In remarks strikingly similar to Tony Blair's “macho” speeches, David Cameron said recently that Muslims living in the West must abide by western “values” of tolerance, free speech and respect for women's rights.
From time to time in Britain, a cry goes up that multiculturalism has failed. The debate then quickly, almost seamlessly, turns to the problem of “integrating” the Muslim community with the wider British society and — its implied consequence — the rise of “Muslim extremism.” Once again, like the proverbial Groundhog Day, we are in that familiar territory after Prime Minister David Cameron recently used a speech at an international security conference in Munich to declare that the time had come to bury “state multiculturalism.” It had, he contended, encouraged “different cultures to live separate lives” with “segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.”
Mr. Cameron then went on to conflate the supposed failings of multiculturalism with the issue of radicalisation of Muslims (always the elephant in the room whenever Britain's social ills are discussed), which he blamed on a policy of “hands-off tolerance.”
Calling for a more “muscular” defence of western values (remarks that one commentator termed the “politics of body-building” rather than social cohesion), the Prime Minister said: “Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.”
From this point on, Mr. Cameron's speech slipped, as such debates invariably do, into a not-so-veiled attack on Muslim behaviour. In remarks that were strikingly similar to his Labour predecessor Tony Blair's “macho” speeches in the wake of 9/11 and the July 7, 2005 London bombings, he made clear that Muslims living in the West must abide by western “values” of tolerance, free speech and respect for women's rights.
He further proposed an official boycott of separatist Muslim groups, urging Ministers to refuse to share platforms or engage with them. They should also be denied access to public money, he suggested, alluding to the Labour government's policy of wooing groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain with funds.
“Let's properly judge these organisations: Do they believe in universal human rights — including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask. Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organisations,” he said.
Mr. Cameron took care to make a distinction between the religion of Islam and the political ideology of Islamist extremism, saying it was wrong to link strong religious faith with radicalism. But the alarmist tone of his speech, urging Europe “to wake up to what is happening in our countries,” left many (and not just Muslims) uncomfortable. While it is generally agreed that there is perhaps a need to promote a sense of wider collective national identity, critics say Mr. Cameron's attempt to link terrorism with the issue of Muslim integration risks fuelling Islamophobia and reigniting the post-9/11 rows over Islam.
There have also been questions about the timings of his remarks, which coincided with an aggressive march in the predominantly Muslim town of Luton against the “Islamisation of Britain” by the far-right English Defence League (EDL). Anti-fascist activists have accused him of “writing propaganda” for the EDL while a spokesperson of the Muslim Council of Britain, one of the groups Mr. Cameron was thought to have in mind when he called for self-appointed “gatekeepers” of the Muslim community to be shunned, said: “Again it seems the Muslim community is being treated as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
Even independent liberal observers, who acknowledge that there is downside to laissez faire multiculturalism, believe that Mr. Cameron was wrong to link it with security and counter-terrorism. “We are all for an ‘active, muscular liberalism,' and accept it can require uncomfortable choices. But David Cameron was wrong to link it with the fight against terrorism,” commented The Independent editorially describing this part of his speech as “worse than naïve” and “counter-productive.”
“By linking Islamist terrorism with the issue of integrating Muslims, he managed to suggest that Muslims are a threat,” it said, arguing that his remarks showed “muddled thinking” over why young people turned to political violence.
There is a view that Mr. Cameron 's speech reflected a growing backlash against multiculturalism — and anxiety about Islam — across Europe with European leaders jostling with one another to push a populist “integrationist” agenda in the name of “defending” western values and fighting terror. Last autumn, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparked a polarising debate when she said multiculturalism in her country had “utterly failed” to integrate its four million Muslims. Similar debates are going on in France and Italy — and in a more virulent form in Austria, Denmark and other European countries.
Madeleine Bunting, a leading British commentator on race and religion, said it was “disturbing” that Mr. Cameron should want to associate himself with such a “hysterical and extremely unpleasant” debate. “What kind of ambition and projection on the European stage prompted Cameron to deliver what is essentially a speech aimed at a U.K. audience? [The finer details of which Muslim organisation to work with can hardly be expected to interest a European security conference.] It could get very nasty if Cameron is jostling with [French President] Sarkozy and Merkel to establish his credentials to articulate European anxiety about Islam,'' she wrote in The Guardian.
Mr. Cameron has also been accused of “hypocrisy” by calling for greater integration while his government is actually promoting schools run by often insular faith groups.
“This Government is enthusiastically funding schools for separatists — from snooty white middle classes to… purist Hindus …, evangelical Christians and introverted, uncompromising Muslims. How does that foster integration?” asked The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
Mr. Cameron, she said, had been “selective” in singling out Muslims for criticism. “Many of us Muslims would be with David Cameron if his speech hadn't shown to be selective, hypocritical, calculating and woefully indifferent to Muslim victims of relentless racism and chauvinism,” she said.
Professor Tariq Modood, a Muslim scholar and director of the Centre for Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, made the same point more subtly saying integration was not one-way traffic. Integration must be about promoting a relationship of “equal respect” with the locals. “This means challenging racism and Islamophobia and so on, not by denying that there are groups in society but by developing positive group identities and adapting customs and institutions that enable that,” he wrote in an article.
Mr. Cameron's speech is also said to reveal tensions within the Tory party over the so-called “Muslim question.” A few weeks ago, party chairperson and peer Sayeeda Warsi — the first Muslim woman ever to sit in the British Cabinet — upset many of her colleagues when she complained that Islamophobia in Britain had “passed the dinner table test” deploying the colourful language used by a previous Tory party chairman, Norman Tebbit, who wanted Asian immigrants subjected to a “cricket loyalty test.” She claimed that prejudice against Muslims had become “socially acceptable” and was regarded by many Britons as something “normal.”
Her remarks infuriated the Tories with some calling her a “fifth columnist” and “closet fundamentalist.” Mr. Cameron, who has heavily promoted her as the Muslim face of his government and symbol of his efforts to modernise the Tory party and make it more inclusive, was said to have been livid.
But, to put her comments in context, Baroness Warsi is not the “typical” disgruntled British Muslim and has, in fact, been criticised by many in her own community for supping with right-wing Tories. She has attacked “self-appointed [Muslim] religious leaders' — men, you know, in beards,” and has been pelted with eggs for not being a “proper Muslim.” As one left-wing commentator put it, “Anyone who has taken on both [the racist] BNP and the imams who wanted her to veil up is an interesting figure.”
There is speculation that her outburst might have been prompted by anger after Mr. Cameron banned her from attending a major Islamic conference on grounds that some of the participants had extremist views and the presence of a Muslim Minister would lend them legitimacy. Whatever her motives, Baroness Warsi was echoing a commonly held view among large sections of British Muslims that they are a “soft” target of political attacks and Mr. Cameron's Munich speech would only fuel that view.
In a telling comment, meanwhile, leader of France's Far Right National Front Marie Le Pen “congratulated” Mr. Cameron on his speech and said it was “indisputable” that the British Prime Minister was moving his party closer to her own organisation's (xenophobic) views on multiculturalism. “It is exactly this type of statement that has barred us from public life for 30 years,” she told The Financial Times.
An embarrassed Tory party said Ms Le Pen “clearly failed to understand the Prime Minister's speech.”