Was Cameron’s “Attack on Multiculturalism” Really an Attack?

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On the 5th of February 2010, David Cameron chose terrorism as the primary focus for his speech at the Munich security conference, specifically its causes. Recent articles have lambasted him for what he said; however have we just simply misunderstood the message?

For Cameron the root lies in an extremist Islamic ideology, something he takes great pains to stress is not the same as being a devout Muslim. He also states that Islamic extremism is an ideology followed by only a tiny minority of Muslims. Even within the ideology of “Islamic extremism”, he puts forward a scale from the truly terrorist through to those opposed to western values.

This appears to be a million miles away from the way in which Cameron’s speech is being attacked by the left as a direct attack on the religion of Islam. It seems merely to suggest that aspects of the Islamic community, not the actual religion itself, are extreme. Yet this seems provocation enough for some to consider Cameron to be attacking the wider Islamic community. Yet, as stated, this is something Cameron does not do.

Other articles have suggested that Cameron does not address the far right and as such victimises the Islamic community. However he clearly criticises the “hard right” for forwarding the idea that “Islam and the west are irreconcilable”, stating categorically that he “completely rejects their argument“. It seems that because he did not directly name the EDL during the speech, he has somehow failed to criticise them; yet in stating that he rejects the arguments of the hard right, criticise them is exactly what he does.

In direct response to those who feel Cameron did not go far enough in rebuking the actions of the EDL, we say this. Surely the best way to undermine their support base is to integrate communities under a broader national identity, working to remove the tensions which do undoubtedly exist between communities. This in turn would act to counter the minority who follow the political doctrine of Islamic extremism by giving them far less to rebel against and by stopping them from feeling isolated in the first place.

The Prime Minster is right to highlight that those who go on to commit terrorist offences do not start off as terrorists, but rather turn to extremism when they feel they are not part of a broader community. Cameron’s speech describes a two pronged attack: the first step is to unite people behind a British identity; the second is to deny or remove funding for those groups who preach extremism.

Another point Cameron challenges is the idea that poverty and a lack of democracy are the ultimate causes of terrorism. Instead he claims that identity is the key factor. As he notes, multiculturalism can lead to separate cultures existing in isolation from society, thereby discouraging popular interaction; this erodes national identity. Isolation leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstanding can lead to tension.

There is of course one nation in which multiculturalism has flourished, the United States. Identity is dear to Americans in so many ways: a state identity; a religious identity; and in the case of migrants, the cultural identity of their indigenous land. Whilst holding all these identities, the vast majority remain deeply patriotic to America. This is because there is a clear American cultural identity which individuals are encouraged to embrace.

This is not the case in Britain, where such a distinctive and codified identity simply does not exist, British citizens do not pledge allegiance to the flag in the way Americans do. Cameron’s point seems to be that a collective identity is in essence a sense of belonging. For most of us, the feeling that we belong in a society is a positive thing, a source of strength and pride, not something that should be disdained as an issue for “the tabloid media”.

It was this sense of belonging that the Prime Minister was promoting in arguing for integration.  He recognised, of course, that the majority of those who have come to Britain have made it their home and their society. Yet there remain those who do not feel a sense of belonging, who have clearly been failed by a state that allows them to be pushed to the margins.

It seems deeply baffling that Cameron is being attacked for the claim that the predominant amount of those following Islamic extremism are young men, for that is exactly the group who constitute the majority within this ideology. Of course he is not suggesting that women or older men do not follow this ideology, just that they are far less in number. To claim otherwise is simply taking his speech out of context.

Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the speech is equivalent to that of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood speech”, on the basis that somehow both Cameron and Powell share a fear of multiculturalism. How Powell is supposed to have feared a concept that at the time was undeveloped is unclear. What is clear however is that Powell was referring to a whole racial group, and was fearful of the effect immigration would have on British society.

Cameron by contrast, in his speech on the 5th of February, is referring to the followers of a political doctrine, Islamic extremism, a vastly different proposition. The theme was not “xenophobia” or “fear”, it was the importance of a functioning society. In promoting the integration of all members of society, the Prime Minister can hardly be accused of xenophobia, or pandering to “white racists”.

Cameron is fearful of the effect this doctrine and its minority of followers will have on wider British society, including the vast majority of the Muslim community. To suggest a similarity between the two speeches seems to demonstrate at best a misunderstanding of the speeches and at worst a wilful twisting of the facts to suit an ideological grievance with David Cameron.

A speech of this nature, challenging issues that people are often deeply uncomfortable in discussing, shows the genuine concern the Prime Minister has for this issue. For too long the question of state-backed multiculturalism has been the preserve of the political extremes, and Cameron should be lauded for breaching it.   If the result of this speech is a genuine debate on the direction of British society, that can only be a good thing.

[This article was written by Lee Walker and Dan Tor]
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Discussion2 Comments

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    This seems to largely be a response to the article I wrote the other day. Thanks for taking the time to do this, and raising some pretty valid points. I think you may have misunderstood some aspects of what I was saying, which is probably down to a lack of clarity on my part. This demands a longish response, so I’ll give you one.

    Cameron did draw a line between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. I wouldn’t, and didn’t, suggest otherwise.

    I don’t feel he didn’t go far enough to attack the EDL. I agree with you, the less coverage they recieve, the better. But his speech does pander to the same sense of paranoia (such as the concluding remark “at stake are not just lives, but our way of life.”) and justifications for intolerance (attacking multiculturalism for allowing extremism to develop) that they use.

    I utterly disagree with the points you make about British identity and the USA. I think British identity has been eroded over the last few decades, and this has had a negative impact on our society. But I don’t think this was caused by multiculturalism, more the swift pace of social change and post-Thatcher free market capitalism (bit of shameless self promotion: http://www.wessexscene.co.uk/politics/2010/05/21/english-culture-is-dead/).

    National identity can‘t be created by politicians, it either develops within a society, or it doesn’t. Also, how does the kind of nationalism and patriotic devotion expressed in the US, promote integration and acceptance? Isn’t it more likely those who don’t feel comfortable with that identity will feel even more victimised? True national pride comes from active communities which people feel a part of. Ironically what Cameron’s government is currently doing is taking those apart.

    Personally, I feel Cameron’s use of the idea of British identity WAS an appeal to the tabloid media. It’s an idea they love because it appeals to sense of alienation felt by a lot of British people. But I do not buy the argument about it being a cause of terror. I simply can’t see the causal link. If anything, promoting it will make those who already feel pushed to the margins, pushed even further away.

    The ‘deeply baffling’ criticism for the focus on young men is something I should probably explain better. It fits with Cameron’s argument to portray extremism as something exclusively limited to angry, young men. The ideas of a lack of belonging and being easily manipulated by dangerous ideas are always associated with that bracket. But if extremism is something that appeals to a broader demographic, then the causes seem more complex and the solutions less simple. Is it really limited in this way? You say you are convinced it is, but I would like to see the evidence.

    The link to Enoch Powell is based on the subject matter. Powell was describing a threat to British life arising from immigrant groups in Britain. So was Cameron. Both speeches felt that the liberal approach of sitting back and allowing it to happen was the cause. Both speeches made appeals to a lost British identity. Powell was talking about immigration in general, Cameron was talking about Islamic extremism. But in the substance of the fear they were addressing, and the arguments they made, the two speeches are rooted in a similar philosophy.

    I really take issue with the way Cameron simplifies the issue of terrorism, and makes it about multiculturalism and national identity. I don’t think it has anything to do with either of those factors. I certainly don’t think they are the sole cause. The use of that particular rhetoric, especially in the way it is reported afterwards (as Cameron would well know), plays on fear of different communities and a sense of victimised national pride. Combating terror doesn’t need those elements, it needs reason, and a broad look at all the factors involved in making it attractive for tiny minorities of the community.

    What also disturbed me about the speech was the idea of ‘muscular liberalism’. Whenever a politician starts using security threats to attack freedom of speech, it should set alarm bells ringing.

    Anyway, I’ve practically written another article so I’ll end it there. Thank you for this response, even though I disagree with a lot of it, it is written in a calm style that mine lacked and definitely made me reconsider some of what I was saying.

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