A stark warning about cultural relativism
The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is not as well known for his works of fiction as he is for classics such as The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Sexual Desire (1986), Green Conservatism (2012) and How to be a Conservative (2014). Perhaps The Disappeared, Scruton’s seventh work of fiction, will earn him the praise he deserves for his beautiful and dramatic prose.
This is a timely novel. It is also brave. Scruton will no doubt be accused of Islamophobia and racism by those that can only hear about multiculturalism as a force for good. As someone whose politics are firmly on the Left, I critique the failure of other leftists to admit that maintaining distinct cultures and allowing them to self-police is problematic, particularly for women and children. Topical issues form the spine of the story, which is set in an unnamed Yorkshire city: honour crimes within the Muslim community, tensions arising from conflicting cultures living in close proximity, and the sexual grooming and exploitation of girls and young women.
This novel took me back to a trial at Sheffield Crown Court in 2010. Eight men sat in the dock accused of rape and other sexual crimes against four girls, three aged 13 and one 16. Razwan Razaq, 30, his 24-year-old brother Umar, Muhammed Zafran Ramzan, 21, Adil Hussain, 20, and Mohsin Khan, 21, were sent to prison for between four-and-a-half and 11 years. Some of them will by now have been released. The girls were all white British and the crimes were committed in and around Rotherham, a fairly typical south Yorkshire town such as that in The Disappeared.
When I broke the Rotherham story, in this magazine, I was immediately written about on Islamophobia Watch, a website that describes its function as “Documenting Anti-Muslim Bigotry”. I remain on the list today, and have no doubt that Scruton may be joining me because of the issues he tackles in the novel. But as with The Disappeared, my Standpoint article was not in any way promoting bigotry towards Muslims. Rather, it was looking at the tensions between the white liberal cowards who dare not speak out against a religious doctrine and cultural view that places women and girls at the bottom of the heap.
The Disappeared is the story of Stephen Haycraft, a teacher at an Academy school whose love for Sharon Williams, a fiercely intelligent 16-year-old child, threatens to destroy them both. Sharon, raised by a dysfunctional mother on a sink estate, has a vulnerability which is seized upon by a number of abusive men. I met a number of girls who were so similar to Sharon’s character that I wonder if Scruton has met victims of grooming gangs as part of his research. The police officers and social workers also reminded me of those I encountered while researching my article on Rotherham.
The beautiful and charismatic Laura Markham is an ambitious investigator dealing with the complexities of rape and trafficking. Justin Fellowes, an eco-warrior, falls for Muhibbah Shahin, a refugee from Afghanistan who escaped forced marriage and is desperately seeking an independent life and identity. Stephen and Justin have one key thing in common: they are both hell-bent on protecting a vulnerable woman.
Muhibba is a free-thinker, bright and ambitious. Sharon is pale and sad-looking with threadbare clothes and few opportunities. Stephen is worried that Sharon may be vulnerable to abuse. Problems with the social services’ response to Sharon’s chaotic home life, or rather lack of it, are raised by the school’s head teacher when he asks Stephen to try to gather information from the girl about her circumstances: “We have to provide the information we can gather. So that when the girl has been gang-raped, sold into slavery and finally done to death somewhere in Saudi Arabia, social workers can say they did what they could, and in any case they are overworked and underfunded and it is all the government’s fault.”
The police force investigating these crimes feels that its options have been significantly curtailed by the fallout from the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder. “Ever since the Macpherson report, which issued a general accusation of ‘institutionalised racism’ against the British police,” says the narrator, “they have been confidentially advised to steer clear of all involvement with the immigrant communities.”
The Kassab family, from Basra in Iraq, believe in kindness and integration, and are a welcome contrast to some of the dogmatic sectarian characters whose views pose a threat to democracy and freedom.
Abdul, the father of one of Stephen’s students, dreams that religious scholars should come together and teach reconciliation, showing love and respect for his new country: “In a society that has offered us protection . . . we commit a terrible offence by hiding our faces when others so openly expose themselves to judgement. The headscarf, yes, but not the veil.”
The book is not without its faults. It takes some work to get to grips with how the characters interact. I regularly had to check back to when a person was first introduced, to remind myself of their place in the scheme of things. The narrative is at times confusing or just too complex. But the author describes the clash of cultures, in this case of mainly Afghan migrants living in Britain, rather brilliantly.
The Disappeared is a nuanced but bleak portrayal of multiculturalism. Scruton does not seek to manipulate the reader but tries to portray much of what is not being said in the current climate of self-censorship: “This thing we’ve been living through,” says Iona Ferguson, the long-suffering social worker, “it’s not about people trafficking, immigration, community relations; it’s not about racism, multiculturalism . . . it’s not about forced marriage, honour killing or the enslavement of women. It is about that girl and how to give her back her life.”
All his characters are flawed and complex, but Scruton attaches equal significance to his Muslim and non-Muslim characters; none is simply good or bad. The Polish immigrant Janusz, for example, is superbly multi-dimensional. Police are shown to be grappling with their own consciences, caught between a fear of being branded racist and a genuine desire, in some cases, to catch the villains and rescue the girls from hell.
Like my Standpoint article, this novel issues a stark warning about the racist, patronising cultural relativism that allowed these perpetrators to act for so long with impunity.
In Arguments for Conservatism Scruton wrote: “The very reasoning which sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness as absolutely binding, and cultural relativism as objectively true.” The Disappeared explores, through its intricate plot and compelling characters, the damage this reasoning can do to Western civilisation.