Multi-culturalism and False Prophets
by Eamon Dyas
The idea that an immigrant culture should have the same social standing as the host culture was originally advanced not by the representatives of these cultures but by a section of the liberal left. The reasons for this lie in the history of liberalism and empire.
The concepts of tolerance and accommodation which had their political foundations at home in the 17th and 18th centuries achieved external legitimacy only under the conditions of empire. The beginnings of this can be traced to Lord Macauley, who in the 1830s laid the basis for the Indian Penal Code. Macauley believed that it was important to take account of the sensibilities of those cultures over which British influence prevailed. He stated: “If I was a judge in India, I should have no scruple about punishing a Christian who should pollute a mosque.” Macauley’s position constituted the basis upon which a belief in a paternalistic Empire was first constructed.
As the Empire expanded abroad and democracy developed at home, a greater proportion of the population was introduced and exposed to the political concept of Britain as a paternal power overseeing the well-being and interests of many countries with diverse cultures.
Although this also disguised the normal imperialistic impulses which are behind territorial expansion, in the case of Britain this could work only if enough of the Imperial administrators actually believed themselves to be the representatives of a beneficial power and in most instances acted as if they were. It must be remembered that in its day-to-day existence Britain’s empire was not maintained only by force of arms. A big problem with administering an empire with people who believed in their role in this paternal arrangement was the problem of ‘going native’. This was a problem throughout the British Empire in the 19th century.
As the 19th century advanced, political thinking developed to the extent that towards the end of the century it was generally accepted that people living under the Empire possessed certain rights. The concept of Imperial Citizenship was established. Such was the extent to which these ideas were progressing that there emerged a highly developed political position based on the concept of a Federal Empire. Among its architects was Cecil Rhodes.
Not only was it necessary for the administrators of the Empire to believe in the paternal role of Britain but the concept had to be kept alive at home. The home ground had to be maintained and kept fertile in order to produce future generations of administrators who shared the belief.
The extent to which this was taken seriously was demonstrated in an incident which occurred in 1892. The particular incident bears some resemblance to the Salman Rushdie affair and remains surprisingly overlooked in the current controversy.
In that year a writer called Hall Caine, friend and companion to Gabriel Rossetti, decided to write a play about Mohammed. Because he was already a popular novelist and also a friend, Henry Irving offered to stage it at the Lyceum. As soon as this was announced and before it could be staged, the Muslim representatives in India complained to the British authorities and as a result the Lord Chamberlain effectively had it banned. The reason given for the ban was “deference to the prejudices of so large a portion of the Empire”.
It may be that the Muslims had cause to be concerned about what Caine might say about Mohammed. A later work of his, The Woman Thou Gavest Me, caused some offence to Catholics and was partially banned by W. H. Smith. The point, however, is that the government was sufficiently sensitive to the feelings of the Muslim community within the Empire to take action in a way that infringed one of the tenets of liberalism – freedom of expression – at home. The reason for the ban was not blasphemy, as Islam did not come within the scope of the blasphemy laws, and it certainly was not because the play was deemed obscene. The reason was simply the interests of Empire.
Nor was there any risk of the play causing a breach of the peace. At the time there did exist small pockets of Muslims in Britain, notably in Liverpool and Woking. However, these did not exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the government’s action on Caine’s play. Indeed, because they were mostly British and middle class converts to Islam, they retained much of the classical liberal antipathy towards censorship and the laws of blasphemy.
The first mosque in Britain was funded in Liverpool in September 1887 and was kept in being by a donation of £2,495 from an Afghan leader in 1895. The Liverpool mosque was important for the international Islamic community because of the large number of Muslim sailors and travellers passing through the port every year. The Muslim community in Liverpool was led by a solicitor, W. H. Quilliam, who in 1885 had defended the Manchester Martyrs. The community published a weekly journal called The Crescent, which ran from 1893 to 1908.
The extent to which it was permeated with liberal values is demonstrated by the fact that it published a generous obituary on the death of George Holyoake in January 1906. It was also highly critical of the police when they suppressed public meetings organised by the Liverpool Secularists in 1908. On the question of blasphemy it was no less liberal. In its issue of January 1, 1908, it printed a letter from H. Snell of the Union of Ethical Societies calling for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. On this same topic, when Harry Boulter recanted after being charged with blasphemy, The Crescent accused him of being spineless and counterposed Boulter’s behaviour with that of Charles Bradlaugh.
It would also appear that the British Muslims were not unduly concerned with the content of Caine’s proposed play about Mohammed. When it was announced in 1893 that the play was to be performed in America, the journal reported the news without comment.
The government’s behaviour in banning Caine’s play in 1892 was related not to domestic considerations but to the politics of the Empire. The prevailing feelings were summed up in an article in The Crescent on September 4, 1901:
“The religion of the Muslim has strong claims on the Briton for his special attention; our rule extends over territory containing amongst its inhabitants millions of Muslims, under our banner dwell more followers of Islam than under that of any other nation; Edward of England is ruler over more Mohammedans than even Abdul Hamid, Sultan of Turkey.”
This, then, was the situation at the tum of the century. The political and social attitudes which enabled Britain to sustain a paternal policy towards the various cultures and sensibilities of its possessions existed and retained a relevance only for as long as the Empire existed.
The dismantling of the Empire should have brought about a corresponding diminution of the relevance of these attitudes. However, ideas once they become socially ingrained are extremely difficult to dislodge. Even after Empire, the remnants of these paternalistic attitudes continued to exist. But, lacking a real purpose in their application (beyond the missionary ideal of the religious), they became the fragmented base within liberalism from which the left-liberal doctrine of ‘pluralism’ and multi-culturalism was to emerge in the 1960s.
Under different circumstances it is likely that the remnants of Imperial paternalism would, in most cases, have become the motivation for good works acting to stir our consciences about the Third World. However, the arrival of large groups of immigrants after World War Two offered the physical base upon which a distortion of the old paternalism could once again find a relevance, in the form of ‘pluralism’.
That these immigrant communities came in such numbers was a testament to the seriousness with which Britain had set out to meet her Imperial responsibilities. No other country had attempted to accommodate such a variety of immigrant cultures over such a short period of time. When they arrived here they were accorded full citizen status, including the right to vote (a right denied similar arrivals in other countries).
It is only natural, when substantial numbers of immigrants arrive in a country whose culture is profoundly different from their own, that they should band together and create their own minority communities. This will occur no matter how sympathetic the host culture. Members of minority cultures have to be able to explore and gradually come to terms with the host culture and they can only do this from the security of their own communities.
Normally it is the children of the first wave of immigrants who take the first real steps towards integration, but the initial ‘coming to terms’ occurs among their parents. Just as there are elements within the host society which refuse to accept the arrival of people from different cultures, so too there are elements amongst the immigrant communities which will refuse to integrate and attempt to cut themselves off from the surrounding society. These people perform an important role, as they supply the nucleus around which the immigrant culture retains an identity. One such individual is the Maulana Lutfar Rahman, the religious leader of Bradford’s Muslim community.
Maulana Lutfar Rahman has made a conscious decision not to integrate. He arrived here in 1966 and still speaks only classical Urdu. In this way he has ensured that influences percolating from the host culture are kept to a minimum. His behaviour requires determination and a profound belief in his own culture. A danger arises, however, when such impulses overstep the boundaries which the host culture has laid down.
Mr Maulana Lutfar Rahman would, I am sure, have been quite content to continue to ignore and be ignored by British society. Most people might have found this objectionable but tolerable. However, a line has been crossed by Mr Rahman and the Muslim community under the provocation of the Rushdie affair. Unfortunately, many in the Muslim community are not aware of having crossed the line and have been taken aback at the reaction to the Bradford book-burning.
The responsibility for this state of affairs lies not with the Muslims but with those who have been advocating the doctrine of ‘pluralism’ and multi-culturalism over many years.
Since the 1960s this mischievous doctrine has set about confusing the line between minority cultures and the host culture. It has created false and unrealistic expectations on the part of the minority cultures and, because these expectations cannot be met, has generated and fed alienation among these cultures. Also, the terms on which members of minority cultures become integrated have become confused. Increasingly, members of immigrant cultures have been led to believe that all the benefits of integration can be obtained without the actual need to integrate. These doctrines have stimulated leaders such as Mr Rahman into believing that the host culture can be increasingly imposed upon without restraint.
The main culprit in all of this has been the Labour Party. One of the most distasteful sights at Bradford was to see Labour Party councillors taking an active part in the book-burning ritual. The people concerned were, it must be presumed, partly integrated Muslims who have decided to become active in the political structures of the society. Under normal circumstances this would have opened up a communication channel by which such individuals would be made aware of the political sensibilities of the host culture. Such information in tum would be passed into the minority culture through this route. Unfortunately, the Labour Party has been hamstrung by the doctrine of multi-culturalism for so long that it is now failing to act as a political agent capable of sensitively educating the minority cultures in the sensibilities of the host culture. Multi-culturalism teaches the minorities that they can disregard these sensibilities with impunity.
The sentiments of ‘pluralism’ have found their way into the immigrant community by way of black middle class integrated intellectuals such as Salman Rushdie. And herein lies the real tragedy.
Unlike the real representatives of the immigrant communities for which he claims to speak, Rushdie was from the beginning steeped in British culture. He comes from an educated upper-class Muslim family and grew up speaking Urdu and English in the home. Initially, he was sent to an English mission school and afterwards to Rugby in England. After Rugby he went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he developed a taste for literature and politics. The extent to which he felt at home in British culture was reflected in the fact that, after leaving Cambridge, he took up a position with an advertising company, Ogilvy and Mather, where he acted as the copywriter for such companies as Aero and the Milk Marketing Board. All in all it could be said that Rushdie represents a thoroughly integrated immigrant who has come to feel at home in British society. However, this would be to leave Rushdie’s politics out of the reckoning.
It was important for Rushdie’s politics for Rushdie to ‘play the black man’. Both politically and artistically Rushdie required an element of alienation in his life, something which would override his obviously privileged, comfortable and integrated background. So Rushdie set out to deny those aspects of the host culture to which his own situation was a testament. He assumed the mantle of the artist isolated from about his own and the host community. This was a role he was to develop as he socialised with the likes of Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser. ‘Pluralism’ became the order of the day. The model of a society where all immigrant cultures existed on an equal basis with the host culture was proposed as a realistic goal and because the reality did not fit the model the only explanation offered by Rushdie was that racism was endemic in the society.
Satanic Verses is a book entirely in keeping with the ‘pluralistic’ sentiments of so-called multi-culturalism. Because it emanates from the liberal-left via integrated blacks, from time to time their distaste for aspects of the immigrant cultures bubbles to the surface. These embarrassing elements are then criticised from the viewpoint of Western values.
The latest example is Tariq Ali, who has co-written a play which is critical of some ‘unsavoury’ aspects of Islam (although to be fair he has gone on record as saying ‘There is a strange liberal view that people with black or brown skins are automatically enlightened. I have never subscribed to it.‘) Generally, however, they do this while at the same time decrying the fact that the host culture will not accept the minority cultures on equal terms. The lines of integration subsequently become confused from both directions.
It is significant that Rushdie has managed to be offensive rather than critical (which presupposes a positive purpose). This type of behaviour does not develop the cause of integration one little bit, but then again that is not what they are about Why Rushdie has set out to be offensive I have no idea, for it is inconceivable that he did not know the implications of what he was writing. I suspect that in this instance his literary ambitions distorted his political judgment
In a secular society it is getting increasingly difficult for a writer of moderate talent to advance his or her career by the time-worn route of controversy. Islam, however, is still wide open for such a manipulation. In the current situation, Rushdie has become the victim of a crossing of the line by a community for whom he claims to speak and which he has helped to confuse with the doctrine of ‘pluralism’. That they have taken seriously the belief that their culture should exist on an equal footing with the host culture and have thereby challenged one of its shibboleths is the direct result of what people like Rushdie have been telling them for many years. Rushdie is also the victim of his own .literary ambitions. The whole meaning of his life appears to be tied up with his position and standing in the world of the middle-class literati, a world which constitutes his real spiritual home. In an effort to advance his standing in this world he has crossed the line in the opposite direction.
There is little likelihood that the reaction of the Muslim community towards Rushdie’s book will create a real backlash. British society does not operate that way. What is more likely is that the action of the community will feed racist attitudes in the society which will manifest themselves in an insidious way. The day-to-day relations between people from both communities will be strained and remain largely unspoken and unacted upon. As a result, the existing barriers to integration will be strengthened in a way which is in nobody’s interest except perhaps Mr Rahman’s and the multi-culturalists’.
This article appeared in May 1989, in Issue 11 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. For more see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.