Not content with being this generation’s Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron gave a speech to the Munich Security Conference which had unmistakable echoes of Enoch Powell.
Powell, in his infamous rivers of blood speech, created a terrifying image of Britain where the white person was victimised and threatened by other races, and all this was tolerated in the name of multiculturalism. But the fears he talked of turned out to be nothing more than xenophobic paranoia. Rather than rivers of blood, multicultural Britain saw a generation of different racial backgrounds grow up together, and for the most part, get along.
Like Powell, Cameron’s words were motivated more by fear and less by reason. He was talking about ‘Islamist extremism.’ This is the new threat of the age. As with Powell’s speech, the line between the reality of the threat, and imaginary fears fed by xenophobia and paranoia is not explored by those who talk about it. All fear is considered legitimate. What is important is the idea that it’s always present, always imminent.
Cameron talked exclusively, and without explanation, of the threat arising from “young men.” Apparently, in Cameron’s eyes, extremism is not a lure for young women or old men. This seems illogical; there are women who have been attracted to radical Islam and old men who preach it. What Cameron is doing is creating an image of the young British Muslim man, the outsider, the threat, uncomfortable in our society. In classifying the problem in this way, he is trying to make it more simple and more digestable than it actually is. He also gives himself licence to define the cause.
And the cause, he feels, is state multiculturalism. Or, to put it another way, too much tolerance of extreme views along with an erosion of British national identity. The perfect blend of factors to be seized upon by the national press. The tabloid media will pick up the baton of the poor white British person, victimised in their own country and the broadsheets will write yards of comment about the non-democratic elements of certain Islamic groups and the threat they pose to our freedom.
But why, when you think about it, would multiculturalism be the cause? Multiculturalism means nothing more than people from different social groups living together while maintaining distinct identities. Of itself, it in no way implies that British identity should be eroded. It is a live and let live philosophy, the logical way for a liberal, tolerant and diverse society to organise itself.
Cameron, however disagrees. The ‘passive tolerance’ of multiculturalism, he states, ‘says to its citizens as long as you obey the law, we will just leave you alone, it stands neutral between values.’ And this is a problem. Liberal freedom of speech, he feels, if left unfettered, allows extremism to develop. In true Orwellian New Speak, he invented a term, ‘muscular liberalism’, to deal with the problem.
Muscular liberalism, which implies the state banning undesirable groups, is a contradiction in terms. It is not liberalism. It could not be further from it.
Cameron also told the conference that when a white person says something racist they are condemned, but we are afraid to confront unacceptable views from other racial groups. This does not seem to match the facts.
Islam4UK, a political group advocating Shariah law, were banned last year under anti-terrorism legislation. Now being a member is considered a terrorist offence worthy of a prison sentence. On the other hand, the EDL marched through Luton on the same day as Cameron gave his speech with the full support of the law. The BNP continues to be treated as a legitimate political party, invited to Question Time and contesting seats in elections.
Whether it is desirable for any of these groups to be banned is a contentious point. But the fact remains that if our law is more tolerant of one than the other, it doesn’t seem to be white racists who are coming off worse. Cameron’s statement is knowingly false, nothing more than a legitimisation of the world against us attitude felt and preached by the far-right
The question must also be raised, would banning these groups really stop them? Would illegalising even the discussion of Islamic fundamentalism make it disappear? Would an increase in draconian anti-terror laws, an increase in fear and the victimisation of often innocent young Muslim men mean they felt a greater connection and loyalty to Britain?
The factors that cause the threat of terrorism, among them the foreign policy persued by this government and its predecessor, would not go away. What we would be left with is an even more intrusive state which uses the excuse of the threat of terror to criminalise opinions.
Cameron summed up his speech by saying “at stake are not just lives, but our way of life.” This seems an extremely extravagant claim to make about a group who, as he conceded earlier in his speech, represent a tiny minority of the Islamic community. That kind of fear mongering and hyperbole should only have been found yesterday on the streets of Luton.
The effect of Cameron’s words remains to be seen. But he has turned to exagerated fear of threats to security and appeals to national pride, both as a defence against his own unpopularity and as a justification for a more draconian, less tolerant state. The implications of his words, when they stop being simple rhetoric and start being government policies, are the things that I’m really scared of.