I don’t often agree with Baronness Warsi: our politics are too different in almost every respect; but, credit where it is due, she gave a brave speech some weeks ago denouncing how prejudice against Muslims had passed the dinner table test and become acceptable in a way other prejudices are not.
So it is disappointing that the Prime Minster’s speech to a security conference in Munich today will further legitimise such prejudices by its illogical, incoherent and contradictory attempt to define “acceptable” and “unacceptable” Muslims not according to their propensity to use violent and criminal means to achieve their political ends, but according to some calculus of cultural proximity or otherwise to some putative (and mythical) set of ‘British’ values – in other words, according to how culturally similar or different ‘they’ are from ‘us’.
As with much else, Cameron’s claim that this marks a radical departure from the previous government’s ‘fear and muddled thinking by backing a state-sponsored form of multiculturalism,’ is a rhetorical ruse which obscures the reality of continuity, for the hallmarks of the previous government’s approach were to blame multiculturalism for creating ‘segregated communities’ that did not share ‘British values’ of liberalism, tolerance and equality etc., etc. They too sought to define ‘moderate’ (good, acceptable) versus ‘extremist’ (bad, unacceptable) Muslims using ‘British values’ and other nebulous terms such as ‘way of life’ as yardsticks. If this were university assignment Cameron would be hauled up for plagiarism.
So here we go again, extending the Muslim ‘threat’ beyond the small, lunatic fringe of jihadis and their cheerleaders, but the trouble is this raises the problem of definition and distinction, of where to draw the line between those Muslims deemed acceptable and those who are not – problems which multiply rapidly once you begin to peer through the many holes in the argument.
According to the Prime Minister, one such ‘British value’ is equality between the sexes – well, I hope it is, but it is unfortunate that the Prime Minister seems to have forgotten that those who don’t hold this value are not confined to ‘extremist’ Muslim organizations or even Muslims in general; a couple of weeks ago two Sky Sports presenters were rightly sacked for being exposed as misogynists, but their Britishness is surely not in question. What about the Britishness of all those men – white, black, brown, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh…whatever – who share the casual sexism that holds women inferior because they don’t know the offside rule, or can’t put up shelves, or drive properly or…whatever? And Orthodox Jews? Come to think of it, what about those diehards in the Chruch of England still holding out against the ordination of women bishops?
And what of sexuality? Again, I wish that acceptance of the equality of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered persons were indeed a ‘British’ value, but I find this hard to square with the casual homophobia so often expressed in so many walks of life, and so ingrained as to be considered unremarkable enough when routinely articulated in The Daily Mail and others of that ilk (remember Stephen Gately?). Are Catholics deemed to be inadequately integrated because of the Vatican’s official line on homosexuality – and should the government not, therefore, ‘refuse to share a platform or do business with’ it? And what of the bed-and-breakfast owners who were found to have broken British law by not offering a double room to a gay couple – are they suspected of aiding and abetting ‘extremism’?
As for the ‘liberal values’ that the Prime Minister takes for granted as being inherently British – what do the social conservatives in his own party think of that?Presumably this means they are not properly ‘integrated’. They can’t be too happy at being excluded from their own nation.
And finally (for now), there’s ‘democracy’. It’s not only revolutionary socialists who fall foul of this one; anyone who sincerely believes in monarchy or oligarchy as better systems of government, for example, must, by this logic, surely be classified as an ‘extremist’ ideologue.
Cameron suggests that ‘when a white person holds objectionable views – racism for example – we rightly condemn them,’ and seems to be arguing that an ‘inverse racism’ applies whereby Muslims are not held to the same standard. He is right; Muslims are not held to the same standard – but not in the way he thinks. Whilst Muslims are always having to condemn extremists – it is the first thing they are expected to do whenever a Muslim terrorism story emerges, precisely because if they didn’t they would be accused of not confronting extremism! – people at major sporting events up and down the country, such as football matches, are never held to account for not confronting the racist chants and slogans broadcast by a small section of the crowd.
Moreover, as far as I know, no ‘white’ person has ever felt compelled to ‘apologise’ on behalf of their ethnicity or religion for the antics of the English Defence League or the BNP; the RSPCA does not have to aplogise for the behaviour of animal rights extremists; whereas most Muslims I know are fed up with having to do this every time another ‘extremism’ story appears. It’s got nothing to do with them; they don’t agree with it, so why are they held ‘responsible’ for it? On the other hand, if Baronness Warsi is right (and I think she is), then it is currently becoming more and more acceptable to tolerate anti-Muslim prejudice: are dinner-party guests across the country therefore guilty of failing to confront ‘extremism’?
Any intelligent reader can see where all this is leading: it is impossible to establish the ‘Britishness’ of any group or individual in society using ‘values’ as the scale by which to judge them. It is therefore impossible to draw the line between any group in society using this criteria (who is more ‘British’ than whom?), never mind those deemed ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’. By that token when such an argument is explicitly applied to a particular group – Muslims, in this instance – it is not difficult to see why they feel they are being singled out as a ‘problem’. And since many Muslims (like many non-Muslims) hold sexist, racist or homophobic views, it is difficult to avoid extending the ‘problem’ beyond particular groups and individuals to Muslims generally, despite Cameron’s (correct) caveat that there is a clear distinction betwen ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’.
Thus, far from being ‘pitch-perfect’ as Nick Cohen suggests, Cameron’s speech risks both alienating Muslim communities, who already feel excluded from political discourse, and legitimising the arguments of groups such as the EDL and BNP. I can’t imagine the Prime Minister intended such a double whammy.
Of course, the government can choose whom it wishes to deal with, and which organisations are worthy of funding and which are not; that is their prerogative. But because it is the government of all British citizens, regardless of their views and values, it must clearly define the criteria and rationale for doing so; this is clearly not apparent in the government’s current approach. Instead, it should focus its ‘anti-extremism’ strategy on those who commit acts of criminality and violence, and those who incite them and preach hatred against others – all of them, not just the Muslims.