We always knew that some commentators on the Right were partial to a healthy dollop of alarmism but this is absurd. Over the past few days, a story has been doing the rounds in the Party about the links between one of the trustees of the civil society organisation London Citizens – and affiliate of Citizens UK – and Hamas.
London Citizens – we’re told – is some sort of sanctuary for Islamist fundamentalists; guilty of “politically correct whitewashing of terrorist thugs and their radical supporters” (The Propagandist); and of “helping extremists with their denial rhetoric” (Harry’s Place).
Serious stuff. And like most effective propaganda, it has a kernel of truth. Amongst the some 250 member institutions that make up London Citizens, you will find a few – very few – who hold views which the vast majority in this country would find reprehensible: Islamists, hard-line Zionists, those who want to eradicate Israel, the list goes on.
In fact, if some intrepid investigative journalist wanted to, they could fill page after scandal-laden page with dodgy individuals hidden amongst Citizens’ considerable ranks. But like the revelations of the last few days it would just contribute to the smokescreen obscuring the real debate here, which is about how we deal with cultural tensions in Britain.
The Citizens UK solution is about gathering people together around a common cause, building relationships between distant communities, giving a sense of common ownership. In a word: dialogue. The alternative (if you can call it that – and I’m doing my best to steer clear of hyperbole here) would be to leave alienated and isolated communities to their own devices whilst occasionally bringing to justice some hate-filled, rabble-rousing ringleader, guilty of inciting violence or threatening the status quo.
In muscularly liberal Britain, which approach do you think is more likely to result in the greater proliferation of ideas we find objectionable? One which seeks to communicate and bring fringe communities into the fold? Or the one which seeks to quarantine certain sections of society?
Speaking after the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles – America’s first urban riots – Robert Kennedy warned against the latter approach: leaving people socially alienated in urban ghettos had simply led the disaffected to end up “having nothing to do with the rest of us.”
Community organising – the concept underpinning Citizens’ work – adopts the former view, proposing a practical and innovative answer to the central question here: what on earth do we do about all of these British citizens who seem to be intent upon forming their own ideological ghettos?
And it’s an answer that seems to work.
Like it or not, Citizens has formed alliances between people, agencies and organisations that would never previously have had a reason to meet. They have worked together and achieved things together – I’d be very surprised if you were able to name another organisation to have brought the East London Mosque and Stonewall together in a common cause. This should be applauded, not derided simply because some people involved are on the fringes of society. That’s precisely the whole point of the exercise.
When Saul Alinsky penned the book that forms the theoretical basis of the type of community organising Citizens does, he didn’t envisage that the ideological chasms separating our communities would be lessened by creating some dainty naval-gazing microsociety full of people with identical opinions.
No, the community organising vision advanced by Citizens UK is for Great Britain, and Great Britain is full of people who disagree. How do people who disagree live together? By finding ways of cooperating with one another, by listening, through dialogue; by accepting difference and acknowledging that our discussions will never result in some sort of value homogeneity.
As a former Speaker of the Northern Irish Assembly put it recently: people in Northern Ireland still stand by the positions that caused the conflict in the first instance. They haven’t changed their minds. All that has changed is their strategy and desire to seek a way to live together peacefully.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to suggest that a convinced proponent of militant Islam is likely to be talked out of their position. It is merely to state the obvious: that a strategy for dialogue seems for more likely to stem the spread of radical Islamism (whose proselytisers trade on stereotypes and inter-cultural ignorance) than one which refuses to touch them with a bargepole.
Like the Northern Irish, we need to find a space in which our conflicting interests can be heard and our political genius can be used to forge solutions. Citizens UK is one such space.
Don’t believe the alarmist hype. It’s great that there is an organisation out there willing to attempt to build bridges between all our communities, and even better that they don’t rely on the King’s shilling to do so.
Citizens’ director, Neil Jameson, deserves our admiration and respect. Those who think we will effectively combat radicalism in Britain without speaking to those radicals; by attempting to wish away our worsening cultural tensions; by blowing up the bridges we’ve built and constructing walls in their place need to wake from their insular slumber and smell the shawarma.