Al-Ahram Weekly – 9-15 March 2006
Until recently liberal Europeans were keen to distance themselves, at least officially, from the ideological excesses of the current American administration. They argued that the neo-conservative enthusiasm for the “war on terror” — and its underpinning ideology of “a clash of civilisations” — did not fit with Europe’s painful recent experiences of world wars and the dismantling of its colonial outposts around the globe.
But there is every sign that the public dissociation is coming to a very rapid end. The language and assumptions of the “clash scaremongers” is permeating European thought, including the reasoning of its liberal classes, just as surely as it once did about the Cold War.
So far attention has focussed on specific frictions: the Francophone countries’ hyperventilating over the Islamic veil; the Scandinavian obsession with immigrants; and the Germanic nations’ undisguised distaste at Muslim Turkey’s possible gate-crashing of the Christian club of the European Union.
Little notice has been paid to a similar public embrace of the clash thesis in Britain. There, after the British public’s well-publicised opposition to Tony Blair’s participation in President Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq, Britons have all but resigned themselves to a slew of policies — extra powers for the police, detention without charge, ID cards, stricter immigration policies, limits on free expression — that are eroding long-cherished freedoms and rights.
But two recent incidents in particular illustrate the rapid refashioning of the British agenda, particularly among liberals. The first involves an attempt to silence a democratically elected leader, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, by a government-appointed committee seeking his suspension from office. The second concerns the media’s response to the notorious Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
What each case highlights is a double standard on freedom of expression that gives an especially privileged status to speech that assumes or promotes the “clash of civilisations”. By contrast, those who reject the clash model — who believe it is just the latest incarnation, recast for the global era, of the traditional colonial policy of divide and rule — are being maligned or silenced.
Take Ken Livingstone. He has been a thorn in the side of the British political establishment for a generation, first as the leader of the Greater London Council, which former prime minister Margaret Thatcher abolished mainly to oust him, and now as the mayor of London, a post his own Labour Party went to extraordinary lengths to try to prevent him from contesting and winning.
In addition, Livingstone has been waging a relentless struggle against his demonisation in the right-wing British media. The tabloids long ago nicknamed him “Red Ken” for his opposition to their racist campaigns against blacks, the Irish, asylum-seekers and Muslims. In office he has been diligent in promoting a multi-cultural and multi-faith London that listens to all voices.
Today, of course, that policy sabotages the worldview of the clash theorists, who want to persuade us that enlightened Europe is being besieged by Muslim barbarians. And, like sheep, British liberals too are joining the campaign against Livingstone.
The details of Livingstone’s humiliation bear close examination. The mayor was confronted a year ago by Oliver Finegold, a reporter with London’s Evening Standard newspaper, after a public engagement. Livingstone, who has had a long-running battle with the Standard over its coverage of London issues, refused to be interviewed. When pressed, he asked the reporter: “were you a German war criminal?” Offended, Finegold replied that he was Jewish. Livingstone then told him he was behaving “like a concentration camp guard — you are just doing what you are paid to do.”
The reasons for Livingstone’s outburst are clear. As he has pointed out on numerous occasions he loathes Associated Newspapers — the publishing group of which the Standard is one flagship — because of its repeated personal attacks on him, its racist campaigns against minorities, and its history of supporting anti-Semitism and Hitler in the last century.
In insulting Finegold, Livingstone was comparing him to the despised Jewish collaborators, “capos”, who worked on behalf of the Nazis in their concentration camps. While Finegold has every reason to feel offended by the comparison, he and his newspaper have the opportunity and resources to hit back at Livingstone — as they have done many times before — through the paper’s editorial pages.
This minor media scuffle should have ended there, but for the role of Jewish lobby groups who saw their chance to accuse, at least implicitly, London’s mayor of being anti-Semitic, a charge that is being deployed with increasing recklessness across Europe. The implausibility of this claim should not be in doubt: Livingstone has a long record of supporting minorities, including Jews, and his comments were directed against Finegold personally, for the nature of his work, not his ethnicity.
Refusing to apologise either to Finegold or the Standard, Livingstone made sure to reassure his Jewish constituents that the anti-Semitism slur was groundless. He had not been downplaying the “horror and magnitude” of the Holocaust, he said. “My view remains that the Holocaust against the Jews is the greatest racial crime of the 20th century.”
Nonetheless, Jewish groups led by the Board of Deputies of British Jews pressed on with their campaign to have the mayor publicly punished, leading to the government-appointed committee’s draconian decision to suspend him for a month — a sentence Livingstone has challenged in the courts.
Why were the lobbyists so determined to pursue their prey, and liberals so ready to approve his punishment? Because Livingstone, almost uniquely in British public life, is refusing to concede an inch to the clash scaremongers. He continues to express his outrage at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and this issue’s role in inflaming worldwide Muslim anger, and he continues to give a platform to Muslim leaders who offer a different understanding of modern history, one most British liberals would rather not hear.
Livingstone’s treatment contrasts starkly with another recent episode; that of the cartoons first printed by a right-wing and self- consciously Christian Danish newspaper. In that case, European editors were quick to invoke the sacred principle of freedom of expression in publishing, or supporting the publication of, cartoons that defamed the Prophet Mohamed, most notoriously by showing him concealing a bomb in his turban.
In Britain, where the media did not reprint the cartoons, apparently for fear of inflaming Muslim sensitivities, they still asserted their inviolable right to publish them should they so choose. Liberal columnists claimed that such a right could not be sacrificed because it was one of the cardinal values of the European Enlightenment and of “Western civilisation”. “The victory won by Voltaire defines us, as much as faith defines Muslims,” wrote Henry Porter in Britain’s Observer newspaper.
This allowed the British media to take a dubious moral high ground twice-over: first, they could claim to be acting pragmatically and charitably in refusing to publish, and then they could contrast their own restraint with the bullying tactics of the “Muslim mob”. The cartoon affair simply reassured the British media, and liberals, of the inherent truth of the clash theory.
The frenzied response of some Muslims helped to overshadow a more significant point, however. What was the intention of the cartoonists, the newspaper and television channels across Europe that insisted on publishing the cartoons, and those who defended their right to do so?
Although British liberals were prepared to admit that the cartoons might hurt religious sensitivities (or, in their view, over-sensitivity), they refused to concede that the offence might run deeper still. In fact, by portraying the founder of Islam as a terrorist — as the bomb in the turban caricature surely does — the cartoons criticised Muslims not for what they do (a minuscule number are involved in terror) but for what they are: members of a community of belief.
Whereas British liberals have supported the denial of Livingstone’s freedom to offend one individual, they have invoked as a sacrosanct principle the right to incite against a religious group, one that exists as a series of vulnerable and marginalised minorities across Europe.
The reason for this double standard seems clear enough. While Livingstone and others like him are a threat to those shaping a future world order that promises endless war against the “Other”, the European media and their liberal apologists are being recruited to a cause that will ensure such a war is all but inevitable.
European liberals playing with Bush’s fire are likely to get more than their fingers burnt. They are sliding headlong into an uncivilised clash of their very own making.