In my weakened state over having to do back to work on Monday I managed to get myself into a ridiculous argument about the Bishop of Rochester’s comments about Muslim “no-go areas” over at Lib Dem Voice. Apologies to all concerned who are already banging their heads in weariness of the debate. I just thought I’d make a few points in (slightly) less inflammatory terms.
I’ve lived and campaigned in a variety of multi-cultural parts of England for much of the past 15 years. Originally as a student (and penniless graduate) in Rusholme, Manchester; in Beeston, Leeds (just around the corner from home of the famous suicide bomber no less); in Leamington Spa (don’t laugh – it has a sizeable Sikh population in the old part of town where I lived) and now in Jewish North London. All those areas have their issues, but overall my conclusion is that we do multiculturalism quite well in this country.
Based on my ideal of a liberal society which upholds personal dignity and ultimately maximises not merely tolerance but mutual respect, I’m open to the argument that so-called silo-isation has gone too far and that the practice of having separate Muslim, Sikh or Jewish cultural centres, etc. ultimately does more harm than good. I do in fact accept the argument that language is an important factor for integration and generally support the drive for greater emphasis on teaching English while spending less on language translation services. I have little time for self-appointed martyrs like Shabina Begum who take a school dress code which is already sensitive to her faith and attempts to push the envelope several stages too far (if she was a white Christian she would simply have been dismissed as an emo brat who needs to get over herself). And I believe that as a society which places an emphasis on equal rights and individual liberties, while the state can’t expect individuals to like people with different values and beliefs it, it can insist upon tolerance and insist that people living in this country obey our laws.
The latter point is most significant. Many of the loudest critics of “multiculturalism” insist that immigrants and ethnic minorities conform to “our way of life” while insisting that we should never, ever write down those values we hold dear in any meaningful sense. It is for this reason that I am less cynical than some about Gordon Brown’s push for a British “statement of values” – it’s fraught with problems but might, just might, lead us down the road towards an entrenched Bill of Rights and codified constitution. The often lazy form of multiculturalism that has taken hold in the UK (particularly northern cities) is very much a product of our hollow so-called “flexible” constitution however much the ranting Little Englanders might like to think otherwise.
What annoys me the most about people like Angus Huck is that they take a perfectly reasonable position such as zero-tolerance of female genital mutilation, honour killings, and so on, and then leap to the conclusion that opposing such things must by necessity mean insisting that anyone living in this country must conform to a British way of life (whatever that is). How you can make the leap from objecting to the stoning of women to the banning of prayers being broadcast from the top of minarets is beyond me.
In the Sky News interview with Nick Clegg which has caused all the controversy, Clegg likens Muslim prayers to church bells. Both assault the senses; in what way is one benign while the other is menacing (and Angus, the argument that church bells have been rung for hundreds of years simply won’t do – we have neither the demographics nor the level of church attendance that we had hundreds of years ago, nor do we tolerate the religious intolerance of hundreds of years ago – at what point do you want society to have been ossified. It’s for Disney to come up with twee portrayals of the past, not policy makers)? Similarly, how can we single out Muslim men for being “aggressive and macho” and “intimidating” any more than we can any other group of young men? In any case, one person’s “intimidating” is another person’s “laughable posturing”.
We could be having the same debate about Jews in the 1930s, or Quakers 200 years before. These things go in cycles. If the price we pay for expecting Muslim immigrant communities to respect human rights and obey our laws is the odd mosque making a racket on a Friday morning, then it is a price well worth paying. I can’t understand how any liberal would draw the line any other way (although lets by all means listen to the debate).
Clegg’s words were exactly right here; Nazir-Ali’s claims were indeed “extraordinarily inflammatory”. The debate we’re having now only proves his point. They were all-but calculated to generate heat rather than light. If he had a specific area in mind, then why not name it? 70 years on from the Rothermere Press I think we are entitled to expose innuendo where we see it. The biggest throat laugh his article generated from me was when he tutted about Shariah-compliant finance being legislated for in the UK. Outrageous! The very idea that people might not want to practice usury – how very un-Christian! And surely just the thin end of the wedge towards legalised stonings for rape victims!
Sadly, Nazir-Ali seems to be essaying his colleague the Archbishop of York when it comes to making outlandish statements about other groups – remember the guff about “illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists” banning Christmas? This sort of lazy denunciation from the pulpit has become all too common from our so-called national church. Yet criticise them and you can usually rely on someone to attack you for not daring to criticise Muslims in the same way and of course of the old staple “political correctness gone mad”. Here’s a deal: I won’t call that trying to shut down debate if you don’t call my disagreement with you the same thing, mmm’kay?