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Allegiances in a Multicultural Age

Blair’s Problem

The Folly of Tolerance

Osama Outdated

Mosque Mission

Retraction Required

Precious Moment

Australia’s Boat People

Timid Diplomacy

Alien Politics

Huddling with Terrorists

Prince to Prince

A Clash of Internationalisms

Comic with Tragic Flaws

Endgame in Ulster?

Turks Deserve Better from the U.S.

Hard Cases

Bush Leaves His Mark

O'Sullivan's Archive


Allegiances in a Multicultural Age
Discovering the dangers of worshipping tolerance.

November 8, 2001 8:30 a.m.


or the last decade or so, multiculturalism has been the reigning doctrine in Britain almost as much as in the U.S. A steady stream of official statements from New Labor ministers and think tanks have poured scorn on every traditional British institution from the House of Commons to the Changing of the Guard as outdated, snobbish, and unsuited to a country that is now home to many ethnic minorities. An official commission, inquiring into a murder by racist hooligans, diagnosed the polite British bobby as suffering from "institutionalized racism." An unofficial commission, headed by a Labor peer, criticized the very concept of "Britishness" as inherently racist and exclusionary. And the entire corpus of monarchy, law, parliament and church is disparaged as "the ancien regime."

In its place, New Labor ministers seek to "re-brand" the country as a modern, meritocratic, and multicultural country that places an equal value on the many different cultural traditions contributing to contemporary British life. Ethnic quotas are quietly spreading through the public sector; in schools "divisive" British history is sidelined in favor of a either a bland world history or one focused on the culture of local minorities; and the British people are being redefined by New Labor sympathizers as "a community of communities." At times one has half expected Mr. Blair to issue a Declaration of Independence and denounce Elizabeth II for "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations." But he has confined himself to upstaging the Queen on ceremonial occasions — notably her daughter-in-law's funeral. Today, with a war looming, Mr. Blair needs to draw on the reserves of traditional British patriotism. But he has bumped up against one consequence of multiculturalism: Not everyone in the country regards Britain either as home or as the nation to which they owe allegiance.

In particular, an unknown number of British Muslims have volunteered to journey to Afghanistan and to fight on the side of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban against British troops. Last weekend four such British volunteers were killed in Afghanistan when U.S. bombs hit their building. And television screens have carried pictures of Muslim demonstrations against the Anglo-American bombing campaign, apparently taking place in some Middle Eastern setting which, on closer examination, turned out to be Luton — a small industrial town about two hours north of London.

When questioned, the demonstrators — some immigrants but some born in Britain — deny that any disloyalty to Queen and country is involved. For they do not regard themselves as "British Muslims" but merely as Muslims living in Britain. Their allegiance is to Islam, they say, not to an infidel government that is illegitimate and destined one day to be replaced by an Islamic regime based on traditional Sharia law.

Not all Muslims in Britain share these views, of course. One of the very few physical attacks on Muslims was carried out not by white bigots but by three moderate Muslims who felt that their fundamentalist victim was giving Islam a bad name. Also, many Muslim parents must be worried that their impressionable sons, led astray by some extremist Mullah, might set off for Kabul without any real idea of the horror that awaits them there. Still, the evidence suggests that a sizeable percentage of Britain's two million Muslims cherishes separatist religious and ethnic sentiments. A Sunday Times survey of 1,170 Muslims showed 40 percent thought that Osama bin Laden was justified in waging war on the U.S., another 40 percent thought that Britons were justified in fighting with the Taliban, 68 percent thought it was more important to be Muslim than British, 73 percent thought that Tony Blair was not right to support the U.S., and a staggering 96 percent thought the U.S. should stop the bombing of Afghanistan.

It is possible to quibble with this survey. It was taken outside Mosques after prayers and so probably exaggerates the number of Muslims favorable to the Taliban. Also, almost all religious people would place their God above their country. A better-phrased question would have asked if Islam and Britishness were compatible — and many more than 14 percent would assuredly have answered yes.

Even with these qualifications, however, the survey suggests that some, maybe many, British Muslims live in a different mental world from their fellow citizens. They inhabit cultural enclaves that in significant ways are detached from the rest of British life. They resist cultural assimilation to the point, for instance, of removing their daughters from school in their early teens lest they be corrupted by a modern secular education. And they send their children to Pakistan to contract arranged marriages — not only because that will allow their new spouses to enter Britain legally but also to ensure that Muslim culture is transmitted to the next generation by minimizing the risk of mixed marriages.

We should not be surprised by this. After all, the preservation of immigrant cultures against the pressures and temptations of assimilation is one purpose of official multiculturalism in Britain, in the U.S. and in the nation which invented it, namely Canada. It simply never occurred to New Labor ministers, any more than to Bill Clinton, that the cultures being preserved by it might be even more hidebound and traditional, and less liberal, than their own national cultures which they saw as an obstacle to a "modernization" and ethnic equality.

Well, they understand it now. Britain's Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has announced that the government will shortly introduce new programs to ensure that immigrants not only learn the English language but also master a list of the qualities that go to make up "Britishness."

That is, of course, almost an American way of becoming British. Countless immigrants to the U.S. went to night school to learn how to become an American; the British until now have assumed that Britishness was something you simply picked up by living in the country long enough. And, indeed, older Muslims who came to Britain in the sixties and seventies generally assimilated to the traditional British identity comfortably enough and today express loyalty to their adopted country. So, both approaches have their merits.

But what Mr. Blunkett is likely to discover, when he sets out to draw up a list of qualities signifying "Britishness," is that he is embarking on a magical mystery tour. Almost all the traditional elements in British political culture — the jury system, "fair play," the Queen — have been laughed to scorn by New Labor. Newer symbols of "Cool Britannia" — the fashion industry, pop stars — evoke emotions very different to patriotism, ranging from envious adulation to a mystified irritation. And on top of that, the rich variety of institutions, values and loyalties enmeshed in a self-confident national culture have been replaced under multiculturalism by one official virtue, a tepid "tolerance" that respects all other groups and the values they embrace but grants no strong overriding attachment to one's own people and its way of life.

Such a tolerance might well be worthy enough in the abstract. But it is inadequate and even harmful outside a specific cultural context (a deracinated tolerance would presumably permit genital female mutilation; a British or American tolerance would not.) And on its own it is quite incapable of evoking strong patriotic loyalties from anyone.

Not that multiculturalism wants to encourage such loyalties. Quite the reverse. It regards them as the cultural oppression of ethnic minorities. It encourages immigrants, their children and their grandchildren to cut themselves off from their fellow citizens and remain foreigners indefinitely. And if Britain's Muslims are the test, it has had some success in that regard.

Under the impact of war, Tony Blair is discovering that multiculturalism is fundamentally incompatible with either patriotism or national unity. For some of its American admirers, of course, that's the point.


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