I witnessed the birth of political multiculturalism in Britain. It was in Bradford in the late 1980s when the left, shamefully, swapped secular universalism for ethnic particularismby Kenan Malik / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
It was February 1988. I was in Bradford, a few weeks after the demonstration on which a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses had been burned. I was there to interview Sher Azam, president of the Bradford Council of Mosques, and the man who had torched the book. Waiting in the drab building that housed the Bradford Council of Mosques, I heard a familiar voice.
“Hello Kenan, what are you doing here?”
It was Hassan, a friend from London, whom I had not seen for a couple of years. “Good to see you Hassan. I’m doing some interviews about Rushdie,” I said. “What are you doing in this godforsaken place?”
“Trying to make it less godforsaken,” said Hassan. “I’ve been up here a few months, helping in the campaign to silence the blasphemer.”
“No need to look so shocked. I’ve had it with the white left. I’d lost my sense of who I was and where I came from. So I came back to Bradford to rediscover it. We need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs, and not allow anyone—racist or Rushdie—to trample over them.”
I was astonished. The Hassan I knew in London had been a member of the Socialist Workers party (as had I for a while). Apart from Trotskyism, his indulgences were sex, Southern Comfort and watching Arsenal. We had marched together, chucked bricks at the National Front together, been arrested together. I had never detected a religious bone in his body. But here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners.
Today, “radical” in an Islamic context means someone who espouses a fundamentalist theology. Twenty years ago it meant a secularist who challenged the power of the mosques. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition has played an important part in the rise of Islamic militancy in this country. Hassan embodied this mutation from left-wing activist to Islamic militant. He was not alone. A large number of anti-Rushdie demonstrators were young. Many were not religious, only a handful could recite the Koran, and most flouted traditional Muslim taboos on sex and drink. They felt resentful about the treatment of Muslims, disenchanted by left-wing politics and were looking for new ways of expressing their disaffection. They formed the pool of discontents into which radical Islamic organisations dipped. It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that militant Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir began organising in Britain, particularly on campuses. Like Hassan, many recruits came from the ranks of former left-wing activists.
The Rushdie affair was a turning point in the relationship between British society and its Muslim communities. It was also the moment that Britain realised that it was facing a new kind of conflict. From the Grunwick dispute in 1976 to Broadwater Farm in 1985, black and Asian people had often been involved in bitter conflicts with authority. But these were political or law and order issues. The Rushdie affair was the first major cultural conflict, one that seemed to question the very possibility of social integration.
The Rushdie affair made me question my own relationship to the left. For the transformation of Hassan mirrored a wider political shift. It was a conversion from a belief in secular universalism to the defence of ethnic particularism and group rights. At one time, the left had been a champion of Enlightenment rationalism, of a common humanity and universal rights. Over the past 20 years, however, many key figures and organisations on the British left have promoted the idea of multiculturalism. “You have to treat people differently to treat them equally,” Lee Jasper, race adviser to Ken Livingstone, says. Or as Labour MP Keith Vaz put it, “Britishness cannot be imposed on people of different races, cultures and religions.” After Rushdie, I came to realise that tackling this “politics of difference” was as important as challenging racism. Fifteen years later, as we debate how British Muslims could turn into savage terrorists, understanding that retreat from secular universalism is as important as ever.
The roots of the politics of difference can be found in the new forms of radicalism that emerged in the 1960s. Radicalism came to mean the rejection of all that is “western” in the name of marginality or difference. Traditionally even those hostile to capitalism saw themselves as standing in the western intellectual tradition. “I denounce European colonialism,” CLR James once wrote. “But I respect the learning and… discoveries of western civilisation.” James was one the great radicals of the 20th century, a historian of black struggles. Over the past 30 years, though, many on the left would have dismissed his defence of “western civilisation” as insufferably Eurocentric.
The postwar left was shaped by the experience of Nazism, the failures of old-style class politics and the emergence of new struggles such as the civil rights movement and feminism. People asked why it was that Germany, with its deep roots in the Enlightenment, should succumb to Nazism. The answer seemed to be that it was the logic of Enlightenment rationalism itself that gave rise to such barbarism. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, founders of the Frankfurt school, put it in their seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Enlightenment is totalitarian.” Or as Herbert Marcuse, one of the Marxist gurus of the 1960s student revolt, explained: “Concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars and atom bombs are no ‘relapse into barbarism’ but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology and domination.”
Where the “old left” of the communist parties and trade unions still looked to the working class as the agency of change, the “new left” found surrogate proletariats in the “new social movements”—third world liberation movements, feminist groups, campaigns for gay rights, and so on. Where the old left talked of class and sought to raise class consciousness, the new left talked of culture and sought to strengthen cultural identity. Culture was the defining feature of groups and the means by which one group differentiated itself from others. Every group, whether Cuban peasants, black Americans or women, had a specific culture, rooted in its history and experiences. That culture gave shape to an individual’s identity. For an individual identity to be authentic, collective identity must be too. That required the group to be true to its own culture, to pursue the traditions that mark out that culture as unique and rebuff the advances of modernity and of other cultures.
These ideas echo the late 18th-century Romantic backlash against the Enlightenment. Whereas Enlightenment philosophes saw progress as civilisation overcoming the resistance of traditional cultures, for the Romantics, the steamroller of progress was what they feared. For Johann Gottfried Herder, the 18th-century German philosopher who best articulated the romantic idea of culture, each people or Volk was unique, and this uniqueness was expressed through its Volksgeist—the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Rejecting the Enlightenment belief that the same institutions and forms of governance would promote human flourishing in all societies, Herder held that the values of different cultures were incommensurate but equally valid. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment.
The romantic idea of culture flowered in the 1960s through the idea of self-organisation, a concept that emerged from the struggle for black rights in the US. Many activists accused the left of indifference and argued that black people must take matters into their own hands. They ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups. Black self-organisation soon gave way to the idea of black identity. Black people had to organise separately not as a strategy but as a cultural necessity. “In Africa they speak of Negritude,” wrote black power activist Julius Lester. “It is the recognition of those things uniquely ours which separate ourselves from the white man.”
Soon, not just black people but everyone had an identity that was uniquely theirs and that separated them not just from the white man, but from every other kind of man and from men in general. “The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal humankind’ on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect ‘in spite of one’s differences,'” wrote feminist and sociologist Sonia Kruks. “Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.”
Social and political developments over the next two decades further entrenched such ideas. The weakening of both social democratic and Stalinist parties, the demise of third world liberation movements, the transformation of many third world countries into tyrannies and, finally, the end of the cold war all added to the belief that radical social transformation was a chimera. The new social movements themselves had largely disintegrated by the 1990s. All that was left was the sense of difference. “Stripped of a radical idiom,” the American critic Russell Jacoby writes, “robbed of a utopian hope, liberals and leftists retreat in the name of progress to celebrate diversity. With few ideas on how a future should be shaped, they celebrate all ideas.” Multiculturalism, Jacoby concludes, “has become… the ideology of an era without ideology.” What began in the 1960s as a way of organising against oppression had ended up by the 1990s as a way of rationalising the left’s impotence.
It is against this background that we must understand the transformation of someone like Hassan from left-wing activist to Islamist. In Britain, the black and Asian population is smaller than in the US, and its political and economic clout less significant. The attempts at self-organisation have been much weaker, while the authority of both the moderate and radical left in Britain has been far greater. As a result, until the 1980s, the influence of identity politics remained weak.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, three issues had dominated the struggle for political equality: discriminatory immigration controls, racist attacks and police brutality. These struggles radicalised a new generation of activists and came to a climax in the inner city riots of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In April 1976, 24 people were arrested in pitched battles in the Manningham area of Bradford, as Asian youths confronted a National Front march. It was seen as the blooding of a new movement. The following year the Asian Youth Movement was born. Built on the model of self-organisation, the AYM was nevertheless outward-looking, working closely with other anti-racist and radical organisations. AYM activists did not distinguish themselves as Muslim, Hindu or Sikh; indeed many did not even see themselves as specifically Asian, preferring to call themselves “black” which they viewed as an all-inclusive term for non-white immigrants. They challenged not only racism but also many traditional values too, particularly within the Muslim community.
The next few years brought further conflict between Asian youth and the police, culminating in the trial of the Bradford 12 in 1982. Twelve young Asians faced conspiracy charges for making petrol bombs to use against racists. They argued that they were acting in self-defence—and won.
Faced with this growing militancy, Labour-controlled Bradford council drew up a new anti-racist strategy, based on a template pioneered by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. It established race relations units, drew up equal opportunities policies and dispensed millions of pounds in grants to black and Asian community organisations. Bradford’s 12-point race relations plan declared that every section of the “multiracial, multicultural city” had “an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs.” At the heart of this multicultural strategy was a redefinition of racism built on the insights of identity politics. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different. Black and Asian people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity.
Multiculturalism transformed the character of anti-racism. By the late-1980s the focus of anti-racist protest in Bradford had shifted from political issues, such as policing and immigration, to religious and cultural issues: a demand for Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat in school, and the confrontation over The Satanic Verses. As different groups began asserting their identities ever more fiercely, so the shift from the political to the cultural arena helped to create a more tribal city. Secular Muslims were regarded as betraying their culture.
This process was strengthened by a new relationship between the local council and the local mosques. In 1981, the council helped to set up and fund the Bradford Council of Mosques and looked to it as a voice of the community. This marginalised secular radicals—the AYM eventually broke up—and allowed religious leaders to reassert their power.
Multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it created a space for it within British Muslim communities that had not existed before. It fostered a more tribal nation, undermined progressive trends within the Muslim communities and strengthened the hand of conservative religious leaders. It is true that since 9/11 and particularly since 7/7 there has been growing questioning of the consequences of multiculturalism. From David Blunkett to CRE chief Trevor Phillips, many have talked of the need to reassert common values. Yet the fundamental tenets of the politics of difference remain largely unquestioned. The idea that society consists of a variety of distinct cultures, that all these cultures should be respected and preserved and that society should be organised to meet the distinct needs of different cultures—these continue to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook. The lesson of the past two decades, however, is this: a left that espouses multiculturalism makes itself redundant. Back in the 1980s, my old friend Hassan may well have taken to militant Islam because of his disenchantment with the left. But it was the disenchantment of the left with its own secular, universalist traditions that eased his path to the mosque—and the path of many others since.