What exactly was the purpose of David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism, integration and Islamic terrorism in Munich? Fellow European leaders like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy hardly needed to be warned that terrorism is a home-grown phenomenon as well as an international threat. His plain intention to bully Muslim organisations that receive public funds into more proactive efforts to combat ‘extremism’ is small beer, transcended by the rhetoric about the failure of multiculturalism and the need for ‘muscular liberalism’ (a phrase with unfortunate overtones that can scarcely have escaped the minds of those advising him).
So is the speech, as the Guardian seemed to suggest yesterday, dog whistle politics and a shifty return to the days of Thatcher and Howard? It is certainly a remarkably ignorant and even toxic speech, combining as it does the strong demand for the Muslim communities to integrate and accept British ‘values’ and the notion that they are too tolerant of ‘extremism’, thus increasing the threat of terrorism in the UK.
It always angers me when politicians and commentators sound off about the ‘Muslim community’ as though it is a single monolithic block rather than a minority collection of very diverse minorities, unified only in a religious belief that they practice and interpret in quite different ways. What the government gets out of its deal, explicit or implicit, with the Muslim bodies it funds, I do not know. But I see here shades of the clumsy handling of relations with Muslim organisations that was one of the failings of the Blair government’s attempts to dragoon them into combating terrorism.
Multiculturalism is both succeeding and failing, and so is Cameron’s ‘state’ multiculturism. There is no doubt that Britain is far more tolerant of diversity than it was in recent memory. In east London, for example, there is a genuine warmth as well as tolerance (though only intellectuals use the term) between ethnic groups and cultures that was unimaginable when I lived there in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then, the National Front was an ugly racist presence. Yet Islamophobia is an equally ugly presence in British society today, with roots that go back to before 7/7, though the bombings made it worse. Somali mothers were assaulted taking their children to school in Bristol, arson and vandalism of mosques persists, there are physical and verbal attacks on individuals, the English Defence League and BNP spread violence and hate directed specifically at Muslims.
Cameron entirely failed to take this reality into account. The EDL march in Luton was simply a little, local difficulty by comparison with his grand national design. Yet this is a symptom of a far wider dissonance in a nation that treasures the civil and political rights that Cameron espoused in Munich, yet which excoriated them when they took the form of the Human Rights Act, and praise these values while suggesting that somehow the Muslim community doesn’t share them. Yet all the evidence shows that the great majority of Muslims in the UK not only share these values, but also that they live by values that they share with most other religious faiths and that I, an atheist, also share.
The other realities that Cameron refused to take into account were that Muslims live disproportionately in the most deprived urban areas, in poor housing, have been poorly educated, and are discriminated against in employment even when they have first-class qualifications. Add to these structural disadvantages all the manifestations of Islamophobia and it is natural for many of them, feeling victimised, disconnected and separated, to take refuge in inward-looking communities.
It is possible to overstate this process. In Democratic Audit’s research for the report, The Rules of the Game: Terrorism, Community and Human Rights, we found many examples of outgoing practice, especially among the young, and significant aspirations, for example among many in the inner city, to move out to more affluent suburban areas. The idea that multiculturalism fosters ‘self-segregation’ is yet another of the political myths that social studies show to be wrong. It is poverty, racism and discrimination that drive most Muslims into clusters and communities in the inner city.
The difference between Cameron and Baroness Warsi on the Muslim question is striking. She knows what she is talking about. He doesn’t. I read somewhere that he spoke out after having had some kind of consultative seminar. God know who the ignoramuses were who advised him. But the unmistakable conclusion seems to be that we have a Prime Minister who is out of touch with the reality of the lives of his subjects – I use the term advisedly – in almost every section of society except for the rich and privileged.