The Centre can hold, but it must speak uncomfortable truths

Progressives need to acknowledge the genuine cultural anxieties of those voters who have deserted the cause of social progress: on immigration, the threat of radical Islamism and the difference between being progressive and appearing obsessive on issues like gender identity.

Tony Blair, New York Times, 3rd March 2017

This week Tony Blair has urged the centre to take seriously the cultural concerns of the mainstream majority.  For me his article evokes an increasingly urgent question being pondered by social democrats: why, despite so many public condemnations of Islamism by social democratic parties across Europe and America, are voters turning not just to the right, but to the dangerous far right. At least part of the answer lies in looking not only at Islamist acts of terrorism, but at the concurrent rise in the prevalence of conservative Islam in our societies too. It lies in the perceived inadequate response to this from all mainstream parties. It lies in how its increased prevalence has altered debates about morality and equality, and it lies in how, taken all together, on a conscious, a sub-conscious and a visceral level, this has made made people feel. Short answer: much changed, and  from the political centre, little was said.

Charlie Hebdo

The initial response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was an outpouring of love for the French, for secularism, and against terrorism. It also gave rise very quickly to a debate about whether the dead satirists had done something morally wrong. The discourse focused the images being profoundly offensive to Muslims (not ‘Islamists’, ‘Muslims’). Despite many Muslims making it clear that people being murdered for drawing cartoons was infinitely more offensive to them than the cartoons themselves, news outlets and politicians struggled with whether to show the them. “Is it editorially necessary?” “Is it unduly offensive?” “Is it racist?,” they asked. Few people, beyond the likes of David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen, had the directness to point out that they weren’t being shared because people were scared of reprisals. No-one wanted to be murdered, which is perfectly reasonable, but it would have been so much better if they had just said so. What has been missing from this debate from the political centre has been honesty. We all knew the censorship wasn’t  predominantly out of respect, it was out of fear. This went unacknowledged and the disquiet gnawing away at the hearts of our secular nations grew. More fuel for the far right.

The Headscarf

The progressive women’s movement debates everything. We debate whether high heels are anti-woman, we debate abortion, we debate whether it is anti-feminist for mothers to stay at home and look after our children, we debate whether pink is a feminist issue. We don’t debate the headscarf. Any discussion of the headscarf is stopped by: “it’s their choice.” The headscarf is the physical manifestation of a belief that women and girls should cover our heads in public. Choice or not, it’s obviously a feminist issue, and it’s legitimate for progressives to find it antithetical to gender equality. We should talk about it. Of course we should. In my view, using the image of a woman in a hijab as one of the three iconic images for the women’s march in America both undermined the women’s rights campaigns in the Islamic world, and was a low point for upholding the values of women’s liberation in America. However, beyond this, it was also a low point in understanding the concern that is bubbling up in western countries, again including among liberal Muslims, about the pervasive imagery of conservative Islam.

How does the centre now hold?

Centrist politicians of all stripes need to urgently recognise that people are not just worried about the rise of Islamist terrorism, but about the concurrent rise in conservative Islam. When a Labour politician has to resign over a scandal involving a headscarf on a 4 year old child, let it give rise to humane national debate, led by decent, moderate Labour MPs, about whether any of our primary schools should facilitate the veiling of small children. (What is ‘choice’ when you are 4 years old?) The conversational damn has burst on all these things, and the discourse is being flooded by a far-right that is more than happy to  find inhumane solutions to people’s concerns. The mainstream majority in this country are looking for somewhere decent to turn, and that means the centre has a profound moral obligation to take control of these debates. This is not a side issue any more, it is not a fringe concern, it’s mainstream, and the political centre’s failure to address it, however well-meant, has been a disaster.  In political terms, working out how to respond to the rise of conservative Islam in Britain is as urgent as working out how to respond to Brexit. We are living through multiple political crises, to navigate them in a way that makes the world better not worse requires those in the political centre to have courage to speak uncomfortable truths. Those who do – you will have more support than you think, and history will thank you.