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27 January 2011

The muddled response to multiculturalism

There is a slippery slope between deciding who is moderate enough to be politically active, and tota

By Jonathan Githens-Mazer

The furore that engulfed Baroness Warsi’s speech on Islamophobia last week laid bare the muddle in British political thinking about the role of faith, culture and political debate. Those on the Tory right declared that Baroness Warsi was a lightweight, overstepping the mark in her position as chairman of the Conservative Party, and some, such as Lord Tebbit, suggested that she was out of touch with “right thinking” on the issue of Islam and extremism. Equally, it posed a dilemma for the left, with commentators such as the Guardian‘s own Polly Toynbee insisting that Islamophobia not be proposed a shield to protect British Muslims from criticism of behaviour or ideas anchored in religious belief.

But whereas Tebbit, at one extreme, sees Warsi’s speech as an explicit attack on the Christian values of Britain, and Toynbee, at the other, argues that there are parallel pitfalls in an alliance between the British left and those engaged in Islamically inspired political behaviours and the historical relationship with communism, both positions are ultimately the same.

They betray a concern that politically active and engaged Muslims pose a specific and unique problem for British social values and political behaviour because Muslim communities are either: 1) not adequately held to account for either attacks on Christian Britain, or 2) that shared concerns over US foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hide dangers for the left in working with Islamically inspired British political activists.

This way of thinking is now increasingly couched as a justification to proclaim that politics organised along ethnic, cultural or religious lines are a failed and passé ideal. Some Tories, such as Michael Gove and George Osborne, push a line that these multicultural politics are directly related to a failure in social cohesion and represent a threat to British security and stability. In fact, there is some speculation that this position will inform the content of speech to be delivered soon by Prime Minister David Cameron on the issues of security and extremism.

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But this isn’t just the position of the right. At a recent event organised by Progress, a whole evening was dedicated to discussion about whether Labour should ever engage with “Islamists” (which debaters admit was a term never even defined in the debate) – or whether doing so cut against the fundamental grain of Labour itself.

Whose definition?

What’s striking about these debates is the utopian sterility of a position that deigns to dictate to political participants how they may or may not participate in politics in a free and open British democratic system. This is not only an explicit rejection of the “big society”, it is a fundamental admission of a lack of faith in British democracy.

The very idea that parties themselves, or those with vested interests in the default position of current party politics, think that they have a unique right to decide which groups may or may not organise themselves within existing political frameworks is a solipsism trotted out by those who want to protect their own positions within the political order. In fact, this is a well-used expression of an older colonialism – diktats from political elites about how religious, ethnic and racial minorities should act to be more “British”, and a complete lack of listening or equal exchange between participants from a range of perspectives who all have a vested interest in making politics in Westminster and beyond work.

It is an incredibly efficient means by which to undermine and stifle meaningful political debate and prevent real political evolution and engagement.

Part of the reason that these positions against multiculturalism are so disingenuous is that they are predicated on a belief that there is only one privileged truth in all political debate and engagement – and that this truth belongs to those who hold political power, not just in terms of seats in Westminster, but in terms of control of the entire political system. It lays bare a fundamental mistrust of robust and tested political and institutional processes, both in parties and in the state, which ensure that politics reflects, to some tangible extent, the will of those who are mobilised to take part in the political process.

If someone in a party or in the political process doesn’t like a particular voice, then by all means mobilise to confront it, engage it and debate it, but don’t attempt to silence it – or have those who cite the specificity of Islam’s threat to Britain lost all faith in the institutions of the state and its electorate? Do they really believe that special measures are now necessary to be “protect” the state from itself? Sayeeda Warsi’s speech ultimately spoke directly to this point – that there is slippery slope between elite definitions of who is and isn’t moderate enough to be politically active, and totalitarianism.

All of the above is not to argue that there are not many important debates to be had about a transformed Britain; transformed by immigration, modernity, economic developments and social change, among a huge variety of factors. For better or worse, Britain today is not as it was 60 years ago. There are many points to be developed, worked out, understood in terms of what contemporary politics should be about – how they should be argued – what roles there are for identities in a shifting and dynamic political environment. However, we should be very aware that those proclaiming the death of multiculturalism may have more than an altruistic commitment to British society in their rationales.

Jonathan Githens-Mazer is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter.