In recent weeks, heads of states across Europe have unleashed a new line of rhetoric aimed at tackling terrorism. Well, somewhat new. From David Cameron to Angela Merkel to the always-beloved Nikolas Sarkozy, major European leaders have synchronized their political savvies to combat a persistent threat to their states’ national security.
Foremost among them is British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has argued before the English Parliament that the United Kingdom needs to embrace Western, liberal values to combat the continued threat of domestic terrorism. Cameron seems to believe that there is something inherent in the Western, liberal tradition that can defeat the Faisal Shahzads of the United Kingdom.
But Cameron’s new policy fails in theory and in practice. Not only does his rhetoric ostracize communities instead of integrating them, but he targets groups that have had unquestionably positive results against terrorism. Cameron argues that Britain must abandon its commitment to multiculturalism in the process of adopting a new system of Western liberalism.
There seems to be an inherent contradiction in Cameron’s logic. Today, liberal societies in the West exhibit robust diversity. However, Cameron implies that there is little fluidity to the definition of Western liberalism. In fact, he seems to ascribe a specific characteristic to it. Cameron simply misunderstands and consequently misapplies his concept of liberalism. Rejecting multiculturalism and diversity will breed legions of terrorists instead of thwarting them. He will polarize society, fostering a sentiment of alienation amongst those who are not, as he defines, “British.” Cameron needs to refine multiculturalism as it exists in London today, not abandon it.
Multiculturalism reflects the power rather than the problem of diversity. In a truly multicultural environment, no single group is identified as the “other.” Identifying a Western liberal identity in contrast to multiculturalism connotes that something does not fit, or perhaps more dangerously, does not belong. By creating a single, whole British identity, Cameron is undermining what makes his country’s society so dynamic.
Having lived in London, I can say that the liberal social norms empower different social groups, allowing them to coexist. You’ll find Lady Gaga lookalikes alongside young girls in niqabs on the streets of London. Over time, you won’t even think twice about seeing them next to each other. Why? Because everyone in London comfortably appreciates and capitalizes on the freedoms they are afforded by British liberalism. If politicians narrowly define something as Western and liberal — or British — the “other” becomes dangerous.
The others, in this case, are Muslims in Britain. As Robert Lambert, formerly of Scotland Yard and now co-director of Exeter University’s European Muslim Research Centre maintains, “Falsely classifying Muslim groups as subversive ‘extremists’ either because of their opposition to the war on terror or because of their adherence to ‘political Islam’ risks doing more to boost al-Qaida recruitment, influence and support than reduce it.” In other words, Cameron is aiding his own enemy.
Cameron is right on one point though: Multiculturalism has failed to result in tangible integration. This, in turn, has generated terrorism. Liberalism, as he states, can be a powerful tool in combating this reaction. However, Western liberalism today represents multiculturalism and embracing diversity. For example, American liberalism hinges on its multicultural identity. America affords opportunities to minority groups to climb the social ladder. This kind of liberalism is difficult to find in Europe.
Living in London, I vividly remember communities living side-by-side instead of living with each other. Disgruntled communities living in Council Housing near Paddington or Mile End, homes to Arabs and Bengalis, sought greater economic benefits as opposed to a new cultural or ‘counterterrorism’ policy. If Cameron embraces the multicultural mosaic Britain embodies and extends economic and social outreach programs to integrate its disparate communities, then he will have a formula for success.
Moreover, Cameron should reappraise his counterterrorism focus. He has dropped the Street program, a crucial counterterrorism project that has yielded positive results in combating al-Qaida links in London. Now, London authorities are unfortunately targeting a once-reputable group that has integrated disenfranchised elements of the population and are instead labeling them as part of the problem.
Naturally, Cameron has faced a political backlash. The Labor Party argues that he is stroking racial tensions whereas Muslim groups believe he is oversimplifying terrorism and is exaggerating the threat posed by a small group of dissidents. But whatever his intentions, Cameron is right to tackle the issue of integration. Britain exists, as does a British identity; it should be embraced and refined. However, abandoning multiculturalism in favor of a new liberal and a synthetic British identity will contribute to the problem of terrorism instead of solving it.
Jeff Morshed is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. He studied abroad in King’s College London last spring.