End chorus of intolerance
THE BEST thing that can be said for the critics of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom is that they are confused. Their muddled thinking was perfectly illustrated last week by David Davis, the Tory shadow (opposition) home secretary, when he denounced the concept and then added that he welcomed “the mainstream version of Islam as part of British society.” That is as good a definition of multiculturalism as we are likely to get.
The charitable explanation of the confusion is ignorance — an inability to distinguish between integration and assimilation. The alternative interpretation is more sinister. Muslims are accepted in Britain — but only if they cease to behave like Muslims.
To demand that Muslims abandon their way of life — what they eat, how they dress, which way they choose their husbands and wives — is to make a frontal assault upon their faith. Islam is a total religion. People who go to church on Christmas Eve and think that makes them Christians may not realise that devout Muslims believe that the Qur’an should inform their whole lives.
Britain has to decide if the freedom that we so value is consistent with attempts to suppress the religious practices of the country’s fastest-growing faith. The fact that most of us do not share their beliefs (and some of us have no beliefs at all) is irrelevant. Only primitive people want to destroy everything they do not like or understand. The civilised, and sensible, approach is to welcome diversity as a stimulus to renewed vitality.
It is important for Muslim women born elsewhere to learn English and far better for their children to attend state schools. And it goes without saying that Muslims should — as most of them do — reject the violence of suicide bombers. But invitations to enjoy the benefits of British society are, like insistence on obedience to the rule of British law, quite different from the demand that they abandon a whole culture.
The excuse for demanding Muslim conformity — Catholic and Quaker schools being acceptable when Islamic schools are not — is the fear of something that, for want of a decent definition, the ignorant call fundamentalism.
But it is the assault on Islam — its culture as well as its theology — that has alienated some Muslim youths to the point at which they will not condemn anyone who champions their religion. Social disadvantage (high levels of unemployment and poor housing) combines with attacks on their favoured causes to make them feel rejected. Assaults on their habits as well as their faith will alienate them still further.
Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett’s confusion of arranged and forced marriages was deeply offensive to young Muslim women (many of them highly westernised) for whom “a traditional wedding” is the only form of matrimony with which they feel comfortable. But the greatest damage was done by the obsession, promoted by some newspapers and politicians, with immigration control.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw held back the tide of resentment by abolishing the “primary purpose rule,” which was invented to keep lawful husbands of Muslim British women out of this country. But the laid-back British still failed to recognise the passion with which British Muslims support their culture and their religion. At the beginning of the row over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, I told worshippers at the Birmingham central mosque that they should be as calm about their faith as most Christians are about theirs. A man called Saed Moghul told me: “You may not care about your religion, but that is no reason why we should not care about ours.” His logic was irrefutable.
Gerald Howarth — some sort of Tory frontbench spokesman — seems to think that British citizens who are not Christian, free-market democrats should forswear their beliefs or leave the country. The sensible alternative to that take-it-or-leave-it nonsense is acceptance that most Muslims will live Islamic lives and still accept the laws and conventions that hold Britain together.
Whatever Mr. Howarth hopes, British Muslims will not go to what he imagines is their natural home. They are already there. This is where most of them were born and bred. They were taught at school that free men and women are entitled to live as they choose as long as their habits do not imperil the tranquillity of the nation. If we attempt to deny that right — or even discourage them from respecting their history and culture — they will turn from friends into enemies. And, in the difficult days that lie ahead, we need them on our side. —
Courtesy: © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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