by Waleed Aly ABC Religion and Ethics
Updated 10 Oct 2011 (First posted 6 Oct 2011)
So much contemporary railing against multiculturalism and the threat of Islam is the product of deeper identity politics that ultimately have little to do with Muslims themselves.
Fictional news stories ought to be exceedingly rare. But they are not – and where Muslims are concerned, they represent something of an emerging genre.
British journalists Peter Oborne and James Jones catalogue several examples of such stories, drawing on a study performed by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Here are a couple of examples from an edited summary published in The Independent:
“Get off my bus I need to pray” – The Sun, 28 March 2008. This was the story of a Muslim bus driver ordering his passengers off his bus so that he could pray. The Sun story, along with footage of the bus driver praying, was widely circulated around right-wing blogs. Dhimmi Watch, the right-wing blog on the site Jihad Watch that catalogues perceived outrages committed by Muslims, even included The Sun story in their ‘ever-expanding You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file’. Well, actually, you can. The bus had been delayed, so in order to maintain frequency the bus company had ordered the driver to stop his bus and allow passengers to board the bus behind. Tickets and CCTV evidence show that all the passengers were on that bus within a minute. The so-called witness, a 21-year-old plumber, who recorded the bus driver praying, had not been on the bus, and had arrived after the incident to find a small crowd outside a bus.
“The crescent and the canteen” – The Economist, 19 October 2006. There was no truth in the article’s suggestion that Leicester University had banned pork on campus. In actual fact, the university Student Union had made just one out of the numerous cafes on campus halal, in a decision which had as much to do with economic factors as cultural sensitivity as Leicester has a large number of Muslim students. The other 26 cafes on the campus, including the main canteen, were still serving pork as usual.
Other examples could be cited in this connection that hold Muslims falsely responsible for an impressive range of social crimes from banning Christmas to risking the lives of hospital patients with unprofessional hygiene standards and mob violence against returned British soldiers.
The connecting thread barely needs to be spelled out: Muslim minorities constitute a threat to the Western way of life by seeking aggressively to impose their norms onto the majority, and displace Western (in these cases, British) culture in the process.
Of course, intensified scrutiny of Western Muslims is understanding in the post-September 11 era, and especially after the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground, whose perpetrators were raised in Britain.
Nevertheless this begs a simple question: if Muslims are so obviously threatening, why the need to make things up about them?
Ultimately it is a matter of narrative. These fictional stories exist because a particular conspiratorial worldview, present among some commentators and newspaper editors, demands they do.
Terrorism may have triggered and even legitimised the paranoia associated with this vision, but these narratives transcend issues of political violence and physical security. Terrorism is only one of a range of news events conscripted into the service of a cultural discourse.
It is not that Muslims are necessarily terrorists (though the theme is never far away). It is that they, at least to the extent they are newsworthy, are a kind of cultural cancer: a foreign body whose presence in the host organ may fatally undermine it.
A Cardiff University study is instructive in this connection. It found that the number of reports in the British print news media concerning the religious and cultural issues associated with Muslims had now overtaken the number about terrorism. Such culture-based stories were a comparatively insignificant component of the British print media landscape as recently as 2002. It is a growth area, reflective of a growing discourse.
I’m not meaning to suggest that every such news report is imagined or exaggerated. Many are not. But the social discourses that feast so gleefully on this news have now gained such momentum that they generate their own grist. Such fabrications and distortions then, are ultimately symptomatic of a polemical social mood.
Here, we can observe the textbook definition of a moral panic manifesting itself. Consider Stanley Cohen’s classic description:
“A condition, episode, person or group of person emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values or interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions … Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself.”
As Cohen’s schema makes clear, no moral panic is possible without its “folk devils”: those held responsible for deviant behaviour, who emerge into the public space cast involuntarily in a villainous role. They are, in Sean Hier’s phrase, “stripped of all positive characteristics and endowed with pejorative evaluations.”
Of course, the identity of these devils varies naturally with time and place. We have long been familiar with this phenomenon. Whether it be Asian immigrants, welfare cheats, uncontrollable delinquent youth, or, once upon a time, Catholics, folk devils are a constant of public life. Their presence seems the necessary lubricant for public debate.
So today’s moral panic surrounds the Muslim folk devil. Note how a relatively trivial event is magnified to the point of front-page tabloid outrage. In this terrain, the normal rules of media prioritisation seem suspended: truly sensational news defers to the apparently trivial; foreign stories trump local ones.
Why? Because the narratives that surround the story are more sensational and localised than the stories they appropriate. Newsworthiness resides, not in the literal copy, but in its constructed context.
Allow the cabbies of Minnesota to demonstrate. The Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport is serviced by 900 taxi drivers, around three quarters of whom are Somali Muslims. In October 2006 The Australian reported that these drivers had “declared jihad on duty-free, refusing to carry passengers who are carrying alcohol.”
It is difficult to assess the genuine significance of the story. On one hand, an airport spokesman explained that these refusals had “slowly grown over the years to the point that it’s become a significant customer service issue for us.” On the other, airport commission statistics showed that of the 120,000 taxi rides from the airport in a two-month period, there were some 27 refusals – about 0.02%.
Whatever the case, the story was of limited gravity to an Australian audience, taken in isolation. The same could not be said for the story that broke only two days prior, that a bullet was fired into a Perth mosque while 400 people were worshipping, narrowly missing women and children. That was both local and sensational.
The Australian failed to report the mosque shooting. Yet it found the Minnesotan story sufficiently significant to warrant both front page exposure and an editorial. And it is in the editorial, that the reason for its prominence was made plain:
“What is happening at the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul is just as much of an indictment of multiculturalism as other incidences of self-censorship and self-flagellation that occur on a near-daily basis among Westerners seeking to avoid or atone for offending the most prudish or outlandish of Islamic sensibilities. And it shows what can happen when a culture allows immigrants to behave as conquerors, instead of politely but firmly suggesting that newcomers who wish to impose their theocratic ways on a secular community try their luck elsewhere.”
An attempt to cause grievous bodily harm to Muslims in prayer simply does not feed an established media narrative. It remains an isolated incident of no enduring relevance or concern.
But when a cluster of Somali taxi drivers refuse to transport alcohol for clients, a prevalent discourse is reactivated. It becomes another instalment in a series of “incidences of self-censorship and self-flagellation” on the part of Westerners who are over-tolerant of the restrictive idiosyncrasies of Muslim migrants. It is, above all, an “indictment of multiculturalism.”
And indeed, The Australian has expended impressive energy running the prosecution. Only three weeks later, it editorialised even more forthrightly on the “veiled conceit of multiculturalism” in the following terms:
“Many Britons are concerned that multicultural policies that have discouraged assimilation have divided their society and created what one commentator called a ‘voluntary apartheid’ … While tolerance is certainly a positive virtue that should be strived for, it cannot be a cultural suicide pact. A culture that is tolerant of those who are intolerant of its freedoms is ripe for destruction, and bit by bit will see all it [sic] values eroded. And radical Islam knows this.”
This paper is not principally concerned with matters of media malpractice, but with the socio-political narratives that proceed from them: narratives of a Western culture besieged by the descending Muslim hordes, who exploit the “cultural suicide pact” of multiculturalism – that is to say, the most recent and popular incarnation of anti-multiculturalist discourse, which has asserted itself most energetically in the aftermath of the London bombings.
As I will demonstrate, it is a discourse steeped in mythology. We might expect Muslims to be the subject of this mythology, but as Hier reminds us:
“… although moral panics centre on a particular folk devil, the locus of the panic is not the object of its symbolic resonances, not the folk devil itself. Rather, folk devils serve as the ideological embodiment of deeper anxieties, perceived of as ‘a problem’ only in and through social definition and construction.”
This suggests that to the extent it follows the logic of moral panic, contemporary railing against multiculturalism is a product of deeper identity politics that ultimately have little to do with Muslims themselves.
If so, we may predict that any associated myth-making is not only about Muslims, but about the culture ostensibly being defended against them. While anti-multiculturalism condemns a policy that it perceives has been raised disastrously to the level of a political ideology, it produces a political ideology of its own: monoculturalism.
The popular anti-multiculturalist narrative
It is possible to object to multiculturalism on a range of diverse grounds. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, criticises it on essentially cosmopolitan grounds, arguing that it offers only “negative” rather than “positive” recognition; that is basic tolerance, rather than equal participation.
Johann Hari objects to it on the basis (among others) that it artificially deems minority cultures to be monolithic, static artefacts in a manner that denies people their individual agency. This is quite different from criticising multiculturalism as an assault on the majority.
In short, the fact that someone opposes multiculturalism does not immediately reveal their political orientations or their reasoning. There is not one single anti-multicultural narrative. There are several, with varying degrees of overlap.
But it is a fair assumption that the media performances encountered above outline the basic thrust of the most dominant, popular expression of anti-multiculturalism, certainly in Australia and probably throughout the Western world. To be sure, a comprehensive survey of objections to multiculturalism is beyond the size constraints of this paper. Accordingly, for present purposes it should suffice to engage with a broadly representative version of this popular anti-multiculturalist narrative.
That narrative has been introduced above in short form. But it deserves to be rendered in more detail here, so we can more subtly appreciate its key characteristics. And here, perhaps quintessentially, stands Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan.
Although Phillips’ focus is on Britain, many of her arguments are replicated by Australia’s most strident anti-multiculturalists, often in precise terms. In fact, Londonistan represents probably the fullest expression of popular anti-multiculturalism found in Australia.
Phillips devotes an entire chapter of the book to the emphatic excoriation of multiculturalism, which she defines as
“the doctrine that … holds that Britain is now made up of many cultures that are all equal and therefore have to be treated in an identical fashion, and that any attempt to impose the majority culture over those of minorities is by definition racist.”
Her basic argument is frankly apocalyptic: through multiculturalism, British culture has completely surrendered itself to the politics of minority separateness that has nurtured nothing less than radical Islamism.
Britain, then, is “paralysed by a multicultural threat it cannot even bring itself to name.” Its very survival is precarious both physically and culturally, and multiculturalism is to blame.
For Phillips, the twin scourges of relativism and post-modernism laid the foundation for this. Together with the collapse of the British Empire and post-colonial guilt, they conspired to reduce British culture to a nullity. In its place emerged the “revolutionary ideology of the left” during the 1960s and 70s which shattered the moral assumptions of society. Hippies destroyed Britain.
The alleged result was a cultural vacuum into which marched assertive, corrosive minorities. “Muticulturalism and antiracism were now the weapons with which minorities were equipped to beat the majority,” Phillips asserts, making plain what she means in the following passage:
“Britain … has effectively allowed itself to be taken hostage by militant gays, feminists or ‘anti-racists’ who used weapons such as public vilification, moral blackmail and threats to people’s livelihoods to force the majority to give in to their demands. And those demands were identical to those made by the Islamists: not merely to tolerate their values as minority rights but to replace normative values altogether and subordinate the values of the majority to the minority, because majority values set up a hierarchy that is deemed to be innately discriminatory. So when Muslims refused to accept minority status and insisted instead that their values must trump those of the majority, Britain had no answer.”
The point for Phillips is that minorities – specifically migrants and especially Muslims – need to be told how to behave. Left to their own devices – or worse, invited to retain their cultural identities – they will proceed disastrously to inflict their backward cultures on the majority.
So, says Phillips, Muslims commenced “campaigning for public recognition of their religious agenda by the state.” They sought to establish their own schools, and demanded halal meat in others. They sought separate education for girls, and burned copies of The Satanic Verses to coerce the British government into banning Salman Rushdie’s book.
No doubt the lynch-mob behaviour of these last protests were irredeemably contemptible, as was that which surrounded the Danish cartoon imbroglio of 2006. But why should this be lumped together with a desire for halal meat in schools or Islamic private schools as some kind of cultural invasion? There is nothing in the majority British culture Phillips so venerates that precludes the consumption of halal meat. Its impact on majority culture is little to none.
Similarly, non-Muslim (and especially Christian) faith schools are common in Britain. Where is Phillips’ rage towards Britain’s Jewish schools? Or does she deny they exist? After all, she makes plain that British Jews are an exceptional minority because they were always considered too privileged to be allowed to benefit from multicultural largesse. Presumably, then, they never campaigned for “public recognition of their religious agenda by the state.”
Are we to conclude that they never sought to establish their own schools? Or is that only an act of cultural aggression when Muslims do it?
It surely cannot be that Britain’s Jewish schools are necessarily more demographically inclusive. Certainly, some are spectacularly so, like Birmingham’s King David School, about half of whose students are Muslims. (How confounding it must be for Phillips to discover Muslim students – whose mothers mostly wear the hijab and are reportedly devout – who learn modern Hebrew, celebrate Israeli Independence Day and recite Jewish prayers!)
But if this is Phillips’ reasoning, will she similarly condemn the Jewish school that refused to admit a child because his mother was not born a Jew? It doesn’t particularly concern me, but then, I don’t consider the establishment of religious private schools by minorities a form of cultural invasion.
Or perhaps Phillips’ complaints are ultimately about terrorism. After all, the logical extension of this is that “multiculturalism has unwittingly fomented Islamic radicalism in the sacred cause of ‘diversity’.”
So maybe the difference is that Jews don’t detonate bombs on London public transport. True. But then again, neither do all but four British Muslims, none of whom attended a British Islamic school. In fact, it is difficult to identify even a single Western Muslim terrorist who attended an Islamic private school in the West.
Typically the story of radicalisation has been one that climaxes around the age of tertiary education and has nothing to do with secondary-school brainwashing. Most who turn to violence have a comparatively shallow history of religiosity. Their teen years are more likely to have been substantially irreligious.
Such double standards seem to be a regular feature of popular anti-multiculturalism, a fact exposed in Australia with the emergence of the Exclusive Brethren. The Howard Government had been sceptical of what it termed “zealous multiculturalism.” It famously dropped the phrase “multicultural affairs” from the relevant government department. It instituted citizenship tests to require migrants to learn the English language, Australian history and Australian values.
Indeed, as Prime Minister, John Howard had an unabashed emphasis on values: Muslims were often commanded to integrate, which “means accepting Australian values” such as “the equality of men and women.”
The Exclusive Brethren confounded this. News reports depicted this Christian sect shunning democracy to the extent that it forbade voting. It shunned non-believers, requiring its members to avoid conversation with them, and was prepared to separate children from parents if necessary. It shunned university education. It protected men who were convicted of sexually abusing young girls, and vandalised the homes of those bringing the charges. Its women were commanded to wear long, loose-fitting clothes. It flouted court orders.
In short, it rejected such well rehearsed Australian values as democracy, the rule of law, gender equality and tolerance, and it certainly rejected integration. Yet, the values-promoting Prime Minister not only refrained from lecturing this sect on integration, he repeatedly met with its members, while his party benefited from Exclusive Brethren donations.
When pressed on this, John Howard remarked that “it’s a free country … and they were not breaking the law” – which is as true for the Exclusive Brethren is it is for Muslims, whether they speak English or not.
There are several curious features of Phillips’ anti-multicultural analysis that render it ambiguous, even incongruous. “Muslims regard Western values as an assault on Islamic principles,” she declares, echoing the assumption popular among Western politicians that terrorists are motivated by a hatred of the Western way of life.
Yet Phillips has just finished making the case that Western values have been sacrificed to the cult of multiculturalism, relativised out of meaningful existence. “Britain,” she bemoans, “has become a largely post-Christian society, where traditional morality has been systematically undermined and replaced by an ‘anything goes’ culture.”
Precisely which “Western values,” then, do Muslims regard as under “assault”? Or do they take umbrage at the post-modern absence of values in the West? If so, Phillips might consider joining them.
There is something vaguely paradoxical at work here. If recalcitrant minorities fume violently at values that allegedly no longer exist, the solution, it seems, is to enforce conformity with shared values in the defence of liberal democracy. It is a mind-bending prescription.
An inescapable implication of liberalism is the individual’s freedom of thought. That means nothing if it does not permit the individual to subscribe to dissenting value systems that may even be repugnant to the majority, just as freedom of speech means nothing without the freedom to offend.
The liberal democratic state may well reflect one set of cultural norms over another – through its use of an official language and its marking of particular national days, for instance – but it does not seek to prescribe or determine the personal values of its citizens.
Its values are primarily institutional: the rule of law, freedom of speech and conscience. It has no interest in intervening until the law is breached, and it does not use the law as a means of implementing mass culture.
That is, it potentially leads us to something like the position John Howard articulated with regard to the Exclusive Brethren. Until the law turns to something like legalising behaviour that harms other individuals, such as honour killings – which it simply will never do – there should be no existential crisis for liberal democracy.
Yet many anti-multiculturalists too easily resort to a kind of groupism, prosecuting an identity politics of collectivism. Muslims and other minorities are clustered together and judged on the basis of their group membership.
Generalisations are made about their values and attitudes quite inconsistently with liberalism’s axiomatic individualism. Simultaneously, a majority group is constructed whose values are determined for it by the declaration of an elite.
As we have seen, Phillips is anxious that minorities know their place; that they understand they are minorities and behave as such. That reveals a collectivist instinct. Should she not be apprehending them as individual citizens?
As Geoffrey Brahm Levey observes, multiculturalism in Australia has proceeded from the assumptions of liberalism:
“Australian multicultural policy is highly individualistic … It is each individual who enjoys the rights (such as those to cultural identity and respect, and access to equity) and bears the responsibilities (of abiding by Australia’s liberal democratic institutions) under the policy. Lest there be any ambiguity, the National Agenda goes on to state that: ‘Fundamentally, multiculturalism is about the rights of the individual’.”
This does not mean multiculturalism is liberalism’s necessary logical extension. Certainly, liberalism should have no quibble with the presence of several cultures within a single society, but it may quite plausibly object to a state policy of multiculturalism on the ground that the state should engage with citizens as individuals, rather than as members of a cultural group.
The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen mounts precisely this argument: “it’s time for our political leaders to stop engaging with Muslims as Muslims,” she writes. “They are citizens; no special rules apply.” Yet she applauds when they engage with Muslims – specifically and exclusively so – where that engagement takes the form of outlining for them which personal values they must accept.
Of course, it is true that values are critically important to society, for it could scarcely exist without them. But if values are to be promoted within the framework of liberalism, they are not the stuff of government declaration and should not be articulated in group terms.
This government performance Albrechtsen so admires is ultimately an illiberal one. It is not one whereby the government stresses Muslims’ standing in society as individuals – which seems at best to be her starting point. It is not demanding Muslims think of themselves civicly as individuals. It is doing the opposite: addressing and conceiving of them as a collective for the purpose of demanding conformity with a collective majority.
So the groupist orientation of much anti-multiculturalist discourse, often from those who champion liberalism, presents an intriguing tension. It suggests there might be something more at play than the dispassionate application of a political philosophy.
Such double standards also point to something of a parochial streak. There are plenty of non-Muslim Australians whose personal values are affronting to the majority. Often they form religious or political groups. Yet they are rarely chosen for some kind of public, group-based values education – or even values education at all.
In this narrative there are, ultimately, those who belong and those who do not, and in any such dynamic, the rhetorical field is vulnerable to a substantial dose of mythology. Indeed, the examples already canvassed of media fabrication and distortion indicate that the myth-making process, at least to the extent it concerns Muslims, is well under way.
Anti-multiculturalism and the mythical Muslim
Implicit in much of the above is a conflation. Discrete issues – such as faith-based schooling and terrorism – become rhetorically fused in a single, groupist narrative. This is presented as if there is no conceptual difference between the Muslim requesting halal catering and the one who aims to bomb Britain into an Islamic pseudo-theocracy.
To the extent these social menaces differ, they differ only in degree. One adopts a more violent methodology than the other but both are presented as though they are vanguards of the same cause: a cultural war determined to displace the dominant culture by whatever means are available.
In this way, the trivial story is projected hysterically onto the largest available screen, often the front page. Sometimes these reports are simply fabricated, but this is not necessary. It is sufficient that that they fit the narrative being constructed.
So at our breakfast tables in Australia we are invited to bristle at a handful of taxi drivers in Minnesota, in the belief that they signify an existential threat. The fact that Western societies have precisely nothing to fear from, say, halal or similarly kosher food being served in school cafeterias is completely submerged by a discourse of cultural panic.
The associated vision of Muslims is, quite obviously, an unflattering one. Here, Muslims are monolithic, belong to unchanging cultures, and are intolerant of pluralism and dispute. They subjugate women. They use their faith mainly for political purposes and for strategic and military advantage, and have made no meaningful contributions to debates on Western liberalism, modernity or secularism. Islam itself is a successor to Nazism and communism.
Moreover, Phillips boldly generalises this dystopian portrait, insisting that all of the “assertions about Muslims in this list are without exception true, at least in part.” Meanwhile, Only a “small minority in Britain are horrified” by all of these attitudes, while “a troubling number … subscribe to all of them and the majority subscribe to at least some.” She demonstrates none of this, of course. Phillips merely asserts it as unimpeachable fact, warning that any denial of its truth “displays a spectacular proclivity towards national suicide.”
Thus does Phillips see a marauding aggressive minority which, like its medieval forebears, is bent on conquest. For her, this is apparently some kind of coordinated scheme for cultural and political domination: “jihadi Islamism … has become today the dominant strain within the Islamic world,” she asserts without any empirical evidence to support such a startling claim.
She estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of British Muslims – from a population nearing 2 million – “lead law-abiding lives and merely want to prosper and raise their families in peace”. That is to say a majority do not.
On this score, Phillips probably goes further than most of her fellow anti-multiculturalists who deploy safer caveats about a “moderate” majority. But her general characterisation of the Muslim minority has broader support:
“The attempt to establish this separate Muslim identity is growing more and more intense, with persistent pressure for official recognition of Islamic family law, the rise of a de facto parallel Islamic legal system not recognised by the state, demands for highly politicised Islamic dress codes, prayer meetings or halal food to be provided by schools and other institutions, and so on. No other minority attempts to impose its values on the host society like this.”
Really? Official recognition of a parallel religious legal system governing areas of family law (and commercial matters) is what British Jews already have in the form of the Beth Din – which is backed by no less than an Act of Parliament.
Perhaps other minorities have not attempted to secure “prayer meetings” (whatever that means), but we do know that Jewish students have demanded – perfectly reasonably – that exams be shifted so they can observe the Sabbath, even being prepared to resort to legal action to ensure it.
Phillips does not make clear precisely what she means by “highly politicised Islamic dress codes,” but if she is referring to various forms of veiling, it is an absurd argument. Partly this is because Phillips has simply deemed veiling to be politicised when there is no reason this must necessarily be the case – and little evidence that it is for most British Muslim women.
It is, at bottom, a religious mode of dress, and Muslims are far from alone in seeking the right to wear religious items in schools. For example, a Sikh girl in Wales took her school to the High Court for suspending her because she wore a religious bangle. Some 25 years previously, a Sikh boy took similar action against a school that tried to force him to cut his hair and remove his turban.
And precisely how consistently does Phillips maintain that Muslims are the most aggressively imposing minority? What about the militant gays, feminists and “anti-racists” whose demands, you will recall, “were identical to those made by the Islamists”?
It is apparent that Phillips views Muslims, and “multicultural” British society generally, through thoroughly jaundiced lenses. For her, multicultural relativism has so completely eviscerated British values and identity, so unremittingly sanctified minority cultures beyond censure, that it is no longer possible to criticise Muslims:
“Multiculturalism … forbade criticism of Muslim practices such as forced marriages or polygamy … Even to draw attention to such practices was to be labelled a racist. After all, were not these customs now said to be morally equal to British traditions, such as equal rights for women and the protection of children’s educational interests?”
The suggestion that Muslims are now above criticism because of a multicultural orthodoxy that prevails “throughout all the institutions of British public life” is not merely a wild overstatement. It is among the more perverse fantasies circulating in the mainstream Western public conversation.
The Cardiff University study referred to earlier identified that 69% of stories about Muslims in the British press since 2000 represent Muslims as a “source of problems or in opposition to traditional British culture,” while only 5% of stories “were based on attacks on or problems for British Muslims.”
The trend is echoed in the findings of a 2007 study that of all the articles about Muslims in a news week chosen at random, 4% “positive,” 5% were “neutral,” and a staggering 91% were “negative.”
Even if we assume – perhaps charitably – that none of these articles was in any way fabricated, distorted or exaggerated and that all were entirely newsworthy, it is clear that most of these “institutions of British public life” feel no reluctance at all to “draw attention” to negative aspects of Muslim behaviour.
Indeed, as Peter Oborne and James Jones have observed, the preparedness to criticise Muslims and Islam proudly is alive and well across the political spectrum. After noting rather forthright examples from a range of British commentators and novelists, they conclude that the record demonstrates “the power of Islamophobia to unite public culture at every level. It is not just confined to so-called tabloid newspapers. It is to be found in the broadsheets as well.”
Perhaps the most startling example they cite comes from Polly Toynbee, “normally regarded as a model of political correctness” who declares “I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it.” Not much multicultural reticence there.
Perhaps Phillips is right to assume some will deem Toynbee racist. Toynbee herself assumes the same. But that fact, on its own, is of unclear significance. Many others will either cheer her on or say nothing.
It is utterly implausible to argue anti-Muslim rhetoric is being silenced. Toynbee remains one of The Guardian’s most prominent and influential columnists. The same is true of Phillips and The Daily Mail. Indeed, several of the Western world’s most prominent (and promoted) writers and columnists are of a similar view: Mark Steyn, Robert Spencer and Oriana Fallaci are but a few. This is some strange brand of censorship.
Still, this is only half the story. There is some truth to the observation that myth-making about Islam and Muslims has a long Western history of which today’s mythology is the latest instalment. But the popular anti-multiculturalist narrative leaves us clues that suggest a broader rhetorical game.
Phillips’ argument, for example, traverses extraordinary breadth, much of which has nothing directly to do with Muslims: internationalism and human rights law are similarly lashed. A similar tendency is visible in The Australian‘s criticisms of “inner-city post-modernists and progressives” in editorialising in the area.
This places us squarely in the culture wars, in which Muslims are largely rhetorical pawns. This suggests that, at the very deepest level, the debate about multiculturalism is not about Muslims, even if it seems unhealthily preoccupied with them. Rather, it is about the dominant culture. This observation has a symmetry about it that makes perfect intuitive sense. To construct an ideal outsider is in fact to construct one’s self. The relationship is symbiotic.
This is perfectly consistent with Hier’s observations about the role of the folk devil. It exists not merely for its own sake, but as a means of allowing us to engage with deeper anxieties. If it is true that much popular anti-multiculturalist discourse fashions a mythical Muslim, then the corollary is that it generates a similar mythology about the besieged dominant culture.
Making the mythical “Us”
In any essentialised criticism of a social out-group there is another unstated message being communicated: that those criticisms do not apply to us. To berate Muslims for intolerance, militancy or misogyny is simultaneously to celebrate the majority’s tolerance, peacefulness and gender equity. It is both an admonition and an exoneration.
Understanding this helps explain why, in James Button’s words, “responses to Islam confound old distinctions of left and right. A conservative Dutch Government is insisting that would-be Muslim migrants recognise the Netherlands’ commitment to feminism and gay rights before they come.”
Indeed, it is precisely in the interests of a conservative politician to do so. In appropriating these causes they can celebrate them as achievements, rather than as ongoing struggles. This leaves them complete such that the conservative need take no further action.
As long as Muslims remain central, villainous characters in the values conversation, any progressive attack is blunted. The conservative politician can retort compellingly: “we are not misogynists and homophobes – they are!” It has become a common rhetorical feature. Said John Howard:
“… in certain areas, such as the equality of men and women, the societies that some people have left were not as contemporary and as progressive as ours is. And I think people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia. That men and women do have equality and they’re each entitled to full respect.”
In what other context would Howard celebrate the idea that Australia is “contemporary and progressive”? And who, in this context, can disagree?
No doubt, many feminists will contest the assertion that “men and women do have equality” in Australia, but when the conversation is shifted to a relative one juxtaposing Muslims, any such argument is unsustainable and therefore lost.
And so a heroic self-image is gradually constructed – an ideal self where all vice has been exported onto a demonic other. The constructed foe, then, depends on who we need ourselves to be. The welfare cheat affirms us as honest and hard-working. The uncontrollable adolescent reassures us of the competence of our own parenting.
So, as Meyda Yegenoglu observes, the veiled Muslim woman was once an untamed seductress, drawing animalistic, lustful men into grave sin. That was the view of a virtuous, sexually proper Europe. Today she is a symbol of oppression for a free West, or even a symbol of violent radicalism for a West that is peace-loving (since its many wars are without exception noble and unavoidable rather than self-interested and plundering). This cloth is a flexible symbol indeed.
The self need never be engaged critically in this process. It is simply venerated. This is self-affirmation by declaration. Its relationship to history can, of course, be casual. Thus it becomes entirely possible even for German politicians to talk to its minorities as if the Holocaust never happened.
Recall the case of Ashkan Dejegah, a footballer who plays for Germany but also holds an Iranian passport. Dejegah refused to travel with the team to play against Israel, not as a matter of ideological conviction, but for fear that he would be barred entry to Iran in future. German outrage was understandably palpable, but Christian Democrats general secretary Ronald Pofalla’s choice of words was instructively poor: “Whoever represents Germany, whether he be a native German or an immigrant, has to identify with the history and culture of our society.” Given the “history and culture” of twentieth-century Germany, this is the darkest of ironies.
The invocation of history in this context is far from exceptional. Indeed much popular anti-multiculturalism relies on presenting the besieged majority has the guardians of history and tradition.
The sub-text is hardly subtle: that it is Muslims (or migrants generally) who have brought these vices with them. Hence their exceptionalism. There is something unique about their presence that threatens an unprecedented cultural fracture. The past was certain, confident and good.
Which brings us back to Phillips. A key assumption of her analysis is that Britain’s traditional policy of assimilation, expressed and emerged from a “robust sense of pride in its national culture and history.” Multiculturalism is therefore the product of “a series of developments [that] shattered Britain’s confidence in its own integrity and, deeper still, its very sense of what the nation was.”
This necessarily implies – though Phillips says it explicitly – that “[u]ntil about forty years ago, British society had been relatively homogeneous … British national identity centred upon a set of traditions, laws and customs arising out of its Christian heritage”.
It is a crutch on which Phillips regularly leans. “Judaism and Christianity,” she writes, are “the creeds that formed the bedrock of Western civilisation.” Accordingly, what is so problematic about Muslim migrants, unlike their Jewish predecessors, is that they are “foreign to the Judeo-Christian Western heritage.”
Much is invested in this foundational Judeo-Christian heritage by anti-multiculturalists. The Australian Government makes special note of it in its information booklet for prospective citizens. The Howard Government spruiked it regularly.
It is invoked as a historical anchor, yet the entire concept of a Judeo-Christian heritage, at least as used by Phillips to connote a harmoniously shared culture and values system, is a remarkable re-writing of history.
The idea of that Jews and Christians share values or beliefs does not appear until probably the 1930s, and the mere suggestion of it will have been anathema to many Christians until after World War II (the Jews, after all, were guilty of the most heinous of crimes: deicide).
Moreover this is a historical legacy that cannot be rendered exclusively Catholic, and from which Britain cannot claim to be unproblematically exempt. We forget that the attacks of militant Zionism against the British proceeded in part from Menachem Begin’s belief in the incurable anti-Semitism of Christian Europe, including the British, whom he accused of “determinedly shut[ting] their ears to the cry of Jewish blood dyeing the rivers of Europe” because they “very eagerly wanted the Jews not to be saved”.
In theological terms, the construction of a Judeo-Christian tradition is similarly incoherent. Certainly, Jews and Christians partially share scripture. But they interpret it in fundamentally different ways, evidenced by the fact that no Jewish theologian could have imagined the Trinity.
Indeed, of the great monotheistic faiths, Christianity constitutes the greatest theological departure. Islamic and Judaic monotheism have far more in common. Their legal traditions more closely converge. If there is an odd one out in this triumvirate, it is Christianity.
The forging of a Judeo-Christian tradition as a historical basis for Western civilisation is more a political act than a historical fact. Indeed the term’s very creation was an attempt to resist the fascistic, anti-Semitic discourse of those who promoted the exclusively protestant identity of America. To that end, it was a noble piece of linguistic innovation, quite at odds with the contemporary tendency to use it as a statement of exclusion.
This is how we create new cultures, new histories, new objects of veneration while pretending it was ever thus. The effect is to convey a heightened sense of cultural assault, in spite of the fact that some banks had chosen to cease using them without violating national heritage regulations.
Similarly were we introduced to “the long-enshrined legal principle that taxis are a public conveyance open to all” so undermined in Minnesota. Perhaps it really is a long-enshrined legal principle. We’re unlikely to know because it is hardly a point of law that draws our regular admiration or figures in our daily conversations. It is not the Magna Carta. But there is a message being conveyed in the gravity of the language here.
The Judeo-Christian example provides a nice illustration of how national narratives can change. The outcast, often brutalised Jew in time becomes the ontological insider. When Phillips speaks of a certain, stable British identity, her time horizons are vast: “for around one thousand years, [Britain’s] demographic profile remained remarkably stable,” she writes as though this implies an uncontested British identity.
It is a gloss that might have bemused many Welshmen and especially Scots over the centuries, who have quite clearly identified differently. Even (or especially) today, local identities are threatening to undermine the British union to the extent that The Daily Telegraph saw fit to launch a wonderfully blunt “Call Yourself British” campaign.
The simple fact is that nation states are artificial creations often sustained by mythical narratives, coercion and violence. Phillips writes as though they are divine truths, threatened by the immigration of those who, in the natural order, belong elsewhere.
Here we have the nostalgic fiction of an ossified national culture that has ever been thus until multiculturalism and cultural relativism uprooted it. She assumes, indeed celebrates, a pre-existing monoculture. The main weakness of this portrait of course is that it fails to account for the fact that cultures are always contested and dynamic.
Here we find the residue of the groupist mindset earlier identified. As minorities are essentialised, so too are the majority. Each belongs to a group with a distinct, unchanging culture. This leaves only one option for anti-multiculturalists: to ensure that minorities are pulled into line with their dominant hosts. There is no room for mutual evolution. One must yield to the other.
And yet Australia in particular is a compelling example of the fluidity of culture and identity. “Anglo-Australian culture,” writes Levey, has “been changed in various ways by successive waves of migrants, from the rise of soccer as a popular sport, to so-called ‘new Australian cuisine’, to the now national preference for coffee over tea and wine over beer.”
Such cultural accretions are an inevitable consequence of human interaction. Values and identity are similarly dynamic. This is, after all, a nation that once saw itself in thoroughly British terms, as a colonial outpost with a specific racial composition – that once denied its indigenous population a civic existence in accordance this self-imagination. Human societies are inescapably responsive to their changing surroundings. Would Australian values now include environmentalism?
Naturally, this does not render culture entirely relative. Cultures differ, as anyone who has attempted to conduct business internationally can confirm. There are different boundaries of propriety, norms of formality, and yes, contrasting values systems. We should not be hesitant in acknowledging this.
Moreover, it is true that Australia quite obviously has predominantly a British cultural inheritance. Our government follows the Westminster system. Our courts are populated with barristers, not “trial lawyers” or inquisitorial judges. We continue to play cricket.
Note, however, that these are only broad observations. Beyond this lies the rich terrain of dynamism and contestation; of culture and subculture; of current and counter-current.
Do not the value systems of artists regularly challenge those of the political elite? Have not the values of environmentalists long been at odds with those of big business, and if this is changing, is that not spectacular dynamism? Was not the Howard Government’s WorkChoices policy an affront to the values of a significant portion of the electorate?
Such questions, and the associated arguments, could continue ad infinitum. We could unpack every value articulated in official government literature by assessing it in the light of government action if we wished. How is “compassion for those in need” expressed in the policy of the mandatory detention of children? Was the invasion of Iraq a manifestation of our “peacefulness”?
The problem with these questions is that in attempting to flesh out the meaning of Australian values, they simply end up articulating a contested political position. That is the nature of such intangibles. Any attempt at precise definition quickly becomes a subjective political orientation masquerading as a national consensus.
* * *
Folk devils are useful servants. They at once justify righteous rage and provide us the opportunity to articulate who we are through identifying who we are not. Predictably, more than any other minority in the post-September 11 era, Western Muslims have found themselves conscripted into this service.
Whether it be through the discourse of politicians, or through media reporting and commentary, they have become the central protagonists in a refreshed rhetorical attack on multiculturalism throughout much of the Western world.
Those attacks are diverse, but in contemplating the most popular anti-multiculturalist narrative, we can observe the mythologies surrounding a moral panic in action. Obviously, much of this myth-making concerns Muslims, centred especially on the potentially disastrous threat they pose to an overly-tolerant cultural majority. But equally important is the myth-making concerning that majority.
“As a descriptor, multicultural fits nicely,” writes Albrechtsen on the basis that Australia has integrated millions of migrants. “But once the ‘ism’ was added to multicultural, an accurate adjective morphed into a philosophy.” And it is this “philosophy” to which she objects.
Yet when popular anti-multiculturalists take it upon themselves to defend Western values from multicultural assault, their account of Western culture is by no means merely descriptive. It is ideologically active in its own right – or in Albrechtsen’s terms, philosophical. That is to say it promulgates no less an “ism” than the one they construct as so culturally suicidal.
This newly created “ism” is not liberalism, for as we have seen, it strays too far into collectivist areas to be an untainted expression of liberal ideology.
But consider the mythology that lies at the heart of popular anti-multiculturalist rhetoric: the remaking of history, the ossification of culture, and the attempt to reformulate one’s political orientation as a statement of traditionally shared values. That can only properly be described as “monoculturalism.”
Waleed Aly is a lecturer in politics at Monash University, where he also works within the Global Terrorism Research Centre. He is the author of People Like Us (Picador, 2007). An earlier version of this article was published in Essays on Muslims and Multiculturalism, edited by Raimond Gaita (Text Publishing, 2011).