casablanca, from Mumbai to Mombasa, nor yet to deny the need robustly to challenge such terror. It is however, to put such horrors into context. Terrorists derive their power not just from the carnage they cause, but also from the response of others to that carnage. In transforming the activities of a ragtag band of Islamists into a ‘global jihad’ and a ‘clash of civilizations’, the Western response to 9/11 has helped give credibility to jihadist groups and to sustain them.
Over the past decade conflicts, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Chechnya to the Yemen, and attacks, from 9/11 to 7/7, from Bali to Stockholm, have all become packaged together as different expressions of a ‘global jihad’. In fact these various clashes and conflicts constitute not a single war but a loose collection of local struggles and resentments, ‘a matrix of ongoing, overlaid, interlinked and overlapping conflicts’ as British writer Jason Burke, one of the more perceptive observers of contemporary jihadism, puts it in his new book The 9/11 Wars. These are conflicts with myriad different causes, myriad different actors. But they have come to be seen as part of a single struggle largely because of the narrative of ‘global jihad’ and ‘clash of civilizations’ promoted by both sides.
One key consequence of all this, as the historian Stephen Howe recently observed, has been the ‘reinvention of Islam’, both ‘by many of its adherents and by those who view it from outside, and often with fear and hostility’. Where once people might have seen themselves – and been seen – as Indians or Pakistanis or Bangladeshis or Turks, today they are more likely to see themselves, and be seen, simply as ‘Muslim’. And where once it was accepted that Islam comprised a myriad different beliefs and practices, now there is an increasingly insistence that there can only be one way of being ‘authentically’ Muslim.
This process had begun in the 1980s, well before 9/11, and was driven by many factors including the erosion of secularism, the rise of the politics of identity and the institutionalization of multicultural policies. Over the past decade, however, as Howe observes, the process ‘seemed suddenly to accelerate, to become global and ubiquitous’, to establish the idea of a worldwide Islamic ummah as a new kind of identity and attachment, and one ‘essentially uniform… across both time and space.’ The myth of the ‘clash of civilizations’ has helped transform the reality and make it more like the myth. Or, rather, it has transformed people’s perceptions of reality and in so doing transformed their actions too.
The myths of the global jihad and the clash of civilizations have helped fuel wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, destabilize Pakistan, and reinforce autocracies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. They have eroded rights and liberties, at home and abroad, from the imposition of draconian domestic anti-terror laws to the use of torture, from the obscenity of extraordinary rendition to the affront that is Guantanamo Bay. The recent revelations that the CIA and MI6 both made use of Colonel Gaddafi’s security forces to interrogate and torture supposed jihadis (including Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, military commander of rebel forces in Tripoli, and a member of the Transitional National Council) should have come as no surprise to those who have recognized the depths to which Western governments have already sunk in their prosecution of the war on terror. The very principles that the war on terror is supposed to defend are the very principles that the war terror has trampled upon.
If one narrative portrays 9/11 as an act in a global conflict to bring down Western civilization, another views it as an expression of a global struggle against Western imperialism. In an infamous piece for the London Review of Books, the Cambridge classicist and historian Mary Beard wrote of ‘the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming.’ 9/11, she suggested, was wages of sin for the West’s ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists” had to say’. Almost every Islamist attack has been met with similar kinds of ‘explanations’. Terrorist attacks may be unpalatable, runs the argument, but they are merely perverted responses to Western imperialism.‘The principal cause of this violence’, as the radical writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali put it after the 7/7 bombings in London, ‘is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world.’
The idea that there is anything ‘political’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ about such terror is to degrade the meaning of the real struggles people have fought – and are still fighting – to free themselves from imperialism. It is also belied by the actions of the terrorists themselves. The terrorists who, in July 2007, parked two car bombs outside Tiger Tiger, a central London nightclub, or Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the suicide bomber who attempt last year to blow himself up in the midst of Christmas shoppers in Stockholm, or the Islamist who set off a remote-controlled bomb in a Marrakesh café earlier this year – all were acting not as political soldiers driven to fury by Western policy, but as political nihilists motivated by a hatred for the world around them and a deep indifference to the consequences of their actions. However far one might stretch the concept of ‘political’, it is still impossible to imagine how flying planes into an office block, or blowing up commuters, or targeting Christmas shoppers or coffee drinkers could be any kind of political response. They are no more a response to Muslim grievances (real or perceived) than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in America was a response to the perceived evils of the US government. Those who pretend otherwise are both demeaning real anti-imperialist struggles and providing spurious moral cover for vicious, nihilistic violence.
The uncertainties and insecurities now felt by Western societies, the ease with which politicians have been willing to betray basic liberal values, the emergence of fear and resentment as dominant sentiments – all have made Islamists appear more potent than they are. They have also generated mindless, shocking responses – such as Anders Breivik’s homicidal rampage through Oslo and Utoya in the name of defending ‘Christian Europe’ from Muslims and ‘cultural Marxists’. As I wrote in Bergens Tidende shortly after the massacre, Breivik, like jihadists, was ‘driven not so much by political ideology as by a desperate and perverted search for identity, a search shaped by a sense of cultural paranoia, a cloying self-pity and a claustrophobic victimhood’. He was shaped by the same myths that produced both 9/11 and much of the response to it.
In the decade since 9/11 politicians and intellectuals have not only exaggerated the threat facing our societies but have also lacked the moral and political resources to respond to it. That is why the real challenge of 9/11 comes not from without but from within.
(This is a longer version of an essay published in the Norwegian newspaperBergens Tidende)
A number of English Defence League members have been before the courts today, charged with a series of racially aggrevated offences.
Andrew Ossitt, 40, from Newquay, came to Halifax on April 2, along with around 60 other English Defence League protesters.
He was part of a group who came into town after a demonstration in Blackburn.
They congregated outside the Courtyard pub, Wards End, Halifax.
Another man, Dennis Farrell, 26, of High Lees Road, Halifax, also appeared at Calderdale Magistrates’ Court. He will face trial on November 3 after denying two charges of using threatening words and racially or religiously aggreviated harassment.
Scores of police went to the pub at 6pm and marched the group back to the train station.
Vanessa Schofield, prosecuting, said: “Officers’ attention was drawn to Andrew Ossitt. He was walking along, slightly behind the group. He raised both arms in the air and shouted, ‘These are our streets, Muslims off the streets,’.
Ossitt admitted using threatening words to cause harassment alarm or distress and a second charge of religiously aggravated harassment and was fined £100.
Mohammed Farooq, representing Ossitt, told the court although he joined in with chanting, he was not an instigator.
He said: “At no point was it his intention to be part of any demonstration outside the pub. A few members began chanting, a few more joined in. Due to him being in drink at the time he began to chant ‘You burn the poppies, and we will burn the mosques,’.
“Andrew Ossitt says at the time of making these remarks he did not feel he was going to cause anyone any alarm, harassment or distress. With hindsight he said had there been members of the Muslim community there, they would have done.”
His solicitor said Ossitt felt “aggrieved” at being prosecuted. “He has been singled out from that demonstration and used as a scapegoat here in court. He has said there should be 60 or so EDL stood next to him,” said Mr Farooq
He said Ossitt has not attended any English Defence League meetings since April.
As well as the £100 fine, chairwoman Anthea Atkinson told Ossitt to pay £85 costs and a £15 victim surcharge.
“Our aim is to punish you, which we believe this will do.
“If this offence had not been religiously aggreviated, you would have paid £30 but it has been increased to reflect the religious aggreviation,” she said.
A member of the English Defence League has admitted taking part in a spray paint attack on a mosque.
Also before the courts, Charlotte Davies, 19, will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit racially aggravated criminal damage.
She travelled from her home in Irving Path, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to Durham Crown Court where she indicated she admitted her part in the graffiti attack in November.
The Nasir Mosque in Hartlepool, a shop and a guest house were sprayed.
The plea was not formally entered although the case was adjourned for a pre-sentence report to be carried out and she will be sentenced in October.
Anthony Smith, 24, of Neptune Way, Easington Colliery, County Durham, and Steven Vasey, 32, of Prior’s Grange, Pittington, County Durham, are accused of the same offence and they will enter pleas next Friday.
In Redbridge Surrey, Four English Defence League thugs who bombarded a mosque and an imam with bricks in a racist attack are facing jail.
The group of youths tried to storm Redbridge Islamic Centre, Eastern Avenue, Redbridge, after taunting worshippers arriving for evening prayers with racist chants.
The front window was smashed and the imam Shafeel Begg was hit by a brick as he tried to pursue them on March 24.
Rocky Beale, 21, of Purleigh Avenue, Woodford Green, Eliot Jones, 19, of no fixed address, Matthew Stephenson, 18, of Burrow Road, Hainault and a 16-year-old who cannot be named because of his age, were convicted of violent disorder at Snaresbrook Crown Court after just 90 minutes deliberation by the jury on Wednesday.
They will be sentenced on September 28.
Two others, Daniel Leal, 19, of Queenborough Gardens, Gants Hill and Ryan Jones, 23, of no fixed address were cleared of violent disorder after a two-week trial.
Pam Oon, prosecuting, said the 16-year-old “threw a brick, which smashed the front window of the mosque”.
He and another of the attackers then ran inside, and Mr Begg and caretaker Mohammed Wahud gave chase.
“In the process the caretaker was injured by some broken glass,” said Ms Oon.
“When the imam and the caretaker came out of the mosque, the youths were still throwing bricks and shouting abuse, before they ran down Eastern Avenue towards Redbridge Tube station.”
The 16-year-old told police he had been attacked by a group of men from the mosque with iron bars.
Five nearby parked cars and a number of neighbouring homes were also damaged before the gang arrived at the mosque.
Review of From Fatwa to Jihad: ‘Why Salman Rushdie’s book was burned’, by Maureen Freely, Washington Post.
In the opening pages of this dense but fascinating polemic, Kenan Malik describes how the fatwa against Salman Rushdie changed his life. The Indian-born son of a Hindu mother and a Muslim father, Malik had grown up in Britain amid “Paki-bashers” and the racist National Front. It was racism that had driven him into far-left politics as a student, but it was the Enlightenment ideals of equality and social justice that he took with him when he graduated. Malik became a research psychologist and occasional journalist with a commitment to activism.
In January 1989, he was shocked when 1,000 Muslims marched through the northern city of Bradford and ceremonially burned a copy of Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” in front of a police station. Almost overnight, he writes, the image of that burning book became an international “icon of the rage of Islam.” Yet it made no sense to Malik, who had organized anti-racist protests in Bradford three years earlier. Where had the rage come from? And why was it dressed in religious clothing?
He received his first answer from a man Malik identifies only as Hassan, a former Trotskyite and an acquaintance who had become disaffected with the “white left” and with the fearful and obsequious Muslims of their fathers’ generation. Hassan saw a “need to defend our dignity as Muslims” so that no one – “racist or Rushdie” – could trample on it. Hassan had become an “errand boy to the mullahs,” Malik writes, “inspired by bookburners, willing to shed blood for a thousand-year-old fable that he had never believed in.”
In the chapters that follow, Malik charts the circuitous route by which Hassan and so many others found solace in a virulently anti-Western, political Islam that bore little relation to the faith of their immigrant parents, for whom religion was “deeply embedded [but] never all-consuming,” expressing “a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.” If Britain now has a problem with homegrown suicide bombers, it is, he asserts, because of policies that have not only impeded integration but have taught an entire generation of immigrants that they are not truly British, that they do not – and never will – belong.
Malik looks favorably upon the United States, which in his view sees itself as a nation of immigrants and so offers a positive narrative for newcomers. Britain, however, has kept immigrant communities separate. Rather than address immigrants directly, it has handed them over to the care of self-appointed community leaders who use their positions to enrich themselves and push a conservative religious agenda. It is they who have created a breeding ground for Islamist fundamentalism.
Malik argues that jihad as we understand it is a thoroughly modern concept, forged not just in the mountains of Afghanistan but in Western cities. He shows how the media and the wizards of geopolitics stoked the fire from the outset, with the book-burners of Bradford becoming pawns in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Each had been investing ambitiously in organizations in Britain and elsewhere to promote its own extreme brand of Islam.
Though by issuing a fatwa the Ayatollah Khomeini got the upper hand in the Rushdie controversy, Britain’s Muslims did not take orders from any imam or ayatollah. The bombers who took part in the coordinated attacks on London’s transportation system in 2005 were influenced by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But, Malik says, they were full of Western narcissism – middle-class, entitled, disinclined to deny themselves modern pleasures. Their ease with contemporary mores cut them off from Islamic traditions. “Today’s jihadist does not submit himself to the will of the collective,” Malik writes. “Only through death do jihadists join their imagined community.”
After beginning his story with a book-burning, Malik ends it with the bombing nearly 20 years later of the London publisher of Sherry Jones’s “Jewel of Medina,” a novel about the prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife. The Rushdie book-burning in 1989 sparked intense debate over the reach of free expression, especially when it offends religious sensitivities. By the time of the 2008 bombing, however, it was generally accepted that free speech must take into account Britain’s many diverse religions – which sounds likes a move toward greater tolerance and integration.
But in Britain the issue is more complicated than that. The nation lacks an equivalent of the First Amendment, and though it has a tradition of free expression, there is no clear legal defense for it. Since 2008, it has been illegal to incite religious or racial hatred. Because the law is vaguely worded, it can be used against anyone who criticizes religion in the public domain. Britain’s unelected Muslim leaders were among those who proposed the law, and they continue to have a powerful influence on the definition of religious hatred, both in the courts and in the media.
Few writers have untangled the paradoxes and unintended consequences of political Islam as deftly as Malik does here. But in the end his real subject is not Islam. It is Britain’s mismanagement of immigration and how this has led to the weakening of its purchase on Enlightenment values and, most particularly, free expression. Though confined to the British case, the book offers a cautionary tale that will speak to everyone concerned about the worldwide erosion of civil and human rights after Sept. 11, 2001.
Over the past twenty years, I have lived through countless bombs in London. IRA bombs, neo-Nazi bombs, Islamist bombs. And yet, there was still something viscerally shocking about Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s attempt to bring carnage to the streets of Stockholm. The fact that Sweden has been largely free of terrorism can, I imagine, only magnify that sense of shock. So, are there any lessons that Stockholm can learn from the experience of a city like London?
The first lesson is the need flatly to reject the fiction that the bombing was a response, however perverted, to some sense of political grievance. Every such bombing is followed by an attempt by an army of commentators to rationalize it by suggesting that it was the inevitable result of a sense of injustice created by Western foreign policy or by anti-Muslim attitudes in the West. The audio message sent to a news agency shortly before the bomb went off, claiming that Sweden would be punished for failing to act against cartoonist Lars Vilks’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as a dog, and for the country’s 500-strong presence in Afghanistan, has provided perfect fodder for such rationalization. In fact the bombing was no more a response to Muslim grievances (real or perceived) than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in America was a response to the perceived evils of the US government.
Three years ago, Islamists parked a car bomb outside a central London nightclub. Thankfully it was discovered and defused before it detonated. Had the attack been successful, the bomb could have created far greater devastation than the 2005 attacks on the London underground. Just two minutes’ drive from that nightclub were the Houses of Parliament and the Foreign Office. Yet the bombers chose not to make a political statement (albeit a perverted one) but instead parked their deadly load outside a building full of party goers.
Like those London bombers, al-Abdaly seems to have been driven not so much by political fury as by a hatred for the world around him and a deep indifference to the consequences of his actions. However far one stretches the concept of ‘political’, it is nevertheless still impossible to imagine that setting out to murder dozens of Christmas shoppers could be any kind of political response to the Swedish authorities’ attitudes either to Vilks or to Afghanistan.
Much has been made of al-Abdaly’s British connection. He studied for a degree in physical therapy at the University of Bedfordshire and lived in Luton, a small town north of London with a reputation for being a magnet for Islamic extremists. It was here that the men responsible for the 7/7 bombings met before going onto London. And many suggest that it was here that al-Abdaly became radicalized. The local mosque claims that it expelled al-Abdaly for his extremist views.
The idea of Luton as a vipers’ nest of radical Islamism is vastly exaggerated. A handful of Islamic radicals in the area have made a lot of noise, attracting the attention of the press, the police and politicians. But there is little evidence that it is a major recruiting school for jihadists. In any case, ‘radicalization’, especially for a loner like al-Abdaly, might mean little more than trawling the internet for suitable jihadi websites or listening to some firebrand preacher.
At the same time, the obsession with ‘radicalization’ misses the point about someone like al-Abdaly. The real question is not so much how he came to be radicalized, but why someone, who by all accounts was intelligent, articulate and integrated, came to find such a medieval, murderous ideology so attractive. To understand that we need to look not so much at extremist preachers and websites as at public policy, and in particular the policy of multiculturalism.
In Britain, and elsewhere, multiculturalism has led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority communities not as citizens but simply as member of particular ethnic groups. In the name of multiculturalism, governments have abandoned their responsibilities for engaging directly with Muslim communities, effectively subcontracting out those responsibilities to so-called community leaders, who are often the most conservative voices. As a result, religious and Islamist voices have been given new legitimacy and come to be seen as the authentic voice of Muslim communities, while more progressive, secular movements have frequently been sidelined.
At the same time, many second-generation Muslims have found themselves detached from both the Muslim traditions and institutions of their parents, which they have often rejected, and from the wider secular society that insists in viewing them simply as Muslims. The consequence is that a few get drawn to the extremist Islamist groups through which they discover a sense of identity and of belonging to a world-wide gang. In a country like Britain, multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it helped create a space for it within Muslim communities that had not previously existed.
In the wake of the Stockholm bombing, it is imperative for the Swedish authorities not to follow the British template, or to imagine that ‘community leaders’ somehow speak for all Muslims. It is particularly important not to give an inch to Islamist demands over free speech and supposed Muslim sensitivities. The more that liberals concede on such issues, the more that Islamists gain a spurious moral legitimacy, and the more that the likes of al-Abdaly imagine that theirs is a noble cause.
But if it is important not to concede to Islamists on questions of free speech and liberties, it is equally important not to concede to the right on the questions of immigration and of Islam. Al-Abdaly’s actions will inevitably unleash a cacophony of calls for a clampdown on immigration and for stricter controls on Muslims. They must be resisted. A Muslim immigrant might have been responsible for the bombing. But it makes no sense to blame either immigration as a process or Islam as a religion. The same perverse logic that leads many on the left to view religious bigots as the authentic voice of Muslim communities, and to insist that we should accede to their reactionary demands, leads many on the right (and not just on the right) to blame Islam as a faith, or immigrants as a group, for the crimes of lone extremists like al-Abdaly, and to imagine that narrow-minded intolerance is the answer to fanaticism and terror. Cracking down on immigration or discriminating against Muslims to appease the far right would be as illiberal and as irrational as banning material deemed offensive to Muslims to appease the Islamists.
The Stockholm bombing revealed how easy it can be to cause mayhem and disruption in an open, urban, society. It is the arbitrary nihilism of Islamic terrorism that makes it so terrifying. Yet al-Abdaly’s actions should also remind us how infrequently such terror occurs. Society is based on trust. The aim of the bombers is to undermine such trust by sowing fear. We should not let them.
After al-Abdaly blew himself up, a passer-by named Pascal, a trained medic, came running over to help. ‘My first thought was that the man was a terrorist’, he said. Nevertheless, he tried to save his life. ‘I removed a Palestinian scarf from his face to free his airways and attempted CPR, but it was too late’, Pascal told reporters. In such moral courage and basic human instincts lie the best responses to the nihilism of the suicide bomber.
While we don’t always follow Kenan Malik’s ideas ‘to the letter’ there’s always a lot we agree on and his writing brings much to debate.
I can understand the shock and despair in Sweden following the electoral breakthrough of the Sweden Democats. There was similar shock in Britain last year when the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European elections. Britain, like Sweden, had thought of itself as different from other European nations, as open, tolerant and progressive. It was a country in which fascists had never won mass support, nor tasted electoral success. The BNP’s electoral breakthrough at a national level – and the almost one million votes it won – seemed therefore all the more distressing, and led to a bout of national soul searching similar to that now gripping Sweden.
It is, however, in this very view of Britain and Sweden as exceptional that much of the problem lies. The question being asked in Sweden, as it was in Britain, is ‘How can we stop the far right?’. The question that Swedes should be asking is ‘How can we challenge anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment?’ The two questions might seem necessaily to lead to the same answers. They don’t always. The danger is that in being obsessed by the first question to the detriment of the second, politicians may help strengthen, not weaken, xenophobic attitudes.
Take Britain. In the wake of the BNP’s electoral success last year, there were two broad responses. Some dismissed BNP voters as racists and fascists. Others insisted that the only way to stop the BNP was by mainstream politicians taking a tougher line on immigration. Both strategies are flawed.
The roots of the BNP, like that of the SD, lie in the fascist swamp. In recent years, just like the SD, it has attempted to rebrand itself as a more respectable political party. This rebrading has not changed the fundamental nature of the organization. But it has helped transform the character of its support.
A core of hardline racist bigots continues to support the BNP. But the bigots have been joined by a swathe of new supporters whose hostility towards immigrants, minorities and Muslims is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity. Many are traditional Labour Party members who now feel abandoned by an organization that has cut links with its working class constituency. Even more than the rest of the population, they appear dissatisfied with their lives, anxious about the future, distrustful of any figure of authority.
Much the same seems to be true in Sweden. The crisis of social democracy has opened up new political space. SD supporters appear largely young, male, working class, unemployed or trade union members, drawn to the party by disenchantment with social democracy, fear of austerity, and a sense of being politically disenfranchised. In Sweden, as in Britain, such fear and insecurity often expresses itself through anti-immigrant sentiment.
The hardline racists that support the SD or the BNP are likely to remain hardline racists. Neither fact nor reason will change their minds. The wider support that now surrounds such organizations is different. We need to engage with them and their concerns and not simply dismiss them as racists. Taking the concerns of such voters seriously does not, however, mean pandering to their prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging them openly and robustly. Challenging the idea, for instance, that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Western societies are becoming ‘Islamized’.
Most mainstream politicians have, however, taken the opposite approach. Politicians of both right and left have responded to the advance of the far right not by challenging its prejudices but by appropriating its arguments. They have come to believe that the only way to stem support for groups such as the SD or the BNP is by promising to further cut back on immigration, to step up deportation of asylum seekers, and to curtail civil liberties. They have even appropriated the language. The former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown talked proudly of ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan first popularized in the 1980s by the National Front, one of the fascist forerunners of the BNP.
The pressure on the next Swedish government to pursue a similar strategy will be immense. In the short term it may boost the electoral fortunes of mainstream politicians. In the long term it can only deepen the belief that all Sweden’s social problems stem from too much immigration and so strengthen the hand of reactionary figures such as SD leader Jimmie Akesson.
What makes worse the promotion of anti-immigrant sentiment by mainstream politicians is that it has all too often been combined with a knee-jerk reaction to close down debate and deny far-right supporters basic democratic rights. From legislation against hate speech to attempts to ban far-right members from public sector jobs, the aim has been to exclude obnoxious ideas – and people – from the public sphere. The decision in Sweden not to broadcast a controversial SD election video, that contrasted the supposed treatment of white pensioners with that of burqa-clad immigrants, because it might promote ‘hatred’, follows in this pattern.
It is a strategy that is illiberal, illogical and counter-productive. Censoring ugly ideas will not make them go away, especially when the mainstream assiduously sponsors milder versions of those very same ideas. The bigotry will simply fester underground, feeding belief in a malign liberal conspiracy against the indigenous population, and allowing the likes of Jimmie Akesson to portray themselves as victims of an establishment lynch mob.
Just as fear and insecurity is driving many towards organizations such as the SD and the BNP, it is also shaping much of the mainstream reaction to those organizations, creating an incoherent response that vacillates between demonising the far right and pandering to its prejudices. ‘We know we need to target immigrants’, seems to be the argument, ‘but only respectable politicians should be allowed to do that, not those who belong to far-right organizations.’
That is not a judicious way of tackling the problem. In Britain, the BNP has suffered an electoral collapse. But anti-immigrant sentiment is probably stronger now than it was when the BNP tasted electoral success last year. The challenge in Sweden is to encourage a frank and honest public debate about immigration, multiculturalism and Islam while at the same promoting a robust defence of mass immigration, diversity and an open society.
Interesting article by Phil Dickens over on Property Is Theft!
On my other blog, I often write in defence of migrants against the repression of the state. Because of this, and my opposition to border controls, my opponents on the right often presume that I am in favour of multiculturalism and mass immigration. This is not the case.
I have already explained, in The case against borders, why defending the rights of migrants and opposing border control systems does not equal support for mass migration;
Such an argument assumes that those who advocate an end to the border regime simply want to scrap border controls and then let a chaotic free-for-all happen. This is, quite simply, not true at all.
Mass migration has absolutely nothing to do with how “tough” or “soft” border controls may be. Mass migration is a product of the unjust and often violent military and economic policies that displace people on a massive scale. On important example is the General Agreement on Trade and Tarrifs (GATT) that came about in the aftermath or World War II has essentially kept the colonial system alive through the establishment of “free trade areas” – essentially meaning that we have pried open the third world to our plunder. It’s something we’ve always done, but now there’s international legislation barring them from using protectionist tariffs to prop-up their economies. This restriction enacted specifically to prevent the third world using precisely the measures that the developed world used to become developed.
This disparity is the driving force behind mass migration, and responsibility for it lies primarily in western hands. The United States and Great Britain have spent half a century imposing market fundamentalism through unaccountable bodies like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and legislation like GATT. This is not to mention military interventions, funding, arming, and mobilising of terrorist groups, propping up third-world dictators and pumping aid to them in order to keep corporate profits on a high.
The only way to end mass migration, then, is to end precisely these injustices.
Mass migration is already happening, and border controls won’t alter that. They will only make life more miserable for said mass of migrants. The real answer lies in drastic social and economic changes.
But what about multiculturalism?
My viewpoint on this is something that both the right and the (non-anarchist) left have trouble getting their heads around.
In part, this is because anarchist opinions on cultural identity don’t often enter into discourse on the subject. The spectrum of opinion is presumed to go from liberal multiculturalism to ethnic nationalism, with traditional conservatism somewhere in the middle. I will attempt to rectify that in this post, offering an anarchist and radical libertarian stance on this issue.
The other reason that many have trouble getting their heads around where anarchists stand is a misunderstanding of what exactly multiculturalism is. Before I go on, this needs to be cleared up.
The descriptive and the normative
Like so many other words in sociopolitical discourse, “multiculturalism” has more than one meaning.
Many people equate it to diversity. An area, or workplace, or society that contains people of different cultural backgrounds is described as multicultural. This, we can call descriptive multiculturalism, and I have no quarrel with it. The vast majority, if not all, objections to multiculturalism in this sense come from a cultural separatist or ethno-nationalist point of view.
On the other hand, we have normative multiculturalism. That is, the social policies aimed at achieving or promoting such diversity.
In this sense, multiculturalism linked to cultural relativism. In the field of anthropology, this simply means that “study of a and/or any culture has to be done with a cold and neutral eye so that a particular culture can be understood at its own merits and not another culture’s.”
However, it was after World War II and with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the concept of cultural relativism expanded into the philosophical sphere. Thus, people saw cultural relativism as synonymous with moral relativism, the conclusion of this line of thought being that all cultures are both separate and equal, and that all value systems, however different, are equally valid.
In Mirror For Man, Clyde Kluckhohn explained the problems with this idea;
The concept of culture, like any other piece of knowledge, can be abused and misinterpreted. Some fear that the principle of cultural relativity will weaken morality. “If the Bugabuga do it why can’t we? It’s all relative anyway.” But this is exactly what cultural relativity does not mean.
The principle of cultural relativity does not mean that because the members of some savage tribe are allowed to behave in a certain way that this fact gives intellectual warrant for such behavior in all groups. Cultural relativity means, on the contrary, that the appropriateness of any positive or negative custom must be evaluated with regard to how this habit fits with other group habits. Having several wives makes economic sense among herders, not among hunters. While breeding a healthy scepticism as to the eternity of any value prized by a particular people, anthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes. Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behavior of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable.
In essence, anthropology may not be concerned with absolute standards, but it does lend itself to the search for universal ones.
Nonetheless, the concept that entirely different (even contradictory) values have equal merit within the context of separate cultures came to manifest itself in the philosophy and practice of multiculturalism. For example, one might say that it isn’t appropriate to judge the practice of polygamy in Islam by the Judeo-Christian values that declare it wrong. After all, the people who engage in the practice are from a different culture, within which it is acceptable.
For ease, I will refer to descriptive multiculturalism simply as “diversity.” As previously stated, I have no opposition to this. It is the normative definition of multiculturalism, above, that I am referring to in the rest of this post.
The problems with cultural boundaries and moral relativism
It will not have escaped the notice of more astute readers that the definitions of multiculturalism and of nationalism are startlingly similar. The main difference is that, in nationalism, the separate but equal cultures exist across the globe, divided from one another by the borders of the nation-state. In multiculturalism, the different but equally valid cultures can co-exist alongside each other within a single country.
I also noted this parallel on the page On race and nationality, where I offer a broad overview of the arguments against nationalism.
The problem with both ideas is that they presume a “culture” to be a static thing, a constant with easily defined borders. But, as blogger Stiffkitten points out, “cultures are not static and nor are they pure or uncontaminated. On the contrary, cultures intermingle with each other, learn from each other, and thereby remain progressive, vibrant and dynamic.” People do not fit into neatly-packaged cultural blocks. As such, “isn’t any definition of the boundaries of culture(s) impossible, as all cultures are porous and absorbent?”
It is this false presumption, of cultures being static and rigidly defined, that justifies the moral relativism required by multiculturalism. An example of this is the accusation of “Islamophobia” aimed at gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in the essay Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’ (PDF download).
According to authors Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, Tatchell has “claimed the role of liberator and expert about Muslim gays and lesbians” and is “part of the Islamophobia industry.”
As evidence, they cite Tatchell’s criticism of UAF;
UAF [Unite Against Fascism] would not invite as a speaker someone who said that black people are immoral, harmful and spread diseases, or who vilified Jewish people as offensive, immoral and repugnant. Why, then, are they giving a platform to a bigot who says these things about gays and lesbians?
This “comparison between ‘black’ and ‘Jewish people’ on the one hand and ‘gays and lesbians’ on the other hand,” apparently “serves to construct them as non-overlapping groups who are in competition with each other.”
This, aside from being a non-sequitur, is a deliberate attempt at distraction. It is not too hard, if one isn’t deliberately looking for racism, to imagine the term “black” to include all black people regardless of sexuality, whilst the reference to “gays and lesbians” is equally indiscriminate on the matter of race.
Indeed, then-chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain Iqbal Sacranie has said precisely those things about the LGBTQ community. With no regard to the race of those he views as “repugnant.” Not to mention, of course, the fact that the majority of queers who suffer as a result of the homophobia of Muslim groups will be Arab and Muslim. Just as it is most often white Christians who suffer the homophobia of preachers in America’s bible belt.
It is not just white men like Tatchell and myself who make this point. In the words of Iranian feminist Azal Nafisi,
“I very much resent it in the West when people – maybe with good intentions or from a progressive point of view – keep telling me, ‘It’s their culture’ … It’s like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches.”
Another example concerns the English Defence League (EDL), and their now-abandoned plans to march on the Tower Hamlets in London in opposition to a meeting organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS).
Soon after the march was announced, the statement “Against Fascism in All Its Colours” was circulated by an umbrella of activist groups. It contained the following paragraph;
As we confront the fascist thugs of EDL we in the Bengali and the Muslim community are being asked to stand side by side with Islamic Forum in Europe (IFE). This we refuse to do. The IFE does not represent the Muslim community in Tower Hamlets. They do not uphold the glorious tradition of Cable Street, Altab Ali and the anti racist movement. Under the patronage of an exclusivist Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia they are attempting to impose it amongst the Bengalis in this borough.
Just as the EDL takes the guise of being ordinary English citizen to hide their true identity of fronting the fascist BNP so do IFE act as the sole representatives of ordinary Muslims but are in fact operating under the direction of their parent organisation Jamaat-e- Islami in Bangladesh. It is Jamaat that was party to the massacre of innocent Bangladeshis in the 1971 war of independence that establish the independent state of Bangladesh. A war Tribunal has been established in Bangladesh to try leaders of Jaamat-e- Islam who are IFE’s real ideological and organisational gurus. In other words IFE represent a virulent form of political Islam that is fascistic in nature like Jaamat Islam and verges on the anti-Semitic and is very exclusivist and undemocratic.
In defending the people of Tower Hamlets and especially the ordinary Muslims we do not have to defend IFE. EDL is attacking the Muslims of this borough and we must protect them. IFE must not be allowed to use this occasion to propagate their very reactionary version of political Islam.
Fair enough, one might think. Certainly, it offered far more political context than the UAF statement which only mentioned the meeting as “a peace conference, organised by a Muslim charitable foundation and aimed at building understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.” However, this difference of perspective triggered a rush of comments on the Socialist Unity blog accusing the Whitechapel Anargist Group (WAG, who have been open in their criticism of IFE and the Islamic far-right) of being racist and in league with fascists.
In part, such absurdities can boil down to a narrowness of perspective, and being unwilling to see beyond the black and white. But within the ideology of multiculturalism such a condition is systemic. It cannot be otherwise when you begin with the presumption that entirely different and opposing value systems are equal.
If multiculturalism is unpalatable, then, what is the alternative?
Polyculturalism and moral universalism
A rejection of multiculturalism, in its normative form, does not imply a rejection of diversity. In fact, going beyond the limited notion of “culture” which classifies people almost as one would insects, we can recognise a diversity that does not rample upon individuality and personal freedom.
In Revolutionizing Culture, Justin Podur makes this point in relation to the idea of “polyculturalism;
“Multiculturalism focuses too much on “cultures” having autonomy, resources, and so on. I would say a polycultural outlook puts the focus on people and on whole societies. Polyculturalism recognizes that a single person holds multiple identities, multiple allegiances and affinities. We speak different cultural ‘languages’, and we can change. And to go from the individual to the society, polyculturalism recognizes that cultures overlap, they change, they evolve over time. They cross-fertilize, and all societies are in a permanent state of flux, with all kinds of often very creative exchanges and interactions happening.
So if a multiculturalist says that a society should allow all cultures to develop autonomously, a polyculturalist says fine. But the “wider society” has a culture of its own, and that culture is one that everyone would have to relate to. It is in this shared space where people of different cultures interact that the basis for solidarity can be built. So in addition to having cultural autonomy, it would be important that the shared space be representative of everyone, and be based on things that are universal (and I believe there are some universals). No one is going to live sealed off in a single culture. There is just no such thing -and there probably never was.
Likewise if a nationalist says that you should owe your primary loyalty and cultural affiliation to the nation, a polyculturalist says no, there are many loyalties and affiliations, that overlap and merge and change.”
We can still, as multiculturalists do, recognise “that cultures, modes of communication and expression and group identification other than the dominant one are worthy and deserve a certain autonomy.” But this is no justification for the bigotries and injustices that may still exist in certain cultures. Nor does it define people according to tick-box idea.
It is “integration without assimilation” and “autonomy without separation.” Unlike multiculturalism, moral relativism is not a requirement. In fact, it works well in tandem with moral universalism.
This is the simplest of ideas and yet the most often overlooked. Too many people think that we either allow people to hold to distinct cultural identities or we have a central value system. Diversity is placed in opposition to “one law for all.” But, of course, there is no reason that we can’t uphold basic, universal values whilst allowing people to pray, dress, talk, or cohabit differently.
And what are those basic, universal values? In essence, freedom and equality. The freedom to live without coercion or violence, as long as you don’t impose the same upon others, and to do so without others having an artificial advantage over you, or you over them.
In Podur’s words, “there is a constant tension in polyculturalism, between autonomy and solidarity, between trying to ensure a shared space is really representative and realizing that the boundaries between the things that are represented are fluid and overlapping.” With a more authoritarian or discriminatory set of universals, it becomes impossible to maintain the balance. One side of the equation will override the other, and we return to either multiculturalism or nationalism and their inherent problems.
If we want an alternative to multiculturalism, then, there is only one choice. The answer, in short, is anarchist communism.