Roots Again

As Hamlet said, words, words words. They can be so tricky. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident – and it can be very difficult to tell which is going on. Consider this rumination by Hanif Kureishi.

I believed that questions of race, identity and culture were the major issues post-colonial Europe had to face, and that inter-generational conflict was where these conflicts were being played out. The British-born children of immigrants were not only more religious and politically radical than their parents – whose priority had been to establish themselves in the new country – but they despised their parents’ moderation and desire to “compromise” with Britain. To them this seemed weak.

What does he mean by ‘politically radical’ in that paragraph? More religious and politically radical – so by radical he means right-wing radical. But it’s not entirely clear if he knows that’s what he means. I think that’s a confusion a lot of people have – they conflate anger (and, yes, ‘grievance’) and sulkiness and intransigeance and violence with radicalism, meaning (vaguely, sort of) lefty or at least revolutionary radicalism. (‘Revolutionary’ of course is just as tricky, and in the same way. Hitler was a revolutionary. One can have a revolution that’s not an egalitarian or progressive one – to put it mildly.) Maybe that’s one reason there is this weird current of almost-sympathy for Islamist terrorists that is entirely absent in the case of the BNP; maybe that’s one reason the SWP is hooked up with Respect.

But maybe he doesn’t mean radical that way. Anyway he makes some good points later.

These men believed they had access to the Truth, as stated in the Qur’an. There could be no doubt – or even much dispute about moral, social and political problems – because God had the answers. Therefore, for them, to argue with the Truth was like trying to disagree with the facts of geometry. For them the source of all virtue and vice was the pleasure and displeasure of Allah. To be a responsible human being was to submit to this…It is not only in the mosques but also in so-called “faith” schools that such ideas are propagated. The Blair government, while attempting to rid us of radical clerics, has pledged to set up more of these schools, as though a “moderate” closed system is completely different to an “extreme” one.


You can’t ask people to give up their religion; that would be absurd. Religions may be illusions, but these are important and profound illusions. And they will modify as they come into contact with other ideas. This is what an effective multiculturalism is: not a superficial exchange of festivals and food, but a robust and committed exchange of ideas – a conflict that is worth enduring, rather than a war. When it comes to teaching the young, we have the human duty to inform them that there is more than one book in the world, and more than one voice, and that if they wish to have their voices heard by others, everyone else is entitled to the same thing. These children deserve better than an education that comes from liberal guilt.

But that thing about modifying as they come into contact with other ideas – that is asking people to give up their religion – and a good thing too. At the very least it’s asking them to give up their religion in the form of something insulated and protected from other ideas and from disagreement – which, surely, comes to the same thing. Yes, you can ‘ask people’ (it’s part of education) to give up their insistence on literalist irrational anti-rational belief systems that cannot be questioned or criticised – sure you can. Not by force, not by scolding them; but as part of ordinary human interchange, as part of life in the big world, where there are other ideas and other evidence? Of course you can.

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