Not really, well, not quite. The trope “I’ve nothing against them, some of my best friends are… “ has been a staple of offensive pub bore conversation for as long as I’ve known and has had a new lease of life online in forums like the BBC’s Have Your Say and the comments sections of local and tabloid newspaper websites.
In reality, whether we like it or not, most of us are a little bit something-ist. In the otherwise impeccably Guardian left-liberal suburb of Leeds where I live there’s a strong whiff of “studentism” to preserve areas for long-term family residents rather than letting landlords put students in. This view is held by people who themselves were once students, often students in Leeds who had come from elsewhere in the country, and who found
themselves settling in the city after they graduated. There’s not a whole load of difference between this and the phenomenon observed particularly in the US of the last wave of immigrants often being the strongest critics of fellow immigrants who have not assimilated properly and the strongest supporters of controls on future immigration. In the report on Radio 4’s PM programme on 26 July 2011 several interviewees who were first generation immigrants to the US from West Africa were highly critical of the alleged victim of sexual assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn on the basis of the adverse impact on “good” immigrants of lies she may have told.
The desire to categorise other people is, I believe, a natural one. At least in one sense, civil society is about believing oneself to have some common bond with the others around you – about feeling that “we’re all in it together”. So, no-one begrudges paying taxes to support people who have hit hard times if they feel they can identify with the beneficiaries as being, but for circumstance, “people like us”. Setting up bankers as a group who are undeserving and unfair recipients of state largesse is as divisive as highlighting benefits cheats or bogus asylum seekers – all are playing the system and perhaps more than superficially undermining the feeling that we are all in it together. In either case, it is the extreme examples who get the press – the 200,000+ bank employees who have lost their jobs are not considered when extravagant seven figure bonuses to traders are criticised, the vast majority of benefits claimants who would love to work and are eking out a
subsistence lifestyle are overshadowed by the egregious examples of those who get more in housing benefits than a couple earning the national median wage take home after the taxes that pay for those benefits.
The same goes for extremists, both Islamists and indigenous culture terrorists like Anders Breivik. It is right that one should not consider all of the 1.5bn Muslims around the world to be terrorists or to make sweeping statements based on selective readings of the Quran about what all Muslims believe. Most Muslims, like most people, live ordinary lives with the same mix of virtue and vice – no ethnic or religious group is peculiarly saintly,
whatever the public perception of them as a group might be. We tend to ignore the fact that in South East Asia some purportedly Buddhist monks have committed terrible crimes when thinking of Buddhists as a group. Chanting, meditative (and irritatingly smug) Western Pop Stars or the Dalai Lama are more defining of them than any number of rapacious monks a long way away. However, it is also wrong to reverse this and to single out individual wrongdoers as being separate from the group they come from where that is convenient.
It is convenient to do this for Muslims because of the fear that criticising Islamism becomes a criticism of Muslims. Much easier, as Tom Harris MP says ( http://bit.ly/pvkeVa ) to bend over backwards to accommodate and try to explain away the murderous acts of the minority, even if carried out in the name of the faith, even if, in
fact, tacitly supported to some extent by otherwise peaceable coreligionists. At the same time, the temptation to broaden out the atrocities of someone like Breivik is great because the “white far right” can safely be hated by everyone. Picking out a bit in the Quran which says something that clashes with Western Liberal ideas about, say, homosexuality and using it to condemn the religion and its adherents is out of order. Picking out a bit in Breivik’s Book of Dave-ish manifesto where he cites Melanie Phillips or Jeremy Clarkson with approval to condemn those writers is somehow OK http://bit.ly/o6cCl5. I don’t like or generally agree with Ms Phillips but she hasn’t called upon anyone to go round killing people or shown support for them. Saying that the last Labour government had an immigration and multiculturalism policy that was aimed at marginalising the base for nationalist feeling is contentious but not entirely unsupported (the policy criticised isn’t even necessarily malign). Bemoaning, as Clarkson did in the article Brievik quoted, that the British flag has become something that some encourage us to be ashamed of is not a call to arms to mowing down dozens of teenagers. The irony, lost on Breivik is that shame is brought on national flags by people like him and the BNP if they are allowed to claim them as their symbols rather than being something that binds a nation.
Of course, it is also not allowed for those who might share some of Breivik’s views to quote selectively to support themselves, such as the head of the English Defence League on Newsnight’s vain attempt to quote the bit in the Breivik manifesto where he condemns the EDL for being anti-racist, anti-fascist, non-violent and naive in believing that its aims can be achieved through democracy rather than extreme terrorist action. Six hundred apparent EDL members being facebook friends with Breivik out of the hundred thousand who “like” the EDL on facebook is used as knockout evidence that the UK has a
hundred thousand people poised to turn Breivik.
I’ve no time for those who think that all Muslims are terrorists, all men are rapists, all those who question immigration are racist, all bankers are evil, all benefits claimants are parasites, all students are anti-social neighbours. But, that doesn’t exclude that some members of these groups do fit the stereotype and that their membership of the group can be relevant in working out how to respond. It was relevant to the response to the 7/7 bombings that the bombers were British Asian Muslims because the bombers were not crazed individuals working in a vacuum to do something inexplicable and arbitrary that could not be foreseen or prevented in the future.
As with the recent and ongoing controversies about political and media corruption, censure by other members of a maligned group is a strong force. Good journalists have rallied to make their case against bad practices (although sadly there still seems to be a rearguard action to preserve something of Johann Hari’s reputation even if it is merely that portion of which reflects upon his employers), good politicians have condemned the dishonest ones. Good Muslims can and should continue to speak out against Islamist terrorists and their aims. Decent people who believe that immigration should be limited can and should speak out against Breivik. Otherwise, the bad minority wins and the reputation of the good majority is ruined while the views of the minority get amplified. Just because it is convenient to let that happen (if eg you don’t like anti-immigration campaigners or Muslims) doesn’t make it right.
Interesting piece by Melanie Phillips on Breivik – http://bit.ly/mYTFaC