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A changing Britain needs to ask: what kind of country do we want to be?

20 March 2019

7:36 PM

20 March 2019

7:36 PM

After Christchurch, I found myself thinking about East London. Not because I was wondering if it could happen here because, frankly, of course it could but because what’s happening in East London is going to change Britain and, because of that, is going to have to change the way we think about this country.

Consider a pair of pioneering schools in East London. Last year pupils at Brampton Manor academy, most of them from ethnic minorities, received 41 offers from Oxford and Cambridge. Another Newham school, the London Academy of Excellence has a claim to be the best-performing sixth form college in England. While selective, around half its places are filled with pupils from one of London’s poorest boroughs. The school’s academic record is exemplary and, indeed, inspirational. The children and grand-children of immigrants there, as elsewhere, are achieving results that might have seemed inconceivable 30 years ago.

In time —  not quickly enough for some, too rapidly for others — their alumni are going to transform our idea of Britain. Many of these gifted children are the offspring of recently arrived immigrants; many more are the first in their families to go to university. Soon, they will become high court judges, chief constables, captains of industry, permanent secretaries, members of parliament. The 2050 ‘elite’ will look very different to the 2020 version.

Britain has always been a hyphenated place, it’s just that because in previous eras the hyphens were Scottish or Irish or Welsh or Italian many people have assumed those expressions of dualism did not exist or were not significant. But they were, even if they were less obvious than the newer kinds of hyphenated Briton: Pakistani, Nigerian, Indian, Somali, Jamaican, Chinese and so many others. Immigration is an event but assimilation is a process that, in time, changes the identity of the place in which these newer arrivals live.

To that extent, the purveyors of doom are right. This is not your grandparent’s Britain and it never will be again. It is a different kind of country; multi-hued, and multi-faith. A place in which being British is more complicated, and varied, than was perhaps once the case. That brings challenges, cultural and political, as well as opportunities.

And it sparks a reaction too. Change is confrontational. There are those who see diversity as a threat and those who do not. The former category is a broad one, ranging from the Imam fulminating against the decadence of western society to the newspaper columnist who wonders if, perhaps, the Imam has a point and old Enoch was right to say we invited all these troubles upon ourselves. What, after all, have we gained beyond interesting ‘ethnic’ food?

The culture wars, then, are not so simple as right vs left or old vs new; there are cross-cutting and sometimes unacknowledged alliances evident here. Which is why it is complicated and often difficult to untangle.

Still, some observations are possible. When young Britons travel to Syria or Somalia or elsewhere to join Islamist terror groups or when an Islamist terrorist carries out a suicide bombing at a concert arena in Manchester we ask what drove them to such measures. Who or what prompted or inspired them? And what can be done to prevent others emulating their example?

But when white extremists attack a mosque the rules are subtly different. It turns out that Muslim terrorists are inspired by what they hear and read but white terrorists are not. They draw their inspiration from within themselves. Often, they are loners, unconnected to any broader trends. Or their actions are  — sometimes, though not always and not by everyone — attributed to mental health problems. Deplorable, obviously, but what can you do? Suffice to say this verdict, which borders on being indulgent, is not always extended to Muslims who commit comparable acts of appalling, near-lunatic violence.

Hence this evident double-standard: terrorist acts committed by Muslims are the product of the environment; acts of terrorism committed by white extremists are not. Stretching charity towards its breaking point, you might argue anti-Muslim terrorism is a reaction to Islamist violence. But even if you allowed that, consistency should still demand you treat it comparably.

There is a reluctance to do, though. Perhaps because there really are people who happily suggest there’s a tension or some form of discrepancy between being a good Muslim and a good westerner or even a good liberal. That helps create a climate, you know.

As Sadiq Khan put it in an interview with the Times a couple of years ago, Islamists believe ‘that it is incompatible being a Muslim and a westerner, that it is incompatible to have western liberal values and to practise the faith of Islam’. Mayor Khan refutes that but so, more importantly, do millions of his fellow citizens.

Again, there is an uncanny overlap between Islamic radicals insisting there’s no place for Islam in the West and the implied message of those steely-eyed, tough-minded, hard-truth-telling intellectuals who suggest the problem with Islamophobia is there ain’t enough of it or that life for British Muslims must be made harder.

Curiously the right, which usually affects to deplore identity politics, cheerfully enables this view. Muslims are lumped together as though their God is all that matters or defines them. Arguments about the precise definition of Islamophobia strike me as being somewhat beside the point. Sometimes the label really is used to shut down discussion; more often it simply gets in the way. But if we call it what it really is — anti-Muslim prejudice — then it’s evidently far more prevalent than we might care it to be. Nor is this hostility simply the preserve of far-right websites; it is abundantly evident on social media and, I am afraid to say, beneath the line on newspaper and magazine websites. Even here.

Nor is there any avoiding the uncomfortable extent to which many Muslims plainly feel that to be Muslim is to be suspect. You must constantly prove your loyalty. You must always distance yourself from actions for which you were not responsible and whose only link to you is that they were purportedly carried out in the name of the God you worship. The shadow of guilt by association is, if not ever-present, often there.

Of course that implied accusation of dual loyalty — to the country of your passport and to the prophet — is not confined to Muslims. It is matched by the accusations of dual loyalty levelled against British Jews; they too are held responsible for actions for which they have no responsibility at all. The accusations typically come from different quarters, but the canards mirror one another.

So it is complicated. And sometimes it is hard. Sometimes it means confronting uncomfortable realities. Rotherham was one such instance; the current controversy over LGBT teaching in Birmingham schools is another. British Islam must exist within the parameters of a liberal, increasingly secular, society. But while insisting upon that, it’s also necessary to be reminded that the exceptions to Muslim willingness to do that are just that: exceptions.

Too often too many people fail to make the necessary distinction between views which are distressingly prevalent and the fact they are not, despite that, all that prevalent. Of course sensible people know we have a real and serious problem with Islamist radicalisation. As many as 1,000 Britons have spent time with Islamic State and hundreds of them have returned home; that is a serious challenge. The greater one is doing what can be done to reduce the attraction of such enterprises in the first place.

It seems obvious that this cannot be done without the active support of British Muslims. In many instances, if an extremist is known to the security services it is because of information that has come from inside the Muslim community itself. This is sometimes presented as being atypical when in fact it’s typical.

There is this apparent paradox too: there has never been a better time to be a member of an ethnic minority in Britain, yet the barrier to prejudice has never been lower. Opportunities exist that were previously scarcely feasible — one day, (and sooner than you think) it will cease being notable that the son or daughter of a Pakistani bus driver has become a citizen of some renown — and yet in large part because of social media, it has become both easier than ever to be subjected to prejudice.

It used to take an effort to make other people aware of your racism, now it’s just a tweet. Eventually, that has an impact, not least in terms of the way people feel about their station, their identity, their place. And it does so even if it is often contradicted by the experience of their offline lives.

The future is more diverse than the present. That is inevitable. We can make this a warm house for Britons of all faiths (or none), or we can make it a cold house. The latter option leads nowhere productive and, more likely, will end in disaster. The white-right and the Islamist-right share a dismal diagnosis but it is one that can be confronted, indeed refuted, without giving succour to one party or the other.

That requires a political, and cultural, arena which does not ignore or seek to minimise the difficulties of building a society in which multiple cultures are respected while coalescing to form one unified, coherent, whole. That means symbols of inclusivity and role models and all the other trappings of a ‘politically correct’ society actually do matter; it means accepting difference without fetishising it and reminding ourselves that there are many roads to modern Britain. And it means asking this question: are you helping or are you not?

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