British Emigration and the Muslim Question

The effects of globalisation show very clearly how nationalism and the free flow of capital work against each other. Nations seek to maintain their border controls; the deregulated global economy (deregulation starting with currency exchange in the early 1970s) is breaking down borders, as the flows of capital, people and ideas increase. With respect to the movement of people at least, the politics, predictably, focuses on immigrants, but less so on emigrants. While the release of inward migration figures usually sparks heated debate, an important new report on outward migration by the Institute of Public Policy Research, [1] gets presented instead as a slightly jocular item further down the television news agenda.

The figures produced by the report are quite staggering:

Between 1966-2005, some 2.7 million British citizens left the UK (excluding any Britons who came back).

  • Currently 5.5 million British citizens live overseas, or 9.2% of the UK’s population; in other words, more Britons live abroad than do foreign nationals in the UK.
  • Including those who claim British ancestry, the figure rises to 58 million, constituting a diaspora large enough to rival those of the Indians and the Chinese.
  • In order of preference, three-quarters of Britons abroad live in Australia, Spain, the US, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Germany and Cyprus, and there are populations of over a thousand in another 112 countries.
  • Two-thirds of British migrants are seeking employment opportunities abroad, usually in highly-skilled sectors, and other ‘pull’ factors include re-strengthening family ties, seeking a better quality of life and, for young Britons, seeking adventure abroad.
  • Only 12% left Britain because of a negative ‘push’ factor – i.e. they did not like what Britain was becoming.
  • Another million Britons are expected to migrate in the next ten years.

However, it would also be true to say that besides this picture of increased mobility, there is also a ‘moral panic’ about British emigration, which the great Stanley Cohen has defined as:

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to became defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. … [P]ublic concern about a particular condition is generated, a symbolic ‘crusade’ mounted, which with publicity and actions of certain interest groups, results in…moral enterprise [or] ‘the creation of a new fragment of the moral constitution of society.’ [2]

A recent example of this moral crusading comes from the fluent, acerbic pen of the former Conservative Education Minister, George Walden, who spends two hundred pages in Time to Emigrate? (London: Gibson Square, 2006) trying to understand why a fictional son is looking to leave Britain for greener pastures.

What makes this book important is its frank ‘drawing room’ prejudice, to be found in parts of the Right in Britain, which get a regular airing in its preferred dailies and weeklies. He is particularly cutting about the English people’s hypocrisy and cant, and what he sees as their ability to trot out the usual platitudes about Islam and multiculturalism, without saying what they really think. Walden doesn’t seem to like much of England except the South-East, and parts of Manchester and Leeds. Even London has become too diverse to retain its character. The English, with their usual stoic resignation, rather than kicking up a fuss about these sea-changes, he argues, are quietly leaving. The lion no longer roars but is abdicating. All in all, England has become an overly crowded land. The schools, hospitals, transport, the housing market are now overburdened or too expensive. The streets seem more crime-ridden; rudeness and incivility have become common.

A new, middle class generation, caught between the ‘anvil of globalisation and the hammer of Islamism’, to paraphrase Gilles Kepel, look not to vote for the Front Nationale as in France, but to slope off in ever increasing numbers. They can no longer afford the comforts of their parents, and have few real options left to them except perhaps America and France, at a pinch. The hoodies and the asylum-seekers and most migrant communities get very short shrift from Mr Walden, with the exception of the diasporic Indians and Chinese, who are not only to be admired for their industriousness, but feared in their ability to outperform their English counterparts in a merciless global jobs market. Thus the indigenous middle classes will be undercut from below and outperformed at the top by the new migrant groups.

Yet at the heart of this lamentably broad demonstration of prejudices is Walden’s acute obsession with Muslims. They are accorded a special status to explain or exemplify all that is wrong with the country; in other words, for England to become England again she has to be morally reclaimed by defining herself against the Muslim.

Ominious Fertility, or the Demographic Trope: ‘With Muslims it’s bad form to say they have the biggest households in the country, an average of 3.8, because someone will say it’s racist to talk about them breeding like rabbits, even if the rabbit word never entered your mind.’ (45) ‘At this rate of expansion it’s reasonable to wonder how many minarets will be mixed in with the spires in ten years’ time, to the benefit of the skyline perhaps, though not necessarily to the cause of religious toleration. Or how many boarded up churches and pubs there’ll be of the kind I’ve seen in ghettoes in the North?’ (46)

No Sense of Humour, Unlike Us English: ‘You don’t hear many jokes about race or religion, partly because they’re not allowed, mainly because it’s stopped being funny. … Ali G sent up black culture a treat, to the point where everyone was doing the voices, but I doubt he’ll try his hand on Muslims. Imagine if he did, and everyone started going around taking off imams, I don’t think so.’ (56)

Muslim Youth are either Fanatics or Gangstas: ‘People fret about the rigours of Muslim life – compulsory prayers, the segregation of women and girls, the brain-washing side of religious education – and they’re right to worry. But we’ll worry even more when the younger generation makes the break and adapts to British values and customs, because we’ve got a fair suspicion what sort of values they’ll be. … Often they may be the victims of the rigidities of a religious culture which, when it falls apart under Western pressure, leaves anarchy in its wake. Madrassas at ten, drug-dealing at twenty.’ (62-63)

Muslims Tend to Form Ghettoes Naturally: ‘whatever you do there’ll be a tendency for Muslims to end up in sour, alienated crime-ridden ghettoes. … Threat Muslims as Frenchmen and you get ghettoes, unemployment and riots. Treat them as British Muslims with rights to diversity and you get ghettoes, unemployment, and bombings.’ (159-160)

Burqa-Clad Women are either Terrorists or Chattels: ‘When you’re walking in the street and you see a woman in an all-over veil, how do you feel? Your first reaction is probably the same as mine: to censure your thoughts. Tell yourself it would be wrong to feel anything. The sight may not warm your heart, but then that’s their way of life, and who are we to find it primitive and oppressive? The woman obscured from head to toe in black, as if condemned to a lifetime of mourning, is driven by the dictates of her religion, her husband, or her own preferences, insofar as they count, and she has every right to dress as she wants. After all she’s British as yourself, is she not? But it’s all self-deception isn’t it? The truth is that the sight of the woman spooks you. Don’t feel ashamed: it has nothing to do with racial prejudice, because when you see an Ibo woman in her glory you feel exactly the reverse: she’s giving Britain a touch of colour, which women who cover themselves in shrouds do not exactly do. And if the veiled woman makes for the Tube, and you find yourself sitting opposite, it might cross your mind that … [she’s] a female martyr in the making…You smile to yourself, uneasily. Well they’ve certainly made us paranoid, to the point where here you are thinking that every burqa hides a bomb. … On the third hand the very fact of the veil tells you something about where her ultimate allegiance lies, and it may not be to Britain.’ (160-161)

Muslim Politics is Irrational: ‘One of the things that worried you about Muslims, I remember you saying, was that so many of the representatives they put up in TV and radio debates were unable to talk about politics in a rational way. In a sense there’s no reason why they should. Islamic doctrine embraces the whole of life – the religious and administrative, the spiritual and the everyday, the emotional and the factual. There’s no separate sphere in which politics can be discussed, so there’s a limit to how much sense you can expect from uncompromising believers. The hope that we’re winning hearts and minds through education, and that strange-sounding process, “acculturation”, is illusory if the hearts are hardened by atavistic resentments and the minds are addled by fanatical religion.’ (116)

There is No Political Analogy, or the Clash of Civilisations: ‘The threat from the IRA was ultimately political. That from Islamist terrorism is civilisational. … It’s up to politicians to play mood music in a crisis, and up to the people to understand that there’s little else governments can do. The last thing they can say is that we face a threat to which we can see no end because it’s based on a fundamental clash of cultures. On the IRA we told the truth; on the Islamic problem, we lie. That itself is a terrorist victory.’ (120) ‘What is there to restrain Islamic terrorists? Where is the disincentive that would prevent them from attacking? And if Al Qaeda struck, what would we strike back at? In the Cold War disarmament talks were permanent and failsafe procedures were in place. How do you negotiate with Al Qaeda? Where is the hot line to Osama bin Laden, and what exactly would the British Prime Minister or the American President say if they got through? And how would Osama, speaking from the Dark Ages, respond? Looking at where we stand today deterrence based on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) begins to seem rather less crazy than once it did. Who would have thought we might one day be nostalgic for the Soviet Poliburo, with their homburgs and their granite faces?’ (182)

Muslims are Not Truly ‘Moderate’: ‘so we know where the fundamentalists stand, where the genuine moderates stand, and where we stand. Where the “moderates” stand we can never be sure. Which in an odd way makes the “moderates” the greater menace, especially among the Muslim new elites. By this I mean the sons and daughters of wealthy immigrants who use their social and ethnic advantages to get themselves over-promoted, then take a fashionably indulgent view of terrorism. […] The “moderates” are tardy and ambiguous in any condemnations of terrorism that are wrung out of them, though quick enough on the draw when it comes to playing the moral equivalence card, whereby a British soldier trying to bring civilised, democratic life to Basra is put on the same level as a religious extremist murdering 52 people on the Tube. Sometime you get the impression that “moderates” are only moderately in favour of democracy, freedom of speech, or women’s rights. So whereas the wild men have every reason to live here–for them it’s the front line–it’s less easy to see why a “moderate” should want to spend his life in a country whose way of life is only moderately satisfactory to him. Unless of course he’s a pretty-looking rich kid playing radical chic games who gets taken up by the Establishment, like Rageh Omaar.’ (121-122)

The So-Called ‘Moderates’ have been Appeased and Require Rather Stiffer Treatment: ‘What got [Salman Rushdie’s]…goat was that when Muslims were calling for his murder in 1989 Iqbal Sacranie, until recently the head of the Muslim Council of Britain, had said that “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him.” Since then Sacranie has been knighted to keep the Government sweet with the community, something which can’t have improved Rushdie’s mood. I suppose you would feel narked if you were him, seeing Her Majesty tapping Sacranie on the shoulder, rather than running him through as punishment for threatening her subjects. It must be the first time the monarch has ennobled a man who speaks in this manner—an illustration of the way the Muslim question is deforming the way we think and live.’ (209)

The Tiresomeness of Reforming Muslims: ‘So much for politics. Though if you stay conventional politics could become increasingly overshadowed by race and religion…. Next to the security risks the worst thing is the boredom factor. … We know for an absolute certainty the form the soul-curdling debate about Islamic extremism will take, and how it will invade our lives. Think of the…time…that will be devoted for decades to come to containing the repercussions of a virtually uncontrolled influx of people we have no room to accommodate and little cultural ability to absorb. Think of the tensions, the misguided passions, the evasions, the poisoned feelings, the hatreds and bitterness and hypocrisy and mendacity all this will occasion.’ (155)

The Equally Tiresome Appreciation of Second-Rate Muslim Culture: ‘You see it [appeasement] in art. We’ve been to a couple of Islamic shows in the last year, both of which were so-so; enlightening if you don’t know much about it, with moments of brilliance, but seen over a long historical period, by any international measure, not outstanding. How could they be, when religion has so fettered the Muslim artistic imagination by forbidding depictions of the nature, sensual world? I see the attractions of calligraphy and abstract geometrical forms in carpets, poetry, architecture and so on, but have difficulty with the notion pushed at me by race-conscious critics that this is the equivalent of the Renaissance, the neo-classical school, the Romantics and Impressionists and modernists and the rest, and that far from being in any sort of decline over the last centuries, Islamic creativity has continued in full flood. Of course we have to show respect for Islamic culture, and I can see the point of making that respect doubly clear today. But when you start exaggerating the value of art forms in the hope of lessening the chances of getting yourself blown up, it’s not a great day for intellectual freedom is it?’ (211)

There is a rhetorical nod to the good Muslim, although always as a matter of potentiality:

‘Maybe the experience of living in a tolerant society will weaken the power of extremists quicker than we think and hasten a belated reformation of Islam. Perhaps we’ve seen the worst of the terror attacks, and the police will get a grip on criminality. And Muslims could inject a dose of moral seriousness, family values and spiritual depth into a cynically irreligious, hedonistic culture. … The more successful they [Muslims] become the less prickly they will be. In commerce Muslims can be a dynamic force, when they’re not hamstrung by the Islamic prohibition on interest, and ways around this are currently being devised. ’ (75-77)

‘When it’s not stymied by dogma and passivity, Muslims can approach their children’s schooling with a seriousness that has long been out of fashion here.’ (196-197)

‘There is an optimistic scenario in Britain which you have a duty to imagine before you take the leap. It’s this. The political parties settle down to mainstream politics, with less of the posturing and point-scoring of the past. A less adversarial approach open the way to tackling the NHS and education, with gradual but significant improvements in both. The tide of immigration tails off, as British traditions of tolerance prevail. They not only contribute to the economy, they give a huge boost to science, intellectual life, the arts. After a bad start, the Muslim community turns its face against violence and throws up educated, modern-minded and moderate imams. The efforts of black leaders and social programmes gradually bear fruit in turning black youth away from guns and drugs. Meanwhile the country continues to get richer, even if a regrettable percentage is due to a black economy, Italian-style, and we hold off Far Eastern competition. And in the arts, we tire of our bouncy castle culture, become bored to death with the non-shock of the not-all-that-new and grow up.’ (226-227)

To rehash an old phrase, Islamophobia is the conservative nationalism of fools, in other words, a moral panic about ‘the country’ in general, driven primarily by the forces of globalisation, that is projected back as a cultural and political stereotype onto a particular minority community, a mere 3% of the population. The hope is that if the Muslim question is solved then by some magical transference all other ills will somehow get addressed too.

Although this book was only published in October, it is now already in its third edition. Let’s hope it’s more the fag end of a Thatcherite version of neoconservatism than the signal of a new consensus among the cultural elite and the political classes. A recent wide-ranging study of British prejudices (about disabled people, black people, Muslims, people over 70, Gay men and lesbians and women in general) showed that 65% never feel any prejudice against Muslims, 9% don’t mind if they come across as prejudiced about Muslims and that 26% ‘sometimes feel prejudiced [about Muslims] but try not to let it show’. [3] There are comforts in this large majority, but it is also noticeable that of all these groups that experience prejudice, none has a smaller non-prejudicial majority than Muslims, and certainly it seems to me that the space for ‘respectable Islamophobia’ has increased.

The research shows that most people are not prejudiced against each other, and that if Britons leave this country, it is for the usual reasons of finding better opportunity, a motive that seems to transcend all kinds of purported cultural clash. The retreat into an English arcadia (or its Muslim obverse, the more obtuse form of Muslim identity politics) does nothing to work hard to make Britain a shared home, even in these interconnected and complex times. Instead this retreat leaves them at home precisely nowhere — which is no way forward for anyone.


[1] Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah and Catherine Drew, Brits Abroad: Mapping the Scale and Nature of British Emigration (London: Institute of Public Policy Research, 2006).

[2] Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (St Albans, Herts: Paladin, 1973), 9, 11.

[3] Dominic Abrams & Diane M Houston, Equality,Diversity and Prejudice in Britain: Results from the 2005 National Survey (Report for the Cabinet Office Equalities Review October 2006) (Kent: Centre for the Study of Group Processes, University of Kent, 2006), Figure 17, 54.


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