A political milieu which believed all happy communities are alike is developing uncomfortable suspicions that each unhappy community is unhappy in its own way.
The language of counter-extremism and radicalisation emerges from a psychological conundrum: how it can be that, given similar upbringings and sometimes study of the same scriptures, people make such divergent life choices and embrace such incommensurable ideals. Insofar as culture fails to explain it, the old language of community cohesion, community outreach and community leaders starts to look profoundly useless. Insofar as anyone’s culture is implicated, the flagging ideals of multiculturalism are in no better shape.
Of all the spectres to have haunted Europe, extremism may therefore be the most ghostly. The government’s counter-extremism strategy defines it purely in terms of what it is against: as ‘vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. With presumably unintended irony, the strategy was published just in time for a state visit by the President of China.
Discussion of culture and values has consequently often occurred at much the same level of abstraction. The government’s attempts to codify British values may prove not just inert but counterproductive: people who go off to fight for a nascent caliphate show scant desire to construct an identity for themselves out of a liberal smorgasbord of commensurable values and allegiances. Promises to celebrate diversity will hardly win them back.
But then what are we supposed to say? Not simple platitudes about increasing understanding: the departure of some of Britain’s sons and daughters to IS, and not always the most cloistered, demonstrates that if familiarity does not breed contempt it can at least provide sufficiently fertile soil. That some were then aghast to find that Muslims can fall ‘victim to the same barbaric punishments handed out to Westerners, gay people and Yazidis’ also shows that stepping back from darkness may yet fall short of seeing the light.
It may be Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the famous culture clash between the weightlessly passionate aesthete and the conservatively ethical judge, which paints the starkest picture of how a crisis in communication, a breakdown between visions, can emerge even within a relatively homogenous society. It is through Kierkegaard and his interpreters that the notion of a leap of faith entered the popular lexicon: not a weighing up of options but choice as existential embrace. There is a choice to make—an Either, an Or: narrative and counter-narrative—but no neutral criterion with which to make it.
Our nation is having an uncomfortable time with existential choices. With a sizeable contingent still insisting that they are Scottish-not-British, and a migrant crisis in Europe just in time for the referendum on E.U. membership, having to tackle questions of identity on a third or fourth front presents our political class with something of a nightmare. Communities were never supposed to be this complicated; or rather, they were expected to contain their complexities. After all, who would ever turn down the offer of a Both/And?
The government’s strategy last October promised to ‘review, understand and address the reasons why some people living here do not identify with our country and our values. A new Cohesive Communities Programme will help those communities most at risk of isolation.’ Insofar as Whitehall is capable of nostalgia, there is almost a hankering for those simpler times when the state could classify people in terms of overlapping community identities—e.g. the Muslim community, the Bangladeshi community—and feel that it had the measure of them, and they of it.
Featured Image Credit: Salah Abdeslam