We’ve been framed

February 11, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Posted in British Politics, Uncategorized, What's left? | Leave a comment

Were I to waste what little free time I have concocting a list of the most eloquent, passionate and persuasive advocates of liberal/left-wing politics, I’d want to include Johann Hari near the top. In an article for today’s Independent, Johann takes aim at Rowan Williams’ Sharia bumbling by pointing out some stark consequences of having a religious system mashed into our own judiciary:

We don’t need to speculate about what these British sharia courts would look like. They already exist in some mosques across as voluntary enterprises. Last month, a plain, unsensationalist documentary called Divorce: Sharia Style looked at the judgements they hand down. If a man wants a divorce, he simply has to say to his wife, “I divorce you” three times over three months. The wife has no right of appeal, and no right to ask for a reason. If a woman wants a divorce, by contrast, she has to humbly ask her husband. If he refuses, she must turn to a sharia court, and convince three Mullahs that her husband has behaved “unreasonably” – according to the rules laid out in a pre-modern text that recommends domestic violence if your wife gets uppity.

Okay, so you probably get by now that you’re not likely to get the kind of ‘quickie divorces’ that social conservatives wail about, or the ‘gold-digger divorces’ that tabloids rail against. In fact, if you’re a woman, any woman, even a battered, abused and terrified woman, you might be lucky getting any divorce at all. Just one tragic example:

Irum Shazad, a 26-year-old British woman, travels from her battered women’s refuge to a sharia court in East London. She explains that her husband was so abusive she slashed her wrists with a carving knife. The court tells her this was a sin, making her as bad as him. They tell her to go back to her husband. (They grant a divorce half a year later, after a dozen more “last chances” for him to abuse her.)

Then we meet Nasirin Iqbal, a 27-year-old Pakistani woman who was shipped to Britain five years ago to marry. Her husband, Imran, has kept her isolated, and she does not speak a word of English. “I came here thinking he’d treat me well,” she says. “But he keeps hurting me. He brought me here to use me. I’m not an object…. Do I not have a heart?… He tells me I’m stuck with him, and under Islam he can treat me however he wants. ‘I am a man, I can treat you how I want’.”

We see how Imran torments her, announcing, “You are a reject. I didn’t want to marry you.” He takes a second wife in Pakistan, and texts her all day in front of Nasirin declaring his love. The sharia court issues a fatwa saying the marriage stands. She doesn’t seem to know this isn’t a court of law. “I can’t ignore what they say,” she cries. “You have to go with what they say.” (emphasis mine)

It’s heartbreaking, and if Williams were to have his way, this kind of Koran-sponsored misogyny may spread even more insidiously. But whilst his argument against this kind of ill-thought-out proposal is persuasive & humane, I don’t feel his solution is one I want to endorse:

These courts highlight in their purest form the problem with multiculturalism. It has become a feel-good doctrine mindlessly celebrating “difference”, without looking at what that difference actually means.

Yet many people feel instinctively uncomfortable when we talk about ditching multiculturalism – for a good reason. The only alternative they are aware of is the old whiter-than-white monoculturalism. This view, voiced most clearly by Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit, believes that if people are going to live together, they need to look and feel similar, and have a tightly prescribed shared identity. They argue that the number of newcomers should be small, and need to be pressured to assimilate to the 1950s norm of a suburban white family, fast.

Perhaps we’re just arguing over semantics here, but I’m pretty sure there are reasons against ditching ‘multiculturalism’ that don’t amount to a desire to see oneself as superior to the Powells & Tebbits, the Griffins, Irvings & Littlejohns whose small minds and mean spirits clutter up our lives. The first of these is that at its most basic level, multiculturalism is an empirical fact: there are, right now, people from hundreds of nationalities, ethnic groups and religions across every single social class, working together, socialising with each other and, yes, even praying together. If this comes across as naiive and wooly-minded utopianism, that’s because the arguments that were made from the 50’s onwards about the benefits of a Britain rich in multiple cultures have, to a degree, been proved right. It’s not perfect: racism and economic inequalities have conspired to separate some ethnic communities from the rest of us and religion has so often proved to be an equally backwards and divisive wedge between us. I’ll even accept Hari’s argument that the term has become “a feel-good doctrine mindlessly celebrating “difference”, without looking at what that difference actually means.” But does this really mean we should discard the whole idea and admit defeat?

There’s a saying in U.S. politics that you should never accept the way your opponents frame an issue, and I fear this is a crucial error the left has made: mortified by the arguments of pure relativists who daren’t make any moral judgement about cultures different from their own, we have stood by whilst right-wing attack dogs seek to savage multiculturalism, in part as a way of stoking fear and suspicion of Islam and its followers. In our worst moments, in despair and disgust of an ideology that is antithetical to our own values, we have even joined in.

Johann’s solution is for us all to unite under the banner of liberalism, because to be liberal is to embrace the freedom of the individual. Fine, I’ve got no problem with that. But liberals are also those who favour progress and reform, so why not apply those principles to multiculturalism? Why not reappropriate the word, redefine it so it speaks of inclusiveness rather than passivity, shared values rather than dividing each other by cultural difference. Why can’t the word once again speak of a country coloured by multiple cultures, but held together by a rich tradition of freedom and quality?

By refusing to accept the framing of the right, the liberal-left could once again speak of community and cohesion. I reckon it’s a fight worth having…


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