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Arun Kundnani: How liberals lost their anti-racism

This article is over 16 years, 7 months old
Liberal arguments that the West needs to defend \"Enlightenment values\" lead to a culture of bigotry, writes Arun Kundnani
Issue 2071
 (Pic:» Tim Sanders )
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

A new sentiment has gripped mainstream liberal thinking in Britain over the last few years – one which regards Muslims as uniquely problematic and in need of forceful integration into ‘superior’ Western values.

For this new breed of liberal, previously cherished values of multiculturalism should be discarded, and the fight for racial and religious equality is irrelevant.

The recent publication of Nick Cohen’s book What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way and Andrew Anthony’s more sharply argued The Fall-Out: How A Guilty Liberal Lost His Innocence provide the clearest statements yet of what this new liberalism stands for.

Their argument is straightforward – the major problem facing the West is a failure to stand up for its Enlightenment values.

Liberalism has been infected by guilt, they say, which prevents it from defending itself against the threat of Islamism – which is held responsible not only for terrorist violence, but also for ‘Muslim separatism’ in our cities.

What precisely an Islamist is is left unclear. After all, a realistic definition of Islamism – as a wide range of political movements, some violent and some constitutional, generally with social conservatism at their core – would require a pause before denouncing all Islamists as irrational and totalitarian.

But Cohen and Anthony’s main target is not so much Islamism as the appeasing attitudes they detect among liberals. Anthony writes that, since the 1970s, guilt has lead liberals to think that everything will be OK as long as they don’t interfere in other people’s lives, especially the lives of other ethnic groups.

But this is fantasy. In practice, white liberals have never shied away from using the power of the state to intervene in the lives of non-whites, in Britain or abroad.

Moreover, at a conceptual level, liberalism has always lacked the means to generate the kind of social solidarity that Anthony claims he wants to see. Individualist indifference has been a feature of liberal democracy since its inception.

The slave owning US liberal democracy of the early 19th century could not be said to have suffered from what Anthony calls a ‘guilt warped vision of the world’, yet the liberal theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of its citizens that ‘each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of the rest’.

It is precisely this void in liberalism’s social philosophy – its inability to generate common bonds – that historically led to liberals borrowing ideas from the left, adopting ideas of social equality and welfare rights.

What has changed recently is that liberals now prefer to dine with the right rather than the left. Many former left-liberals are now right-liberals.

It is not through tackling deprivation that right-liberals want to cohere our atomised society – Cohen thinks that the left’s programme of social equality has largely been achieved.

And they regard the old liberal ideal of ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘mutual tolerance’ as too soft.

Instead, the glue that will hold society together is a new post-7/7 British nationalism – the superiority of ‘British values’ over those of other people and the need to defend these values.

British culture, says Anthony, values freedom, rights and liberty. By contrast, he writes, Third World cultures value ‘petty corruption, sexism, homophobia, tribalism and patriarchal authoritarianism’.

For Anthony the battle lines are clearly drawn – between the Western Enlightenment and what he calls the ‘Endarkenment’ of the Islamic world.

The emergence of this new liberal sentiment is taking place on the back of anti-Muslim hysteria, just as in the 1970s conservatism regenerated itself by projecting an imaginary threat of black culture.

The irony is that liberalism’s attempt to reinvigorate itself descends into claims to racial superiority. It pollutes progressive elements of liberalism and, in influencing Britain’s elites, gives rise to an atmosphere of bigotry.

Much of the progress made fighting racism in Britain over the last 40 years was the result of an implicit alliance between the activism of black and Asian communities, their supporters among the white working class, and those elements among the liberal intelligentsia who saw the need for reform – if only to avoid violent conflicts on Britain’s streets.

That those liberal elements have turned away from British Muslims is a loss to all those who are fighting for a society free of racism.

Arun Kundnani is the author of The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain published last month by Pluto Press, and available from Bookmarks. He is the deputy editor of the journal Race & Class, published by the Institute of Race Relations.

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