Multiculturalism has gone from universal piety to subversive nonsense in the blink of a European eye. Last year, Thilo Sazzarin was maneuvered into resigning from the Bundesbank because he had written a book questioning the pieties of multiculturalism and diversity. One of his fiercest critics was the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who a few months later declared that “multi-culti” had “failed utterly.” That was, however, a mere aside, even if a popular one. Now British prime minister David Cameron, a self-declared “liberal conservative,” has delivered an analytical demolition of “state multiculturalism” and made a serious start on rooting it out from official British policy.
Cameron delivered this analysis at what initially seemed an odd venue: the annual conference on international security in Munich. It was, in fact, a shrewd choice. The venue removed multiculturalism from the nexus of welfare and anti-discrimination policies to that of national security and anti-terrorism, where conservatives have an advantage over their opponents. It was an advantage he pressed home.
Cameron’s argument was that the terrorism threatening the West, both in Afghanistan and at home, had its origins in the underlying “extremist ideology” of Islamism. Young Muslim men in Britain often begin their journey to violent jihad by picking up this ideology from institutions, organizations, and leaders in receipt of government money and official favors. This ideology is further promoted by multiculturalism, which “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives” and so delivered impressionable young people into the hands of state-funded extremists. It would have to be confronted both ideologically — insisting on support for human rights as a condition for entry into public debate — and organizationally — denying funds to bodies that preach hatred and separatism.
All this was argued vigorously and well, if sometimes tendentiously. For instance, the number of British “Christian fundamentalists” who regard Muslims as “the enemy” must be in single figures; they were a mere rhetorical prop counterbalancing his criticism of Islamists. Also, the absolute distinction he tried to draw between the extremist ideology of Islamism and the religion of Islam is in reality slightly fuzzy. It’s not just Islamic radicals who interpret their religion as demanding the execution of apostates and the stoning of adulteresses. But many ordinary Muslims, especially in the West, disregard such injunctions as blithely as many Catholics ignore Church teaching on artificial birth control. And whatever its truth value, Cameron’s distinction is necessary to help win the majority of Muslims over to the liberal values of British and other Western societies.
Cameron also introduced one idea that until now has been largely absent from the public debate on multiculturalism (though in National Review, Mark Steyn and John O’Sullivan have both insisted on its importance): namely, that one reason for the apparent success of extremist Islamism is the vacuum where British patriotism should be. Cameron argued sensibly that the British failure — or, under multiculturalism, the outright British refusal — to offer its new citizens any pride in their country’s national identity allowed the Islamists to fill this gap with their own myths and symbols. Yet when he came to propose ways of restoring that sense of nationhood, they turned out to be perfectly nice but essentially liberal nostrums detached from any specific British context — freedom of speech, etc. — that an American, Frenchman, or Italian could subscribe to with equal fidelity.
By a nice coincidence, this idea was given such a British context on the day Cameron spoke in an article in the Mail on Sunday by the distinguished sports and financial journalist Mihir Bose. Bose described himself as coming from an English-educated Indian elite that didn’t really believe an event had happened until it was broadcast by the BBC World Service. “It says much for a country,” Bose went on, “that it can generate such a belief.” But he concluded:
The tragedy with modern Britain is that it seems not to care any longer for the qualities that make it so special and that drew me and many others to this country. Not just tolerance and kindness — India has that as well — but a sense of fair play and justice, giving everyone a chance. These qualities are unequalled anywhere else in the world . . . Unless Britain rediscovers its pride in its values this wretched multiculturalism will never die.
Churchill understood this. When he was asked by a liberal colleague how young people could be given pride in their country, he did not recommend some platitudes from the League of Women Voters. He replied: “Tell them how Wolfe took Quebec!”
That is the next lesson for Cameron to learn. Still, a good start. A-minus.