I have long been a critic of multiculturalism. And I have debated the issue with Tariq Modood more times than I care remember, including on Start the Week, Newsnight Review, and at public meetings in London, Bristol, Manchester and countless other places. So when The Moral Maze decided this week to debate multiculturalism, in the wake of David Cameron’s speech, and invited Modood to be one of the witnesses, it seemed inevitable that I would be grilling him.
If only life were so simple. As it turned out, I ended up on the ostensibly pro-multiculturalism side, grilling not Modood but Douglas Murray, the self-described ‘neo-conservative’, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, and himself an acerbic critic of multiculturalism.
Why? Not because I have suddenly converted to the dark side. Partly, it was because of the way that The Moral Maze works. The panelists have to take sides, and on a complex issue, such as that of multiculturalism, you might, as a panelist, end up in a strange place. The ‘taking sides’ aspect of The Moral Maze is both its strength and a potential weakness. By polarizing the debate, it forces you to think through the logic of moral arguments and to put pressure on the witnesses. In that way it can clarify the debate. But ocassionally it can also obscure the complexities and nuances inherent in any debate (though I don’t think that was the case this time).
The multiculturalism debate is a complex one. I am unreservedly opposed to multicultural policies. But the debate about multiculturalism often conflates two issues: the idea of diversity as lived experience and that of multiculturalism as a set of policies to manage such diversity:
The experience of living in a society transformed by mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is positive. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
This 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.
Douglas Murray is a classic example of someone who sees the problem as mass immigration, and in particular Muslim immigration. In a speech to the Pim Fortuyn memorial conference in Holland, Murray argued that Europe had to
turn around the demographic time-bomb which will soon see a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities. It has to. All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop… Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition.
Not only must Europe ban any more Muslims from entering its borders, but it should also deprive those already here of basic citizenship rights. In a remarkable passage in that same speech, Murray suggested that:
Muslims in Europe who for any reason take part in, plot, assist or condone violence against the West… must be forcibly deported back to their place of origin… Where a person was born in the West, they should be deported to the country of origin of their parent or grandparent.
In other words Muslims who are born in Europe, and are thereby citizens, should be deprived of basic rights of citizenship that non-Muslims would automatically possess. Murray does not (and would not) demand that a Christian, say, born in Britain who had committed a terrorist act should be deported to the country of origin of his or her parents or grandparents. But, he insists, a Muslim should. A British citizen who happens to be Muslim is not, in his eyes, truly a citizen of this country, but remains simply defined by his faith and really belongs to the country in which his forefathers lived. (Unfortunately the transcript of the speech is, as far as I can see, no longer online.)
Does all this not suggest, I asked Murray on The Moral Maze, that his primary target is not multiculturalism but Muslims? Why does he not see Muslims as citizens? And why does he seek to differentiate between people by the ethnic and faith box to which they belong? The problem with multiculturalism is that it trends to treat people, especially from minority communities, not as citizens, but as members of ethnic or faith groups. For all his criticism of multiculturalism, that’s exactly how Murray himself views immigrants, and especially Muslims.
Unfortunately Murray seemed less interested in answering my questions than in ranting about my far left past (and, bizarrely, in suggesting that I had a vendetta against him because he had once given me a poor book review; if he thinks that was a poor review, he should see some of the ones I have penned). So there was nothing illuminating about the exchange, apart from Murray’s refusal to engage.
Murray’s view of Islam derives in large part from the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. And the most deep-set of these would be between the Christian West and the Islamic East, which would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The West would need vigorously to defend its values and beliefs against Islamic assault.
What is striking about multiculturalism and the clash of civilizations thesis is how much the two approaches 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. For at the heart of both arguments is a confusion of peoples and values. Multiculturalists claim that the presence in a society of a diversity of peoples limits the possibility of common values. Clash of civilization warriors insist that such values are impossible within an ethnically diverse society. Neither is right.
And that is because both assume that minority communities are homogenous wholes whose members will forever be attached to the cultures, faiths, beliefs and values of their forebears. Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia? Multiculturalists and the clash of civilization warriors have different views about the nature of Islam. Both, however, look upon Muslims as constituting a distinct population, defined almost solely by its faith, and whose difference must dictate the way that wider society deals with it. In viewing cultural differences in this fashion, both sides have been led to betray basic liberal principles.
Multicultural policies have helped erode freedom of speech and undermine the most progressive movements within minority communities. Elected politicians have abandoned their responsibility for engaging directly with minority communities, subcontracting out that responsibility instead to so-called community leaders. In the process they have allowed the most conservative elements to promote themselves as the true representatives of their communities.
The clash of civilization thesis, too, has signaled an abandonment of basic liberal values. It is often presented as a defence of Enlightenment values. Yet, in the hands of clash of civilizations warriors, the Enlightenment often seems less like a set of values through which to create a progressive politics than a myth by which to define the West. And once the Enlightenment becomes a weapon in the clash of civilizations rather than in the battle to define the values and attitudes necessary to advance political rights and social justice, once it becomes a measure as much of tribal attachment as of progressive politics, then everything from torture to collective punishment becomes permissible, and the pursuit of Enlightenment itself becomes a source of de-Enlightenment.
‘For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow?’ Salman Rushdie asked in The Satanic Verses about his two anti-heroes, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta. One might ask the same question about the multiculturalist argument and the clash of civilization thesis. These two responses to both fatwa and jihad appear as conjoined opposites, each as the other’s shadow, each betraying fundamental liberal principles.
One abandons the basic Enlightenment idea of universal values, suggesting instead that we should accept that every society is a collection of disparate communities and that social harmony requires greater censorship and less freedom. The other turns belief in the Enlightenment into a tribal affair: Enlightenment values are good because they are ours, and we should militantly defend our values and lifestyles, even to the extent of denying such values and lifestyles to others. Or, as Rushdie says about Saladin and Gibreel, ‘One seeking to transform into the foreignness he admires, the other seeking contemptuously to transform.’
That’s why we need to challenge both the Saladin Chamchas and the Gibreel Farishtas of the contemporary debate about multiculturalism, diversity, identity and Islam. And that’s how I ended up on The Moral Maze questioning Douglas Murray rather than Tariq Modood. Both, in my view, are wrong.