Opinion: Clegg is right on multiculturalism

A matter of hours after his party finished a humiliating sixth in the Barnsley Central by-election, Nick Clegg’s ‘Muscular Liberalism’ speech gave him an opportunity to appease disillusioned party members ahead of the spring conference. Amid the continuous onslaught of accusations of ‘selling out’, Clegg’s defense of multiculturalism showed clear water between his policy and that of the Conservatives.

In this speech, Clegg highlighted an indisputable split in the Coalition Government’s approach to tackling extremism. The deputy prime minister showed that he is unwilling to compromise on the communities agenda that remains the Liberal Democrats’ strongest suit amongst the inevitable compromises of coalition rule.

The fact that his comments were saved for a speech in Luton is no coincidence. Last month’s English Defence League demonstration in the Bedfordshire town had earlier prompted Cameron’s untimely and divisive comments that state multiculturalism has failed. And what better place to challenge the prime minister’s views on engaging with extremists than in the hometown of the 7/7 bombers?

It would be easy to dismiss Clegg’s speech as a simple show of strength at a time of unprecedented weakness for his party. The timing and wording were undoubtedly designed to voice an independent Lib Dem line, but he has raised some pertinent challenges to a potentially damaging speech by his Conservative counterpart. His opinions should not be disregarded lightly.

Cameron’s hard line approach to groups that disagree with our values on issues such as women’s rights or integration will do nothing to bring their views closer in line with our own. His words implied that we lend social acceptability to such opinions by engaging with them. He guised this under the term ‘muscular liberalism’, giving the impression that there were points of support between the coalition partners, but this piece of political jargon actually goes against the grain of what liberalism stands for.

Clegg’s vision of liberalism appears to be one that protects the space of multiculturalism and supports the right to dissent within it. Engaging with groups who hold difficult and challenging views does not intrinsically threaten our values. Ignoring them poses a greater threat.

Having worked closely with the Prevent agenda and combatting extremism for nearly five years, I can confidently say that isolating groups that do not endorse our social principles will only strengthen their resolve. The opinions and beliefs of extremists, no matter how abhorrent or threatening we find them, will persist regardless of whether politicians listen to them. Turning a deaf ear to radical ideologies will leave them to fester and persist beyond the reach of the state. Challenging them directly can expose the misinformation and contradictions that fuel radicals.

Clegg can be forgiven for repeating the term ‘muscular liberalism’ because on all other counts his speech ticked all of the right boxes. It was inclusive, yet very clear that the fundamentals of our society are strong and robust enough to listen to and challenge those who do not believe in protecting the rights of all people.

The deputy prime minister is finally playing to his strengths and standing up for the values that form the backbone of our liberal tradition. His speech was in line with the reality of life in the communities in Britain. Far from Cameron’s alarmist and anchronistic view of multiculturalism, Clegg has shown that we have the confidence to listen to and disprove illiberal ideologies, not simply ignore them in the hope that they will disappear.

Fiyaz Mughal, Founder and Director of Faith Matters

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16 Comments

  • Sean McHale 7th Mar '11 - 4:41pm

    “The space of multiculturalism”

    What on earth does that mean?!

  • Sean McHale 7th Mar '11 - 4:46pm

    I fail to see why the government should fund groups which support homophobia and align with deeply illiberal values.

    This doesn’t mean the government is not engaging with these people, it is just saying we’re not going to give you money. Cameron’s argument is akin to those who argue against state faith schools. It’s ok for people to hold these beliefs, it’s just that we’re not going to fund something which is divisive and segregates people as it is counter-productive.

    Of course, if Cameron had ended state funding of state schools this would mean that Muscular liberalism wasn’t just an empty phrase, but he hasn’t.

  • “And what better place to challenge the prime minister’s views on engaging with extremists than in the hometown of the 7/7 bombers?”

    I thought they came from Yorkshire? They caught the train from Luton IIRC.

  • “Engaging with groups who hold difficult and challenging views does not intrinsically threaten our values”

    How can one engage with groups who are 100% against certain people simply for who they are?

    Johann Hari
    Can we talk about Muslim homophobia now?
    http://www.johannhari.com/2011/02/25/can-we-talk-about-muslim-homophobia-now

    Gay-bashers thrive in modern-day Netherlands
    http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/ezra_levant/2010/10/08/15630946.html

  • @ George W. Potter

    When have we in the UK seen groups of fundamentalist Christians, Jews or Hindus beating up gay people and distributing leaflets condemning them?

    Simply mentioning the fact that the vast majority of muslims are homophobic and that some actually commit violence against gay people amounts to “resorting to islamophobia” does it?

    I’d like to see how you personally would deal with this problem, yet you seem to prefer insulting your opponents – anything rather than admit it exists. You can “challenge homophobia” all you like, but if they simply ignore you, then what?

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Mar '11 - 5:17pm

    Alex: “Johann Hari’s concern about Muslim homophobia is weakened by his past defence of Ken Livingstone’s honouring of Yusuf al-Qaradawi.”

    I don’t see how. It’s that Voltaire thing – nothing inconsistent about it at all.

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Mar '11 - 5:24pm

    George: “Liberals can challenge homophobia within groups such as muslims… without using it as an excuse for xeno and islamophobia.”

    They certainly can, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be denounced as islamophobes anyhow.

  • Alex Macfie 8th Mar '11 - 9:47pm

    @Stuart: Ken Livingstone went way beyond allowing Al-Qaradawi his right to free speech. He invited Al-Qaradawi to a conference at City Hall as an “honoured guest”, and publicly embraced him. I have no problem with people with such repugnant views being allowed a platform, but I think that they should merely tolerated. And I certainly do not think that public money should be used to give them uncritical hospitality. It seems similar to the approach taken by Ken to Sinn Fein/IRA when he was GLC leader; unfortunately, he does not appear to understand that to engage with extremists actually means that you have to publicly and privately indicate your disagreement with them, and you have to keep a distance from them (engage on ‘neutral territory’, so to speak). You do not invite them to conferences as honoured guests, or embrace them. Just as I would not expect any public leader to give red-carpet treatment to a Ku Klux Klan or EDL spokesman, so I think it was inappropriate to celebrate an Islamist cleric.

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