Wed, Oct 04, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Britain's racist choir

The tolerant, secular society into which British Muslims are being asked to integrate is part myth, part work in progress

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

On Sept. 20, Corporal Donald Payne became the first Briton to admit to a war crime.

Payne, 35, is accused of repeatedly banging the head of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old Iraqi hotel worker, against a wall and floor until Mousa died -- an accusation Payne denies. Payne called his Iraqi prisoners in the jail in Basra "the choir," because he liked to invite friends to hear them shriek with the pain he inflicted.

"Corporal Payne enjoyed conducting what he called the choir," Julian Bevan told the court martial, which is taking place at Bulford Camp in southwest England and is expected to last 16 weeks.

"It was all done very openly," he said.

The next day, British Home Secretary John Reid went to Leyton, in East London, and told a room full of Muslims how to raise their kids so they won't grow up hateful.

"Look for the telltale signs now and talk to them before their hatred grows and you risk losing them forever," he told them.

The heckler in his midst simply provided Reid with proof of his moral righteousness.

"This is Britain," Reid told the Labour party conference last week.

"We will go where we please, we will discuss what we like, and we will never be browbeaten by bullies. That's what it means to be British," he said.

Reid and Payne are two sides of the same coin. The bully of Basra exercises his right to demean and degrade wherever he pleases -- the longstanding hallmarks of British colonialism. The hooligan from the Home Office vaunts the fair play, decency and social liberalism that ostensibly underpin core British values -- a longstanding feature of Britain's self-delusion.

Payne could have done with some parenting lessons of his own. Instead, he was given a uniform and a gun. The arrogance we imbibe and the atrocities we export do not just coexist -- they are co-dependent. That's also what it means to be British.

In Reid we find these qualities embodied in one man. Before he was the home secretary, he was the defense secretary. He is set to have an impact on Britain's racial terrain analogous to the one he has had on the killing fields of Iraq: making a fragile situation worse.

Reid is not alone in this. Last month, Ruth Kelly, the UK's communities secretary, called for a "new and honest debate" about race in their country. This should not be mistaken for the "honest dialogue" fellow Cabinet minister Peter Hain wanted to launch in 2002 or the "rigorously honest" discussion former home secretary David Blunkett sought to initiate in 2004. Quite what kind of deceitful debate they were engaged in back then and -- given their huge parliamentary majority -- what prevented their candor, is not obvious.

However, each followed a very familiar pattern; promising blunt truths, but pandering to soft bigotry.

Kelly was no different. She insisted that it is "not racist" to voice concerns about immigration and asylum -- a statement as true as it is fatuous since it depends on what those concerns are and what argument you're making.

"We must not be censored by political correctness" nor should we "tiptoe around the issues," she said.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? This was precisely the line taken by Michael Howard, the then Tory opposition leader, before the last election. Far from being censored, the tabloids have been serving this tripe up as a staple for the past decade and New Labour has been swallowing it whole and then throwing it up whenever it gets nervous.

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