My Saturday night in London was spent in the theater watching the hit American musical Kinky Boots with a distinguished Irish historian, and then discussing it over dinner with her. It wasn’t quite my kind of musical—my taste trends more towards Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart—but it proved to be a very instructive one in the dark light of the Islamist murders that occurred about the time we were going from theater to restaurant.
The musical is broadly based on the true story of a failing Northampton shoe factory that saved itself by changing its production of men’s shoes to fetishistic glamor boots as worn by drag queens—indeed, the principal drag queen becomes both the firm’s new designer and the leading model in a team of lady-boys who save the staid old shoe company by putting on a drag show to demonstrate its boots at the Venice Shoe Fair.
I wouldn’t have thought that drag queens were a sufficiently large niche market to save the company, even in jolly old England, but these boots had legs. The story was first made into a British movie in the 1990s, then turned into a musical “book” by Harvey Fierstein (star of, among other works, La Cage aux Folles), then set to music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, herself a successful pop performer and composer, making it to Broadway, six Tony awards, and now finally London’s West End and an Olivier award. The end result was an odd blend—think Ealing Comedy plus brash Broadway sophistication plus “heart”—that somehow worked.
Now, I’ve said it wasn’t my kind of musical, but fairness compels me to say that it had energy, drive, and, er, pizzazz. The actors, singers, and dancers were all talented and appealing. The “big” songs were wildly applauded. And from my (restricted view) position in the stalls, the audience, which was a broad cross-section of the London popular-theater-going public with no apparent over-representation of drag artistes, loved every minute of it, cheering the songs and giving the final number a standing ovation.
One of the things that undoubtledly made it work was the moral theme threaded through the entire show, which I will summarize as “we must accept others as they are.” All of the characters, from the drag queen to a bigoted British worker, experience some kind of moral awakening during the evening in which they accept someone who was initially unwelcome to them. Given the plot, that moral reformation usually concerns sexual orientation, but the main love interest between factory boss and factory girl crosses class boundaries and the drag diva is black (which in both the play and in modern Britain seems less “problematic” than other identity problems). Everyone ends up accepting and loving everyone else—and that included the audience.
For there wasn’t any doubt that the crowded theater signed onto this sentimentalized tolerance all but unanimously. Its prejudices weren’t being challenged but confirmed, even elevated. England is a post-Christian society which—though people don’t always realize this—is still a sort of Christian society. Its moral convictions (and increasingly its laws) are secularized versions of fading Christian beliefs and injunctions such as the moral equality of all in Christ. In modern England, if an otherwise prudent and necessary policy is thought to be animated by bigoted hostility to a person, a group, or a set of beliefs, then it is at once condemned as “racist” and loses support and credibility. The policy’s practical advantages or necessity then scarcely matter.
My historian friend and I discussed all this over dinner. We could hardly dispute that in a general sense “we must accept people as they are.” Certainly one cannot act consistently on the opposite principle; that would make social and work life impossible. But there are commonsense limits to the operation of mass tolerance. Because I was talking to an Irish historian, I brought up the case of Gerry Adams and the IRA. We cannot sensibly accept the person next to us as he is if he happens to be a serial killer. We have either to change him or to protect ourselves from him. If he is a serial killer from some kind of deep religious or political conviction, we can’t avoid examining the content of his beliefs. And we can’t shrink from these things because we are afraid of being thought bigoted or because people who are bigoted support the same precautions.
Like Kinky Boots itself, this wasn’t a serious philosophical conversation. It was about a musical, after all. We left the restaurant in a good mood; I dropped my friend at her apartment; and I walked back to the central London club where I was staying. As I did so. I saw a news film crew running eastwards and frantically trying to flag down taxis. Something had happened, and when I turned on my laptop, I found it was the murderous attacks on Saturday night diners-out that had taken place about two miles away in Borough Market.
Within half a day it became clear that the public reaction to the murders—in which at least seven people were killed—was an unusually cold and determined one. In Manchester, the reaction to the bombing had reflected the feelings shown by the Kinky Boots audience. The official mantra had been “we will not be divided.” The mass response had been a sentimental celebration of the bombing’s victims, the city of Manchester, and its diversity. As the local poet recited: “Some were born here, some were drawn here.” The enemy had been “hate” which seemingly encompassed both the mass murderers who plant bombs and also those who would “divide” us by . . . well, by what exactly?
Though this is never clearly stated, the purveyors of “division” seemed to include anyone who draws a link between Islam and terrorism—whether the link is a simple expression of anti-Muslim prejudice or a careful tracing of how some Muslim beliefs have been incorporated into a murderous ideology that inspires some young Muslims to knife and bomb other people. This formulation has effectively prevented serious discussion not only about the causes of Islamist terrorism but even more so about the solutions that might reduce and gradually end it.
But it was soon clear that both the public reaction to the knifings and the willingness to discuss responses to terrorism were going to be more robust than after Manchester. Theresa May summed up the new public mood when she said, “Enough is enough.” She might well have added “something must be done” in addition to the evocations of solidarity, tolerance, and diversity that had been the standard official response. And in her short list of solutions, she did say that there would have to be “uncomfortable and often embarrassing conversations” about how to combat “the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism.” There is palpably a strong appetite for strong measures. But almost all the policies that might make a serious difference are politically unpalatable; and the policies that are acceptable are unlikely to make much difference.
There is palpably a strong appetite for strong measures. But almost all the policies that might make a serious difference are politically unpalatable.
Take those “populist” measures shunned by government and respectable pundits: fewer migrants, especially Muslim migrants; internment of terrorist suspects; and liberalizing arms control to enable ordinary citizens to defend themselves against jihadist attacks like Saturday’s. It’s said that reducing migration from Muslim countries is legally impossible in a nation with anti-discrimination laws, as well as likely to alienate law-abiding Muslims. And internment of terrorist suspects, which failed in Northern Ireland in 1971, supposedly won’t work with an estimated 23,000 U.K. terror suspects (and is thought likely to alienate law-abiding Muslims). As for allowing respectable citizens to own and use guns—an obvious response to thugs who run amok in large numbers stabbing passers-by—that is offensive to British tradition and thus likely to alienate the entire establishment (including its Muslim members).
There are weaknesses in all these dismissive arguments. Laws could readily be passed that prohibit entry into the U.K. of people whose political views are incompatible with the British constitution or otherwise abhorrent (e.g., viciously anti-Semitic)—as jihadist views undoubtedly are. Searching discussions with visa or passport applicants about such matters could be among the “uncomfortable and often embarrassing conversations” called for by Mrs. May. If seriously conducted, both at the time of application and retrospectively, they would significantly reduce the number of jihadists in the country.
Similarly, only last month a former senior Muslim policeman, Tarique Ghaffur, doubted the argument that internment is ineffective. Indeed he proposed interning 3,000 prime suspects whose removal from the streets would massively weaken jihadist terrorism. Nor is the conventional argument against this very persuasive. True, the 1971 imposition of internment in Northern Ireland failed (because it was plainly partisan, interning no Loyalists and some non-terrorist Catholic opponents of the Ulster government). But internment succeeded very well in both Northern and southern Ireland in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, etc., leaving the paramilitaries small in number, weak, and ineffective. And the fact that the three Borough Market killers were known to the intelligence services in advance as professing jihadist sympathies — one was even the subject of a Channel 4 documentary on British jihadis — suggests that internment has a role in counter-terrorism. As for allowing respectable citizens to carry guns for use against terrorists, that was part of British life until quite recently. The first major gun-control law in the U.K., passed in 1921, registered guns but allowed the police to refuse a license only to those “unfitted” to own firearms. (“Unfitted” here means not respectable.) Such laws reflected the fact that Britain was then an astoundingly peaceful and crime-free society in which the citizen’s personal safety was guaranteed. That guarantee holds less today.
In short, such measures—probably excepting the relaxation of gun control—may well become part of the government’s array of measures over time. There is already serious talk of bringing back Control Orders, which are a sort of dispersed internment, including forced “relocation” of terrorist suspects to a new district where they are unlikely to meet people of similarly bad character and so get into mischief. The government’s own measures briefly outlined by Mrs. May, which can be summed up as attempting to integrate all Muslim communities into wider British society while isolating the jihadists and disrupting their networks and communications, also have merits.
Well and good. But the May government’s overall strategy has at least three weaknesses. First, it’s as likely to be mangled and obstructed by the courts as either internment or migration restrictions. Imprisoning people for preaching “hate,” for instance, is a legalistic can of worms which liberal judges will be only too happy to open and pour on the government’s head.
Second, many of its reforms increase the arbitrary power of a state whose officials are increasingly saturated in “progressive” ideas—with the police acting as the paramilitary wing of the Guardian—and fearful of being accused of “racism.” They have cracked down on demonstrations supporting returning British soldiers while protecting demonstrations denouncing them. In Rotherham, the police and local authority officials ignored the complaints of the parents of girls being raped and exploited by a Muslim gang for fear of charges of racism. How would they enforce tougher rules on hate speech? And against whom? If the police are to have greater powers, they need first to have a thorough cultural re-education — an education that reflects the values of mainstream British society rather than those of the Department of Sociology at the local polytechnic.
Any effective policy of fully integrating Muslims into modern British society is a very tough option if large numbers of the unintegrated don’t wish to go along.
Third, any effective policy of fully integrating Muslims into modern British society is a very tough option if large numbers of the unintegrated don’t wish to go along. How does the government propose, for instance, to get segregated women in Muslim neighborhoods to go out and participate in suburban life? And how will non-Muslims react if their children are removed from a local school and bussed into Muslim areas so as to discourage sex segregation there? Will the authorities ban Sharia courts, or enter into negotiations with them to harmonize their decisions with English law? And if a Muslim woman won the reversal of a Sharia judgment in the County Court, would the police enforce it or place “community relations” above it? Will social service agencies continue to make family payments, as they now do, to the second and third wives of Muslim ratepayers? Or will they deport the second wife on the grounds that she is illegally in Britain because she entered as a bigamous partner? And in making these decisions, will the government act on the principle that integration is a one-way street? Or a two-way street? Whatever the direction, a lot of people will be outraged.
For that reason, the government must initiate one of Mrs. May’s “embarrassing conversations” and tell the Muslim community leaders who have been the transmission belts for consultations with British Muslims that their services are no longer required. Nazir Afzal, the crown prosecutor in the Rochdale scandal about a Muslim gang raping and prostituting young English girls, complains forcefully that most Muslim organizations hamper and undermine anti-radicalization policies such as the “Prevent” program by constantly warning of racism, always presenting Muslims as victims, and promoting a culture of grievance and complaint. He asks why it is that the authorities prefer to deal with “community leaders” whom no one elected and who represent only themselves and their political allies. There are heroic exceptions to this criticism, but it rings true for some of the bodies that ministers treat most seriously. That must change.
The overwhelming problem with forced social integration as a national policy is both that it requires massively intrusive regulation of everyone’s social life (while we all sing compulsory hymns to “Diversity”) and yet inflicts a sense of grievance when one “side” wins in the regulatory game. And because it usually take decades (with population groups far more tractable than Muslims have historically shown themselves to be), what levels of terrorism can we expect until it succeeds?
The fact is that, as Douglas Murray established beyond any doubt in his magisterial Strange Death of Europe, successive U.K. governments have landed the British people, including those “drawn here,” with an insoluble problem: a clash of civilizations here at home. Insoluble? Well, it can’t be solved in the usual political sense of that word. But it can be lived with, accommodated, handled until a genuine social integration occurs as a result of millions of individual moral choices. What this requires now is a clear collective decision by the Muslim community—from whom, after all, the murderers come—to love Britain, embrace a British identity as their highest political loyalty, repudiate the murderers, and pledge to join with the rest of the nation in eradicating jihadist terror.
It’s going to be a long, uncertain, and painful path with many setbacks. Let me suggest that we will have succeeded when Muslim audience members at a Kinky Boots performance show the same kind of sentimentalized tolerance as everyone else. Call it the Kinky Boots test. It’s replaced the cricket test.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its initial posting.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.