Britain on 7 July 2005 became a different country. The four coordinated (and “homegrown”) suicide-bombs on the London transport network that killed fifty-two innocent people and injured more than 700 may have a cumulative social impact as great and potentially devastating as their uncountable human one.
The challenges raised by these attacks are multiple:
- for public security agencies – to undertake intelligent and targeted police action against the organisers and practitioners of terrorism, while maintaining civic protection and social peace
All this is the work of years, not days. Together it raises the question for people living in Britain: what kind of country do we want to live in? In the light of 7 July, its near repeat on 21 July, and possible further deadly attacks to come, two very different answers – two models – come into view.
The first model might be called radical secularism. It would respect and pursue the logic of the overwhelmingly likely social fact that religious ideology has inspired British citizens to acts and attempted acts of indiscriminate mass murder. It also draws on the less visible but potent and long-standing everyday reality that the promotion of religious faith in the public context – starting in the very early years of segregated education – creates the potential for permanent, destructive social schism.
The model would enforce a rigid separation between religion and public life, involving the following measures:
- disestablishment of the Church of England, and the complete “desacralisation” of the head of state and the political system it crowns
- closure of faith schools, and compulsory integration of schooling
- banishment of religious symbolism from public ceremonies and festivals
- redefinition of the entire state as a secular enterprise, including a coherent programme of induction for new arrivals and of re-education of those born, raised and domiciled here in the fundamentals of citizenship
- cultivation of a new public ethic of what it means to be a British citizen, its responsibilities, duties and rights.
Such changes can sound draconian. But they would make sense (or indeed be made possible) only if the foundation of this new “British commonwealth” was the conscious, willed choice of free citizens who decided that the benefits of moving in this direction outweighed the handicaps of living under the existing dispensation. In effect, if people affirmed: this is the kind of country we want to live in.
Thus, a final element, the essential ground and precondition for this model, is a redefined contract between state and citizen, involving a written democratic constitution, the product of a constitutional convention. The model would be impelled by the idea of defining in as fair, accountable and democratic a manner as possible the relationship between the state and the citizen.
The second model might be called radical multiculturalism. It would respect and pursue the logic of the evident social fact that the Muslim community of Britain has particular problems, needs and frustrations that are not presently being accommodated; that in its depth and acuity this condition is shared by no other religious or ethnic group; and that it demands attention at the level of the entire society.
This model would involve recognising the current condition of this community within British society as adherents of a single faith who are nevertheless divided by ethnic origins, languages, beliefs, doctrines, attitudes and institutional alignments, and who require authoritative, sanctioned public recognition and respect. It suggests that the Muslims of Britain need a shared, public and transparent forum of dialogue to explore the problems they share and to seek solutions.
But dialogue is not enough. It is vital that this forum has significant decision-making powers. If lack of power does not corrupt absolutely, the Muslim community in Britain certainly faces a severe problem of powerlessness. There is no solution except through politics.
The key feature of the model, then, would be to establish by law a Muslim Parliament of Britain with the following characteristics:
- it would accommodate all generations, institutions, both sexes, and every shade of Muslim opinion – from (so-called) mainstream to (so-called) extreme. No doctrine, current of feeling or opinion that regards itself as Muslim would be excluded
- it would be created by statute and have full legal status; its representatives would have the right of dialogue with fellow parliaments at Westminster, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about matters of common concern
- it would have defined, agreed powers over significant aspects of Muslim community life in Britain – education, banking and finance, employment, welfare, mosque administration, migration and settlement
- its recommendations, reports, investigations, and decisions would be considered seriously and subject to close and fair scrutiny by the wider society and its institutions
- it would be elected on a one-person-one-vote basis by all Muslims in Britain, with as low an age limit as feasible; it would have individual quotas to ensure proper and fair representation of women and young people, and institutional quotas to guarantee that the widest range of Muslim organisations, and all significant voices within the community, could participate
- the language, procedures, schedules, routines and culture of the parliament would be subject to its own designated rule-making bodies
- its creation and operation would be supported financially by the British treasury, including the salaries and expenses of its representatives and the provision of administrative staff and facilities
- it would complement and not replace other forms of political allegiance for Muslims in Britain; no existing legal, civil or human right he or she possesses in British society would be compromised or diminished by its existence – the right to vote in local, urban and national elections, to participate in public debates, to seek employment in every area and profession, to make representations to MPs and government; to protest and claim, to contribute to the full panoply of public life
- no breath of “ghettoisation” would be attached to the parliament (unlike past enterprises with a similar name); it would be a central part of British public life
The closest historic parallel to the model may be that of the Ottoman empire where religious communities (Armenians, Jews, Greeks) had a high degree of internal autonomy and law-making power. It could also be seen as a natural extension of the existing British model of multiculturalism (and its associated philosophy) insofar as this has become a rooted, internalised element of British people’s collective self-definition and practice.
Which model? What future?
No historic social choices appear in “pure” form, and none offers a panacea. The Britain of post-7/7 has no solutions except long-term ones.
But if the status quo is not an option, a political response in relation to the Muslim community that entails only the more intense application and extension of current security or social policies would be at best insufficient and at worst counter-productive. A proper, creative, targeted mix of policies (registering of imams, monitoring of internet sites and propaganda materials, restrictions on hate speech) and investment (in education, employment, Sure Start schemes, literacy, women’s rights) is desirable. The lesson of 7 July is that far more is needed.
Which model is the more desirable, and which the more feasible? The questions are connected. By definition, the choice in each case could only be the result of an enormous, collective act of decision, the product of searching debate across the entirety of British society. But any such choice does not and will not arise in “abstract” form. It emerges from particular social histories and understandings that are both the inherited and the accumulated result of earlier choices.
In this light, it is not clear that, however coherent in principle and intellectually compelling the “radical secularism” model might appear to be, anything like the adequate resources (of political or intellectual energy and of social support) exist at the present historical moment in Britain to generate the massive project that would be required. To create it would be the equivalent of a constitutional, democratic revolution.
By contrast, the “radical multiculturalism” model seems far more to go with the grain of existing social policy and dominant ways of thinking in Britain as they have developed in the past generation.
The events of July 2005 have opened a time of test, trial, opportunity and choice for the British people. It is the local manifestation of a global contest that will define the next generation. Muddling through is not an option.