Racism subtle and crude
Anita Inder Singh

The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain
by Arun Kundnani
Pluto Press, London. £15.99

The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century BritainIs Britain becoming a more racist society? Currently immigration is taking place against a background of increasing racism. Arun Kundnani of the Institute of Race Relations in London argues that a new form of racism, directed against immigrants, especially from its former colonies, is emerging in Britain.

Al-Qaida’s assault on New York on September 11, 2001 was the catalyst of a new-fangled British politics of ‘integration’ – read racism. This politics of integration became the subject of heated debate because of the involvement of some British-born Muslims in attacks on London on July 7, 2005, and also in attempts to blow up transatlantic flights in August 2006. Moreover, about one-third of British-born Muslims have expressed sympathy for Al- Qaida.

These are among the reasons why Muslims generally are being demonised as dangerous and backward, and serving as the pretext for the curtailment of civil liberties by a state which is enlarging its powers in the name of defending freedom. Since the 1950s cultural stereotyping, he says, has done much to sow the seeds of segregation. It stems from the assumption that British—synonymous with English—values are superior to others. This stereotyping is partly a legacy of imperialism, partly a reflection of social snobbery since most immigrants tend to be working class. And they are not white and therefore do not look British.

The controversy about Muslim women covering their heads and faces is merely the latest development of a long-standing tendency to affirm that your appearance determines your character and culture. Someone looking ‘different’ is regarded as a threat.

White Britons tend to think that tolerance and good behaviour are among the components of ‘Britishness’ (violent British football fans in Europe may not give that impression to foreigners – and of course tolerance and decorum can be found in other societies as well). ‘Ethnic’ restaurants are fine.

But on the whole the British don’t want their society to be contaminated by immigrant cultures. Muslims can’t be modern, although only a small minority of Muslim women wear any headdress. ‘Black’ culture, ‘Asian’ cool, and ‘Britishness’ have all existed side-by-side but separately. In other words, cultural uniqueness has implied segregation, instead of becoming a source of a composite identity.

The author tends to view Muslim terrorism as an expression of anger against attempts by Britain and the US to establish global dominance, as symbolised by the American-led interventions in Iraq in 1991, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003. However, he could have noted that the US interventions in Iraq 1992 and Afghanistan 2001 were sanctioned by the UN Security Council, unlike the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was not, and that this invasion has also been opposed by many non-Muslims in Britain and the US. The 1991 Gulf war occurred because Iraq invaded Kuwait; the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan took place after Al Qaeda attacked on New York on 9/11.

Also, every Western intervention against a Muslim majority country may not be illegal; Muslims or Muslim-majority countries are not entitled to destabilise regional or international politics, any more than the US or Britain are, and Muslim extremism cannot be condoned.

The author rightly points out that Britain and the US have propped up Muslim despots in the Middle East – and President Musharraf—who have exported terrorism, even as British politicians and the media have stereotyped British Muslims as dangerous, culturally backward people. Domestic racism and political support for dictators have run parallel to each other.

Why have a minority of British-born Muslims found extremist preachers in Pakistan more appealing than ideas and life in liberal Britain? Kundnani suggests that some immigrants have sought refuge in religion because social values have broken down, but he does not clarify what the conflicting social values are.

Unfortunately, the case of innocent, peace-loving Muslims is not helped by the fact that democracy is very slow to take off in Middle Eastern countries. Intolerance may not the monopoly of anyone. If, as Kundnani suggests, intolerant British whites discriminate against Muslims in the name of security it is arguable that those who support or call for jihad are equally intolerant. And the two brands of intolerance, as well as the racisms underlying them, feed on each other.

Blair’s Labour government restricted civil liberties as part of its anti-terrorist strategy, and any successor government will continue this policy. The logic is that if the terrorist enemy is evil then the state can claim absolute power to fight it. The new British leviathan stresses community cohesion and shared values, common spaces for enjoyment, from skating rinks to shopping centres. But these good intentions are in danger of going awry because immigrants, especially Muslims, are stopped, searched and arrested without evidence, and attempts at community cohesion cannot erase the anger of those whose human rights have been violated.

Instead of creating a composite British identity the Labour government has driven rifts deeper by selecting some sectarian organisations as ‘authentic’ representatives of communities. For example, Muslim organisations having links with the Saudis were respectable while arms deals were being negotiated. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, having links with the RSS, has also been ‘recognised’ as the authentic voice of Hindus. Faith-based organisations compete with one another for state patronage and tell the government what it wants to hear, but they cannot foster a sense of Britishness.

Kundani’s general attribution of racism to the conformity induced by global market forces in Britain or the West is questionable. At least debate on immigration takes place in western democracies. In authoritarian Muslim-majority states no discussion takes place at all.

Indeed, it is to be hoped that the public discussion of racism and immigration implies that tolerance still exists in Britain, and that divisions in British society do not have to imply the end of tolerance. The book will stimulate debate on integration, racism and immigration in Britain, but some of its parts may explain more than the whole.