How liberals lost their anti-racism

October 3, 2007 — Comment

Written by Arun Kundnani

Recent books by Nick Cohen and Andrew Anthony point to a new hard-nosed liberalism which targets British Muslims.

A new sentiment has gripped the mainstream of liberal thinking in Britain over the last few years. It is an attitude that regards Muslims as uniquely problematic and in need of forceful integration into what it views as the inherently superior values of the West. For this new breed of liberal, previously cherished norms of multiculturalism should be discarded and the fight for racial and religious equality is irrelevant. The publication this year of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? how liberals lost their way and Andrew Anthony’s more sharply argued The Fall-Out: how a guilty liberal lost his innocence provide the clearest statements yet of what this new liberalism stands for. Their core argument can be stated straightforwardly: the major problem facing the West is a failure to stand up for its Enlightenment values. Liberalism has been infected by guilt – which prevents it from defending itself against external threats, chief among them ‘Islamism’, which is held responsible not only for terrorist violence but also for Muslim separatism in our cities. What precisely an Islamist is is left unclear; after all, a realistic definition of Islamism – as a wide range of political movements, some violent and some constitutional, generally with social conservatism at their core – would require the reader to pause for a moment before the ritual denunciation of all Islamists as irrational, nihilist and totalitarian.

But Cohen’s and Anthony’s main target is not so much Islamism as the appeasing attitudes they detect among liberals. Anthony writes that, since the 1970s, liberalism has been corrupted by White guilt which leads liberals to think that everything will be OK as long as they don’t interfere in other people’s lives, especially the lives of other ethnic groups. But this is fantasy: in practice, White liberals have not usually shied away from using the power of the state to intervene in the lives of non-Whites, either in Britain or in the neocolonialism of the ‘war on terror’. Moreover, at the conceptual level, liberalism has always lacked the means to generate the kind of social solidarity which Anthony wants to see. Individualist indifference has been a feature of liberal democracy since its inception. The slave-owning liberal democracy of early nineteenth-century America could not be said to be a society suffering from what Anthony calls a ‘guilt-warped vision of the world’, yet Tocqueville wrote of its citizens that ‘each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of the rest’.

It is precisely this void in liberalism’s social philosophy – its inability to generate common bonds – that led historically to liberals borrowing from the Left’s ideological basket and adopting the ideas of social equality and welfare rights. What has changed in recent years is that liberals now prefer to dine with the Right rather than the Left. As such, former Left-liberals such as Cohen, Anthony and many others are now Right-liberals. After all, Cohen thinks that the Left’s programme of social equality has largely been achieved (he doesn’t dwell on the gross inequalities that remain). It is not through tackling deprivation, then, that Right-liberals want to cohere our atomised society. And they regard as too soft the old liberal ideal of ‘cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’ (as Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins put it in 1966). Instead, the glue that will hold society together is a new post-7/7 British nationalism – the superiority of British values over other peoples’ and the need to defend them against foreign ideological threats. British culture, says Anthony, has, throughout time, valued freedom, rights and liberty. By contrast, he writes, Third World cultures value ‘petty corruption, sexism, homophobia, tribalism and patriarchal authoritarianism’. For Anthony, the battle lines are clearly drawn: on the one side, the Western Enlightenment and, on the other, what he calls the ‘Endarkenment’ of the Islamic world.

The emergence of this new liberal sentiment is taking place on the back of a kind of anti-Muslim hysteria, just as in the 1970s conservatism regenerated itself by projecting an imagined threat of Black culture. The irony is that in liberalism’s attempt to re-invigorate itself and overcome individualism, it degrades its own principles and descends into racial superiority. Thus, the new liberalism claims to champion freedom but is selective in whose freedom it fights for. It says individual freedoms are absolute but, for example, finds the individual freedom to wear a niqab problematic because, says Anthony, to wear one is to insist upon ‘a specific and separate identity’.

Likewise, the new liberals dedicate pages of coverage to high-profile Iraqi exiles who escaped Saddam’s regime and supported the war in Iraq. But neither Cohen nor Anthony have much to say of the thousands of ordinary Iraqis who fled in the years before the 2003 invasion and, rejected by the UK’s Home Office, continue to face a grim choice between destitution and deportation. The asylum seekers whom Anthony does refer to – Afghans and Iranians who drive cabs in London – are condemned for being insufficiently ‘pro-British’. And while, across liberal England, he sees censorship caused by Muslim intimidation, nothing is said of the glorification of terrorism legislation which aims to silence not incitement to violence but the circulation of Islamist ideas. Then, there are several pages of Anthony complaining about those who stereotype Americans as stupid and ignorant – an attack on prejudice which comes a few pages after he has denounced Arabs for their ‘lack of intellectual curiosity’ and ‘self-willed ignorance’.

In each case, the instinct of the new liberal is to champion the freedoms of the powerful. It is a way of thinking that has polluted the progressive elements of liberalism and, in its influence across Britain’s elites, given rise to an atmosphere of bigotry and insinuation, something which many prefer not to see. Much of the progress that has been made in fighting racism in Britain over the last forty years was the result of an implicit alliance between the activism of African-Caribbean and Asian communities, their supporters among the White working class, and those elements among the liberal intelligentsia who saw the need for reform – if only to avoid violent conflicts on Britain’s streets. That those elements have turned away from British Muslims is a loss to all those who are fighting for a society free of racism.

Related links

The End of Tolerance: racism in 21st century Britain

Socialist Worker

Arun Kundnani is the author of The End of Tolerance: racism in 21st century Britain, published by Pluto Press in September 2007. A shorter version of this article appears in this week's edition of Socialist Worker.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.


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