It’s the biggest political correctness flap Britain has seen in years. It has pitted one man against the BBC # Britain’s highbrow, purportedly impartial state television network # and unleashed a national fracas over what may or may not be said about the hottest topic of the moment: Islam and the West.
Earlier this month, Robert Kilroy-Silk, a one time Labour MP and for 17 years the host of one of British television’s most successful daily talk shows, let loose with a few thoughts about the Arab world. In a column for the mass circulation Sunday Express newspaper, under the deliberately provocative headline “We owe Arabs nothing,” he opined, in part, as follows:
“Apart from oil # which was discovered, is produced and is paid for by the West # what do [Arab countries] contribute? . . . They should go down on their knees and thank God for the munificence of the United States. What do they think we feel about them? . . . That we admire them for the cold-blooded killings in Mombasa, Yemen and elsewhere? That we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors?”
The comments exploded in the British media. The Guardian newspaper, the house journal of both the British left and the BBC, lambasted them as “boorish, ignorant and offensive.” Kilroy, as both he and his show are known, was promptly suspended by the BBC. Muslim affairs commentator Faisal Bodi, writing in the Guardian, thereupon declared: “Finally, it’s safe to turn on your TV. Britain’s minority communities can rise this morning in the knowledge that they will no longer be assailed by a vainglorious hatemonger affecting social concern on their screens.” Ten days ago, after an extended media furor, Kilroy was forced to step down. He may even face prosecution under race relations legislation that carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail.
As crude as Kilroy’s comments were, the virulent reaction to them was far out of proportion to his actual sin. The full text of his remarks reveals that his quarrel was with Arab governments and those religious leaders who use their positions to whip up a frenzy of anti-Western sentiment among their peoples. His phrasing is careless and smacks of generalization. But surely this is small justification for hounding a man out of his job, let alone threatening to jail him. The swiftness of Kilroy’s demise points to something more than a simple scrap over political correctness. It’s a symptom of a new European reality: surging growth among Muslim populations and establishment nervousness over how to deal with them # a nervousness that threatens to stifle much-needed debate over events in the Middle East and Muslim integration at home.
Western Europe’s 15 million-strong Muslim community is growing in both power and size. The birth rate among Muslims in Europe is three times that of non-Muslims. While the Muslim population could double by 2015, the non-Muslim population is expected to shrink by 3.5 percent. And this is not a community that lives in the shadows. As it grows, it is also flexing its political muscle. As the columnist Mark Steyn, writing in defense of Kilroy in the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, put it: “[W]hen free speech, artistic expression, feminism and other totems of western pluralism clash directly with the Islamic lobby, Islam more often than not wins.”
Bodi himself may have been acknowledging more than he wished to in his revealing observation that the BBC was “left with little choice” in ditching Kilroy because of the “increasing organization of the Muslim community,” which put out flyers detailing “names and contacts of editors at the BBC and the Sunday Express, and instructions on how to make complaints.”
This would not be a problem if it weren’t for the distressing but unavoidable reality that small but significant sections of that growing Muslim community are either outright hostile to or at least ambivalent toward Western values. Skeptical? Consider the following: A survey conducted by the ICM polling agency and published in December 2002 showed that more than 10 percent of Britain’s 1.5 million Muslims believed that further attacks by al Qaeda on the United States would be legitimate, and 8 percent supported such attacks against Britain. More than half of those polled refused to accept al Qaeda’s guilt in the 9/11 attacks and more than two-thirds believed the war on terror to be a war on Islam.
That’s just Britain. France’s Muslim population, which is if anything more disaffected and less well-integrated, numbers upwards of 6 million, or 10 percent of the population. Within 20 years, according to some estimates, half of all people under 18 in the Netherlands will be Muslim.
Like America, Britain and Europe have come a long way since the days when racism was a fact of daily life for ethnic minorities and recent immigrants. This is not to say that racism has been wiped out: In recent years, openly racist political groups have made small but significant inroads in local elections in the north of England, while France’s Jean Marie Le Pen, who appears to hate Arabs and Jews with equal fervor, came in second in presidential elections in 2002. But by and large, bigotry against immigrants and minorities is now frowned upon in mainstream society.
Much of the credit for this is due to a remarkably effective partnership formed in the 1960s and ’70s between leftist activists # who in most cases were much more welcoming to immigrants than their counterparts on the right, and therefore mopped up most of the Muslim vote # and post-Holocaust political establishments determined to stamp out racism in all its forms.
Now, however, that partnership has mutated along with wider changes in politics and society. Muslim groups have combined with and helped reenergize a European left that is to a significant degree defined these days by a complementary hostility to the United States and to Israel # both of which the left sees as representative of the worst excesses of capitalism and imperialism. That hostility is shared by substantial sections of the Muslim community, more than 80 percent of which voted for Labour in Britain’s 1997 general elections. Both elements of this new partnership are highly sensitive to any criticism of Islam, seeing in it de facto justification for the policies of governments they implacably oppose. For the equal and opposite reason, criticism of Israel and the United States is welcomed and encouraged, however unbalanced and fanatical it may be.
Alongside this political alliance stands a powerful center-left establishment # epitomized by the BBC itself # that is also unremitting in its hostility to Israel and broadly sympathetic to the Arab and Muslim cause, for reasons that some attribute to rising anti-Semitism, others to post-imperial guilt, and many more to an anti-Americanism that appears to grow stronger by the day.
Thus it is that Tom Paulin, a left-wing Oxford academic and poet and a regular contributor to the BBC’s “Newsnight Review” program, could, in 2002, say to an Egyptian newspaper about Brooklyn-born Jews living on the West Bank: “I think they should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them,” and get away with it, suffering no sanctions of any kind from the same BBC that silenced Kilroy.
Paulin’s outburst reveals how smoothly anti-Israeli prejudices slip into anti-American clothing # it is “Brooklyn-born” Jews who are marked for death. Anti-Americanism is the acceptable face of European bigotry in a way that anti-Semitism is not.
On a continent whose face is rapidly changing, and where memories of the Holocaust are fading fast, new rules of engagement are emerging: You upset the Muslim community at your peril, but the social and political consequences of alienating the much smaller and much more assimilated Jewish communities are negligible.
Seen in this light, the brouhaha over Kilroy’s comments offers a perfect illustration of the ruthless attitude being encountered by Islam’s critics in Europe. Had he directed his polemic against Israelis or Americans, it hardly seems likely that the BBC, which allows free rein to many of its contributors to do both, would have kicked up such a fuss.
The BBC and its supporters have fallen all over themselves to say that the Kilroy affair is not about free speech, a plainly ludicrous argument. But this case is no ordinary recycling of the familiar pros and cons which that discussion from time to time produces. Tectonic shifts are underway in Europe, reconfiguring the political and social landscape. Kilroy’s crime, if he committed one, is that he failed to see that coming.