Multiculturalism, Human Rights and Extremism

British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech on Saturday 5th February 2011 that set out his views on radicalization and Islamic extremism (read the speech in full here

His speech raises philosophical questions of an ethical and political nature.

Cameron is concerned that the major threat British civilians face is from attacks carried out by British citizens. Terrorists are frequently political in nature be they dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland are not satisfied with the political settlement there, Anarchists in Greece and Italy or the Red Army Faction in Germany. These political groups are not defined by a particular ethnicity. However, he goes on to argue,

“Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that this threat comes in Europe overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse, warped interpretation of Islam, and who are prepared to blow themselves up and kill their fellow citizens.”

Cameron characterizes the origins of this particular form of terrorism as the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism. He continues,

“We should be equally clear what we mean by this term, and we must distinguish it from Islam. Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority. At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia.”

He goes on to acknowledge that there are those who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, which includes hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values. He distinguishes between religion and political ideology and warns against terms such as moderate Muslims and devout Muslims as these conflate politics with religion as if all devout Muslims must be extremist.

“This is profoundly wrong. Someone can be a devout Muslim and not be an extremist. We need to be clear: Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing.”

“This highlights, I think, a significant problem when discussing the terrorist threat that we face. There is so much muddled thinking about this whole issue. On the one hand, those on the hard right of the political spectrum ignore this distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism, some argue that Islam and the West are irreconcilable and that there is a clash of civilizations.”

Here he is pointing to Huntington’s theory that such a clash is inevitable and unavoidable. Such an argument implies a need to break away from those of this religion for it is incompatible with Western values. He disagrees,

“…I completely reject their argument. If they want an example of how Western values and Islam can be entirely compatible, they should look at what’s happened in the past few weeks on the streets of Tunis and Cairo: hundreds of thousands of people demanding the universal right to free elections and democracy.

The point is this: the ideology of extremism is the problem; Islam emphatically is not. Picking a fight with the latter will do nothing to help us to confront the former.”

Cameron also sees a problem on the political left who he accuses of lumping all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances, and arguing that if only governments addressed these grievances, the terrorism would stop. This view often sees all Muslims as affected by poverty, ignoring the involvement of middle class Muslims in terrorist actions.

If the argument about irreconcilable viewpoints is incorrect and the argument about poverty is incomplete, then what other reasons can we find for the growth of radical extremism in liberal and open societies?

“I believe the root lies in the existence of this extremist ideology. I would argue an important reason so many young Muslims are drawn to it comes down to a question of identity.

What I am about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all. In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practiced at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”

Cameron believes that in an attempt to include all, the sense of collective identity has been weakened and a sense of individual particularity and difference has been encouraged. There has been a fear to challenge viewpoints that need to be stood up to, resisted and rejected.

“The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point. This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology.”

This makes possible the move to radicalization and it is encouraged by Internet chat rooms that provide virtual meeting places where such attitudes can be shared, strengthened and validated.

“In some mosques, preachers of hate can sow misinformation about the plight of Muslims elsewhere. In our communities, groups and organisations led by young, dynamic leaders promote separatism by encouraging Muslims to define themselves solely in terms of their religion. All these interactions can engender a sense of community, a substitute for what the wider society has failed to supply. Now, you might say, as long as they’re not hurting anyone, what is the problem with all this?”

To respond to this, we need to strengthen our shared sense of national identity.
“So first, instead of ignoring this extremist ideology, we – as governments and as societies – have got to confront it, in all its forms. And second, instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.”

The ideology must be confronted and undermined, preachers of hate must be banned, organizations that incite terrorism must be proscribed.
The national identity that he speaks of is one that should embrace and encourage universal human rights including for women and people of other faiths, equality of all before the law, democracy and the right of people to elect their own government. Furthermore they must encourage integration rather than separation.

“Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things. Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.”

Key features to encourage this national identity include encouraging English, the introduction of a National Citizen Service and encouraging meaningful and active participation in society.

“It will also help build stronger pride in local identity, so people feel free to say, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian, but I am also a Londoner or a Berliner too’. It’s that identity, that feeling of belonging in our countries, that I believe is the key to achieving true cohesion.”

Some Muslims groups have accused Cameron of patronizing them.
“Communities are not static entities and there are those who see being British as their identity and there are those who do not feel that it is an overriding part of their identity,” said one representative of an interfaith group.

Inayat Bunglawala, chairman of Muslims4UK, said:

“The overwhelming majority of UK Muslims are proud to be British and are appalled by the antics of a tiny group of extremists.”
Mohammed Shafiq of the Muslim youth group The Ramadhan Foundation, said:
“The speech by British Prime Minister David Cameron MP fails to tackle the stooge of the fascists EDL and the BNP. Singling out Muslims as he has done feeds the hysteria and paranoia about Islam and Muslims…. British Muslims abhor terrorism and extremism and we have worked hard to eradicate the evil from our country but to suggest that we do not sign up to the values of tolerance, respect and freedom is deeply offensive and incorrect.”
He also criticises Cameron’s characterization of multiculturalism.
“Multiculturalism is about understanding each others’ faiths and cultures whilst being proud of our British citizenship – it would help if politicians stopped pandering to the agenda of the BNP and the fascist EDL.”

The speech raises complex ethical, as well as political questions. Firstly, we can see in Cameron’s depiction of multiculturalism a criticism of cultural relativism. Cultural relativists advance an idea that cultural differences on moral values and beliefs cannot be judged from outside those cultures. They are right ‘for them’. It is the view that there are ‘no right or wrong answers’. The ethical problem here is that it means we cannot criticize moral practices which we may feel are wrong, if they accord with the culture. So if a culture accepts female genital mutilation as a rite of passage in becoming a young woman then it is right for them. Others would say it is an abhorrent crime that must be prevented. Cultural relativism is rejected by those who think it is possible to come to an understanding of right and wrong, for example as articulated in the liberal values of human rights, equality and dignity.

In short, Cameron is arguing against cultural relativism, and for a sense of shared values and moral beliefs which he thinks should be promoted. The process of integration is the process of taking on board and contributing to those shared values, rather than living parallel lives in which a very different set of moral beliefs are articulated and maintained. Of course that means it is necessary to look closely at what he is arguing for and ask whether the moral norms he has articulated as underpinning British society, are held in a consensus, and, assuming this is the case, whether they can be justified on any other grounds than simply the fact that people believe them to be true. Perhaps a belief is all that is needed politically, but ethicists might want a stronger basis than belief, not least because philosophers of human rights have often found them difficult to defend. This is important if all religious, cultural and philosophers worldviews are to adopt them.

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