Nigel Farage has performed a useful public service this week. Yes, really, he has. The UKIP leader, you see, is a believer in Root Causes. He is, in fact, a Root Causer and, like every member of that miserable tribe, liable to see every event as confirming the righteousness of his own longstanding, stale-breathed, prejudices.
You see we – the west generally – bring all this trouble upon ourselves. At home and abroad. It’s western foreign policy that explains and motivates Islamic extremism and it’s uncontrolled (sic) immigration that’s given it room to flourish in France, the United Kingdom and other countries. How very convenient.
The idea that the Charlie Hebdo murders are in some way our own fault is hardly a new one and nor is it any longer confined to the ghastly left. The right is happy to make common cause with leftists when it comes to these things. And never mind that it requires some heroic imaginative leap to blame the Charlie Hebdo slaughter on the war in Afghanistan.
But then, for all his pawky saloon-bar chirpiness, Farage has long been a doughball. And a third-rate, cut-price doughball at that. True, he’s not as poisonous as some of his counterparts on the continent (and for that small mercy, some small thanks) but it remains the case that everything-but-everything can be blamed on the same two things: the EU and immigration.
This leads you to some pretty odd places. So, on the one hand, Farage’s party – or at least many of its supporters – instinctively sympathise with Vladimir Putin since, hey, at least he doesn’t like the EU either. On the other, they now drop the mask and reveal themselves for what they truly are: a party for bigots.
For ages now Farage has been chuntering on about the need to protect our Judeo-Christian culture. He’s been at it again this week. That’s not a dog whistle, it’s a foghorn. Still, perhaps we can dispense with the pretence UKIP are unfortunate to discover so many putrefying apples in their midst. On the contrary, the tree itself is rotten.
It would be interesting to discover what Farage thought about the Salman Rushdie affair. I fancy he would have failed that test. I know many of his supporters would have. They would have said – as far too many on the right did at the time – that Rushdie had it coming. That this Paki (sic) scribbler was lucky to be in Britain at all and even more fortunate to be protected by the officers of a state he was happy to insult.
Again, it cannot be said too often that the dangers of Islamic extremism long predated George W Bush, Tony Blair, 9/11 and all the rest of it. It is one thing to say western policies have exacerbated the problem; quite another to say these policies caused it. Farage and his ilk are only half-a-step removed from suggesting Charlie Hebdo’s journalists were, in some sense, slaughtered by the French state itself.
More than one thing at a time may be true. Thus we really do have a real problem with Islamist radicals even as their extremism really is rejected by the vast majority of British muslims. We can no more hold every British muslim responsible for the extremism of his co-religionists than we could sensibly have blamed every Irishman for republican terrorism. Which is one reason why it is sensible to draw a distinction between the Islamic beliefs of these extremists and the far from extreme beliefs of the vast majority of British muslims.
And yet it is also true that while this radicalism may be contained from without it can only be defeated from within. That means enforcing the law but also drawing a necessary distinction between the general and the particular. It means making a greater fuss about the values and virtues of an open, liberal society but also remembering that such a society is in large part defined by its multitudes.
Farage would have us believe we are besieged at home. He comes perilously close to suggesting – without quite saying so explicitly – that all would be well if only we could get rid of all these bloody muslims. Some of his supporters certainly think that. But we can’t, even if we wanted to.
It isn’t immigration that’s the problem either. If, that is, you mean the immigration that’s taken place this century. The problem is radicalised British citizens. Radicalised French citizens. These people, whether we like it or not, are us. I dare say many of Farage’s supporters dispute the fact these people really are British. After all, anyone of a dusky countenance isn’t a proper Briton, are they? And we all know – because, er, we just do – that the children and grandchildren of immigrants aren’t proper Britons either. (A metric, by the way, that makes Farage’s own children semi-immigrants themselves). But the clock can’t be wound back to the 1950s now even in the unlikely event doing so was desirable.
Then again, our way of life is always endangered. If it ain’t being undermined by people born in this country its threatened by hordes of Roman Catholic workers streaming into the country from, er, Poland. Remember, always, that if they look funny or sound funny they’re no laughing matter at all.
And when British muslims say they are appalled by these atrocities, well, we know they would say that, wouldn’t they? Doesn’t mean they mean it, does it? Fear and anxiety is the only sensible, proportionate, response.
Except, of course, it isn’t. Yes, more needs to be done to throttle extremism but that throttling will – as it often is already – be done within British Islam. We might also remember that while we seek a strong house that house cannot be a cold house for any of our people. Farage and his ilk would make it so and in so doing make our predicament very much worse.
That does not mean, however, we must accept the idea it is somehow rude – or worse, racist – to insist all parts of the realm adhere to the agreed rules of a liberal polity. On the contrary, that idea cannot survive for long if great exceptions are carved from it. Some standards, some expectations, some norms are universal. Multiculturalism is fine – indeed, proper – within those boundaries but the boundaries are important and need to be defended. Defended against sloppy thinking on the left and defended against rancid thinking on the right.
We know we have a problem and we know it is a severe one. But, in this present moment, it is also important to resist the easy solutions and cheap populism peddled by two-bit demagogues who lack even the wit or imagination to be successful designers of women’s lingerie.