Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

28 June 2007

Gordon Brown’s School Motto

In his short speech following his appointment to the post of prime minister yesterday, GB [Gordon Brown] stated that he will continue to be guided, as he has always been, by his High School motto: “I will try my utmost”.

The actual motto of Kirkcaldy High School is, in Latin, ‘Usque conabor’. GB’s translation is correct, although the emphasis on ‘my utmost’ is revealing: he could have said ‘I will try to the utmost’. This is in fact a rather individualist motto, reflecting a personal determination and ambition to improve oneself through education and hard work. In this respect, it’s unlike most school mottos, which make statements about the moral value of work, or other activities and qualities, in general. Traditionally, these aphorisms are also frequently tied in with Christian ethical ideals or even mention God explicitly – such as in my own school’s motto, Domine dirige nos (Lord guide us).

Conscious, perhaps, of the unusually individualistic character of its motto, the High School has now modified the translation to ‘Working Together to Improve’. While this motto in turn, in its reaffirmation of the socially progressive value of work and education, could almost serve as a campaign slogan for the Labour Party, it is distinctly more collaborative than the original translation that embedded itself in GB’s memory.

We are left with an impression of a prime minister who will indeed work hard. But at the same time, we cannot be sure that the objectives towards which he will strive will be ones commanding the assent of even the majority of the people, let alone all the people – rather than just goals which GB has determined in advance and will be resolute in carrying through. Certainly, we can’t be sure that he will be guided by the Christian principles of his Church of Scotland father, let alone the wider Christian tradition of service to others that the queen symbolises as head of state and head of the Church of England.

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25 June 2007

Islamophobia: Driver Of the War On Terror

It used to be said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the liberal. It is fairly obvious which religion has taken over that mantle today. Views that would be widely regarded as prejudiced and offensive if directed towards other religious or ethnic groups are often seen as acceptable when expressed about Islam. These opinions and sentiments slip beneath liberals’ politically-correct censorship monitor in the guise of a supposed defence of the very liberal values that dictate political correctness in the first place; above all, in the guise of a defence of tolerance. The consequence is that advocates of the liberal position are frequently completely blind to the Islamophobia they are articulating and helping to inflame.

On Fridays, on the ‘PM’ programme on Radio Four, they round off the week with a review of letters and emails sent by listeners during the course of the preceding days. This last Friday, there were several letters relating to the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. The famous BBC balance was conspicuous by its absence: not a single correspondent cited was critical of the award; there were only ‘indignant-from-Tunbridge Wells’-type comments to the effect of: who did Muslims in Iran and Pakistan think they were, trying to dictate to us who we honour or not, and impinging on our freedom of speech; that, unlike them, we were a tolerant society that accepts the right of people like Rushdie to express their point of view; and were we supposed to live under Shariah law now? It made me feel as though I was in a minority of one.

Implicit or explicit in the PM listeners’ comments was an assumption that Mr Rushdie’s knighthood had been conferred upon him in genuine recognition of the literary merit of his works and, in a more general sense, of their cultural importance in the current context of a perceived threat to Western civilisation from certain quarters of the Islamic world. But it appears totally obvious to me that the whole thing was politically driven. Indeed, comments from the Home Secretary on Wednesday of last week included an admission that senior members of the government had been involved in the decision (see my blog of 21 June). Furthermore, I haven’t heard one voice from the literary establishment who regards the award as merited and timely from a purely literary point of view.

In my blog entry of 19 June, I argued that the political intention behind the award was to express defiance towards Iran, to promote public perception of an increased threat from terrorism (in order to help get the new Terror Bill through parliament), and to tighten the pressure on Muslim communities in this country, which might enable more so-called extremists and terror suspects to be flushed out. A further more general objective, which supports all of these aims, is that of increasing the climate of Islamophobia in Britain. It was evident from the content of the PM mailbag that this was succeeding. Virtually all the correspondence on the subject expressed resentment towards the angry reaction to the knighthood from some Muslims, as reported in the media. And in one or two instances, this resentment was articulated in terms of indifference and even hostility towards the religious basis for Muslims’ sense of hurt. Paraphrasing one comment from memory: ‘I don’t even care about the religious reason for the offence caused; religious people have been getting their way for too long in these matters – why should they continue to dictate to the rest of us any more?’

Before I go any further, it would be useful to clarify what I mean by Islamophobia. This word covers a whole gamut of negative beliefs and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims that are based on prejudice, misconception, blame, resentment and fear. As stated above, it is the same sort of phenomenon as racism or any other form of aggressive prejudice. But what is particularly insidious about Islamophobia in the present context is, as I have said, the way it is articulated in liberal terms. In essence, what unites the liberal critics of Islam and those who express their Islamophobia in cruder, more violent ways is ultimately a wish to displace Islam as the core value system and political philosophy of Muslim-majority countries; even a wish that it had never arisen in the first place. The liberals won’t, can’t, acknowledge this; but their desire for a liberal reform of Islam is predicated on a denial of the validity of Islam’s claims to truth (based on the supposed revelation received by Mohammed) and of the whole system of law and political authority that derives from it. A liberalisation of Islam would in reality be a take-over of the Islamic world by Western liberalism. In those circumstances, law in Muslim countries would be secularised: it would be determined on the basis of rationalist, libertarian and egalitarian principles, not of an unreformed medieval set of rules that have ‘falsely’ passed themselves off as divine writ for 1400-odd years. The public / political and the private / faith spheres would be separated, as they are in the West, and both domains would be thrown open to competition, otherwise known as democracy and freedom of conscience respectively.

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses articulates just such a liberal critique and would-be subversion of the very foundations of Islam. I’ve refreshed my memory of the novel, read for the first time in 1991, when the original fatwa issued against the author by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini was still very much in force. What is particularly clever about the book (from a liberal-intellectual point of view), and at the same time Islamophobic (hostile towards Islam, indeed seeking to undermine it) is not so much the substance of what Rushdie writes about Mohammed and the disputed ‘satanic verses’ allegedly accepted into the Qu’ran and then later rejected. The real offence, from the Islamic perspective, is the way the ironic, self-reflexive structures of the novel frame all writing – including that of the Qu’ran – as fundamentally fictive: not containing within itself any absolutely reliable guarantee of its authenticity and truthfulness. I heard one reviewer of this Saturday’s papers on BBC News 24 patronisingly assert that Muslims were being naïve in their indignation at the novel’s version of the ancient legend concerning the satanic verses (that they were in fact the work of the Angel Gabriel himself) because this story, in Rushdie’s novel, was merely a fiction. How silly of them not to realise the distinction! But the whole point about the novel is that it (admittedly, fictively) questions the validity of any distinction between fiction and revelation. So it is not so much the story of the satanic verses – in the novel – that Muslims are reacting to; but the novel The Satanic Verses as a whole, which is turning round to them and saying ‘all you believe in is no different from this novel: a fiction, a fabrication and a lie’. Their reaction to the book was in this sense virtually programmed and anticipated by it: Rushdie calculated the effect, loaded the gun and pulled the trigger.

British politicians and commentators have defended the original decision to approve the publication of The Satanic Verses and the recognition its author has now received, on the basis that this demonstrates the tolerance of British society. But what they are effectively saying is that Islamic societies should exhibit the same sort of tolerance in their turn, i.e. that they should accept the same sort of diversity of opinion and belief as Western societies. Muslim societies should move to the more ‘advanced’ situation of modern Western culture: embracing a plurality of truths, rather than the singularity of revelation, and leaving it to the liberal economic and cultural market place to sort out which version of reality is more widely accepted and narratively convincing. Or, putting it another way, the Islamic world should cease to be different and antagonistic to our own; it should become Western and liberal.

In this way, fundamental, indeed aggressive, hostility towards Islam and ‘reasonable’ liberal critique of Islamic belief and society are inseparable bedfellows. As one intensifies, so does the other. 9/11 sparks off an understandable wave of blame and vengeful feelings towards Muslims; but these are acted out in the invasion of Afghanistan: not an act of violence against a Muslim country, so it is said, but an attempt to bring it the benefits of Western secular democracy and liberalism – in other words, to destroy its particular brand of fundamentalist Islam, in which everything was based on an extremely narrow, literalistic interpretation of the Qu’ran. However, fast forward six years, and our boys are still slugging it out with the never-say-die Taliban. Is something wrong with our conceptual model here, and do Afghanis not actually see us as their saviours? The truth is probably somewhere in between: common ground to be discovered.

Similarly, the UK government decides to award a knighthood to the personification of the ideal of ‘tolerant Islam’ (actually, someone – strangely – who is no longer a believer), ostensibly because of the literary merit of his works and his impeccable liberal credentials – but also out of hostility and fundamental enmity towards Islam. The resultant violent reaction from the most ‘fundamentalist’ countries provokes both increased resentment and anger towards Muslims among the British population, and further exasperated criticism of the backwardness and intellectual blindness of such Muslims, who simply don’t have the wit or education to appreciate that it’s all just a sophisticated sort of mind game. Except you don’t play fanciful, deceptive mind games with what is most sacred in life. And who is really being most blind here: the Muslims who can see a direct assault on the foundations of their faith and societies on the part of a hostile West; or the West which can’t see that that’s what it’s doing?

But, to return to my original point of departure, the stimulation of this sort of Islamophobia (liberal – and therefore unself-knowingly aggressive – hostility and contempt towards Islam) is politically useful to the British government. The reason for this is that it increases support for the measures the government has taken and intends to take in support of the so-called War on Terror. In my blog of 19 June, I emphasised the domestic political benefits (passing of the new Terror Bill, ability to detain ‘suspects’ for up to 90 days without charge, etc.). But I could just as easily have stressed the international agenda. Let’s put this in political diary form:

  • Saturday 16 June: announcement of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood

  • Sunday 17 and Monday 18 June: predicted protests follow in Iran and Pakistan; effigies of the queen and flags of St. George are burnt; Pakistani minister makes speech appearing to justify suicide bombings in response to the award; this follows on from similar anti-British protests in Tehran the week before. Stokes up British resentment towards and fear of global Islamic assault on Western civilisation and values, and willingness to support all necessary measures to combat it

  • Thursday 21 June: US general involved in the Iraqi ‘surge’ expresses belief that the foreign hostages taken two or three weeks earlier (including Britons) are being held by an Iranian-backed group.

  • Friday 22 June: it’s reported that British troops are beginning a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan; and it’s well known that the Taliban are being supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry by the Iranians, and are being funded and harboured by sympathetic Pakistanis.

 

In short, the decision to knight Salman Rushdie was intended to provoke an occasion for Islamophobia: feelings of fear, anger and resentment coupled with liberal disparagement of the barbaric intolerance and ignorance of those effigy-burning Muslims. And, at the same time, the latest developments in the War on Terror are communicated to the media as being concentrated precisely around the Muslims involved in the latest episodes of extremist Islamic behaviour: the Iranians, waging war against Britain through every avenue available to them (notably, through the insurgency in Iraq and via the Taliban in Afghanistan), and the Pakistanis (the Taliban’s principal ally). The War on Terror – far from being a grotesque foreign-policy misadventure – suddenly starts to seem necessary and worth fighting. Could it be that one of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first major achievements will be something that Blair so singularly failed to do: winning liberal backing for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Islamophobia enables the creation of an enemy in the War on Terror: we’re no longer shadow-boxing Al-Qaeda in the mountainous borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan but fighting a real-life enemy – the Taliban – that really is radically opposed to Western civilisation and is out to get us. And we’re no longer dealing with a nebulous group of internecine, homicidal insurgents in Iraq but with fighters that are being organised and equipped by the would-be regional Islamist nuclear superpower; and a country which has also, including in the Rushdie affair, demonstrated its violent hostility and aggression towards Britain on more than one occasion – and so needs to be stopped, if necessary by Western military force in Iraq.

So the whipping up of Islamophobia, and then focusing it in on specific enemies of British and Western forces, is an attempt to overcome the real PR problem faced by the Iraq War: the failure to find a real enemy and a real threat to correspond to the Terror that the war was supposed to be directed against. Indeed, if you don’t know who your enemy is but know that he’s out there, plotting against you, this does indeed accentuate the power of the terror that is hanging over you: worse the enemy you don’t know than the enemy you do.

But is there not a sense that even the Iranians and the Taliban are not our ‘real’ enemy here? Does the threat they pose really justify Britain in fighting battles that are leaving our armed forces overstretched and possibly under-equipped, and are resulting in the steady attrition of loss of life – not just among our brave soldiers but among all the casualties of war, including many thousands of civilians? Or if the specific threat to Western civilisation or, more concretely, the Western global economic order from the likes of Iran is that significant, should there not be a much more concerted, collective effort on the part of all Western countries – including military action as a last resort – to ensure that the ‘evil’ that is threatening us is eliminated? (Maybe GB is calculating on creating a wave of support for more funding, resources and personnel in the war against our newly defined enemies – who knows?)

The Iranians and the Taliban remain slightly surreal and incomplete symbols for our real enemy in the War of Terror – the one which, as good liberals, we are incapable of seeing as our enemy: Islam itself. The terror in the War on Terror is our Islamo-phobia: our fear of Islam. But this fear can only exercise its power over us if it is unacknowledged, suppressed beneath our liberal reasonableness, and our attempts to rationalise and objectify the threat we feel in the shape of specific, tangible menaces. If we recognise that what we are really afraid of is being defeated in a global clash of civilisations with Islam, and being subordinated to Islam, then this is the beginning of a way out of our terrors. We can either fight the shadows or engage with the reality. We and Islam don’t have to be enemies; we can live together and equitably share the threatened resources of the earth (including those of Middle Eastern oil) that we all need.

The lesson from the Troubles in Northern Ireland was that you don’t defeat terrorism by continuing to deny the dignity and the rights of those whose cause is championed in extremis by the men of violence, and by trying to secure a military victory over them. The resolution can come only through reconciliation, dialogue and the recovery of mutual respect. But in order to achieve this in relation to Islam, we may have to compromise something of our liberal sense of superiority over that vibrant monotheistic faith. We certainly will also have to attend to healing the open wound at the heart of the whole conflict: the suffering of the Palestinians and, through and beyond that, the question of ownership of the Holy Land and Jerusalem – Judaeo-Christian or Muslim? No one should be under any illusion that the reconciliation will be easy – there are real enemies out there. But we have an obligation to seek grounds for peace, not false reasons for war.

Can our intransigent liberalism be reconciled with dogmatic Islam? Doubtless, there’ll need to be movement on both sides. And will that mean that we, too, may have to recover some of our own, Christian, ground of truth? Perhaps only then can we really meet our Muslim brothers face to face, and heart to heart, and see our common humanity to which our terror blinded us.

21 June 2007

The Scottish Home Secretary defends the Rushdie knighthood

By way of an ‘I told you so’, here’s a little news item from yesterday I’ve just stumbled across, in which John Reid defends the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. One of the most interesting passages is a quote from the Home Secretary: “we take the approach that in the long-run the protection of the right to express opinions in literature, argument and politics is of over-riding value to our society”. So Salman Rushdie has been set up as a cause celebre for British liberal values seen as locked in an ideological struggle with ‘extremist’ Islam. Quote from my blog entry about the knighthood from Tuesday now: “the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech”.

And it’s clear from Mr Reid’s words that the government did plan this out with at least this effect in mind: “We’ve thought very carefully about it. But we have a right to express opinions and a tolerance of other people’s point of view, and we don’t apologise for that”. So the inner circle of government have discussed this knighthood and thought it through, have they? So much for the award being to do with ‘services to literature’, which – as far I can tell – people in literary circles regard as a total joke. And it’s apparently about teaching Muslims a bit of a lesson about tolerance: the award itself is an instance of British tolerance towards a point of view that might be hurtful to some, like the Life of Brian was hurtful to some Christians. Naive of those over-emotional Muslims not to appreciate this finer point of our civilisation, really! But that’s all rather a twisted way of putting it: Rushdie’s views aren’t merely being ‘tolerated’ but rather they reflect what many of the evangelists for British liberal values themselves feel about Islam.

OK, so should we see Rushdie as a champion and martyr for free speech, which we all hold dear? Different people will draw the dividing line in different places. One thing that’s clear, though, is that Rushdie’s was an exercise of free speech without what could be called due regard for the most sacred beliefs and feelings of many at whom it was directed. In this, it’s akin to racism, Islamophobia and what might be called ‘culturism’: prejudice and offensive behaviour towards another culture. Because the comparison with the Life of Brian simply doesn’t hold up. In our culture, most people just thought that film was a bit of harmless nonsense; even most Christians thought those who were offended made themselves look a bit silly. However, in Islamic culture, what Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses is basically a ‘mortal sin’, to translate it back into Christian cultural terms. In other words, it’s as grave a wrongdoing as rape or murder.

Now, while in Britain, we don’t think such things are punishable by death, in many Muslim countries, they still do. So who are we to say that, in their terms, they are wrong? And yet we still preach to them about tolerance.

British Values Or Scottish Values?

  Tuesday night this week was Andrew Marr Night on BBC Two. I’ve missed most of the BBC journalist’s History of Modern Britain series – just one of a whole wave of programmes recently that have been carrying out broad-sweeping reviews of aspects of British culture, history and politics. Unfortunately, I caught only the end of Tuesday’s programme, the final one in the series. Just in time to see Mr Marr, London skyline behind him, extolling the virtues of Britain as the former centre of empire in which now all the peoples of the world have converged, making it a microcosm of the global economy and culture. Concluding words to the effect that anyone who has the fortune to be born in Britain is truly blessed. Amen.

I did, however, manage to catch all of Mr Marr’s The Age of Genius later on in the evening: history of the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular the contributions made by the philosopher David Hume and the economist Adam Smith. Mr Marr concluded his interesting account by urging us to revisit the great Enlightenment thinkers and reignite our passion for their rational-progressive values, which was all the more necessary given the threat our civilisation faces from religious extremism and violence. One particularly lyrical passage celebrated the fact that the American Revolution and Constitution had drawn their inspiration from Hume. Did I catch a certain tinge of regret that Hume’s original vision of a federal Commonwealth including Britain and America, with an elected president and a constitution based on rational, secular principles, had not been realised? Certainly, the rallying call at the end of the programme suggested that we might now wish to re-evaluate the relevance of such constitutional ideas for Britain today . . ..

These two programmes helped to consolidate my thinking about the nature of Scottish engagement in Britology: to what extent is the emphasis on British values as the agent of social cohesion and national integration shaped by the fact some of its principal exponents are Scottish? Certainly, the leaders of our main political parties are all Scottish or of Scottish descent. GB [Gordon Brown] and Menzies Campbell are obviously so (their accent betraying them straight away). David Cameron, too, not only has a Scottish name but a Scottish father and paternal family. Blair, of course, also has a strong Scottish background. On top of which, all the parties have increasingly converged around both social liberalism and free-market economics – philosophies which Andrew Marr would doubtless trace back to the founding fathers, David Hume and Adam Smith respectively, whom he discussed on Tuesday night. I even heard Cameron utter the ‘P-word’ (‘progressive’) in relation to the Conservative Party on Tuesday . . ..

But my intention here is not to mount some sort of critique of Scottish Enlightenment liberalism as manifested by the parties today. I’m interested merely in pointing out that this philosophical and Scottish background does inevitably inform the Britology of these persons. It’s an obvious point in one way: Scottish commentators and politicians who wish to exercise any meaningful influence or power over the future of England have no alternative other than to play the Britain card. There’s actually no language available to them other than Britology; otherwise, people would inevitably ask, ‘who does this Scot think (s)he is telling us what values we should profess and how to run our affairs?’

By this, I’m not trying to imply that the only interest that motivates such Scottish politicians, thinkers and writers is that of wanting to wield some disproportionate and undemocratic influence over the people of England. On the contrary, it is evident that many of them feel profoundly attached to England, and concerned for its well-being and security. But, to use an analogy drawn from another area of human experience, theirs is a love (for England) that dares not speak its name. They cannot celebrate English values, people, history, institutions and traditions as English, because of the resentful reaction they’d receive (as described above), and because of the incredulity and indignation this would provoke from their more nationalist-minded countrymen. And so the only language in which they can express their engagement in English affairs is that of Britology: British values, British people, British nation.

Perhaps it would be better, and perhaps this may one day be possible, for anglophile Scots such as these – resident and working in England, their home – to refer to themselves as ‘Scottish Englanders’, in the same way that I have expressed the hope that other inhabitants of our country should also refer to themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British: Black English, Asian English, Irish English; and not forgetting English English (English without a claim to any supplementary nationality or ethnicity) and of course British English (an ethnically British English national; a category which could also be used to describe Scottish English or Welsh English people, for instance). Andrew Marr’s vision of Britain as a marvellous melting pot of different races, religions and nationalities is not that far from my own. The difference is that, as a Scot, he’s constrained to call it British; whereas, the reality he’s referring to is predominantly that of England and of the global culture that has sprung from her.

But there is one important aspect whereby the Scottish Britologists (or closet anglophiles, if you wish) are motivated by the wish to mark the English project that is Britain with a distinctively Scottish stamp: to take Britain as a whole in a direction that perhaps appeals more to Scottish than English hearts. And this is where the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment is felt. Marr’s appeal to Hume, as an exemplar of the ‘British’ values that could serve us well in today’s climate, is obviously associated with leanings towards secularism, rationalism and republicanism. Marr clearly felt sympathy towards Hume’s anti-clericalism and favour of a society whose founding principles were those of reason rather than supposedly ‘irrational’ faith: Enlightenment principles versus irrational religion-based movements – read Islamism but also conservative, establishment Christianity. By overthrowing the English monarchy, you would be killing two birds with one stone: creating the basis for a republic, and removing the Church from the heart of the constitution and the foundations of our civic values.

I’m not accusing Andrew Marr of republicanism (maybe he is a republican, I don’t know). But it’s true that a constitutional republic is the form of state that most closely matches Hume’s thinking. And in such an egalitarian framework, Britain would belong to all its citizens equally, perhaps for the first time. There would be no need for Scots to feel like second-class citizens – or second-class Englishmen, for ever slightly removed from the centre of power. Britain, and with it England, would indeed belong equally to the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, and all the other nationalities, races, creeds and philosophies of the world that have made it their home. But perhaps not to the English, at least not in any special way that defines who the English are, and gives them a history and a sense of mission for the future.

Such a United Britain might well appeal to our (Scottish) Enlightenment minds; but would it speak equally to – dare I name the word? – the English soul?

19 June 2007

Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Salman Rushdie had been awarded a knighthood in the Birthday Honours List. How incredibly stupid! If anything was calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with Muslims in this country, that was it.

And sure enough, Iran’s knee-jerk reaction followed the day after as an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that the award revealed Islamophobia among senior British officials. The Pakistani parliament followed suit yesterday, and the Religious Affairs minister went so far as to suggest that such insults could even justify suicide bombings.

Nice work by the Downing Street team! Perhaps they should have listened a bit more to the boys and girls at the FO. Or perhaps they did: maybe calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with British Muslims is exactly what it was.

To understand decisions like this that at first sight seem incomprehensible, it’s useful to focus on a) the message that it might be conveying, and b) its political effect: as the consequences of the decision unfold, think what political advantages there are to be had from some of them.

For a start, it’s clear that Rushdie’s elevation is in part intended to send Iran the message that Britain will not be intimidated, following the recent episodes of the seizure of British seamen on patrol and the protests outside the British Embassy in Tehran last week. It just so happens that two reports about the capture of the British naval personnel come out today, and this incident has been described as a ‘national humiliation’ (was it, though, really?). So Salman Rushdie’s award was indeed a timely demonstration of Britain’s resolve in relation to Iran!

Incidentally, it was curious how reports on last week’s demonstrations in Tehran mentioned that some of the protests were directed against ‘England’ rather than Britain. I’ve tried to find out why the demonstrators felt compelled to single out England in this way but haven’t as yet been successful. Is it simply that ‘England’ is used interchangeably with ‘Britain’ in Farsi, or was this, too, calculated to be especially insulting – the Iranians realising that insulting ‘England’ is more offensive to most British people than directing contempt merely towards Britain?

Quite whether conferring an honour on one of the most hated personalities in the Islamic world is the smartest way to communicate this message of defiance is another matter. I haven’t been able to shake out of my mind an image this suggests: one of a leering, Union Jack-sporting, 1970s-style punk sticking two fingers up the nose of an Arab sheikh. Or perhaps that’s just the kind of cartoonish, caricatural way it might be presented in Islamic media.

In fact, the knighting of Sir Salman puts one in mind of that other incident involving cartoons: those Danish images of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked such a furore of outrage in many parts of the Muslim world towards the end of last year. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and those cartoons are comparably insensitive in the way they play fast and loose with sacrosanct tenets of Islam. Conferring a knighthood on Rushdie, supposedly in recognition of his services to literature, is indeed tantamount to saying that insults to Islam are perfectly acceptable in British culture: not just in the popular culture, which creates hateful images of Muslims out of prejudice and fear of terrorism, but in high culture and art. In this respect, at least, the Pakistani Minister for Religious Affairs is on the mark in his criticisms.

But why would such a clear insult to Muslims be apparently sanctioned at the highest level? Look at the effect and infer the intentions. One effect is the one described above: Pakistani ministers appearing to legitimise suicide bombings to defend the honour of the Prophet. As if to back this up, the BBC Breakfast programme this morning slipped in a short, unobtrusive item (almost subliminal and appearing to be one that was waiting in their video library) showing a Taliban leader exhorting a group of Pakistani terrorist trainees to go and carry out suicide bombings in Britain and other Western countries.

In other words, part of the government’s intention appears to have been to engineer a perception of a heightened terrorist threat to this country. Too conspiracy-theory? Well, the government must have realised this would be the reaction on the part of the religious hardliners in Iran and Pakistan; so why do it unless it was something that procured some benefit? What’s the benefit? Well, Mr Brown’s got a new Terror Bill to steer through parliament, hasn’t he? The rebel Labour MPs are going to be just a little more reluctant to stick one over on their new leader if the public is getting more worried about the terror threat again. So not stupid, at all; very clever, as far as it goes. In GB (as I’ll henceforth call Gordon Brown in honour of his Britological credentials), we are after all dealing with the secret spin-meister par excellence! Does it matter that / whether the actual threat level is raised or not? Well, politics, among other things, is the art of short-term risk taking for the sake of long-term objectives. If, six months from now, another horrendous terrorist outrage hits London, how many people will make the link with Salman Rushdie’s knighthood? But we may then be having to live with 90-days’ detention of terror suspects without charge, which will seem a small sacrifice of our liberties against such atrocities.

And what about the other ‘benefit’ that could accrue from Sir Rushdie’s honour: the antagonism of Muslim communities in this country? Every time the government wishes to talk up the terror threat, it seems they also feel it opportune to do something to make the Muslim faithful appear to justify suspicions of their terrorist sympathies. After all, this government’s done this before, last autumn, when it stirred up a largely unnecessary ‘debate’ about Muslim women who wear the niqab, or full veil. The effect of this, as opposed to the avowed intention, was merely to exacerbate people’s understandable sense of unease when encountering women thus attired, and to implant in the collective consciousness the idea that Muslims who choose to demonstrate their adherence to Islam in such a striking visual way are more likely to be extremists or even potential terrorists in disguise.

In a similar way, Muslim organisations and individuals in this country who protest too vehemently about Rushdie’s honour can now be dismissed as extremists – ignoring the fact that this award is probably offensive (and understandably so) even to more liberal-minded Muslims. The government’s tactic, in this as in the whole veil episode, appears to be to drive a wedge between the so-called ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ in the Muslim community. On the one hand, the moderates are intimidated by the enhanced general atmosphere of Islamophobia (in the sense of ‘fear of Islam’) into doing what the government has urged them to do: to try to take control of their communities and impose their more moderate views. On the other hand, it’s a way to more easily isolate the extremists, who’ll be provoked into taking more radical public positions, which will then make them easier to police and which is likely to land a fair few of them with 90-day terms of detention without charge.

As part of this campaign to stigmatise and discredit the so-called extremists, the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech. They must have consulted with Rushdie himself about the whys and wherefores of accepting the honour. They would have explained the risks to the man: that there’d doubtless be a wave of revulsion across the Muslim world, even that the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini previously placed upon him could be revived. But if he was willing to take this on, he could accomplish something really worthwhile by setting an example of a Muslim who had fully integrated with British values and culture, even to the extent of obtaining the highest possible accolade that Britain can bestow. If things went belly up, and both Britain and Rushdie received death threats in the form of incitements to acts of terrorism and a renewed fatwa, then this integration theme could be underplayed, and Rushdie could be celebrated and pitied as a victim of Islamist extremism: perhaps even literally as a ‘martyr’ for British liberalism. (But maybe they didn’t discuss that bit of the deal in too much detail.)

Did they really think Rushdie would have any credibility at all as a symbol of the integration of Muslims with British values and society? He can’t even be seen as a liberal Muslim, as he’s renounced Islam – which it is of course his right to do; but more sensible (and dare I say ‘English’) to do so in less deliberately offensive a manner. He’s more precisely a paragon of what you might call the ‘religious liberalism’ that is a characteristic of the Britologists’ British values: liberalism blended with a certain number of inherited Christian concepts (even though it’s ultimately secular in its core assumptions), and espoused and advocated with a certain quasi-religious, even arrogantly absolutist zeal by Blairites and Brownites alike. [It’s what I like to call ‘evangeliberalism’ – but then the love of neologisms is truly one of my biggest sins!]

Yes, indeed, Salman Rushdie is truly a worthy cultural ambassador of this form of liberalism. Look at the Satanic Verses: a liberal, novelistic conceit (and therefore not to be read in a literal manner like those naïve Muslims who read their own Holy Book in such a way) that re-plays an ancient Christian calumny about Islam – that it was Satan who whispered it into the ears of Mohammed, not the Angel Gabriel speaking the words of God. Added to this, a suggestive thematic around the lack of modesty and virtue of the Prophet’s wives, adding grist to the mill that it is threatened, autocratic Muslim patriarchs who impose the veil on their wives, merely because they can’t tolerate the modern secular idea that women are entitled to full sexual and personal freedom.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many Muslims are up in arms? The Satanic Verses is a poisonous cocktail, appealing at once to Christian-derived prejudices and myths about Islam, and liberal contempt towards its literalism, and its ‘uncritical’ veneration of Mohammed and God himself. Indeed, it embodies precisely the sort of pernicious mix that informs so many of the actions and statements towards Muslims of those who have declared themselves the champions of British values.

17 June 2007

Does Britain Need a Constitution?

 

There was an interesting little article on yesterday’s Today programme on BBC Radio Four [yes, you may have worked out by now that I’m an avid listener!] comprising an interview with the columnist Jonathan Freedland and the academic historian Dr Lawrence Goldman. The theme of the interview was whether Britain could learn any lessons about national identity from the USA. In particular, Britain’s current confusions over its national identity and its quest for an agreed set of shared values was compared unfavourably with the situation in the States, where the fundamental values informing political and public life are literally written into their constitution and bill of rights. The interview ended by leaving open the suggestion that a similar written constitution might help Britain to unite around a common set of values, leading to the formation of a civic nationalism like that of America, rather than an ethnically defined nationalism, which is one of the reasons – it was argued – that British people tend to shy away from displays of patriotic pride.

In the item, it was mentioned that Gordon Brown – the arch-Britologist who is about to become the country’s PM – has also expressed support for the idea of a written constitution. Clearly, it would be possible to write vast tomes without exhausting this particular topic – not an option for myself at the moment! So what I’d like to do is make some rapid-fire observations about what the implications of such a written constitution might be, for the UK and particularly for England.

 

 

1) Support for a written constitution is a back-door vehicle for republicanism: in political terms, the logical expression of a written constitution is a republic, rather than what we have now, which is a constitutional monarchy. If the fundamental values and laws of a society are based on the authority of free rationality and its collective expression through the ballot box, then there is no longer any need for a monarchical ruler whose authority derives from another source – ultimately, the service of God. Jonathan Freedland, who argued in favour of a written constitution on the Today programme, is clearly well aware of the republican character of calls for such a thing, as he is the author of a book entitled Bring Home the Revolution: The case for a British Republic. This made the case that Britain should re-import the rationalist, republican values it had originally exported to America, and should formulate its own written constitution inspired by that of the States.

2) Many Britologists also have a republican agenda. Not just those who would like to see a British constitution, but many Britologists in general have a republican agenda that they do not openly acknowledge. ‘Britologist’ is my term for people who support the idea that there is a set of shared, core British values around which greater social cohesion and a renewed sense of national identity can be forged. In reality, there is little that is distinctively or uniquely British about these ‘values’. Rather, they are concepts whose valuation is derived from the Enlightenment, rationalist, liberal tradition. In political terms, these values are typically expressed in republican form: liberty, equality, tolerance, democracy.

3) A new constitutional settlement would potentially efface what is most distinctively British about British identity: Englishness. Britology involves a drive to suppress and deny public expression to the real core of British identity and culture: England and Englishness. The constitutional-monarchical settlement that has prevailed since the Act of Union with Scotland 300 years ago is quite clearly anglo-centric. England has always been the dominant partner in that marriage – economically, culturally, politically and demographically. As I’ve argued elsewhere (e.g. in my ‘manifesto’ piece republished in this blog on 12 June), ‘Britain’ as such has traditionally been an English political and cultural project: a manifestation and extension to the whole British Isles and (originally via the Empire) the whole world of the English identity and its ambiguously interrelated tendencies towards domination and liberation.

By contrast, the attempt to define and impose a new sense of Britishness purely in relation to a set of fundamental rational principles represents an attempt to write England out of the British story. In other words, it involves pretending that there is an abstract, ideal, pure Britain (a ‘Great Britain’ of the mind and spirit, indeed) that should really have taken form as a rational republic, not as rule over an expanded territory by the Kings and Queens of England (which is what they are, not Kings and Queens of Britain) and by the English parliament. Looking at it from the other angle, however, Britology could be viewed as the continuation and consummation of the English-British project seen as one in which Englishness is subsumed into Britain in the cause of ‘national unity’. The perpetuation of a strong and distinctive English identity then as now is the greatest obstacle to the creation of a ‘United Nations of Britain’ or a British Republic: something which, like the ethnic melting pot of the United States of America, could derive its patriotic fervour and sense of unity from civic, not ethnic, nationalism – pride in, and agreement around, a statement of guiding principles. It seems that, in order for our own increasingly multi-ethnic society to be transformed into a united nation, the pre-eminence and centrality of Englishness within Britishness must be eliminated and denied.

 

4) Britology is a means to satisfy the objectives of Scottish nationalism via another route. Given that Britology – particularly, the variant of it that involves calls for a written constitution – involves the rejection of the privileges (including those of rule) that have traditionally been enjoyed by the English, Britology could be seen as a means to satisfy the appetite of Scottish nationalists, but in a form that still preserves the ‘Union’. Actually, the Union strictly would not be preserved but would be redefined in a way that ensured full equality between all the peoples of the re-constituted nation: both the ethnically non-indigenous peoples that, it is said, need to be given a clearly defined set of British values with which to identify; and the indigenous Brits – the Celtic nations and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’; although one suspects that, underlying this, is some misguided notion that the Celts are the real indigenous Britons, the very word for Britain being of Celtic origin. Such an ethnically egalitarian, homogenised-Britannic nation might well satisfy the aspirations of many Scottish (and, indeed, Welsh and Northern Irish) nationalists, in that it would fulfil two key desires: the creation of a republic and ‘liberation’ from English rule. Perhaps this is the reason why the Scot Gordon Brown is so keen on a written constitution and the whole Britological shebang: preserving and completing the Union of Britain creates the condition whereby the former ‘slave’ (the Scot) can exercise power over the former master (the English).

5) But the continuing existence of English national pride and identity is the thorn in the Britologists’ side. Britons may well, as the Radio Four interviewees put it, feel distaste for patriotic flag waving because of its associations with the European ethnic nationalisms of the 20th century. But part of this discomfort also relates to the ambivalence which English people have towards Britishness: English people both take pride in the achievements and admirable characteristics of Britain for which they feel particularly responsible; while at the same time they recoil from the associations of these with imperialistic power, for which English people feel especially blamed, in part by the Britologists. And, bound up with this, is a distinctive English reserve and reluctance to indulge in displays of passionate feeling of any kind, including manifestations of patriotic fervour. This combination of factors is one of the reasons why the English desire and need to take pride in ‘their nation’ has increasingly focused on England itself, seen as distinct from Britain as a whole: less jingoistic / imperialist; and able to take pride in and celebrate English culture, tradition and people, but in a more ‘appropriately’ English way – such as flag waving not on military parades but at international football matches, as football was, after all, invented by the English. The idea of a civic-republican British nationalism for which all the peoples of Britain could feel the same pride and enthusiasm simply does not take into account the English character and pride in their nation – including in the way England has moulded and created the Britain we all know and love – and their attachment to the monarchy. And it is this that provides the greatest hope that the ultimate objectives of some of those who have attached their horses to the Britological waggon – a constitutional republic – will be defeated.

15 June 2007

The British Myth

Why do so many of our religious leaders feel compelled to preach about British identity and values these days? It’s as if the word has gone out from government that they have a duty to be ‘on message’ about these things. This is because religion has the potential both to reinforce social divisions (cf. the supposed separation between devout Muslims and the rest of society) and to promote cohesion. ‘Better make sure you intone the “shared values” and “British identity” themes, boys, if you want an easy time from government’.

As I’ve observed before, the ‘Thought For the Day’ item on BBC Radio Four’s morning current-affairs programme, Today, is a prime outlet for these politico-religious, Britological outpourings. The three-minute God slot must have been deemed a suitably ‘soft’ part of the programme where it would be safe to toe the government line without appearing to compromise editorial integrity. (As is well known, the programme came under considerable pressure over its treatment of the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’, which provided part of the justification for Britain to participate in the Iraq War.)

Today it was the turn of Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Chief Rabbi (of the orthodox hue, not the liberal persuasion). Rabbi Sacks argued that one of the distinctive contributions that religion could make to society was to bring shared ‘stories’ that encapsulated the nation’s collective identity: its understanding and memories about its past, which in turn provided the framework for a shared vision and sense of purpose looking towards the future. Britain’s story, so the Rabbi proceeded, could involve our most meaningful narratives about the historical struggles for justice, freedom and social progress. In other words, these stories encapsulate these fundamental values and ideals in narrative form, and impose them on our imagination and emotions as something essentially British. The Rabbi concluded that Britain needed a new ‘story’: if you like, an overall meta-narrative or myth, in the proper sense of the word, that makes sense of what it is to be British.

I’ve got nothing against this in principle, certainly in the more specific context of different religions. The presentation of an overarching story providing an account, ultimately, of who we are – of what it is to be human – is indeed a core feature and purpose of religion. But what does this mean transposed to the British context? When it comes to a narrative that can tell us something real about Britishness, and the experience of life in Britain today and in the past, doesn’t this need to be in the form of history rather than story; objective, truth-seeking investigation, not myth making?

Is the struggle for social justice, freedom and progress really the true story of Britain – that which can signify for us the essential meaning, the truth, of Britishness? Clearly, these things are part of the British identity and value system, and we have much to be proud of with respect to our traditions of democracy and freedom. But they’re obviously also not the whole story. And the reality of Britain today – and perhaps throughout its history – is one of a society that is in many respects desperately impoverished and divided – culturally, spiritually and socially. For example: the break down of families and marriages; children unloved and abused; monotonous, soul-destroying urban environments; drug abuse and crime; class divisions; lack of faith, hope and a shared vision for the future.

Well, I suppose you could say you can either talk up the positives or emphasise the negatives; and, in fact, I’m greatly in favour of stressing the positives and taking as hopeful an outlook on the future as the facts allow. But merely by-passing the real experiences of many Britons and glossing over them with a new collective British myth will not provide an effective means to confront the real challenges of Britain today and to build a sustainable future for its peoples. And it is in facing up to the darker realities that the politicians like to spin out of existence through their idealistic narratives – in differentiating themselves from political blandishments – that religions have a mission to make a distinctive contribution to the British future.

14 June 2007

Should Britain Be Proud Of the Falklands War?

Today is the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the Falklands Islands (or Malvinas, as the Argentineans call them) from military occupation by Argentina. It’s the kind of day when one should refrain from political point scoring; rather, it’s a day for reflection and sorrow at the loss of so many young lives.

This morning, there has been a remembrance service at the Falklands War memorial church somewhere in Berkshire, England. This was attended by the Queen and Prince Philip, by the now Baroness Thatcher (the British prime minister at the time of the war, of course), and by Tony and Cherie Blair.

In order to truly do justice to the memory of those who lost their lives, an effort has to be made to understand the reasons and purpose of the conflict. Clearly, those who lost loved-ones wish to be proud of them, and so they should be: there is every honour in having the courage to risk and lose one’s life for the sake of a cause that one believes to be noble.

But on these occasions, there is a tendency for speakers to overstate the righteousness of the British cause in question. The preacher at this morning’s service, for instance, made the almost obligatory comparisons between those soldiers’ ‘sacrifice’ and that of Christ on the cross. But Christ did not carry weapons, nor did he go to war against the Roman occupiers of his homeland. That would have made him more like the Jewish Messiah that people were expecting at the time.

Lady Thatcher, in a speech to the islanders broadcast on radio yesterday, praised the way British soldiers have always been prepared to pay the ultimate price in the fight against ‘evil’, and stated that the current generation of British boys engaged in perhaps even more complex and dangerous struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan could take inspiration from the actions and victory of their predecessors in the Falklands – a victory over which, she asserted, everyone in Britain had rejoiced.

But can the Argentineans in the Falklands War be unambiguously identified with ‘evil’ in this way? Conflict is rarely that simple, and there is often a balance of right and wrong on both sides. The Argentinean soldiers in the Falklands War were mostly ill-trained conscripts: young lads who’d been whipped up since early childhood into patriotic indignation at the supposed ‘occupation’ by the British of territory that was ‘rightfully Argentinean’, and were effectively sent in by an incompetent military junta seeking to divert attention from troubles at home – lambs to the slaughter, indeed, against the professional British Army.

Historically and legally, Argentina probably has a reasonably valid claim to the islands, which were in fact taken by force by the British in 1833. However, clearly, the islands’ inhabitants are all of British descent and nationality, and wish to remain so; and trying to resolve the issue by force in their turn was obviously not a smart or justifiable move on the Argentineans’ part. It was almost inevitable that the British would send in a rescue force across the seas; that same Britain in whose heart still resonates the refrain:

‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves,

Britons never never never shall be slaves!’

But does that make it a just war? It’s hard to argue against it, especially on a day like this. But, also especially on a day like this, we should remember all those Argentinean mothers whose boys were gunned down by the British in a war for which their leaders had ill equipped them. Or those lads who were on the Belgrano: the Argentinean ship that was heading out of the British-imposed ‘exclusion zone’ around the islands when it was sunk on Margaret Thatcher’s orders.

Heroic things and evil things are done in war in the name of justice. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell them apart. So we should pray for all responsible: the Argentinean conscripts and the British professional warriors; the military dictators in Argentina and the Thatcher government, both of which made political capital out of the conflict. Christ died for them all.

13 June 2007

12 June 2007

Tolerance

I’ve got zero tolerance towards ‘tolerance’! Everyone seems agreed [hyperbole – you’ll find I go in for it] that tolerance is one of the most defining British values, perhaps the most defining one. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I question this. I’ve written about it extensively elsewhere, so I won’t belabour the point. Essentially, the criticism boils down to: a) what you define as tolerance; b) whether, using that definition, the ‘British’ are any more tolerant than other nations; c) what the limits of tolerance are, which tells us what the supposed tolerance is all about; and d) why tolerance is particularly useful for Britology as a form of ‘unificatory multi-culturalism’: the aim of assimilating all the cultures within the UK to a unitary Britishness without having to achieve this unity at any profound level that really brings people together.

Anyway, the religious correspondent of The Times Clifford Longley was at it yesterday in the Thought For the Day slot on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. (You’ll find this is a frequent outlet for the Britologists – visions of Saint Tony pontificating on the theme after he finally resigns as PM.) Mr Longley used one of the new metaphors that is circulating to encapsulate fundamental forces within British culture and history: Roundheads (the Puritans that supported the anti-monarchist Cromwell in the English Civil War in the 17th century) and Cavaliers (the monarchists in the said conflict). The Roundheads represent the puritan, earnest, hard-working, thrifty and bourgeois side of the ‘British character’ (exemplified, among others, by the PM in waiting Gordon Brown); while the Cavaliers represent the frivolous, hedonistic, humorous, creative and aristocratic side (illustrated by Tony Blair (really?) and the current opposition leader David Cameron, who actually does have some blue blood coursing through his veins). Map onto this the divide between Protestants and Catholics, and corresponding divisions within other religions (e.g. Shia’s and Sunnis in Islam); and, as the analogy suggests, also the class divisions within British society that work their way through into politics (the egalitarian tradition versus the sovereignty of the individual).

Mr Longley’s point was that Britain has always managed to hold these two traditions together by virtue of its inherent tolerance (er, apart from in the said Civil War itself, the Tolpuddle Martyrs [history, I’m afraid], the General Strike in the 1920s, the miners’ strike in the 1980s, etc., etc.). Through ‘tolerance’ (i.e. individual and collective restraint), all cultures and nations by definition manage to just about hold together their occasionally conflicting values and aspirations. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be nations: they’d just disintegrate, as we’ve seen numerous examples in recent history (e.g. former Yugoslavia).

So the affirmation of tolerance, while appearing to be a description of a distinctive characteristic of the peoples of these Isles [shorthand: the ‘British’], is in fact just a call to patriotism and an exhortation to display tolerance: it’s a manifestation of a fear that the nation might be falling apart because of a lack of any real consensus or shared vision of where we’re going. Hence, tolerance (refraining from seeking to impose any single vision of the country’s destiny or character over others) is a kind of negative virtue, rather than a positive value: an appeal to accept others as they are, to live and let live, and avoid conflict. But as such, it is not something that builds unity; merely, something that ‘affirms diversity’ in the sense of accepting it de facto and therefore, ultimately, just going along with the status quo.

How very British; or should that be English?

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