I have wanted to respond to Prime Minister David Cameron’s last speech on the failures of “multiculturalism” and the plague of Islamic extremism inside of Britain. Unfortunately, work kept me busy so here are a few thoughts, hopefully not too late to be pertinent.
To enter into the Prime Minister’s own “muddled thinking,” I want to highlight two focal points: multiculturalism and ‘the Arab’ as religious/political/racial figure.
On multiculturalism, Cameron suggests that this passive tolerance of other cultures fuels “Islamic extremism.” Multiculturalism is a weak doctrine of national identity, whereby “we” (who is this “we”, or, could this “we” ever be Muslim/Arab?) have “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and from the mainstream” (my emphasis). Cameron does not investigate what social and economic mechanisms “encourage” (or, more accurately, enforce) such social segregation. Nor does Cameron discuss how this “mainstream” culture is imagined even when weak as entirely active: it is “we” who encouraged, who did not create, who tolerated, allowed, etc. Even in its dreaded passivity, this mainstream is still “muscular,” organizing all others while itself immune from being altered, redirected, modified, or changed by these other cultures. In light of the failure of what is essentially a “Jim Crow” style multiculturalism (the forced production of separate yet equal cultures through the political, social, cultural, and economic subjugation and exclusion of these others), Cameron suggests a return to a British national identity that is already thoroughly known, embodied, and demonstrated by this “we” which need not articulate its own particularity. That is, unlike the calls to a national identity that transcends the violent separation of religions (“christian, muslim, we are all Egyptian”), Cameron does not hail a future in which British identity could be re-written by those “outside” the dominant mainstream. Instead, he calls for the re-articulation of a known British or Western identity and the forceful inscribing of all others into this already-embodied community. Muslim/Arabs are thus given the ultimatum: join this culture from which you will never be fully one, or be annihilated (culturally, and yes, militaristically and literally. It is no mistake that the speech begins with a litany in honor of Britain’s military might).
The Muslim/Arab. Cameron says, “It’s vital [for whom? the answer comes in the next word] we make this distinction between the religion and the political ideology,” that is, between Islam (religion) and Islamist extremism (politics). The distinction is drawn as it collapses back in on itself: behind both the religion and the politics lies that violent figure and figure of violence, the Arab. Cameron shows the progression. The political danger begins with the religious: the (politically dangerous) young men find it hard to identify with “traditional Islam” when it is transplanted onto a totally foreign territory, the modern West. This religious crisis is exacerbated by the “passive” tolerance of a multicultural state, which does not check the anti-Western (meaning ethically bad, inhuman, etc) beliefs and practices of this racial other. Cameron moves from the theo-political (joining what he said must be kept separate) to and through the racial:
We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.
So when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them.
But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.
The failure of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone they don’t want to is a case in point.
The link is seamless: the segregated religious/cultural group prompts a “racial” analogy, which is then applied back to this religious group. Beneath the religious and the political–what ties the two together and thus necessitates the vigorous, muscular policing of the difference between the two–is the Arab. In other words, Islam is never merely “religious” but always potentially “political” because of “the Arab,” that dangerous enemy who is always outside of (even when inside of) the West. Thus, the uprisings in Egypt are, if/as democratic, already Western, meaning determined by a culture/race that is already solidified and embodied and that is not Arab but is determined to police the Arab within and without.
A path towards a democratic future, towards a cultural identity that could engender a more hopeful surpassing of the violent production of religious and racial differences, could perhaps be found through the acknowledgement of the tainted past: this determination to police the Arab within and without is constitutive of Europe’s own identity (as Edward Said and Gil Anidjar have thoroughly shown). The point is not to endlessly retrace the violence through which the West constituted itself–though the complete lack of memory and the accompanying arrogance exhibited by Cameron’s speech must be countered–but to show that there never was a West before or apart from these “other cultures,” and these “others” influence on this “us.” This acknowledgement of the past could open up a potential future for British (or Western) cultural identity that would follow what we have seen in Egypt–that is, that would move us towards risking for a democratic future we do not already know and hence cannot claim to secure (or guard, spread, protect, and enforce). Perhaps this is a way to optimistically misread Cameron’s final sentence, “That’s why this is a challenge we cannot avoid – and one we must meet,” taking “meet” to mean welcoming the coming of the other, instead of muscularly (ef)facing it.