Sacha Ismail reviews “Are Muslims hated?”, Channel 4, 8 January
In the 1980s, writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik was a member of a peculiar left group called the Revolutionary Communist Party, which always, for reasons one could not trust, took up what they would have called “iconoclastic” views. Perhaps it should be no surprise how sharply the ideas he develops on racism, religion and the idea of “multiculturalism” are in conflict with the conventional wisdom of much of today’s left. But that does not necessarily mean he is wrong.
From the official anti-racists of the Commission for Racial Equality through Ken Livingstone to the SWP, the dominant forces on both the liberal and radical left share a number of key assumptions about racism and anti-racism in Britain today. Malik’s programme dealt with two that will be very familiar to readers of Solidarity.
The first is that “Islamophobia”, or hostility to people of Muslim religion or background, is the dominant feature in the landscape of British racism today, threatening Muslims in much the same way that anti-semitism threatened Jewish people in earlier periods of history.
The second is a prescription that the best way for progressives to respond to Islamophobia and other forms of racism is to champion “multiculturalism”, a concept rarely clearly defined but involving endorsement of diverse cultural practices in the name of tolerance and mutual respect.
In his half-hour slot, Malik sought to challenge both assumptions.
Black Britons are five times more likely than Asians to be stopped and searched, despite representing a much smaller section of the population.
One Muslim interviewee echoed an idea common on the left by stating that 95% of “anti-terror” searches have been carried out against Muslims; but Malik responded coolly that in fact Muslims account for only 15% of stop-and-search procedures authorised under the 2001 Terrorism Act.
He compared the worrying but comparatively small and non-violent increase in anti-Muslim attacks following 9/11 (mostly involving shoving, spitting, etc) to the climate of intimidation, fear and murderous violence which faced British Asians of all backgrounds in the early and mid-1980s.
No doubt the SWP, if they bother to respond to Malik at all, will dismiss him by the old Stalinist trick of the amalgam (“Kenan Malik says this, so does the Daily Mail, therefore. . .”) However, whatever criticisms one can make of his programme (and, mainly because it was so short, it was a little thin), it is clear that Malik was coming from a standpoint of anti-racism and also, for instance, opposition to the so-called anti-terror laws, which he described as an “affront to democracy”.
The denunciation of “Islamophobia” can be used to stifle criticism both of Islam and of the established authorities in mainly-Muslim communities.
Malik is opposed to the cultural relativist view which the Government’s proposals to outlaw religious hatred imply: “Why shouldn’t I be able to say I despise or detest [Islam] and its often misogynist, homophobic and reactionary practices?” (He interviewed Maryam Namazie, a leader of the Worker-communist Party of Iran, to reinforce this point.)
That “multiculturalism” is antithetical to the Marxist approach of consistent democracy and support for the oppressed has been demonstrated in the negative by the experience of the Respect Coalition, which not only has soft-pedalled on issues such as abortion and gay rights, but takes the classless approach of appealing to Muslim voters en bloc, the Brick Lane restaurant owner as much if not more than those whose labour he exploits.
In this, of course, Respect stands in the worst traditions of the Labour Party. The current “left” obsession with “multiculturalism” is essentially a gigantic popular front, stretching from the SWP and Muslim “community leaders” to the very heart of the new Labour government.
Only last month, Blair’s Energy Minister Mike O’Brien attempted to firm up the Muslim vote by attacking Michael Howard for his alleged failure to support a ban on religious hatred, the expansion of Muslim schools, and the “right” of women to wear the hijab (Howard’s response, naturally, was that he fully supported all these things).
What is striking is that the supposedly Marxist SWP would not dissent from any of what Howard was keen to agree with O’Brien about. In this climate, Kenan Malik provides a useful reminder of what the left should be about:
“Diversity is important because it allows us to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which are better and which worse. It’s important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create more universal values and beliefs.
“But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that multiculturalism can suppress in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’. The very thing that is valuable about diversity — the clashes and conflicts that it brings about — is what multiculturalists most fear.
“Rather than cut ourselves off from each other, each in our own multicultural ghettos, it would be far better to help build a dynamic common culture to which we all contributed and from which we all take.”