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Literary Suicide

How multiculturalism strangles freedom of speech.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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This turnaround has everything to do with the pernicious efforts of government, including that of Margaret Thatcher, to “reach out” to minorities. Malik offers a ground-level view of events during the period when Britain was experiencing race troubles with the entry into the country of large numbers of “dark-skinned” immigrants. Old-fashioned British trade unionism had been instrumental in helping them gain rights in housing and employment; with economic assimilation and the decline of trade unionism, however, the New Left found “surrogate proletariats” in the social movements, which began putting pressure on the increasingly affluent state. Instead of engaging with immigrant communities as citizens, the government turned to self-selected “community representatives,” who had much to gain in position and funding. The Muslim Council of Britain, founded in 1997, has by now been accepted by government and media as “the authentic voice of the Muslim community,” and “advisers” recommended by this council infiltrate bureaucracies and shape government attitudes. In 2000, the Parekh Report concluded that Britain was “both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a multicultural society.” Further, since citizens had “differing needs,” equal treatment required “full account to be taken of their differences.” Assimilation has been replaced by a policy of “culturally sensitive discrimination.” As Malik points out, “Once political power and financial resources became allocated by ethnicity, then people began to identify themselves in terms of their ethnicity, and only their ethnicity.” In this environment, Islamist groups have grown in strength.

Into this account of the erosion of freedom of speech and the rise of multiculturalist pieties, especially on the left, Malik weaves stories of several blighted lives, including London’s 7/7 bombers. No surprise here: British recruits to Islamic fundamentalism did not grow up in poverty, nor did they suffer from broken families or occupational failures. Indeed, most appeared to have led exceedingly middle-class lives.

Though he does not distinguish between the British recruits to fundamentalist Islam and the hardened criminals who staff the terrorist cells from Algeria to Afghanistan, Malik inadvertently draws attention to the precarious fate of young men in the modern world today, principally the educated among them, who believe they have no stake in a system that has rewarded them so well. This is not a new story: The angry young man has been a staple of literature and popular culture since at least Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. So Malik echoes what Pipes and other scholars have asserted; namely, that the “rage of Islam” owes less to religion than to nihilist ideas that have wide purchase in Western societies. 

Indeed, the secular humanism Malik advocates, critical as it is of existing institutions, is an agent of such nihilism. Salman Rushdie was a powerful voice in articulating this nihilism and its contempt for the values of liberal democracy. However odd Rushdie’s own fate is—Pipes predicted that he would not henceforth lead a normal life—the lesson of the Rushdie Affair remains more relevant than ever: The failure to defend Western values and institutions simply nurtures contempt for them among the disaffected.

Elizabeth Powers is editing a collection of essays on the intellectual origins of freedom of speech in the 18th century.

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