Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on security and tackling terrorism in Munich in has re-ignited a debate over whether ethnic and racial segregation is the root cause of so-called home-grown terrorism, in particular the species that manifested itself so tragically on July 7th 2005 in London. Given my ethnicity (I’m the UK-born son of Hindu Indian immigrants) you may expect me to be apoplectic over the tone and content of Cameron’s rhetoric; at least I should be according to Labour’s Sadiq Khan MP, who accused the PM of ‘writing propaganda for the English Defence League.’ Yet I find myself agreeing with much of Cameron’s sentiments regarding the segregation that is rife in our nation, if not much of how he sees the failed ‘doctrine of State multiculturalism’ being rectified.
Even the most ardent critic of Cameron’s approach cannot deny certain home truths, not least that on 7/7 London was subject to terrorist atrocities which were planned in the UK and perpetrated by UK citizens, suggesting the existence of a group – however small and marginalised within their own communities – of young men willing to target innocent people they share a country with. It is also clear from my own experience, having grown up in Manchester and living now in London – two of the most ethnically diverse cities anywhere in Europe – that despite the appearance of being truly mixed communities, British cities are often split into sharply demarcated ghettoes along ethnic lines that remain largely unconnected to ‘mainstream’ society around them. Indeed, Cameron’s critics fall prey to cognitive bias based on the availability heuristic; ‘multiculturalism can’t have failed, just look at my local marketplace/library/leisure centre.’ I could regale you with anecdotes about Walthamstow Market or London’s Chinatown and their bewitching mix of people, and the Guardian seems keen to promote this view judging by Madeleine Bunting’s latest article and many letters to the editor; none of these would serve to deny that for so many in the UK, people who share post-codes all too often don’t feel as though they’re from the same planet.
In itself immigrant populations grouping together may reflect perfectly innocent and understandable motives; remaining close to those with whom you share a common heritage makes living in unfamiliar territory more palatable whilst you’re still ‘fresh off the boat’ as it were, as well as smoothing business and other relations between like-minded people. If this initial huddling fails to lead to greater integration and we end up with discrete ‘each-to-their-own’ enclaves, either the internal push to do so is defunct or the external pull of society at large is failing; it’s surely a little of both. Cameron’s point is that if the State practices ‘passive tolerance,’ remaining neutral to all cultural practices as long as they are lawful, the ‘pull’ factor falls away and can result in segregated communities which fail as a whole to subscribe to the values of the wider national (and supra-national) narrative – and that tensions would inevitably follow, leading in the extreme to the EDL-style rejection of different cultures, and its mirror image of the regression into hateful ideology.
To me, however, no matter if there’s a grain of truth in Cameron’s assertion that extremist sentiment is fostered by the toleration of more moderate streams of thought, the remedies he suggests are liable to being ineffective at best and inflammatory at worst.
Liberals automatically recoil at talk of having citizens subscribe to a set national identity, and rightly so – there is an inherent challenge in balancing people’s right to freedom of religious and cultural practice and the State promoting a certain set of values to which we expect everyone to sign up to; and perhaps more pertinently, to dealing with individuals and groups that neglect aspects of those values. On reflection I’d say that the UK has broadly got this balance wrong in recent decades, but that Cameron’s suggested cures – to ban visitors to the UK whose views we find distasteful, or to withdraw State funding from community groups who don’t do enough to encourage integration into society – miss the point entirely and are in direct contradiction with vast swathes of government policy, current or past.
For if we are truly to create a society in which people are at once free to hold on to their private beliefs without fear that the tyranny of the majority will quash their individual liberty; in which we see each other as partners in each others’ well-being and not opposed in our goals; in which our public realm truly reflects, as Cameron puts it, “a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone;” then the values and practices embodied by the State must themselves be ‘open to everyone,’ they must be secular and humanist in nature, which has some uncomfortable consequences to the very Conservatives who may welcome the PM’s remarks.
For there is a stark contradiction at the heart of Cameron’s thoughts. If it is wrong to give taxpayers’ money to community groups deemed ineffective at integrating their members into mainstream society, why does the State continue to fund faith schools, many of which encourage the very separatism we seek to avoid through their selection criteria and curriculum? If it is wrong to give a platform to those who preach what society finds unpalatable, why was the Pope given such a warm welcome when his Church’s views on homosexuality and birth control go against what the nation holds to be true? If we are to apply strict criteria to recipients of government funding, why do we not apply them to nations with whom we do business but who fail to live up to our standards on human rights?
Indeed, the contradiction strikes at the very core of this government’s overall strategy. A strong, secular public realm is key to a strong, cohesive society, as it promotes people from diverse backgrounds having shared experiences that tie them together; Cameron even says so when he champions the National Citizen Service. And yet we seem set to close libraries, privatise much of our common forest land and hand over education to faith groups and the like – all of which will reduce the opportunity for our children to share their lives with those from varied cultures, to learn from them, to learn not to fear them. If we really want to tear down the barriers that divide us from our neighbours and countrymen, if we truly seek to see the best in them, we must first build a strong and strongly secular public realm that celebrates our diversity and cements our shared humanity; without that, speeches such as this will be nothing but tilting at windmills.