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Bad Faith IV

David Thompson‘s latest report from the frontline of post-modernity sees him take issue with Hari Kunzru‘s views on identity politics.

Yes, Hari, Some Values Are Bad Medicine

In the current issue of Mute magazine, Hari Kunzru argues that multiculturalism is losing out to the spectre of nationalism and the ‘imposition’ of shared values, all in the shadow of the ‘war on terror’. Kunzru’s opening paragraph is worth repeating in full, largely due to its loaded nature and how a tone is set for much of what follows.

“After 9/11 the British consensus around multiculturalism began to shift. In the wake of the 7/7 London bomb attacks, this process of change has accelerated sharply. Scanning the last nine months of media and government pronouncements, it appears the issue of the relationship between immigrant communities and our historically white Anglo-Saxon Protestant State is no longer primarily viewed as an economic or social issue; it’s a question of national security. So they’re here, they’re cleaning our toilets, nursing our old people and tiling our kitchen floors (good), still in Bombay but stealing our back-office jobs (mixed), scamming the NHS and being assigned prime council houses for their improvidently large families (bad), but mainly they’re settling among us and we have no guarantees about what they think. Any one of them might secretly be trying to murder us. Some of them definitely are (very very bad indeed).”

One can’t help but register how several issues are conflated here, and how legitimate lines of thought become smeared by association with less savoury arguments. It isn’t clear what purpose is served by presenting security concerns as involving all immigrants, and then clouding those concerns further with arguments about family size, Indian call centres and “scamming the NHS”. For instance, it’s hard to see how “a question of national security” would obviously involve, say, Poles, Hungarians or Bangladeshis, simply by virtue of being Polish, Hungarian or Bangladeshi. Nor is it entirely obvious why anti-terrorism measures would be focussed on, say, Hindus or Moroccan atheists, for whom notions of jihad and homicidal shahadat would be rather alien.

It’s true that the rise of Islamist sentiment — and various reactions to it — offers an opportunity to advance a conservative, backward-looking and parochial mindset; a Little England Remedy. But one cannot pretend this is the default motive of all questioning of multicultural assumptions. One might, for instance, question conceptions of multiculturalism precisely because one sees a dramatically conservative and backward-looking mindset being fostered in the name of progress and diversity. And one might challenge prevailing assumptions precisely because an appreciation of tolerance and diversity is not being reciprocated by all concerned.

Nor can one ignore the fact that the primary causes of this re-evaluation are the practical contradictions of multicultural ideology itself, including a dubious cultivation of tribalism, identity politics and unilateral entitlement. If the identity claims of one group include hatred of another group as a matter of religious observance, how is this to be reconciled with notions of accommodation and sensitivity? If one tribe demands its own parallel legal system as a matter of entitlement and respect for group identity, how can this be accommodated? Can a society function with rival and incompatible legal systems based on group affiliation? And what happens then to the egalitarian ideal of all being equal under one law?

Kunzru argues that, “Without… action to combat social and economic inequality, [multiculturalism] looks increasingly threadbare. Lacking belief in the power of their politics to produce fairness… our politicians are offering up the pageantry of respect as a consolation prize. Islam will be valued in law, on government websites and in glossy brochures as part of the tapestry of British diversity, but individual Muslims will remain poor and marginalised.” We are also told that the “smug guardians of the mainstream” should question their assumptions that “bad values” are “an adequate explanation for the alienation many feel”.

Setting aside the issue of whether any irrational belief system and its various misapprehensions should be ‘respected’ — as opposed to tolerated, which is not the same thing — a question remains. Given the frequency with which we are told that Islam defines the lives of many adherents above and beyond all else, why should this factor be excluded as a cause in discussions of marginalisation?

On a trivial level, some may embrace radical Islam as a variation of goth posturing — an alternative to a preoccupation with Marilyn Manson records, but with a wider range of activities and anger management issues. But, for many, more serious, Muslims, religious subscription involves constraints on social interaction, education and critical thought in general. For many believers, especially the literally inclined, Islam defines a particular orientation to the world of disbelief, one that is loaded with emotional implications. This orientation will, almost inevitably, have a number of practical consequences, whether in terms of employment opportunities and career advancement, or in terms of identification with one’s neighbours and surroundings.

Advocates of multiculturalism have done much that is admirable to inhibit creaking bigotry and xenophobia among “white Anglo-Saxons”. However, they’ve been rather less effective in addressing the bigotry and isolationism found among immigrant minorities, most obviously in a context of religious identity. An “adequate explanation for alienation” must include such considerations, however insensitive or improper they may seem. There are countless articles about “alienated Muslims” framed in terms of racism, capitalism and geopolitics. Yet, contrary to Kunzru’s claims, it is rare indeed to see any serious acknowledgment of the role played by a belief system that purports to govern all aspects of life and allegedly provides solutions to any conceivable problem.

David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 7th, 2006.