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Gary Herman

garyhermanpicRecent statements from European leaders on the theme of multiculturalism leave the distinct and unpleasant odour of a concerted attack hanging in the air. It started with Angela Merkel last October and has since been followed up by Jose Maria Aznar, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and – most recently – the Dutch Deputy Prime Minister, Maxime Verhagen. In each case, the evidence cited for multiculturalism’s failure is the growth of native Islamist violence.

This is a view perpetuated by almost all the Western media, for whom the problem of Islamist terror is Islam and the problem of Islam - in the West - is multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, in short, has become a codeword. The politicians may claim that “we must all respect differences” and that “extremism … is a distortion of Islam”, but when headlines from San Diego to Sydney all shout “Multiculturalism Doesn’t Work” the implication is increasingly clear – Muslim culture is a viper in the bosom of Western democracy.

Cameron’s particular contribution to the attack – in a speech to a security conference in Munich on February 5th - came on the same day as the ultra-right English Defence League brought their contemporary brand of racism to the streets of Luton, a small town not far from London where poverty and deprivation have certainly provided fertile ground for extremism. 

No doubt about it, Luton’s citizens include radical Islamists as well as neo-Nazis, but the rejection of multiculturalism on the spurious grounds that it encourages disaffected young Muslims to turn to terror is a message aimed far beyond Luton. It is meant for reactionary rightwing voters at home and nationalist politicians abroad. And their representatives in the media lap it up.

The speech may have been ineptly timed or, more probably, exactly designed to add a little explosive powder to an already heated mixture. In either case, it has become known as “The Munich Speech”. Obviously, this is because when Cameron opened his mouth he was in the Bavarian capital; but Google the phrase “Munich speech” and there at number four is the UK’s prime minister rubbing shoulders with none other than Adolf Hitler, whose contribution to European security was inestimable.

To be sure, Cameron’s words were hedged around with disclaimers and assurances – “Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing….We cameronmerkelmust tackle poverty….We rightly condemn [white racist views],” and so on. But his core message was more pernicious. Poverty, injustice, Palestine and the rest “are just contributory factors”. The real cause of Islamist terror, according to Cameron, is an excess of tolerance.

Multiculturalism, he said, means too much tolerance which “leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless.” And then they fall under the influence of “non-violent extremists” and slip seamlessly into violence and terror. All because multicultural society indulged them too much and never imposed the boundaries implicit in the ideology of liberal democracy.

As an explanation of why some young Muslims decide to become suicide bombers or commit other acts of violence, this leaves a lot to be desired – not least because it singularly fails to explain why other minority groups are generally immune to the virus. But in linking terror to multiculturalism, Cameron has pulled off a piece of political sleight of hand using the rhetoric of “liberal values” to attack a crowning glory of those values – “equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance,” as former Labour politician Roy Jenkins said.

blogpic1There is something almost worthy of Goebbels himself in the way Cameron’s speech manages to lay acts of terror at the door of the very values assaulted by those acts. We have only ourselves to blame, it seems. The solution, according to Cameron, is to put some muscle into liberalism – to “actively promote” its values by denying Muslim organisations that “do little to combat extremism” public money or a platform, and by subjecting them to surveillance and suppression just because their views are different.

In Cameron’s world, perfectly legitimate Muslim organisations must be seen as potential threats because there is no hard and fast dividing line between those who do not believe in the liberal consensus and those who seek its violent overthrow. No wonder Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter and heir at the head of the French Front National, enthusiastically welcomed Cameron’s speech. While Sarkozy et al still cling to the pretence that this is all about cultural diversity, Le Pen has divested herself of even that shred of decency. Islam, she says, is “absolutely not compatible” with a secular society – by which she confusingly seems to mean a Christian society: “France is France. It’s a country with Christian roots and that’s also what’s given us our identity.”

Cameron, too, is a great believer in identity. His young rootless Muslims turn to extremism “because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity” – and that is the fault of “the doctrine of state multiculturalism”. But this is nothing more than to demonise Muslim communities – to define them as alien and antagonistic, half a step away from Le Pen’s view that Muslims in France can be compared to the World War II Nazi occupying forces. Expunge multiculturalism from our political life and Muslim communities will be offered only the alternatives of submergence in a monoculture or exclusion from it.

The rhetoric reminds me of the forcible conversions of Jews and Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition.

At a time when the Arab world is in revolt against the tyrannical dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East, this is a dangerous strategy. Politicians and the media point to Tunis and Cairo as if to prove, in Cameron’s own words, that “Western values and Islam can be entirely compatible”. But such trite comments will not deflect or dilute the anger of those whose commitment to Islam, however inarticulate, has been forged in their immediate experience of how Western governments actually operate and how Western societies too often marginalise them.

Gary Herman for Media Diversity Institute

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