Culture Clash; as Tensions Rise in the East End, a Leading US-Based Commentator Warns of a Clash in Britain between Western Liberalism and Islamic Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

Byline: JOHN O'SULLIVAN

IF A picture is usually worth a thousand words, the photographs of George Galloway cowering in his car while Muslim fundamentalists threatened his life and invaded a moderate mosque were more valuable than all three party manifestos. For it was the latest sign of the impending divorce between multiculturalism and the cultural liberalism that has reshaped modern Britain.

Maybe George Galloway and the fundamentalists are unworthy representatives of liberalism and multiculturalism respectively. But change occurs at the margin. These marginalised figures revealed in their clash that multiculturalism and liberal values are incompatible. How so?

Multiculturalism is easy enough to grasp. It is the doctrine that all cultures are equal and must be given equal respect and protection by government. It was fuelled by the arrival in Britain of immigrant groups with different religious cultures. And it has led to such social changes as rewriting British history and allowing strict Muslim dress in school.

Cultural liberalism is a vaguer concept. Its essential meaning is that people should be helped to free themselves from irksome moral and cultural restraints. In the past 30 years, it has effected a quiet revolution in Britain - in religion, family life, national identity, and moral values.

Religion has declined. Fewer people get married. More children are born out of wedlock.

Patriotism is no longer a simple virtue in a multicultural society. And a whole battery of longstanding moral restraints - on idleness, public drunkenness, drug-taking, profane language, sexual coarseness - have simply evaporated.

As a result Britain is generally freer and more relaxed, especially for prosperous middle-class people (though the new liberal morality imposes its own stern prohibitions - on smoking, ethnic jokes, fast food, and, er, "judgmentalism"). But these changes have also produced a growing underclass, more victims of crime, and children with fewer opportunities because they are brought up in homes without two parents. And society is also cruder, more disordered, and less neighbourly than in the past.

Politically, cultural liberalism changes life for everyone.

For the Tories it makes politics more difficult. When young men felt obliged to marry their pregnant girlfriends, they paid for their children's upbringing; when they don't the government picks up the tab and public spending rises. When patriotism was an uncomplicated virtue, the party of One Nation benefited. And when religion shaped political attitudes, it encouraged people to be law-abiding, self-reliant and generally conservative.

(Amertheican conservatism is stronger precisely because American Christianity is stronger.) Conversely Labour, as the party of bureaucratic compassion, tends to benefit when people are dependent on government aid and when religion stresses welfare rather than salvation.

Such political effects were probably not consciously intended. But cultural liberalism was intended to benefit, among others, immigrants.

From the Sixties onward, social reforms were very deliberately introduced to ensure equality for the immigrants here.

NO GREAT social transformation was needed for Caribbean immigrants who spoke English and who thought of themselves as British. But as immigrants from different cultures and different religions arrived in significant numbers, especially Muslim immigrants, somewhat deeper changes were proposed - namely, multiculturalism. …