By Swapan Dasgupta
Two years ago, I was invited to a seminar at a grand Cambridge college. As is customary on these occasions, the seminar was to conclude with a formal dinner that sounded promising. Curiously, just before dinner I was discreetly told by a co-participant to 'tank up' at an improvised 'control room'. Apparently, some participants had insisted that they would attend the dinner on two conditions: that only halal meat would be served and there would be no alcohol. Rather than create cultural complications, the hosts had graciously acquiesced.
Apart from a sense of culinary disappointment, I was not sure how to react. For westerners (and, for that matter, Chinese), hosting subcontinental guests can be a nightmare: there are just too many dietary taboos. Many are vegetarian. Others don't eat beef or pork, while still others insist on halal. Some are teetotallers, but a minority will not accept drinking at the table. The net result: some people are gratified while others grumble silently about those who made all the fuss.
My Cambridge experience came to mind while reading the reactions to David Cameron's well-crafted assault on 'multiculturalism' at a conference in Munich last week. The British Prime Minister's speech echoed many of the themes voiced earlier by German Chancellor Angela Merkel but it broke new ground by formally linking some facets of cultural relativism to the threat of Islamist terrorism Europe faced from within. Cameron's contention was that multiculturalist fads had eroded a national civic culture and this in turn had allowed Islamist radicals the space to influence impressionable young Muslims in cosmopolitan societies. From espousing 'non-violent extremism' to becoming suicide bombers, he felt, was a small jump.
Cameron offered a robust prescription to meet the challenge: "(We) must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance…and a much more active, muscular liberalism."
At a time when there is mood of gloom and doom in Britain, Cameron's advocacy of "active, muscular liberalism" will invariably be misinterpreted as tacit endorsement of far-Right groups engaged in creating a demonology around Britain's Muslims. That would be a tragedy and will derail a much overdue process of the United Kingdom coming to come to terms with an emotional drift that has plagued it since the Sixties.
For starters, it is necessary to separate 'multicultural' from 'multiculturalism'. The post-1945 wave of immigration from the old Empire has altered the landscape of urban Britain. UK—and England in particular—now hosts people from diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. Far from immigrants and their descendants being an economic drag, this spectacular cosmopolitanism has actually helped maintain UK's post-imperial relevance. Diversity has enriched it culturally and economically.
Multicultural Britain is an irreversible reality. In an age of global connectivity it is difficult for the 'melting pot' experiment to be easily replicated. In matters of food, faith and even social attitudes, the inheritance of the 'old country' will persist for generations and may even be renewed. Indian restaurants will continue to thrive in Blighty; Bollywood films will influence fashion and fads; brown and black holders of British passports will continue to fail the Tebbit test at Edgbaston and Oval; and the mosque will remain at the epicentre of community life and social certitudes for many Muslims.
White, Anglo-Saxon Britain have accepted these foreign implants into an island nation with grace, generosity and remarkably little social tension. Yes, Britain has a race problem but considering the magnitude of the post-War redrawing of the ethnic and cultural landscape, it is remarkable that chauvinism and cultural xenophobia have not taken deep roots in mainstream politics.
In 1985, over a convivial cup of tea, Enoch Powell told me that "mass migration was unfair to both the Punjabi and the Brummie." He was wrong about the Punjabi who did well out of the Midlands; and he was only partially right about the Brummie. White working class communities may have resented odd job losses, taunted and bullied the 'Paki' boy in the local school and grumbled about the all-pervasive 'smell of curry'. But bewilderment with the unfamiliar was also coupled with 'passive tolerance' and a distaste for extremist politics—a reason why Powell, for all his undoubted erudition, was shunned by the Establishment after his 'rivers of blood' speech.
Over the years, and more so after the European Union expanded the labour market, this 'passive tolerance' has evolved into active engagement with diverse cultures. The process of integration and partnership would have been even more meaningful had it not been for two separate developments: the outpouring of multiculturalist fads and the 7/7 bombings which brought home the reality of home-grown Islamist terror.
Multiculturalism began as a noble attempt to widen the boundaries of tolerance and co-existence. It was based on the assumption that Britain was a rainbow coalition where the British inheritance and way of life were on par with those of other cultures. This assumption rejected integration as a social goal and reduced Britain to an ethnic menagerie. Secondly, along with the negation of a dominant culture, multicultural activists sent out strong signals that it was the host community that must stand down from its pedestal, vacate public spaces and make the necessary adjustments to respect minority sensitivities. They rarely stressed the importance of immigrant communities respecting the ways of the natives. Accommodation and adjustment became a one-way street. The perverse consequences were not surprising: inflammatory sermons in mosques and an in-your-face assertion of separateness.
Cameron is right to question this provocation to British tolerance but his invocation of 'muscular liberalism' as an alternative seems far-fetched. The multiculturalist parody was also a direct consequence of a larger crisis of values in British society. Over the past 50 years, the West has systematically have undermined existing moral certitudes—a recurring complaint of Pope Benedict—and made the foundations of a hitherto robust civic culture fragile. To undercut the appeal of extremism on its doorstep, the West has to recover a soul first.