It was February 1989. I was in Bradford, a few weeks after the demonstration on which a copy of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses had been burnt. I had gone there to interview Sher Azam, president of the Bradford Council of Mosques, and the man who had torched the book. Waiting in the drab building that housed the Bradford Council of Mosques, I heard a familiar voice.
'Hello Kenan, what are you doing here?'
It was Hassan, a friend from London, whom I had not seen for a couple of years. 'Good to see you Hassan. I'm doing some interviews about Rushdie', I said. 'What are you doing in this God-forsaken place?'
'Trying to make it less God forsaken', said Hassan. 'I've been up here a few months, helping in the campaign to silence the blasphemer.'
'No need to look so shocked. I've had it with the white left. I'd lost my sense of who I am and where I came from. So I came back to Bradford to rediscover it. We need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs, and not allow anyone - racist or Rushdie - to trample over them.'
I was astonished. The Hassan I knew in London had been a member of the Socialist Workers party (as I had been for a while). Apart from Trotskyism his other indulgences were sex, Southern Comfort and watching Arsenal. We had marched together, chucked bricks together at the National Front, been arrested together. I had never detected a religious bone in his body. But here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners.
Today 'radical' in an Islamic context means someone who espouses a fundamentalist theology. Twenty years ago it meant the opposite: a secularist who challenged the power of the mosques within Muslim communities. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition has played an important part in the rise of Islamic militancy in this country. Hassan embodied this mutation from left-wing activist to Islamic militant. And he was not alone. A surprising number of anti-Rushdie demonstrators were young. Few were religious, let alone fundamentalist. Many did not attend mosque, only a handful could recite the Koran, and most flouted traditional Muslim taboos on sex and drink. They felt resentful about the treatment of Muslims, disenchanted by leftwing politics and were looking for new ways of expressing their disaffection. While many began as secularists, they formed the pool of discontents into which radical Islamic organisations dipped. It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that militant Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir began organising in this country, particularly on campuses. Like Hassan, many of their recruits came from the ranks of former leftwing activists.
The Rushdie affair was a turning point in the relationship between British society and its Muslim communities. It was the moment that Islamic militancy announced itself as a major political issue. It was also the moment that Britain realised it was facing a new kind of social conflict. From the Grunwick dispute in 1977 to the Broadwater Farm riot in 1986, blacks and Asians had often been involved in bitter conflicts with authority. But these were political issues, or issues of law and order. The Rushdie affair was the first major cultural conflict, and one that seemed to question the very possibility of social integration.
For me personally, the Rushdie affair was a turning point in another way. It made me question my own relationship to the left and to the antiracist movement. The transformation of Hassan mirrored a wider transformation that was taking place on the left itself, a transformation from a belief in secular universalism to the defence of ethnic particularism and group rights. Once the left had been a champion of Enlightenment rationalism and humanism. It had believed in the ideas of a common humanity and universal rights, argued that everyone should be treated equally despite their racial, ethnic, religious or cultural differences and looked to social progress as a means of overcoming cultural differences. Today many on the left decry the Enlightenment as a Eurocentric project. They promote the idea of multiculturalism and of group rights, argue that different people should be treated differently because of their racial, ethnic, religious and cultural differences and worry that social progress is undermining cultural authenticity. 'You have to treat people differently to treat them equally', Lee Jasper, race adviser to London Mayor Ken Livingstone told me when I interviewed him for a Channel 4 documentary. Or as Labour MP Keith Vaz has put it, 'Britishness cannot be imposed on people of different races, cultures and religions.'
In the aftermath of Rushdie, I came to realise that as important as challenging racism was tackling this 'politics of difference'. A decade and a half later, as we debate how British Muslims could turn into savage terrorists, understanding that retreat from secular universalism is as important as ever.
The roots of the politics of difference can be found in the new forms of radicalism that emerged in the 1960s. Traditionally even revolutionaries who were hostile to capitalism saw themselves as standing in the Western intellectual tradition. ‘I denounce European colonialism’, CLR James once wrote, ‘But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of western civilisation’. James was one the great radicals of the 20th century, an anti-imperialist, a superb historian of black struggles, a Marxist who remained one even when it was no longer fashionable to be so. Today , though, many on the left would dismiss James' defence of 'Western civilisation' as insufferably Eurocentric, even racist. To be radical has come to mean the rejection of all that is 'Western' in the name of marginality or difference. The modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the world - a project that James unashamedly championed - is now widely decried as a dangerous fantasy that must be resisted.
The pursuit of difference has always been at the heart of the racist agenda. It was always conservatives who decried reason and sought refuge in what Edmund Burke called 'wholesome prejudice'. Reactionaries have long sought to block the advance of science and modernity in the name of tradition. So how did the left end up embracing difference, decrying reason, and defending tradition against modernity, all in the name of multiculturalism?
The postwar left was shaped by the experience of Nazism, the failures of old-style class politics and the emergence of new struggles such as the civil rights movement and feminism. For Marxists such as CLR James, their universalism was rooted in their class politics. James believed in a universally valid notion of progress. The key to emancipation, he argued, was the same everywhere. The working class was the 'universal class' because it would help bring about such emancipation. But from the Soviet Union, where the workers' state had turned into a tyranny, to the West where, in the words of historian H Stuart Hughes, the proletariat seemed to prefer 'creature comforts to heroism and kitsch to the elevation of its intellect', the class that Engels had called the 'heirs of classical philosophy' was not behaving in the manner that radicals expected of it. In the postwar years, the radical intelligentsia's relationship to the working class was, as Terry Eagleton once observed, a bit like the Virgin Mary's to the baby Jesus, reverently acknowledging his divinity but harbouring no illusions after cleaning up his shit.
Disenchantment set in not just with class politics but with the very ideas of Enlightenment rationality and progress. Postwar radicals had asked why it was that Germany, a nation with deep roots in the Enlightenment, should succumb so completely to Nazism. The answer seemed to be that it was the logic of Enlightenment rationalism itself that gave rise to such barbarism. As Thedor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, founders of the Frankfurt school, put it in their seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 'Enlightenment is totalitarian'. Or as Herbert Marcuse, one of the Marxist gurus of the 1960s student revolt, explained: 'Concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars and atom bombs are no "relapse into barbarism" but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology and domination.'
'Testifying at the trial against barbarism', the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut's memorably observed, postwar intellectuals came to 'identify the Enlightenment with the defence and not with the prosecution'. The roots of barbarism, many argued, lay in Western arrogance and the roots of Western arrogance lay in an unquestioning belief in the superiority of Enlightenment rationalism and universalism. Antiracism, therefore, came to be defined as treating all peoples and all cultures with equal respect, and seeing none as backward, primitive, irrational. Radicals, Finkielkraut suggests, came to believe that 'the so-called civilised ones should come down from our imaginary heights and recognise with humble clarity that we were only another kind of native'. Increasingly relativism came to be a defining feature of postwar radicalism.
Both these themes - disenchantment with class politics and a hostility to Enlightenment rationalism - were at the heart of the New Left that emerged in the 1960s. The New Left was a loose association of groups and individuals that was self-consciously opposed to the 'old left' of the communist parties and trade unions. Where the old left looked to the working class as the agency of change, the New Left found new, surrogate proletariats in the so-called New Social Movements - third world liberation movements, civil rights organisations, feminist groups, campaigns for gay rights, and the peace movement. Where the old left talked of class and sought to raise class consciousness, the New Left talked of culture and sought to strengthen cultural identity. Culture was the defining feature of groups and the means by which one group differentiated itself from another. Every group, whether Cuban peasants, black Americans or women, had a specific culture, rooted in its particular history and experiences. That culture gave shape to an individual's identity. For an individual identity to be authentic, collective identity must be too. That required the group to be true to its own culture, to pursue faithfully the traditions that mark out that culture as unique and rebuff the advances of modernity and of other cultures.
These ideas echo the late 18th-century Romantic backlash against the Enlightenment. Whereas Enlightenment philosophes saw progress as civilisation overcoming the resistance of traditional cultures with their irrational prejudices and outmoded institutions, for the romantics the steamroller of progress was precisely what they feared. For Johann Gottfried Herder, the 18th-century German philosopher who best articulated the Romantic notion of culture, each people or volk was unique and this uniqueness was expressed through its volksgeist - the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Rejecting the Enlightenment belief that the same institutions and forms of governance would promote human flourishing in all societies, Herder held that the values of different cultures were incommensurate but equally valid. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment.
The Romantic idea of culture flowered in the 1960s initially through the idea of self-organisation, a concept that emerged from the struggle for black rights in the US. In the 1960s, black America was squeezed between an intensely racist society, on one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to its plight. Many activists accused the left of indifference to their cause and argued that blacks must take matters into their own hands. They ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups. Black self-organisation soon gave way to the idea of black identity. Blacks had to organise separately not as a political strategy but as a cultural necessity. 'In Africa they speak of Negritude', wrote black power activist Julius Lester. 'It is the recognition of those things uniquely ours which separate ourselves from the white man.'
Soon, not just blacks, but everyone had an identity that was uniquely theirs and that separated them not just from the white man, but from every other kind of man and from men in general. Using the template established by black power activists, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Chinese Americans, not to mention a myriad of white ethnics all set up their separate cultural organisations. Women and gays became surrogate ethnics, each with their own particular cultures, identities and ways of thinking. 'The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of "universal humankind" on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect "in spite of one's differences"', wrote feminist and sociologist Sonia Krups. 'Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.'
'The very language of commonality', American cultural critic Todd Gittlin observes, 'came to be perceived by the new movements as a colonialist smothering - an ideology to rationalise white dominance'. The irony is that the politics of identity itself drew on the most reactionary of ideas - the claim that one's political beliefs and ways of thinking should be derived from the fact of one's birth, sex or ethnic origins.
Social and political developments over the next two decades helped entrench such ideas. The weakening of both social democratic and Stalinist parties, the demise of Third World national liberation movements and the transformation of many third world countries into tyrannies and, finally, the end of the Cold War all added to the belief that radical social transformation was a chimera. The New Social Movements themselves had largely disintegrated by the 1990s. All that was left was the sense of difference. Social solidarity became increasingly defined not in political terms - as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals - but in terms of ethnicity or culture. 'Stripped of a radical idiom', the American critic Russell Jacoby writes, 'robbed of a utopian hope, liberals and leftists retreat in the name of progress to celebrate diversity. With few ideas on how a future should be shaped, they celebrate all ideas.' Multiculturalism, Jacoby concludes, 'has become... the ideology of an era without ideology'. What began in the 1960s as a way of organising against oppression had ended up by the nineties as way of rationalising the left's impotence. Romanticism was born in the late 18th century out of the fear of the radical change unleashed by the Enlightenment and the French revolution and out of the desire for the safe anchor of ancient traditions. In the late 20th century, it was the fading of the possibilities of social transformation that led many radicals, albeit unwittingly, back to a Romantic view of the world.
It is against this background that we must understand the transformation of someone like Hassan from leftwing activist to Islamic militant. In Britain the black and Asian population is smaller than in the US, and its political and economic clout less significant. The attempts at self-organisation have been much weaker, while the authority of both the moderate and extreme left in Britain has been much greater. As a result, until the 1980s, the influence of identity politics remained weak.
First generation black and Asian immigrants were concerned less about preserving cultural differences than about fighting for political equality. They recognised that at the heart of that fight were shared values and aspirations between blacks and whites, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, three big issues dominated the struggle for political equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the fight against racist attacks; and the issue of police brutality. These struggles radicalised a new generation of black and Asian activists and came to a climax in the inner city riots of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In April 1976, 24 people were arrested in pitched battles in the Manningham area of Bradford, as Asian youths confronted a National Front march and fought police protecting it. It was seen as the blooding of a new movement. The following year the Asian Youth Movement was born. Built on the model of self-organisation, the AYM was nevertheless more outward looking, working closely with other anti-racist and radical organisations. AYM activists did not distinguish themselves as Muslim, Hindu or Sikh; indeed many did not even see themselves as specifically Asian, preferring to call themselves 'black' which they viewed as an all-inclusive term for non-white immigrants. They challenged not just racism but also many traditional values too, particularly within the Muslim community, helping establish an alternative leadership that confronted traditionalists on issues such as the role of women and the dominance of the mosque.
The next few years brought further conflict between Asian youth and the police, culminating in the trial of the Bradford 12 in 1982. Twelve young Asians faced conspiracy charges for making petrol bombs to use against racists. They argued they were acting in self-defence - and won.
Faced with this growing militancy, Bradford council drew up a new antiracist strategy, based on a template pioneered by Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council. It established race relations units drew up equal opportunities policies, and dispensed millions of pounds in grants to black and Asian community organisations. Bradford's 12-point race relations plan declared that every section of the 'multiracial, multicultural city' had 'an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs'. At the heart of this multicultural strategy was a redefinition of racism built on the insights of identity politics. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different. Black and Asian people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. Through this process the politics of difference became institutionalised
Multiculturalism transformed the character of antiracism. By the mid-1980s the focus of antiracist protest in Bradford had shifted from political issues, such as policing and immigration, to religious and cultural issues: a demand for Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over the publication of The Satanic Verses. Political struggles unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. As different groups began asserting their particular identities ever more fiercely, so the shift from the political to the cultural arena helped to create a more tribal city. Secular Muslims were regarded as betraying their culture (they belonged to the 'white left') while radical Islam became not just more acceptable but, to many, more authentic.
This process was strengthened by a new relationship between the local council and the local mosques. In 1981, the council helped set up and fund the Bradford Council of Mosques and looked to it as a voice of the community. This helped marginalise secular radicals - the Asian Youth Movement eventually broke up - and allowed religious leaders to reassert their power. As the secular tradition was squeezed out, the only place offering shelter for disaffected youth was militant Islam.
Multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it helped create a space for it within British Muslim communities that had not existed before. It fostered a more tribal nation, undermined progressive trends within the Muslim communities and strengthened the hand of conservative religious leaders - all in the name of antiracism. It is true that since 9/11. and particularly since 7/7 there has been growing questioning of the consequences of multiculturalism. From former Home Secretary David Blunkett to CRE chief Trevor Phillips many have woken up to the fragmenting character of pluralism and have talked of the need to reassert common values. Yet the fundamental tenets of the politics of difference remain largely unquestioned. The idea that society consists of a variety of distinct cultures, that all these cultures should be respected and preserved and that society should be organised to meet the distinct needs of different cultures - these continued to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook. The lesson of the past two decades, however, is this: a left that espouses multiculturalism makes itself redundant. In a world of narrow, competing interest groups there is little room for a progressive vision. Back in the 1980s, my old friend Hassan may well have taken to militant Islam because of his disenchantment with the left. But it was the disenchantment of the left with its own secular, universalist traditions that helped ease his path to the mosque - and the path of many others since.