Britain’s tolerance put to test


LONDON — The British government has backed the development of a multicultural and multiethnic society, and has accepted, if not promoted, multilingual communities. Until quite recently Britain welcomed immigrants and asylum seekers. These policies have made British society in the last half century much more diverse, and Britain has deservedly won a reputation for tolerance of ethnic and cultural differences.

Public opinion, however, has now become concerned that the changes that have occurred in British society have gone too far and that the common values that have been developed in Britain over the centuries are being eroded.

One of the most important of these values — tolerance toward the beliefs of others — has been sorely tried by the revelation that the July 7 London bombers were British-born Muslims. How could this happen in our society? What can we do to root out those who promoted the evil philosophy that persuaded young men to sacrifice their own lives to kill and maim innocent people?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and concerted efforts will be required by politicians, security services and leaders of religious and ethnic groups. New laws may be needed to deal with clerics and others who condone attacks or promote hatred, but it is important that in any new measures care is taken to protect the right of free speech, which includes criticism of the beliefs of others. We must not allow these evil deeds to undermine tolerance in our society.

The problems are not confined to the perversions of religion advocated by a few clerics and lay people. We need to consider whether there are other factors that led a few relatively well-educated young men to undertake their evil project.

They were not in particularly impoverished circumstances and had not obviously suffered racial or religious discrimination that might have turned them against the societies in which they were brought up. Then why did they become suicide bombers? Were they “brainwashed” in religious schools in Pakistan or by teachers and clerics in Britain? While it may be possible to “brainwash” someone of moderate intellectual ability by constant reiteration and outside pressure — as under some tyrannical regimes — no compulsion or threats could, we hope and believe, be effective within British society.

Some have argued that the war in Iraq and in Palestine were factors. This has been denied by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and these conflicts certainly cannot in any way justify the London attacks. It seems probable that religious fanaticism was the likely source of such evil ideas. But why didn’t British education fail to prepare these young men to resist such indoctrination? British education is supposed to teach pupils to think for themselves and question propositions put to them, but it failed to teach these four evil and misguided youths to think properly and question the basis of the religious teaching that they heard.

Serious flaws have also been revealed in the structure of British society and the way in which many Muslims have avoided integration into British communities. Islamic communities have often tended to be inward-looking and many Muslims do not mix sufficiently with their fellow citizens. Many marriages, especially among those of Pakistani descent, continue to be arranged by parents. In some cases there is evidence that marriages are forced on reluctant girls. Cases of discrimination against women in Muslim groups have occurred, and many more may have been concealed as a result of family and community pressures.

Muslim-only ghettos, where Urdu is spoken at home and most socializing takes place at the local mosque, are a serious problem. To break down these barriers and persuade the inhabitants of such ghettos to mix socially with other races and creeds requires concerted efforts by community leaders and local authorities, including social workers and police forces. Above all it requires that the will to change is strong among all concerned, both inside and outside the ghettos.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett started to establish citizenship classes and emphasized the importance of immigrants gaining an adequate knowledge of English, but there is a long way to go before second-generation Muslims of Pakistani origin recognize that their first loyalty is to Britain, the country that welcomed their parents and gave them an improved standard of living.

They also need to realize that to be British they should accept and uphold British values. These include tolerance of people of other races and faiths, and respect for civil liberties including the rights of women. They must also accept that, whatever Islam may say on the subject, people in Britain have agreed that men and women should not suffer discrimination as a result of their sexual orientation. This means that homophobic behavior is not acceptable in Britain any longer.

It has not been easy for people of other faiths to accept all modern British values. The Church of England, for example, won’t appoint women or homosexuals to serve as bishops. But people need to recognize that their faith must not be allowed to stand in the way of their loyalty to their country of birth or adoption. This does not mean that they should be compelled to do things contrary to their own faith but it does mean that they must be tolerant of other beliefs and should accept the basic ethical standards of Britain.

Practical issues will remain. Should Islamic schools be allowed and encouraged because there have always been Christian schools in Britain? If they are, they should surely accept the need to teach tolerance and values such as sexual equality. Should girls from Islamic families be permitted to comply with the Muslim dress code for girls while at school with children of other faiths?

In France such religious symbols have been banned. This has not happened in Britain, but as the dress code implies discrimination against women, the issue remains debatable. The old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is relevant. I still don’t like the sight, although I know that I must tolerate it, of Muslim women walking in central London in full black with only a slit for their eyes. In my view it behooves immigrants to respect local customs.

We have much to do to ensure that tolerance is accepted as an essential part of living in Britain, but just how far Britain should continue to promote multiculturalism is open to question.