In the latest issue of The Economist, the columnist Charlemagne (named, appropriately enough, after the fiercely Christian 8th-century king who defined the frontiers of Western Europe) argued against formal restrictions on free speech. Laws against Holocaust denial and the denial of the Armenian genocide were wrong, he wrote, because they discouraged the honest expression of opinion and that was bad mainly because political correctness stopped non-Muslim Europeans from criticizing Muslims. “It may be hard to reconcile militant Islam with secular Europe. But Europeans have… (made) it hard to discuss the subject honestly.”
After reading that I wondered if Europe was in fact crowded with people gingerly stepping around Muslim sensibilities (the last I heard, Sarkozy was threatening French Muslims with water hoses and Europeans were rallying with some enthusiasm in support of the Pope’s covert swipe at Islam’s prophet), but shook off that sceptical thought thinking that perhaps Charlemagne lived in a politically hyper-correct neighbourhood where he found it difficult to express honest objections to fundamentalist Islam. Then I got to the end of the column. These are its last two sentences: “It is hard to integrate Muslims into European society. Restricting free speech makes it even harder.” From militant Islam as an awkward political tendency we have moved in the space of a magazine page to Muslims in general as the problem.
This is an ugly move undisguised by the urbanity of The Economist’s prose. We should take a minute to spell out what Charlemagne’s bald generalization means. It means that Muslims are Europe’s awkward squad. The briefness of that sentence presents this position as self-evident truth. Muslims from Turkey, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia are all hard to integrate into European society.
This anxiety about the failure of Muslims to “integrate” extends beyond the columns of The Economist. It is shared by Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Polly Toynbee. They see veiled women and predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods as the first bad signs of a parallel Muslim society, dangerously separate from the mainstream. Like The Economist, they believe that a bit of well-meant plain-speaking might jolt sullen Muslim communities into emancipating their womenfolk, moving out of their ghettoes and discovering the alien pleasures of European secularism and Western free speech.
It is tempting to point out that all immigrant communities tend to live in ethnic enclaves. At different times Afro-Caribbean immigrants, Jews and Indians have lived in little versions of ‘home’ in London: Southall is a good example. The fact that African Americans live in huge ghettoes in every major American city isn’t generally seen as a form of separatism on their part. It’s seen as a function of history, poverty and racial discrimination. It would take a brave columnist to argue that blacks had failed to integrate themselves into the American ‘mainstream’ without indicating that the mainstream shared the responsibility for that failure.
The two interesting aspects of the contemporary critique of Muslim ‘separatism’ in Europe is, first, the willingness of politicians and the press to make Muslims wholly responsible for their alienation, and, second, the enthusiasm with which State and civil society have pushed to suspend or attenuate the legal and customary freedoms on which Western democracies were built, the better to control this disaffected minority.
The irony here is that, at the same time, as the defenders of the West’s liberties and freedoms exhort newspapers to republish the Danish cartoons, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, criticizes Berlin’s Deutsche Oper for cancelling shows of Mozart’s opera, Idomeneo, as an abrogation of freedom of expression and a capitulation to threatened ‘Islamic’ violence, leaders like John Reid, Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair extol the value of laws that prolong periods of detention without due process and criminalize speech deemed to be an incitement to ‘terror’. The same British state that wishes to ‘mainstream’ British Muslims, sends circulars to British universities encouraging teachers to single out Asian and Muslim students for special monitoring and to report upon their activities.
There are other ironies. On the one hand, American and British foreign policy has been anchored by the assumption that human rights and liberal freedoms are universal, that democracy is, therefore, exportable. On the other hand, British politicians of every stripe have made it clear that the good Muslim citizen is the ‘integrated’ Muslim citizen, this integration to be measured not by the degree to which she conforms to her nation’s laws, but by the extent to which she accepts the customs of the ‘mainstream’: by the way she dresses, the neighbourhoods in which she lives, the provenance of the mosque at which she worships.
Politicians and writers who make universalist claims for liberal democracy shouldn’t make noises about integration. The only mainstream a free citizen should be asked to join is the mainstream of secular law. The freedoms of liberal democracy are tested by its accommodation of mores that the mainstream doesn’t like. The pluralism of these democracies should be judged not by the tame diversity of tandoori restaurants and kebab shops, but by their ability to live with more indigestible difference, such as halal meat and burqas. If the American Civil Liberties Union can defend the right of Ku Klux Klan to make speeches (white men in white hoods who once specialized in lynching black men), shouldn’t the British Labour party be upholding the right of peaceful brown women in burqas to dress as they please'
But to ask this rhetorical question is to forget that British democracy doesn’t value diversity and pluralism in the way that republican democracy in India does. It’s a mistake to think, as many do, that the decline in church attendance indicates that England is a post-Christian society. It has become routine to treat the Church of England as a kind of joke, but its symbolic power remains enormous. John Sentamu, the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, recently described English culture as rooted in Christianity and argued that despite attempts by secularists to marginalize it, the Church still had a central role to play in the life of the nation. Sir Richard Dannatt, the commander-in-chief of the British army, made a public statement recently in the course of which he declared that Britain was a Christian nation. The reason the Archbishop of York and the top soldier in Britain can make statements like these without public furore is because England does, in fact, have an Established Church.
Your mainstream English democrat will let you know that the freedom of speech enshrined in English democracy grows out of a protestant tradition of religious dissent. This may well be true: but free speech became a universal value when it was set free of its protestant roots. Unlike Indians, the English have never tried to construct a definition of citizenship that was universal, abstracted from culture, not anchored to it. Till they do, Charlemagne and company will continue to aggravate the problems of a plural society by calling for minorities to assimilate themselves not to universal freedoms but to the parochial habits of a hectoring majority.