Standpoint January 2015
The state intervenes when the principles of a liberal society collapse. Usually it blunders in. Invariably it destroys basic freedoms. No one except the most blinkered supporters of authoritarian government can predict with confidence that its “crackdowns” and “emergency measures” will make our lives better or safer. But there you are. When supposedly good and responsible people fail to police themselves, the government will summon the real police to do the job for them.
For years, a dizzying gulf has stretched between the principles most good and responsible liberals say they hold — beliefs in reasoned argument, democracy, and equal rights for women, gays and people of all colours and creeds — and their practical failure to oppose radical Islam. A few of us tried to persuade them to mean what they say and behave accordingly. Some of us have stayed on the Left. Others have given up on what looks an irredeemably compromised movement and attacked liberal-left orthodoxy from the right. I will not pretend that any of us have had a great deal of success.
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light,” said Max Planck, “but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
I thought that liberal values would only creep forward at the Planckian pace of “one funeral at a time”, and we would have to wait for the current generation of liberal-leftists to die out before we saw progress. I forgot that outsiders can impose changes insiders refuse to contemplate.
Whatever their politics, religion or occupation, people who live in bubbles confuse their world with the whole world. Lost in their little rituals and taboos, they do not see that others are noting their faults and weighing whether or not to interfere.
The schools can seem a self-enclosed system. Meet an educationalist and he or she will be on the Left nine times out of ten. Yet when fanatics from the Islamist religious Right took over Birmingham schools, the teaching unions, Labour councillors and the liberal press did everything they could to cover up a plan to impose a reactionary education on British children. Unions did not defend secular teachers when hard-line governors forced them out. Supposed leftists did not worry that governors were making a “sustained and coordinated” effort “to force the segregationist attitudes and practices of a hard-line and politicised strain of Sunni Islam” on British boys and girls, as Birmingham City Council’s inquiry put it. Right until the moment when they could no longer deny the truth, they claimed the scandal was an Islamophobic plot, manufactured by Conservatives trying to exploit racial tensions.
It has been that way for what feels like forever in Britain’s schools. You don’t tackle difficult subjects. You never lay yourself open to accusations of racism, however spurious and self-interested they may be. It felt it could carry on that way forever too. But all of a sudden the state, and I suspect the public, decided it had had enough. Government inspectors put the Sir John Cass Church of England school under “special measures” a few weeks ago. Its teachers and governors will face extraordinary scrutiny and can be dismissed at short notice, not because they were plotting to indoctrinate children — they are by all accounts admirable people running an admirable school — but because they failed to spot that Muslim pupils were linking to extremist sites on Facebook.
For what would have been a forgivable lapse only last year, a good school has lost its autonomy. Every school in the country now knows it must treat radical Islam in much the same way as it treats extreme white racism or suffer. The liberal failure to be honest about political Islam in Birmingham is having national consequences.
The new restrictions on schools and charities are as nothing when set against the astonishingly authoritarian attack on civil liberties that is heading towards us. Theresa May is proposing to threaten schools and universities with legal action if they fail to address child radicalisation or ban extremists from preaching on campus, to relocate terror suspects around the country, and prevent insurers from funding ransom payments to terrorist groups.
The government has said it wants to go further and impose “Extremism Disruption Orders” once it can secure a parliamentary majority. They would allow judges to ban people deemed extremists from broadcasting, protesting or even posting messages on Facebook or Twitter without official permission. George Osborne says he wants to “eliminate extremism in all its forms”. The police will not just arrest those who call for murder, as they have always done, but people who “spread hate but do not break laws”.
True liberals always held that people should be free to speak their minds as long as they did not incite violence. Now the Home Office wants laws that will force us to be nice citizens, who never say anything the thin-skinned might consider “hateful” or “inappropriate”. Secularists fear that atheists will be locked up for being beastly about religion. Christians fear that evangelicals will be jailed for being beastly about gays. We will live in a country where we cannot utter a controversial opinion.
Outrageous! Grotesque! Intolerable! I can condemn the government all day and all night. But I can see why it is calling in the cops.
According to my colleague Shiraz Maher, there are now more British Muslims fighting for Islamic State than serving in the British Army. According to the government’s Prevent programme, more than 30 per cent of people convicted for al-Qaeda-associated terrorist offences in the UK between 1999 and 2009 attended university or a higher education institution. And according to every police officer and Home Office minister you hear, the security services worry themselves sick about the body count when the men of Islamic State return, filled with hatred of the West, of Jews, of gays — of everyone and everything their fascistic ideology denounces.
One product of our multicultural society who concerns them is Nasser Muthana. He may or may not have hacked off the heads of Islamic State captives and posted videos online celebrating the atrocity. He certainly boasted on Twitter: “Kafir [non-believers] are afraid we will slaughter Yazidis, our deen [religious path] is clear we will kill their men, take their women and children as slaves insha’Allah.”
I and, I suspect, the government will ask different questions about his career and the careers of his fellow killers. When in his journey towards barbarism did he hear liberal arguments against radical Islam? Where would he have encountered a fightback against men who are so sexist that they rape and enslave women? So sectarian that they condemn heretics to death because they do not share their version of Islam? So homophobic, paedophile, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, sectarian, vindictive and violent that they might have stepped out of a liberal nightmare?
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of young British citizens are committing crimes against humanity. The politicians are responding with their usual crackdowns — and I turn queasy when I imagine what new laws and trouble in the streets there will be when and if Islamic State recruits bring their war home.
Culture matters as much as laws, however. It may not have the power to arrest and punish, but it is more persistent and ubiquitous. It seeps into the corners the police can never reach. For the young in particular, what their friends argue against and deride will have more effect on them than the lectures of government ministers. And the truth is Britain, Europe and the United States do not have an anti-fascist culture.
There are anti-Islamic and racist subcultures everywhere. From the British National Party to the tabloids via UKIP, prejudice against Muslims because they are Muslims flourishes. The Left will condemn it, and rightly so. But it will not as a general rule stand with liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims fighting against their own religious Right. In Britain today friends of mine live like dissidents in a dictatorship. They meet in secret. They vet new arrivals to ensure they are not spies. They are ex-Muslims living in a supposedly free country who fear their enemies will damn them as apostates and kill them. How extraordinary that they must hide their true beliefs from all but intimate friends for fear of the consequences. And how shameful that they have no anti-fascist Left worthy of the name to defend them.
The Left will fight the white far-Right. In Britain, groups like Hope not Hate organise protests against UKIP. Think what you will about UKIP — and I think nothing but ill about them — but it is not actually recommending the rape of enslaved women. On Twitter and in the universities there are constant demands to ban and punish those who show the smallest disrespect to women — scientists who wear racy shirts, men who argue against abortion, pop singers who promote a rape culture, and pick-up artists who instruct men on seduction techniques. But with honourable exceptions, leftists will not argue against armed misogyny. On the contrary, they will ban those who try to take it on.
A few weeks ago, the Lawyers’ Secular Society was due to present a report to law students at the University of West London on the Islamic supremacists who have spoken at British campuses in 2014. The university banned the society from holding its meeting. (It would produce “bad publicity”, apparently.) In other words, while extremist preachers stalked the campuses, students who wanted to argue against them were thrown out.
Their appeals are not quite the incitement to violence they seem. The iERA may have once had on its board hate preachers now banned from the UK for preaching hatred of gays and Jews, supporting child-marriages and calling for the death penalty for “apostates”. Its speakers have certainly spent years touring universities and Muslim communities, largely unopposed. Earlier this year — and again no one disputes this — young men in Portsmouth, who had been distributing Islamist material while wearing iERA T-shirts, went off to Syria to fight on behalf of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the iERA can claim that it has stayed on the right side of the law by saying that the bigotry it endorses and punishments it dreams of will only come in an ideal future Islamic state. Its speakers are not inciting violence in the here and now.
I accept that, technically, they may be telling the truth and this is why the state is tearing up the old laws to catch them, but I still need to ask why these legal technicalities should bother the Left. That an extreme-Right group is just about within the law as it now stands does not stop protests against the English Defence League, British National Party, or indeed, UKIP and assorted priapic males. Leftists say that their ideas are poisonous and must be countered before the poison spreads. The law is an irrelevance.
The only left-winger I have seen attempt to explain the double standard is Nick Ryan of Hope not Hate. He deserves credit for his frankness, but his argument had no coherence. He said that Muslim communities were “immature” — thus infantilising Muslims and treating them with a condescension he would never apply to whites. He said that Muslim ultra-conservatives should be our allies if they are against violence — thus abandoning all who suffer because of ultra-conservative ideas. He said that if anti-fascists tackled Muslims whose ideas mirrored those of the white far-Right, “we’re just going to end up pushing all Muslims further away” — thus aping the arguments of Islamophobes who treat Muslims as a monolithic bloc. And disgracefully but predictably, he dismissed liberal and left-wing Muslims and ex-Muslims as an unrepresentative minority it was a waste of time supporting.
I could continue, but in its hypocrisies Hope not Hate’s response illuminates a wider cultural crisis. Teachers, musicians, comedians, authors and liberal-left intellectuals and politicians ignore the Islamist far-Right. They are frightened of accusations of racism. They think the cause of liberal Muslims hopeless, and not worth arguing for. As a result, the young men who end up killing, enslaving, raping and dying in Syria and Iraq — and maybe soon in Britain too — have not grown up hearing arguments against extremism. British culture has presented them with racism on the one hand and silence on the other. A potentially violent young man attracted to neo-Nazi extremism will take a cultural battering. But when it comes to the equally fascistic doctrines of radical Islam, fair-weather feminists and pseudo-leftists don’t want to argue. Hope not Hate and part-time anti-fascists will protest only if extremism topples over into violence, by which time the battle of ideas has been lost and the time for protest gone.
So deep has the rot set in that the National Union of Students decided that it was “Islamophobic” to support the Kurds fighting Islamic State, even though most Kurds are Muslims (although, admittedly, some are Christian and some — shockingly for the British Left — don’t believe in a god or gods at all).
One can see in the universities and outside a left-wing version of radical Islam developing. Or if that is too strong, a culture which behaves as if it were controlled by radical Islamists. Like our supposedly alternative comedians, the middle-class left will satirise Christianity, as any Islamist would. Like the newspapers and television stations, it will not allow any satire of Islam even if the satire is as toothless as a cartoon of Jesus saying “Hey” and Muhammad saying “How ya doin’?” It will ignore the crimes against humanity of Islamic State while condemning every Israeli crime. For all its supposed feminism, it will behave as any Islamist would, and allow religious speakers to segregate audiences with men at the front and the seductive women who might drive them from the path of purity at the back.
As with the schools, it was easy to think that the dominant left-wing culture would take decades to shift. As with the schools, those who thought that their little world would never change failed to see themselves as others saw them. The state, and the rest of society, could see the hypocrisy and the dangers of giving extremism a ride so easy extremists did not even need to argue their case.
Last year, in the first sign of new times coming, Labour and Conservative politicians slapped down Universities UK, the quango that represents all institutions of higher education. It had ruled, without a blush, that it was a breach of an Islamist cleric’s human rights to deny him the power to segregate women at public meetings. This year, as young British men flood overseas to commit crimes against humanity, the state has gone much further, and already you see institutions scrambling to fall in behind the new party line. Last month, a London university banned an Islamist speaker, who had blamed “Western culture” for allowing “obscene, filthy, and shameless” homosexual impulses. On the same day, the Law Society withdrew its staggeringly sexist guidance that solicitors must tell their Muslim clients that women should receive only half as much as men in sharia-compliant wills.
I am sure the government has overwhelming public support, but fear that an oppressive culture imposed from above is no substitute for a genuine anti-fascist culture bubbling up from below. But then I must face the fact that there is a vast woozy mass of liberal-leftists who will never change, and would not fight back even if a bomb exploded in their own back yard.
I will oppose the state’s attempts to restrict freedom of speech, as I hope you will too. But I will not let supposed liberals forget that, by their own cowardice and lack of conviction, they have brought this dismal moment on themselves.