Sunday, 10 November 2013

Wrath of the Multiculturalists

Tommy Robinson and the End of the EDL

Maajid Nawaz, Head of counter-extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation (left) and
Tommy Robinson, former head of the English Defence League (right) 
On October 8, Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, then-leaders of the English Defence League (EDL), announced that they were leaving the organisation they had founded to work with the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank founded by former members of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Anti-racist and self-styled anti-fascist organisations, bloggers and commentators committed to combatting racism and what they call 'Islamophobia' ought to have been delighted. They had expended vast amounts of time and keystrokes warning us all that the EDL posed as grave a threat to democracy, social cohesion and human rights as that posed by Islamic fundamentalism.

Now, suddenly, this menace was no more - decapitated at a stroke. Its headless trunk may stagger around for a while but - since the EDL was a street movement as opposed to an organised party - fragmentation, faction-fighting, dwindling commitment and collapse now look likely. And here was its former leadership sitting at a table with exactly the kind of moderate Muslims we are always being told fundamentalists and jihadis do not represent: democrats; secularists; universalists - defenders of what, for convenience, are often referred to as 'Western' values.

But the reaction on much of the left has not been one of delight, but one of scorn and cynicism. Robinson, hitherto derided as an ignorant, racist ex-con and brainless neo-fascist ideologue has been recast as a mendacious strategist who has duped the gullible Quilliam Foundation into providing him with a legitimate platform. In a piece entitled "Don't be fooled by Tommy Robinson's political sleight-of-hand", The Guardian's Alex Andreou explained events to his readership as follows:
There is a pattern of behaviour here. Robinson is doing what leaders of far-right movements have always done and continue to do. Like shyster businessmen, they set up one firm that serves their goals, then declare it insolvent and set up another one with a different name – each time creaming the profit of press coverage and a small shift of the political landscape.
Four days previously, in the same paper, academic Matthew Goodwin had described Robinson and Carroll's resignation as:
...disingenuous nonsense, backed up by the counter-extremism thinktank the Quilliam Foundation, itself founded by ex-extremists who have seen the light and – to be blunt – should know better.
To Goodwin's jaundiced eye, the whole thing amounted to nothing more than a contemptible exercise in mutual self-promotion.

Goodwin and Andreou's opinions were hardly eccentric. In the hours, days and weeks following Quilliam and Robinson's announcement, social media was awash with the same bitter cynicism as those used to regarding Robinson and the EDL as a byword for working class racism tried to make sense of a rapidly changing political reality.

This response can be explained in large part by the difficulty the progressive left has always had accommodating Islamism and regressive cultural traditionalism within its complacent dogma of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is a much misunderstood and widely misused term. A recent survey revealed that 90% of UK citizens accept that Britain has become a multicultural country (page 22) and 70% affirm this is a positive development (page 21). The word is not, however, defined in the question. So it may be assumed that these responses are simply evidence that respondents are tolerant, broad-minded people who are, in the widest sense, receptive to and respectful of cultures alien to their own. The UK benefits culturally from migration in many ways, its influences making themselves felt in music, literature, fashion, design, cuisine, arts and crafts and so on, all of which add to the enrichment of British cultural life.

But multiculturalism, as a contested idea and as a state-sponsored policy, has a specific meaning and theoretical basis which goes much further than this. It demands that respect for all aspects of cultural difference be non-negotiable, and an embrace of this position sits uneasily with recent UK polling showing that 61% of respondents favour a ban on face-covering in public places. This demand for non-negotiable respect relies for its legitimacy on three a priori claims:
  • Firstly, that a person's culture is essential to their sense of identity; that is, their fundamental awareness of who they are as an individual and human being. Stigmatising minority cultural or religious beliefs, rites, traditions and practices is therefore directly analogous to racism.
  • Consequently, the failure to be sufficiently respectful of cultural difference constitutes oppression, causing minorities to internalise a sense of inferiority and backwardness if their traditions or beliefs are perceived in these terms. This has a catastrophic effect on self-esteem, aggravating cultural dissonance, and leading to alienation and self-hatred.
  • Thirdly, that the crimes committed during the West's colonial history oblige it to atone by accommodating minority cultures with tolerance and humility. It is not for Westerners to judge which aspects of other cultures are or are not permissible. To presume to do so is to be convicted of 'cultural supremacism', and of helping to 'other' people who are already marginalised.
This has led to the rise of what theorist Charles Taylor described, in an influential essay entitled The Politics of Recognition, as "the politics of difference" at the expense of an egalitarian "politics of equal dignity":
With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities; with the politics of difference, what we are asked to recognise is the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else. The idea is that it is precisely this distinctness that has been ignored, glossed over, assimilated to a dominant or majority identity. And this assimilation is the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity.
The paradox of multicultural theory is that it is supposedly grounded in a universalist belief that we owe equal respect to the the dignity of all people. But by tying what constitutes dignity to what makes people different as opposed to what makes them the same, this universalist foundation becomes a platform for cultural relativism, reactionary cultural nationalisms and inevitable demands for exceptionalism. As Taylor puts it:
Where the politics of universal dignity fought for forms of nondiscrimination that were quite “blind” to the ways in which citizens differ [i.e: ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation] the politics of difference often redefines nondiscrimination as requiring that we make these distinctions the basis of differential treatment.
So, for example, exceptions are made to otherwise universally applicable animal welfare laws so as to accommodate less humane methods of slaughter compatible with Islamic and Jewish religious traditions. And respect for the equal rights of women becomes subordinated to respect for cultural traditions that do not recognise - indeed, which are a direct affront to - gender equality.

Not one of the three claims upon which this state of affairs has been constructed stands up to close scrutiny. Nevertheless, uncritically accepted and taken together, they act as a closed, self-fortifying system: a politics of difference (ie: multiculturalism) is necessary to combat indigenous ethnocentricity, intolerance and racism; ergo, criticism of and resistance to multiculturalism is evidence of intolerance and racism reinforcing the need for....well, more multiculturalism.

It is never countenanced that a divisive politics of difference might exacerbate rather than mollify the marginalisation of minority communities. Rather, those who look askance at the inequities of sharia councils, the growing prevalence of regressive religious dress codes and so on stand accused of a failure of empathy and an irrational fear of the 'other', both of which, it is alleged, constitute an intolerable assault on the very core of an individual's sense of self-awareness and self-worth.

The EDL confirms the multiculturalist's view that, beneath its politically correct veneer, the West remains deeply hostile to foreigners. Nothing that Tommy Robinson has to say on the subject of Islamic custom, belief or tradition can possibly have any validity since any and all criticisms are simply a reflection of his own failure of understanding. Instead, it is claimed, his views make him the working class poster-child for a supposed pandemic of 'Islamophobia' presently sweeping the nation and terrorizing Muslims - an entrenched intolerance to difference that shames Western democracies and makes a mockery of the their claims to liberalism and accommodation.

But the EDL also functioned as a handy means of forcing those who criticise either Islam or point out the incoherences of multiculturalism to defend themselves against charges of racism.

When David Cameron spoke at the 2011 Munich Security Conference, he attacked multiculturalism (correctly) as inegalitarian and divisive. He argued (reasonably) that individuals and organisations purporting to represent minority communities be vetted to discover whether they upheld certain values such as a belief in secular democracy and the equality of women and so forth. The BCC reported the reaction of two Labour MPs as follows:
The Labour MP for Luton South, Gavin Shuker, asked if it was wise for Mr Cameron to make the speech on the same day the English Defence League staged a major protest in his constituency. There was further criticism from Labour's Sadiq Khan whose comments made in a Daily Mirror article sparked a row. The shadow justice secretary was reported as saying Mr Cameron was "writing propaganda material for the EDL".
Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan then took to the pages of the New Statesman to call Khan "brave" and to complain that the Labour front bench were "shabby" not to have supported him. Hasan described Cameron's criticisms of multiculturalism as "simplistic" and "inflammatory" and "Muslim-bashing".

Then, in an Oxford Union debate about Islam held a mere five days after Lee Rigby's barbaric murder in Woolwich by Islamist jihadis, Hasan addressed his debating opponent Anne Marie Waters, spokesperson for the secularist anti-Sharia campaign One Law For All, with the following:
I believe you're trying to stand for the Labour Party as MP in Brighton. Well, if you do and you make these comments [those made in her speech], I'm guessing you'll have the whip withdrawn from you. But, then again, UKIP's on the rise. They'll take you! The BNP! I'm sure they'll have something to say about your views!
Waters has since resigned from the Labour Party, citing Labour's support for "the racist and misogynistic arrangement known as multiculturalism" and the smearing of its critics among her reasons. This is a dismaying development, further confirming that the space available to principled opponents of the Islamic far-right on the left is vanishingly small.

I've already written at some length about the ways in which legitimate criticisms of Islamic faith and culture are misrepresented as bigotry in order to stigmatise and silence those making them (here and here), and about the cynical inflation of Islamophobia (here). What's remarkable is the degree to which those ideologically invested in the defence of multicultural dogma are prepared to wave away the empirical evidence contradicting what amounts to a faith-based position.

When the Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan published an article comprehensively debunking the hysterical claims of a "massive spike in anti-Muslim prejudice" in the wake the Woolwich atrocity, an academic named Dr. Chris Allen, "advisor to the government on anti-Muslim hate" and author of a book on the subject, responded with the following extraordinary claim:
Focusing solely on 'numbers' alone is a distraction. You cannot put a value on the damage done by prejudice, discrimination, bigotry and hate, quite irrespective of whether 'numbers' of incidents are on a rise or in decline. The fact that we know that ordinary people - in this case British Muslims - are continuing to be victims of discrimination and hate is what should be concerning us most. It's time to change the narrative, to move away from 'numbers' and focus on the harm, pain and suffering that is caused as a result of Islamophobia.
To hell, in other words, with inconvenient statistics - what is important is perception. Allen doesn't stop to consider that if the numbers (a term he consistently places in scare quotes) do not match the perception, then it may be the perception that needs changing.

This is no more rational an argument than that offered by a terrified conservative convinced, in the teeth of all available crime data, that we are living in a state of near lawlessness necessitating ever more authoritarian legislation - more prisons, tougher sentencing, new and more more draconian laws etc. Allen's is not an ernest assessment of the nature and threat of the far-right, but a blind and desperate defence of multicultural ideology.

In fact, no-one should have been surprised that a social model which rejects assimilation and champions separatism and cultural nationalism should produce a chauvinistic white working class variant like the EDL. Nor should they have been surprised to discover that white working class people would object to finding that their demands for what Taylor calls cultural and ethnocentric  "recognition" should be uniquely derided, while the demands of reactionaries of every other stripe were being indulged.

But all this does is expose the disingenuousness of the claim by multiculturalists that their precepts are, at root, universalist and egalitarian. The post-60s, post-socialist emergence of a post-modern, post-colonial identity politics saw the assembling of a new victimhood hierarchy on the left, and the white working class found themselves abruptly relegated to the bottom of the grievance heap.

But then, the relationship between the liberal left and the white working class, on whose behalf it traditionally presumed to speak, has long been in decline. As Nick Cohen argued in his polemic What's Left?, when the Left gave up on the prospect of a socialist utopia, it also gave up on the working class.

The white working class, for its part, regards the liberal left as remote, elitist, condescending and incapable of discussing issues in an honest and straightforward manner. Middle class liberals, meanwhile, have developed a tendency to regard the white working class as lazy, ignorant, reactionary, sexually promiscuous and bigoted; consumers of junk food and junk telly who cannot be expected to understand the nuances of modern political life nor trusted to vote in their own interests. Julie Burchill was right. They are the only group it is still seen as socially acceptable to openly scorn and denigrate.

For instance:

It's partly this kind of snobbery that has led to the widespread misreading of Tommy Robinson.

Consider this exchange between Tommy Robinson and Sarah Montague on Radio 4's Today programme in June:
Montague: But Mr. Robinson you haven't made clear how you would actually change things. As the laws currently stand, how would--
Robinson: I'd outlaw Sharia.
Montague: But--
Robinson: That's one thing. Straight away.
Montague: But Sharia isn't in place in this country.
Robinson: There's a hundred Sharia Law courts operating in this country. A hundred. And they're--
Montague: But you don't are not judged under Sharia Law--
Robinson: That doesn't matter. British women are. British Muslim women are.
The hypocrisy implied by Montague's reasoning - which objectively defends the right of Muslim men to systematically discriminate against Muslim women, so long as it doesn't affect her - ought to be evident to anyone not chained to the belief that all cultures are morally equal and all traditions equally valuable. Robinson has understood something that Montague has not and is quite prepared to complain about it because, unlike her, he doesn't give a damn for the politically correct niceties that dictate what constitutes acceptable debate in a multicultural society. 

Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the anti-extremist think-tank that facilitated Robinson's departure from the EDL, is in a good position to understand the left's peculiar hypocrisies. When he announced he was leaving the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2007 and setting up the Quilliam Foundation, he and his co-founders were reviled as traitors and sell-outs. Not just by Islamists and tribally-minded Muslims, but also by multiculturalists, or what Nawaz calls "the regressive left". Seumas Milne's response to the news of Quilliam's launch takes some beating:
[Nawaz's Quilliam co-founder Ed Husain] attacked multiculturalism and declared there were too many immigrants in the country. He also says he supported the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam, but not what took place thereafter. Husain has, meanwhile, compared Hamas to the BNP, described the Arab "psyche" as irredeemably racist, criticised the director of MI5 for "pussyfooting around" with extremists, poured cold water on the idea that western policy in the Muslim world makes terror attacks in Britain and elsewhere more likely, dismissed the idea of Islamophobia and defended the government's decision to ban the leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi from Britain because he had defended Palestinian suicide attacks. Whatever else that amounts to, it's scarcely a voice of moderation.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The problem that Nawaz and Quilliam pose for multiculturalists is that they have no use for identity politics and see nothing ennobling about the infantilising, grievance-based victimhood narrative with which multiculturalism seeks to saddle Muslims. They oppose Islamic extremism because they have seen for themselves what it has to offer and have instead declared themselves partisans of the liberal secular democracy it is sworn to overthrow. The same liberal secular democracy that affords Dr. Allen and Mr. Goodwin the luxury of their academic careers, and that affords Milne the freedom to write his bitter, masochistic articles in the pages of The Guardian.

And so, in the eyes of their critics, Nawaz and his colleagues at Quilliam have become 'native informants'. By successfully assimilating, they have committed what Taylor called "the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity", and thus disqualified themselves from being able to speak on behalf of 'true' Muslims. This helps to explain Dr. Chris Allen's reaction to the following exchange [video here] between Nawaz and Islamic traditionalist Mohammed Ansar on the subject of hudud punishments, specifically limb amputation and stoning:
Nawaz: If an Islamic State existed, should it chop off someone's hand for theft if all the Sharia conditions are met? Please, yes or no?
Ansar: I....I....I really--
Nawaz: Yes or no?
Ansar: I--
Nawaz: Yes or no? Please, answer that. Yes or no?
Ansar: Look--
Nawaz: I'll tell you my answer: no. What's yours?
Ansar: On some of my theological views, I'm clear. On other theological views, I'd like to hear what the consensus of the scholars is. And on other theological views, I'm not made up!
Nawaz: Okay. Well, if one were to ask me my views on stoning someone to death, whether now, or in a hypothetical ideal Islamic state, I don't think it's morally justifiable to defer the answer and say "I'm not sure if someone should be stoned to death or not." That's morally reprehensible.
To which Allen, a supposed liberal, responded with:
Ansar was a rabbit in the headlights as Nawaz savagely tore into him about his hypothetical views in relation to shariah law, something that would seem to be markedly different to the approach taken by Nawaz about Robinson's actual views about Islam, Muslims and more. Don't forget that just a few weeks ago, Nawaz was claiming that Robinson's decision to quit the EDL without even rejecting an ounce of his insidious ideology, was a "very positive change for the United Kingdom...a very proud moment for Quilliam".
Surely, irrespective of what happened "a few weeks ago", on the subject of amputations and stoning we ought to be behind the person prepared to condemn it without equivocation? And surely this ought to go without saying? Not, it seems, to those whose broad-mindedness has reached such stratospheric levels of sophistication they are unable to make a simple moral judgement.

Much has been made by Robinson's critics of the fact that he has refused to renounce his formerly espoused views (if he adheres to "an ideology", I'm not aware of it). I think his frankness is to his credit (and hard to square with the idea that he duped Quilliam). But to even expect him to do so in the first place is to misunderstand what he rejected when he left the EDL and what now unites him with Quilliam.

Robinson's fundamental complaints about Islam and multiculturalism haven't changed, nor should they. But his remarks about Islam have always been subject to the limitations of chaotic, unsupervised research. The repeated rhetorical confusion between Islam, Islamism and Muslims (pointed out by the talk show host in the clip above) is a serious one. The careless conflation of ideology and people, in particular, led to justifiable uncertainty about Robinson's agenda, alienating potential allies, causing unnecessary fear and anxiety amongst Muslims, and encouraging those with a neo-fascist agenda to gravitate towards the EDL. It is this last development that Robinson claims finally forced him to pull the plug - a problem partly created by his own rhetoric but which he then found himself unable to control.

Now that he has unequivocally denounced the unreconstructed racism that blighted his former movement and declared solidarity instead with genuinely moderate, secular Muslims, it ought to put an end to the claim that his criticisms of Islam mask an irrational hatred of all adherents. He seems, instead, to be groping towards a clearer understanding of the plurality of views within Islam and starting to separate out what is benign from what really bothers him. This process could benefit enormously from his alliance with Quilliam, and marks a big step away from the "what about us?" identity politics with which he has frequently framed his arguments until now. He appears to have realised that the fight he wants to pick with cultural traditionalists, religious extremists and their apologists depends for its success upon the support of moderate Muslims.

I submit that this is all to be encouraged. Robinson's presence at Karima Bennoune's recent LSE talk about Muslims risking their lives to resist religious extremism and Islamic theocracy worldwide struck me as a positive sign. Muslims are not, after all, simply a useful a talking point as the "first and worst victims of Islam", but also some of the most valuable allies he could have. And in Maajid Nawaz and Quilliam, Robinson has found people who understand and share many of his concerns, who are extremely well-placed to broaden his understanding of Islam and extremism, and who don't patronise him or treat him like a pariah.

So, while Matthew Goodwin presumes to lecture Quilliam's former extremists on what they should and should not know and Dr Chris Allen prattles unhappily about hyper-reality in the Huffington Post, Robinson and Quilliam have struck a blow against the politics of difference. Good for them. No wonder the academics are so upset.

The BBC documentary Leaving the English Defence League can be seen here.