A Conference organized by the Mayor of London, 22nd  January 2007


On route to the conference I called in to say hello to Brian Haw whose 5 year protest in Parliament Square (currently the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain) began because of the injustices of sanctions which were causing the deaths of Iraqi children, targeting the most vulnerable, and destroying Iraqi society. The theme of his continuing protest has, in essence, been about treating people fairly. And essentially the conference theme is the same.


Great credit to Ken Livingstone for organizing a conference where a wide range of issues could be openly discussed. Burning issues arise from London’s pre-eminent position as multi-cultural capital of the world, and the potential for instability which a clash of Islamist terrorism and UK/US foreign policy could trigger. A particularly optimistic sign was the almost total lack of any retaliatory strikes against Muslims following the London transport bombings, suggesting our multi-culturalism is strong.


The conference was organized with an opening session addressed by Ken Livingstone and Professor Daniel Pipes - prominent neo-con academic who actively seeks to promote “American Interests” and to improve Middle East studies world-wide. Supporting speakers were Salma Yaqoob and Douglas Murray.


Ken believes there is nothing intrinsically threatening about Islam and the Koran. He accepts that there are inevitably significant differences of view between himself and some Muslim clerics – on issues like homosexuality and freedom of expression for example. However, common interests and shared values far outweigh the differences for most. He accepts that there is a fanatical tendency favouring totalitarianism in which all infidels and apostates would be dispatched and everyone else compelled to adhere to a rigid interpretation of Sharia. There have been and will continue to be other fanatical groups who use race and/or religion to justify extreme acts such as the London bombings. He urges that people look beyond such events and recognise the wider picture which is of people living peacefully and in tolerance, without any malicious agenda and condemning all violent atrocities whoever commits them. Fortunately, despite a media frenzy, this appears to be the view of the overwhelming majority of Londoners. He reaffirmed his opposition to British foreign policy which could be construed as a continuation of earlier infamous policies dating back 100 years or so. There is genuine concern that conflict in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan has a potential radicalizing effect on some Muslims, particularly if they feel disaffected and discriminated against. He reminded us that UK & US had been complicit in the resurgence of radical Islam by funding, arming, and supporting the fundamental Islamists in Afghanistan who now disseminate terrorist ideology world-wide. He favours dialogue where there is disagreement and potential for conflict. He sites the example of the IRA which bombed London and where communication showed the potential for true resolution of grievances. It is dangerous and wrong to point the finger of blame at whole communities and alienate them. That way you don’t only treat innocent people unfairly but it is more likely to promote distrust and division.


Daniel Pipes sees the world rather differently. He believes it necessary to stand up for what you believe in. Terrorists did strike at the heart of the free world when they attacked the World Trade Centre. It was not an accident or a dream and it did require a robust response. He believes it important to acknowledge and confront terrorists and other movements which are intolerant and hostile to western liberal values of freedom and democracy, and, where necessary, take pre-emptive action – not wait till they threaten or otherwise act against our way of life. We can and should stand up to them and not to do so suggests weakness and ineptitude in the face of bullying. He doesn’t regard all Muslims as barbaric, though there are significant divisions between ourselves and many in the Arab world. It is Islamists, with their fanatical reading of the Koran, who are dangerous, threatening, and barbaric. He doesn’t believe that dialogue is possible with some countries which he believes are opposed to much that the west holds dear. We should have no truck with the Palestinian Hammas government, whether democratically elected or not. They are committed to the destruction of Israel, a legitimate democratic country with western values. He listed a number of “moderate” Muslims we should be talking to, but it later transpired that several are fugitives from Middle Eastern countries where they are out of favour with the regimes. The logic of Daniel Pipes’ suggestion is that we should be working with movements bent on destabilizing and overthrowing existing regimes which we don’t like! He favoured toppling Saddam Hussein though he dissents substantially from US government policy. He rejects totally that it was an enterprise to secure access to oil supplies, and, rather implausibly, insists that the outcome proves it. He said the Iraq invasion was about standing up to a threatening tyrant and bully, and about western values. He doesn’t advocate military action except as a last resort but he does condemn the US for not completing the job in Vietnam. The Vietnam defeat was not due to any lack of resources or ability, in the end US resolve wavered. If opponents have to be confronted, as he believes they should, then the western world must be prepared to go all the way – it makes no sense to threaten and then back down. He sites the example of the cold war which was won by the west because the USSR eventually capitulated. Hard to find a positive message here for multi-cultural London I think! 


I attended some workshops and the final plenary session. The conference timetable was extended to 8pm so orthodox Jews were able to attend. It emerged that more significant than any ethnic or cultural segregation in Britain today is segregation by wealth as the wealth gap has widened significantly under New Labour. However it is a known fact that Muslims are amongst the more disadvantaged and are proportionately over-represented in that group. Afro-Caribeans complained that the conference focused on Muslim experience and other racial groups were overlooked. Others spoke of their own experiences of discrimination in the past and agreed circumstances had improved. Multi-culturalism is an evolving condition - from different cultures coexisting with little knowledge or appreciation of each other through to integration, mixing, understanding, communication, and shared values. It is laughable to expect immigrants to adopt immediately a British culture on entering the UK. They come with a background of formative experience and to do as suggested would require a cultural striptease on entry, and the donning of the mantle of British culture instead. Repeated calls from politicians for Muslims to integrate miss the point. Integration is a process involving the host as well as the guest. Also there are factors such as the geography of Muslim settlement, availability of jobs, lack of integration of schooling in both state and voluntary sectors, and a tendency for immigrants to congregate together for friendship and support. Integration is a gradual process and requires a long term commitment from all parties. There was concern that to be successful the members of multi-cultural societies needed to show continuing commitment and vigilance. The example of Germany and the Jews showed that even where a society was thoroughly integrated and living harmoniously it is possible for malign influences to destabilize it. Who could answer for British society if there were further waves of Islamist terrorist outrages?  Jews complain that they feel under threat because they nowadays need guards at Synagogues and schools. Others on the floor thought that Iraq invasion and Israeli treatment of Palestinians was a cause of anger and tension in some sections of British society; which seems so obvious to me it hardly needs saying. Would London have been bombed if we hadn’t so inanely followed where George Bush led? Hard to say but our bombers certainly claimed it was retribution for Iraq invasion. Yet there were other atrocities like the sanctions Brian Haw rightly protested about.       

Noel Hamel