Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

16 August 2010

‘Racist’ English nationalism: an alibi for Britain’s anglophobia and Islamophobia

It’s become something of a cliché in the discourse of the progressive wing of so-called British politics to refer to a supposed association between English nationalism and the racist far right. The key illustration of this link that is usually brought forward nowadays is the English Defence League: the protest organisation set up to resist the alleged spread of Shariah Law, and the ‘Islamification’ of England and the UK as a whole.

The EDL itself refutes the charge of racism; and as a general point, the question of the connection between ‘anti-Islamism’ / Islamophobia and racism is an interesting and complex one, which I’ll discuss quite a bit during the course of this post. While it’s true that hostility or wariness towards Islam, or some of its manifestations, by no means intrinsically involve racism, they are often a cover for it. This is certainly the case with the British National Party (BNP), which uses opposition to ‘Islamism’ (radical, political, militant Islam) as a displaced channel for racial hatred and phobia – the Muslims in question being invariably Pakistanis, Turks, North Africans, Arabs and other ethnic communities the BNP would like to expel from Britain.

Russian girl leads a recent EDL protest march in Dudley, bearing the Russian flag (from the EDL website)

And herein lies a problem: it’s the British-nationalist parties such as the BNP and UKIP that tend to exploit Islamophobia more systematically in pursuit of anti-immigration and racist political agendas, not ‘English-nationalist’ movements such as the EDL or the English Democrats. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting there is an intrinsic link between racism and opposition to mass immigration – any more than I’m arguing there’s an intrinsic association between Islamophobia and racism – but the two do often go hand in hand: racist sentiment is exploited in pursuit of anti-immigration policies, while anti-immigration politics often serve as a displaced, legitimised channel for racism.)

In addition, it’s questionable to what extent the EDL really qualifies as an English-nationalist movement as such, i.e. one that believes that England is a sovereign nation that is entitled to determine for itself how it should be governed, whether as an independent state or as part of a continuing United Kingdom of some sort. On its website, the EDL talks just as much about defending Britain, the United Kingdom and ‘our country’ (the usual term for avoiding being explicit about whether you are referring to England or Britain) as it talks about England. If anything, the EDL appeals to what you could call the British nationalism of English patriots: that traditional English pride in Great Britain that sees no fundamental contradiction or difference between Britain and England, and sees defending the English way of life and the sovereign British state as one and the same thing.

It’s a mark perhaps of the extent to which all things England have been marginalised and repudiated by the liberal British establishment that this English pride in Great Britain now expresses itself primarily in terms of English-national symbols as opposed to British ones, even as the traditional ambiguities regarding the distinction between England and Britain persist: the British symbols have become so tainted with both racism of the BNP variety and the anglophobic bias of the British government that the only way that non-racist English pride in Britain can be asserted is through the symbols of England that traditionally were not viewed as contrary to an inclusive British patriotism.

And let’s not forget the catalyst that sparked the creation of the EDL: the insults that were directed at British troops returning from Iraq by a handful of Muslim hotheads in Luton, in March 2009. The said troops are of course part of the British Army, sent out to that Muslim country for the alleged purpose of defending Britain and British interests, not England as such. The EDL are in a sense, and perhaps even see themselves, rather like a latter-day Home Guard, set up to defend the ‘home front’ (England) in support of our boys on the eastern front in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that the theme tune for the TV sitcom Dads’ Army proclaimed, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, If you think old England‘s done!’, even as the arrows representing the retreating western front on the map of Britain and France displayed the Union Flag: the defence of Britain and the defence of England seen as one and the same thing.

The difference now is that the enemy is not Nazi Germany but ‘Islamism’, which, despite its radically different philosophical basis and political agenda, is viewed by its opponents in a similar light to Nazism. Note the pejorative impact of adding an ‘ism’ to the end of a word: Nazism, Islamism, racism, nationalism indeed; the word ‘Nazi’ itself being a shortened form for ‘national socialism’ – the effect of the ‘ism’ being to imply the existence of doctrinaire extremism, thereby foreclosing a more open and enquiring discussion about the phenomena at issue, whether Islam or nationalism.

Indeed, it’s in their opposition to ‘Islamism’ that the EDL and the British government find common cause: the avowed purpose of the EDL being to resist the influence of Islamists at home, while the mission of the British Armed Forces was often presented as that of destroying Islamist terror movements in their home base in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say ‘was’, as the rhetoric around the concept of Islamism, on the part of the British government at least, seems to have died down a bit since the demise of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. And indeed, it’s perhaps mainly in reaction to the perception that the British government’s determination to vanquish Jihadist Islam was slacking (troops returning from Iraq, with the police allowing Muslims to jeer at them; the soldiers in Afghanistan not being adequately equipped for the task; etc.) that the EDL was formed. So the EDL is not in fact primarily an English-nationalist movement at all, but an English movement for the defence of Britain whose motivations are remarkably similar to those of the British government itself during the last decade: a reaction to Islamist ‘Terror’ and the fear of Islam.

Picture and caption from the BNP website

By contrast, the overtly racist BNP rejects what it terms Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that this is partly, ironically, because the BNP does not wish to be seen to be condoning violence against Muslims, which – whatever justificatory gloss you put on it – Britain’s military adventures in those countries have undoubtedly involved. But this position on the part of the BNP also allows it to whip up hysteria against ‘the enemy within’ (Islamism) in pursuit of its racism-fuelled anti-immigration agenda: “Mass immigration has created a large pool of Muslims in Britain from which the Islamists — who have been waging war against the infidel khufars of Europe for over 1,300 years — can actively recruit. Britain’s biased foreign policy has given these Islamists, who are already not short of hatred for all things Western, a gift horse with which they can justify attacks inside Britain” (quote from the BNP website).

So to summarise the discussion so far: the EDL, which sees itself as anti-Islamist but not racist, defends Britain’s military campaigns in Muslim countries; whereas the BNP, which also sees itself as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, and is racist whether it accepts the accusation or not, rejects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better to refocus attention on the ‘war’ against Islamism within Britain, which it hopes will eventually result in the mass expulsion of Asian Muslims from the UK. Neither of these movements, however, can accurately be described as English-nationalist.

The main political force that is avowedly English-nationalist, the English Democrats Party (EDP), seems at first sight to be altogether unconcerned by the supposed Islamist threat: I could not find a single reference on the party’s website to either ‘Islamism’ / ‘Islamist’ (or indeed ‘Islam’), ‘Shariah’ or ‘Muslim’. The one mention of ‘burka’ was a link to a Daily Telegraph article reporting the words of that doyen of secular-liberal, anti-religious respectability, Richard Dawkins, comparing the burka to a “full bin-liner thing” – thereby perhaps making a comical, unconscious association between ‘bin liner’ and ‘Bin Laden’. Dawkins did go on to clarify that, “as a liberal”, he did not support a ban on women wearing the burka in public – although his words were reportedly condemned as Islamophobic by a representative of the Muslim Association of Britain.

By contrast, a ban on the burka is one of the pet causes of the UK Independence Party, whose website mentions the word on no fewer than 179 occasions (according to my Yahoo! search restricted to the UKIP site). UKIP would reject the charge that its proposed ban on the burka is an expression of Islamophobia. Such justification that is brought forward for it centres around security concerns and an opposition to divisive forms of multiculturalism. However, UKIP’s advocacy of bans on face and head coverings (including the niqab, or full veil, but not, I assume, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab) is expressed in terms that link legitimate security concerns to the more irrational element of fear that is the very essence of Islamophobia: “one of the 21/7 bombers escaped wearing the burka; the hidden face can also hide a terrorist. When we talk of terrorism, we usually refer to a problem coming from within Islam. Of all the religions, Islam is the only one whose leaders do not wish their followers to integrate into our society, and Sharia, which can alas [also?] be described as gender apartheid, holds growing sway in too many parts of our country. So the burka is a symbol of separation, discrimination and fear”.

These words from the pen of UKIP’s leader Lord Pearson could easily have slipped from the mouth of BNP chief Nick Griffin, and illustrate how wariness towards Islam, or certain aspects of it, that could be seen as based on legitimate, indeed liberal, concerns around security, women’s rights and cultural integration is often also informed by more irrational motivations such as pure fear, and cultural, racial and (anti-)religious prejudice: the real threat of terrorism sliding over into the spectre of the Islamist Terror, and the burka being not so much an objective symbol of fear but the object of the viewer’s fear.

The same concerns inform but do not exhaustively explain UKIP’s anti-immigration policy: “A significant proportion of immigrants and their descendents are neither assimilating nor integrating into British society. This problem is encouraged by the official promotion of multiculturalism which threatens social cohesion”. Many ordinary conservative- and indeed liberal-minded English folk [deliberate small ‘c’ and ‘l’] would agree with this proposition. In fact, I myself would agree with it, to the extent that I believe that multiculturalism has been used to promote a new form of multi-ethnic Britishness that is opposed to the supposedly mono-ethnic culture at the heart of traditional Britishness, which I would call the English culture: multiculturalism and anglophobia united in an unholy alliance to create a new Britain in which ‘the English’ (viewed by the liberals as an ethnic term, i.e. the white English) are just one ethnic group among many, and no longer the core culture.

This is a more nuanced position on multiculturalism and the role of Islam, which argues that it is not so much the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, races and religious practices in England that is marginalising the English culture and identity in its own country, although there have to be limits on the number of people from whatever cultural background that come into England, which is arguably already overcrowded. The problem, rather, is the way that cultural diversity has become another ‘ism’ (multiculturalism): a key plank of a progressive ‘British’ political agenda that styles itself as anti-(English) nationalist by virtue of being anti the very concept of the / an English nation.

Having defended the English Democrats against the charge of Islamophobia, I have to admit, however, that the English Democrats’ policies on immigration and multiculturalism are expressed in terms remarkably similar to those of UKIP and the BNP, except the primary reference for the ‘nation’ allegedly threatened by mass immigration is England, not Britain, and there is no explicit singling out of Muslims: “Many English cities are being colonised by immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values. Which begs the question: why did they come here in the first place? And leads to the second question: why not go back to wherever they feel they actually belong and give us back our cities? . . . Mass immigration must be ended. We would deport illegal immigrants and all those immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals. We would regain control of our immigration systems by leaving the European Union”.

There’s no explicit reference to Islam here, but it’s clear what is mainly meant by “immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values” and by “immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals”: it’s the same suspicion and fear of the Islamist Terror – the fear of radical Islam because it symbolises the radically Other – exacerbated, in the case of English nationalists, by the genuine onslaught against English identity that has been carried out by the British establishment in tandem with the ideology of multiculturalism.

So how can we unpick this tangled web of complex cross-overs between racism, anti-Islamism / Islamophobia, opposition to mass immigration, nationalism and British-establishment liberalism (by which I mean the British political and cultural establishment, and its broad liberal consensus around fundamental values, under New Labour and now the ConDem coalition)? One way to try to make sense of it all is to set out the different positions of the movements and ideologies I’ve discussed in relation to these issues in a table, as follows:

Party / Ideology Is racist and, if so, towards which groups? Is anti-Islamist / Islamophobic? Viewpoint on mass immigration Backs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sees itself as defending which (concept of) the nation?
EDL Strongly denies it Yes Against Yes England and Britain without distinction
BNP Yes: towards any ‘non-white-British’ groups Yes Against No Britain (with England seen as an integral but subordinate part of Britain)
UKIP Not overtly Yes Against Yes, but in a qualified way Britain / the UK
EDP Not overtly Yes, but implicitly Against Yes, but in a qualified way England
British-establishment liberalism Yes: towards the ‘white-English’ Yes, but implicitly Has encouraged it Yes Britain / the UK

All of these movements and ideologies could be described as nationalisms of one sort or another; and they’re mostly in fact variants of British nationalism, even the EDL, as I argued above. The only properly English-nationalist movement here is the EDP. And what in fact all of these nationalisms share in common is Islamophobia to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness.

Some readers will no doubt reject my characterisation of British-establishment liberalism as a form of nationalism, along with the charge that it is marked by Islamophobia. But as I’ve tried to bring out in the argument and quotations above, there is really only a sliding scale separating more liberal justifications for suspiciousness towards Islam, and for war in Muslim countries, and more irrational fears about the intentions of Muslims and the effects of (mainly Muslim) mass immigration on the culture, identity and even survival of the ‘nation’.

In addition, the British government under New Labour, and now, it seems, under the ConDems, have indeed ruthlessly pursued what can adequately be described only as a nationalist agenda to articulate, maintain and impose the idea of an integral British nation over and against the internal and external threats to its existence, both real and imagined: (English) nationalism, mass immigration and multiculturalism and the hostility towards them, Islamism, and terrorism. Furthermore, this has involved the most aggressive foreign policy that Britain has seen in decades – arguably, not since the botched Suez War – involving an apparent readiness to sanction dubiously legal pre-emptive military action against Muslim countries, supposedly in the national interest.

In all of these forms of nationalism, I’m arguing that there’s a more or less narrow scale leading from anti-Islamism via Islamophobia to racism. In the case of UKIP and the EDP, the specific racial make-up of the Muslims / Islamists that are the object of anti-immigration resentment and general suspicion is not usually referred to explicitly. We need to read the pronouncements of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL to get explicit references to what is only implied by UKIP and the EDP: these are ‘Asians’, used in a more or less restrictive sense – sometimes mainly meaning the Pakistani community, sometimes covering pretty much the whole extended Islamic community and faith seen as the expression of an alien (Asian) culture that is radically different from our European and Christian civilisation. The word ‘culture’ is, after all, so often used as a politically correct euphemism for ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’; so that, by extension, the much despised multiculturalism also implies multi-racialism, and the immigrants who are viewed as wishing only to retain their own culture and law are Muslims of another race who are perceived as preferring to keep up a sort of apartheid separating them from the (white) English than integrate with the English community at large.

In addition, British-establishment liberalism, rather than being merely anti-Islamist and anti-Asian-racist to a greater or lesser degree, is anti-Islamist-racist and anti-English-racist: both Islamophobic and anglophobic. How does that compute? This is a case of denied and inverted racism: the English as such are the ‘acceptable’ object of liberal-establishment racism, in part because they are the projection of the anti-Muslim racism the establishment won’t admit to but which it expresses violently outside of Britain, in its wars in Muslim lands. In other words, the establishment denies the Islamophobic racism at its heart by projecting it outwards: physically outside of Britain, by taking it out on Muslim countries; and symbolically, by ascribing it to the English, thereby evincing inverted racism – the English becoming the symbol of the British establishment’s own racism, in its very heart, which it used to be proud to call ‘England’. In this way, the supposedly racist ‘English nationalists’ represent Britain’s ‘alibi’: the group it can point to in order to exonerate itself of racial crimes abroad by saying, ‘no, that’s where the racism was at the time of the alleged incident: at home in England, whereas I was just out doing my work and my duty defending Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan!’

My view that the establishment is both anti-Muslim-racist (and by implication, anti-Asian-racist) and racist towards the English is based on how I view Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. Let me clear about this: I’m not saying that some of the forces of militant Islam don’t pose a threat to the security of Western countries. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 provided ample proof of that. But where concerns about this threat cross over into frankly hysterical fears about the imminent imposition of Shariah and the Islamification of England and Britain, this is where Islamophobia (the irrational fear and loathing of Islam) is at work; and Islamophobia, in my view, always involves a racial element, which some people (e.g. the BNP) try to exploit for their own political purposes.

With regard to the Islamophobia at play within establishment liberalism, you could say of it what used to be said of anti-Catholicism: that anti-Catholicism [replace with ‘anti-Islamism’] is the anti-semitism of the liberal. Anti-Islamism is indeed in many respects the new anti-semitism: like the Jews before the war (the Second World War, that is) and in Nazi Germany, today’s Muslims are a combined racial-religious minority, some of whom insist – how dare they? – on continuing to adhere to their religious Law and in not mixing, socially and racially, with the surrounding population, call them Gentiles or kuffar.

In the liberal context, the suspicion and anxiety provoked by this racial-religious minority that appears to reject Western liberal values articulates itself in relation to typical liberal concerns around women’s rights (e.g. the burka issue), the desired goal of racial-cultural integration, and the supposedly irrational and archaic nature of the Muslim faith and religious practices. The words of Richard Dawkins, in the article referred to above where he’s reported as describing the burka as a ‘bin liner’, are perhaps instructive here: “I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women. . . . As a liberal I would hesitate to propose a blanket ban [unfortunate choice of words] on any style of dress because of the implications for individual liberty and freedom of choice”.

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

The phrase ‘visceral revulsion’ conveys a highly emotional reaction – suggesting that Dawkins is almost sick to his gut at the sight of burka-wearing women – and responses to seeing the burka and niqab are often expressed in such emotive terms, as if an instinctive abhorrence or fear is more natural and spontaneous, and therefore not dependent on cultural (and racial) assumptions and prejudices. But these are what Dawkins then immediately adduces to justify his reaction: the burka being, for him, a symbol of the oppression of women; and no doubt, his Western liberal-secular and atheistic beliefs also make him recoil at such an apparently ‘primitive’, religiously motivated, ‘irrational’ and distasteful cultural practice, so alien to those of the ‘civilised’ West.

At least, Dawkins does have the rather English decency not to advocate banning the burka, as is urged by some of the British nationalists I’ve discussed plus their associates in far-right parties on the European continent. But not only by the far right, as legislators in both France and Belgium have voted to ban people from wearing the burka and all face coverings. And they’ve done so precisely out of the same ‘liberal’ considerations that motivate both Dawkins’ gut reaction and his reluctance to propose a burka prohibition: to eliminate a supposed means to oppress women and to oblige Muslims to integrate more with the mainstream culture.

But did the legislators in question bother to ask the women themselves whether they wore the burka out of allegedly religiously justified but ‘in fact’ cultural oppression by their North African, Turkish and Arab menfolk? Perhaps they could have tried to take those women aside and use the services of trained counsellors to try and elicit whether emotional and physical abuse was going on, in much the same manner as they would deal with presumed victims of domestic violence and rape – but not by insisting, as Jack Straw infamously did, that the women strip off their veils so the emotions written on their naked faces could be read.

According to some of the reports I’ve read, the number of women wearing the burka in France is absolutely minimal: around 200 or so. You’d think the lawmakers could find a better use of their time and of taxpayers’ resources rather than bothering themselves with such a minor social issue! Except, of course, the issue isn’t important primarily by virtue of its physical impact on actual women’s lives but as a symbolic matter: it’s a question of banning the burka as a ‘symbol’ of women’s oppression or, as Lord Pearson similarly put it, a “symbol of discrimination, separation and fear” – never mind how much real oppression, fear, and forced gender and racial apartheid are involved. Ultimately, then, laws proscribing Islamic face coverings are about symbolically and bullyingly asserting the primacy of Western values, laws and culture over the values, laws and culture of the Muslim ethnic minorities living in our midst. But the effect of such proscriptive legislation is not to achieve greater integration and acceptance of Western values on the part of the Muslim communities targeted in this way, but to drive further divisions between them and mainstream society, and in fact to ghettoise those communities still further, so they can express their culture and religious practices safely on their own territory without fear of persecution backed by the might of the law.

But, as I say, in England and Britain, we’ve stopped short of banning the burka. But that doesn’t make Britain any less Islamophobic than mainland Europe: whereas their expression of Islamophobia is to ban the hijab from schools (in France), and now ban face coverings in public buildings and transport, the British expression of it has been our military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan; and whereas some in the British establishment might lament the intolerance they see in the French and Belgian laws, politicians in those nations have vehemently criticised what they portray as Britain’s ‘brutal’, indeed unlawful, actions in those Muslim countries, in stooge-like support of our American allies.

We might say that, whereas continental Europeans have directed their anti-Islamist fears inwards, against their own Muslim populations, we’ve directed it outwards against the Muslim populations of other lands. In this sense, the actions of the French secular-liberal state could be compared with BNP policy: focusing the aggression on the enemy within rather than without. I guess the urge to commit acts of violence against Muslims, whether ‘symbolic’ or physical, in revenge for the violence we have suffered at the hands of self-styled Jihadists, has to go somewhere; so it goes where it can. And joining the US anti-Islamist / anti-‘Terror’ bandwagon was the perfect opportunity for Britain to direct this violence outwards, rather than inwards towards its own substantial Muslim minorities, which could have dangerously exacerbated racial tensions in England and would have gone against the hallowed doctrine of multiculturalism.

Ultimately, what I’m implying about the British military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they could not have been justified by the establishment if the countries in question had not been Muslim and non-European (racially and culturally), and if the establishment had not drawn on, shall we call it, the popular or populist Islamophobia at work in the nationalist movements I’ve discussed, and also in the liberal and conservative English and British population at large. It’s this Islamophobia that made the propaganda around WMD credible to so many in the run up to the Iraq War; and it’s the same Terror of Islam that has been used to argue that Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is about wiping out Islamist-terrorist infrastructure. Whereas, in fact, there were no WMD in Iraq, and Al Qaeda disappeared like a puff of smoke in Afghanistan, leaving our brave troops – for whom I have nothing but admiration – shadow-boxing against the hardline-Muslim Taliban in a sterile conflict they cannot win, and without any evidence this has helped reduce the real terrorist threat – if anything, the contrary.

But at least, sending our boys out to bash the Muslims provided an outlet for anti-Islam sentiment. However, as these military escapades have been unsuccessful at realising their declared aims (and how could they have been successful, as those aims were themselves phantasms conjured up by fear?), this has created more of a potential for the Islamophobia to seek expression domestically, through organisations such as the EDL, whose formation, as I discussed above, was in part a reaction to a frustration of the desire to see fanatical Muslims defeated abroad and the terror threat – both real and imagined – lifted.

As the example of the EDL suggests, the relationship between British-establishment Islamophobia and that of nationalist groups is to an extent organic: the military forays in Muslim lands represent in part an attempt to channel anti-Islam sentiment outside of Britain, away from its potential to generate inter-community and inter-racial violence, such as that which has indeed been seen in the past in places such as Oldham. But the very act of doing so partakes of the very same Islamophobia, which is present in a more subtle form in liberal repugnance at, and preconceptions about, Islam, including that religion’s treatment of women, which is of course also one of the retrospective justifications brought forward for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

It is this channelling of anti-Muslim aggression into an overtly more reasonable and liberal outlet that enables the establishment to dissociate itself from populist Islamophobia by claiming that this domestic anti-Islamism is a characterstic of English nationalism rather than of the British nationalism that it itself represents. But, as we’ve seen, there’s only really a sliding scale between liberal Islamophobia and the more overtly racist expressions of it; and both of these are far more typically associated with the symbols and discourse of the ‘British nation’ than with those of England.

England is therefore, as I’ve said, Britain’s alibi. But ascribing racism to English nationalism also provides a convenient extra weapon in the armoury of the British establishment’s assault on any idea or expression of English nationhood – a powerful tool to fallaciously persuade the great liberal and conservative English majority that any assertion of English nationhood will inevitably stir up the mythical demons of an allegedly racist English past.

I say the liberals and conservatives (small ‘l’ and ‘c’) because the progressives don’t need convincing: they’re already sold on the myth that English nationalism is inherently tied up with the assertion of white-racial supremacy, and that only ‘Britain’ can serve as a vessel for multiculturalism and multi-racialism. And it is this hooking of the ‘Britain’ brand to the ideals of multiculturalism that creates such an imperative for the British establishment to disown the Islamophobia at the very heart of its own liberalism, given that racially underpinned prejudice towards one of the many cultures that are meant to be accommodated within the multicultural framework is apparently so radically at odds with that multiculturalism itself.

Hence, it is so convenient to point the finger of blame for racist Islamophobia on the English nationalists, and to ascribe it to those – mostly British nationalists, but also some English nationalists – who would rather have a mono-racial, mono-cultural England and Britain, rather than to English and British society at large and a more all-pervading suspiciousness towards Islam.

But is multiculturalism really a counter-racist, inclusive ideal? On the contrary, it seems to me, the so-called British model of multiculturalism is quite profoundly racist in a rather subtle way, which in turn reveals what British anglophobia and British Islamophobia have in common. This is because British multiculturalism involves the idea that the different cultures in Britain should remain different, multiple and separate; and the state and the public sector provides support for the different communities to preserve and express their distinct cultures. But it’s this that reinforces cultural and racial apartheid: each ethnic group in their separate compartments, not overlapping, intermingling and being transformed in the mutual exchange of values, customs and shared humanity. It’s the apartheid of the ethnic-racial tick box, as per the profoundly racist Census of England and Wales: ‘British-Pakistani’ and ‘White-English’ in radically separate categories because the whole population has been broken up into a thousand and one distinct racial-cultural ethnic groups, the ‘English’ being just one, and a white-only one to boot.

The deeply racist reaction of the British establishment in the face of the fracturing of (the idea of) a monolithic British nation through the combined impact of nationalisms (including, and perhaps primarily (if the truth be told), the Scottish and Welsh variety) and mass immigration has been to redefine the unity and integrity of Britain in terms of its very diversity and multiplicity, and to celebrate and reinforce that rather than truly trying to integrate it within the core culture and tradition of the realm. And that’s because the core culture and identity are those of England, not Britain as such.

The British establishment has carried on a sort of racial divide and rule: divide the population into apparently irreconcilable units, racially and culturally, the better to promulgate the idea of Britain and the authority of the British state as the only things that can hold it all together. By contrast, the only way true cultural cohesion could be fostered in England would be by celebrating England itself as the nation into which immigrants have come to make their home, and Englishness as the culture they should aspire to embrace – rather than a multicultural Britishness that exempts them and the English from coming together. For it has to be a mutual process: the English sharing of their culture in a spirit of welcome and generosity, and migrants sharing the riches of their cultures in a way that is respectful of but not subservient to the host culture – and both being transformed in the process.

This is the only way forward for English nationalists and for Muslims that seek genuine dialogue and integration within English society, without having to give up the aspects of their culture and faith they hold most dear. The ‘enemy’ for the English is not the Muslims, nor should we English allow ourselves to become enemies to the Muslims. The true enemy is the racism in all our hearts, which the British establishment would rather we directed against each other instead of transcending it to create a new England, freed from the prejudices and divisions that are Britain’s stock in trade and only hope.

Advertisements

24 February 2008

British Values and Islam: Can They Meet on English Ground?

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr. Nazir-Ali, is back in the news again today through his refusal to retract any of the remarks he made in a recent interview in the Daily Telegraph that Islamic extremism had turned certain parts of Britain into no-go areas for non-Muslims. Indeed, the death threats he and his family have received, along with a large volume of supportive correspondence, have confirmed him in his views.

The bishop’s concerns appear to be twofold:

1) The separation and isolation of ‘extremist’ Islamic communities that have become virtual ghettoes, according to the bishop. This means that non-Muslims feel threatened and are squeezed out, deprived of their right to live and work in those areas. The goal of multi-culturalism appears, therefore, to have spawned total separation, challenging the broader goal of integration; and, additionally, the extremist views that hold sway in such areas are turning the minds of youth, posing a security risk to the country as a whole.

2) The bishop fears that such Islamic extremism is filling a moral and spiritual void in Britain as a whole, caused by the erosion of the country’s Christian faith; and, as a consequence, there is a risk that Islam will in fact spread beyond the extremist ghettoes and pose itself as an alternative value system for the UK as a whole. As he says in the second Telegraph interview today (linked above): “The real danger to Britain today is the spiritual and moral vacuum that has occurred for the last 40 or 50 years. When you have such a vacuum something will fill it. If people are not given a fresh way of understanding what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian-based society then something else may well take the place of all that we’re used to and that could be Islam”.

An observation in passing. For me, this demonstrates one of the big flaws in the debate about so-called Islamic extremism, Islamism, etc. On the one hand, these are real, serious issues. There is a problem about how Muslim communities should best be integrated within our society; there are areas where non-Muslims feel isolated and unwelcome; and there is a real security risk from young people being indoctrinated into a false understanding of Islam that justifies hatred and violence against non-Muslims. But people’s understandable fears about such things are combined with a more pervasive, cultural unease about Islam that is indeed Christian in its historical roots: the fear of Islam as a violent faith that seeks to take over and Islamify Western-Christian culture and nations.

This is Islamophobia: an ultimately prejudiced dislike and fear of Islam. It’s this fear that makes many people equate all Muslims who seek to lead their lives more strictly according to the laws and ordinances of their faith with extremism. This fear also modulates the movement in Dr. Nazir-Ali’s thoughts between genuinely extremist and, by that token, distorted Islam and Islam per se as a potential faith-based value system for this country – genuinely accepted and embraced by millions of British people as an alternative to Christianity or secularism. It’s only irrational fear of Islam that could make this last scenario appear realistic; it is, however, plausible to imagine that at some point there could be a quite widespread assault on the British state from home-grown jihadis. But such people and their twisted beliefs would never be willingly accepted by the British people, or even by the majority of British Muslims.

Perhaps for tactical reasons – to ride the wave of the general reaffirmation of Britishness – perhaps also out of genuine personal experience and conviction, Nazir-Ali associates his appeal for us to reinvent a Christian society with British values and tradition. Indeed, the bishop asserts:

“Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish – art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?”

While many of these things the bishop lists undoubtedly owe much to Britain’s Christian past, I don’t think many British people would accept that Christianity was the sole or main source of inspiration for all of them. Britain’s ‘value system’ has been decreasingly Christian for decades and centuries, certainly for longer than the 40 or 50 years the bishop refers to, i.e. from before the revolution in social mores in the 1960s. I’m bound to say that I think this perception of Britain per se (a 300-year-old state founded as our culture had already embarked on its gradual secularisation) as having been historically, and still being fundamentally, at root a Christian society reflects the perspective of an immigrant from a Muslim country; as indeed people coming to Britain from Pakistan do tend, at least initially, to think they’re coming to a Christian country and that that country is Britain – rather than England, Scotland or Wales – in the first instance.

So Dr. Nazir-Ali appears to oppose Christianity and British values, on one side, to Islam, on the other. Not surprising, then, that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech two and half weeks ago (discussed elsewhere in this blog) in which he called for consideration of the idea that sharia law could be incorporated in some way into English civil law is anathema to the Bishop of Rochester:

“People of every faith should be free within the law to follow what their spiritual leaders direct them to, but that’s very different from saying their structures should replace that of the English legal system because there would be huge conflicts”.

The scenario of some aspects of sharia becoming official English legal procedure and legislation clearly plays on Nazir-Ali’s fear of Islam ultimately coming to replace Britain’s own laws and institutions, with their Christian foundations. Or should that be England’s laws, institutions and Christian foundations? As I stated in the previous discussion on Rowan Williams’s speech (linked above), one of the reasons why the media and political establishment came down so hard on the Archbishop was that he was suggesting that there could be constructive, creative and to some extent open-ended dialogue and co-operation between the English legal system (itself plural in its sources of inspiration, not all of which Christian) and sharia (also not a uniform, monolithic body of doctrine and established procedure but admitting of multiple cultural variations throughout Islam). This flies in the face of the political drive to construct and impose a normative Britishness, e.g. through the proposed British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a British written constitution. This effort to redefine a uniform Britishness is opposed both to the aspirations of many English people to define themselves primarily as English and to establish English national political institutions (such as a parliament); and to the aspiration of many Muslims to define their identity and regulate many aspects of their daily lives (including certain legal aspects) as Islamic in the first instance, and then British insofar as – and perhaps legitimately only if – British society and law allow them to retain and express their Muslim identity and beliefs.

So in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s conceptual framework, if I’ve understood it correctly, there is, on the one side, a potentially monopolistic, secular British state / value system / law and, on the other side, a more diverse English legal system and sense of identity encompassing and striving to integrate both Christian, Muslim and secular influences. The key differences between Rochester’s and Canterbury’s positions are therefore threefold:

  1. Rochester assimilates Christianity to British values and tradition, while Canterbury opposes a more plural and, indeed, Christian-inspired English tradition to a narrow secular Britishness
  2. Rochester sees the primary national identity of this country as Britain / British, while Canterbury’s focus is on the English nation, Church and law
  3. Rochester sees fundamentalist Islam as inimical to British society and its Christian-centred values (or, another way of putting this: he sees Islam per se as fundamentally inimical to Britain and its Christian-centred values); while Canterbury believes that English pragmatism, backed by a universal vision of the basis for law and for human rights that is both religious in inspiration and common to all religions, can create the grounds on which Islamic beliefs, culture and customs can be profoundly integrated within English society, law and liberalism: the respect for freedom of conscience, belief and lifestyle.

Both men are agreed – and, in fact, I agree with them – that true integration between ‘British’ people and Muslims can take place only if the British come to respect and engage with the religious grounds for Muslims’ wish to retain particular practices and ways of living that separate them to some extent from other communities; and that, in order for this to happen, we need to get back in touch with the properly religious inspiration and foundation of the laws and freedoms we hold dear. But such a process of integration is not compatible with the would-be imposition of a monolithic secular Britishness that decrees that people’s freedoms should be dependent on their accepting the primacy of the British state in determining their social responsibilities and fundamental collective identity – rather than these being shaped as an expression of the English and / or Muslim values and identity.

As I stated in my previous discussion of Dr. Rowan Williams’ speech, the British media and political establishment tries to capitalise on any apparent concession to extremist or radical Islamic views to whip up Islamophobia and manipulate it to get English people (who otherwise might be quite anti the Britishness drive) behind the British values and way of life that are supposedly under threat. But is there not in reality more common ground between the defence of the English nation and the defence of the freedom of English Muslims to continue to make their faith the centre of their lives while contributing to the common good? Both positions are opposed to a secular and potentially authoritarian Britishness that seeks to deny any place in the core definition of British values, citizenship and national identity not only to Islam but to England, and its historical and continuing Christian roots.

So Nazir-Ali is right on one level – about rediscovering and reinventing our Christian heritage and roots – but he’s wrong in identifying those with Britain and British values, rather than England. The British values that the political class is currently pushing are just as opposed, in many respects, to Christianity as to Islam, and certainly seek to eliminate the radical Englishness of the British state (its roots in England’s history and identity) as much as radical Islam. The British state seeks to play divide and rule with respect to the English and the Muslims amongst them, setting them one against the other – urging Muslims to identify and, effectively, ‘convert’ to a secular British identity that only alienates them still further from the English population as it resists being dragged into an a-national British citizenry.

The English and Muslims must both resist this and find common ground in the defence of their identity, their faith – and their Englishness.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

9 February 2008

Sharia, English Law and British Values

It’s open season on Islamophobia again. All it takes is for a batty old archbishop to make a few ill-considered remarks about incorporating some aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, into English law [sic], and out troop all the old stereotypes and prejudices about Islam: floggings, stonings, mutilations, beheadings, religious extremism and absolutism, oppression of women, the imposition of the veil, and the ambition of (some) Muslims to impose sharia on Britain and the West in general. What a load of disgraceful hysteria that is a shame on our country.

Actually, ‘ill-considered’ is virtually the opposite of what Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words in a lecture on 7 February were, other than in the political sense: he should perhaps have realised the furious zeal that would be unleashed to stuff the genie he’d released back into its rightful confinement. The fact that the archbishop was saying something worthwhile is almost ‘proved’ negatively by the calibre of his opponents. First of all, GB [Gordon Brown], whose spokesman stated that the prime minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values”. What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no such thing as ‘British law’ other than as an aggregate of English law (the legal system for England and Wales) and Scottish law. And are (should) the laws of England, Wales and Scotland (be) ‘based on’ British values, whatever they may be? And is a statement such as this even a refutation of Rowan Williams’s argument, in two ways: 1) no one is denying – least of all, Rowan Williams – that the laws of Britain should be consistent with the most fundamental principles of British civilisation and society; but the archbishop isn’t advocating incorporating certain elements of sharia directly into ‘British law’ and British statutes, so the conflict in this sense doesn’t arise; 2) many of the principles of sharia law in the areas Rowan Williams is talking about (such as marital disputes and family law) are already consistent with British law and values; and, indeed, on another definition, if Muslims as Muslims are to be accepted as British, does that not mean that their values must be taken into consideration in any determination of what ‘British values’ might mean?

And then there’s Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (he of the ironically ‘pro-Muslim’ revisionist British history that overrides, indeed overwrites, the separate ‘native’ histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). His take on it was that “the suggestion that a British court should treat people differently according to their faith – whether that’s being Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, is absolutely divisive, and I think, really rather dangerous”. Well, this is not what Dr Williams was suggesting, either. He wasn’t advocating that ‘British courts’ (sorry, slip of the tongue, English (or Welsh) or Scottish courts) should treat people differently according to their religion; he was saying that Muslims should perhaps have the right, under English law, to seek resolution and redress in certain types of cases (essentially, domestic and financial), if they wish, through sharia-type procedures, all under the auspices and control of the English legal system. What is divisive about that? It’s not one law for Muslims and another for all the other British people. It’s an integration of limited aspects of sharia into English law, so as to guarantee that Muslims could resolve certain issues legally in accordance with their conscience and customs, while enjoying the same legal protections and rights as any other British citizen.

I’d call that integrationist and inclusive, not divisive. In fact, it’s people who are rigorously opposed to allowing for any kind of role for sharia or other religiously based laws and jurisdiction in British civic society who are divisive. As a Muslim, so the argument goes (and Blair in his time and Jack Straw have argued along these lines), you can reconcile your joint identities as British and Muslim only if you accept the ultimate supremacy of British law, indeed the rule of law, over all prescriptions and rules deriving from your own religious tradition that might place you in conflict with British laws and fundamental values; and sharia is seen as the example par excellence of such a code that is seen as conflicting with and alien to inherently British principles and values. You either accept British values, thereby subordinating your separate Muslim identity to a shared British identity founded on those values, or you don’t – in which case, in principle, you are forfeiting your right to be called a British citizen.

I think Rowan Williams was also attacking this narrow identification of British citizenship with uniform and monopolistic acceptance of the abstract and absolutist claim of the law to govern the lives of all citizens equally, without any right for particular groups of citizens to freely choose to regulate certain aspects of their lives differently, in accordance with particular customs or beliefs. As the archbishop stated: “The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities”.

This could almost be a description of the way in which calls for a distinct English nation and legislative body (parliament) are suppressed by the British state and value system that certain proponents such as GB (as I’ve argued elsewhere) wish to transform into a unitary British nation where the state is viewed as representing the sovereignty (absolute authority) of the British people: equality before a unitary ‘British’ law. Meanwhile, public expressions of Englishness are denied any official sanction; indeed, the state itself suppresses any reference to England as a nation within, but distinct from, Britain even when the sphere of its own activities is limited to England. And more fundamentally, the terms in which any officially accepted discussion regarding ‘shared values’ (what Dr Williams calls “shared goods and priorities”) is allowed to take place are defined exclusively as British; while English values and culture are marginalised and dismissed as merely the whims of private individuals. You can define yourself as English, just as you can be fundamentally Muslim, only in the privacy of your heart and your home; but officially, you’re British – or else, you are free to leave.

And this is why it’s particularly pernicious that the row that erupted over Rowan Williams’ lecture should have referred to the idea of accommodating Sharia within British law. No, Dr Williams’ lecture is entitled Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England. It’s an English matter, not British. English law already allows certain types of dispute to be resolved in civil, rather than legal, procedures under the terms of Orthodox Jewish law or, indeed, sharia; and the outcomes of such procedures are legally binding. What the archbishop is proposing is no more than a formalisation and extension of such arrangements so as to ensure legal oversight and improved guarantees that the rights and freedoms enshrined in English law are not overridden by the rulings of any given sharia court, which can vary according to the ethnic background and school of Islamic belief of each Muslim community.

Such a deviation from a uniform, legalistic Britishness on the part of English courts clearly cannot be tolerated. There is, after all, only one British law, nation and set of values for all. Well, there are not; but there will be if GB gets his way. Englishman beware: it may be Islamic law they’re excluding from Britain now, but it’ll be English law next. Perhaps that’s another trick that a written British constitution will pull off: the creation of a unified British law, superseding an English legal system based on tradition, precedent and the freedom to be different.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.