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Beyond formula: a civic multiculturalism

Abdul-Rehman Malik
4 June 2007

When I grew up in Canada, multiculturalism wasn't an ad-hoc policy of mismatched initiatives - it was a national religion. The inculcation was both positive (lessons in kindergarten that taught "Canada is like a tossed salad - lots of colours, languages and foods make us really tasty") and negative (warnings about the American "melting-pot" - where cultural identity disappeared in a stew of flag-waving patriotism). State-directed multiculturalism, backed by governments that dispensed millions to promote diversity, made Canadians unique and gave us something of a national identity.

Now a migrant to Britain (on the cusp of citizenship), the current debate over multiculturalism feels like déjà vu. In 1994, Canadian writer Neil Bissoondath (himself a migrant from Trinidad & Tobago) wrote a scathing rejection of state-mandated multiculturalism in Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. His arguments - multiculturalism segregates, over values back-home culture and history and undermines national unity - should sound familiar.

Abdul-Rehman Malik is a contributing editor of Q-News Also by Abdul-Rehman Malik in openDemocracy: "In search of British Muslim identity: responses to Young, Angry and Muslim"
(28 October 2005)

In his new book Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, 2007) and article (Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity", 17 May 2007), Tariq Modood takes on many of these arguments deftly and outlines a vision of multicultural citizenship that encompasses many complex strands of the debate. It is a bold case for a renewed multiculturalism wedded to democratic and civic values.

But Bissoondath touched on something over a decade ago that has, barring a few exceptions, been ignored: power. He maintained that the culture of exoticism and difference created by multiculturalism rendered communities incapable of solidarity around common issues like socio-economic disadvantage. The state used multiculturalism to divide and conquer and give money and patronage in return for political support.

Multiculturalism - whether in Britain or Canada - was never a conversation between equals. The victims, if any, have been those in whose name multiculturalism was enacted. British Muslims are accused of upsetting the "diversity balance", but they had little actual say in the policies they are now blamed for spawning.

Ad-hoc British multiculturalism was about managing diversity: mitigating the causes of social conflict, pushing minority communities (in all their heterogeneous self-definition) to the margins of the political and policy process and relying on approved interlocutors to horse-trade on behalf of people they claimed to represent. As long as they didn't threaten anyone outside their so-called ghettos, the situation was, at the very least, acceptable. Multiculturalism is under threat because it can no longer do that.Abdul-Rehman Malik is replying to the article by Tariq Modood:"Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity" (17 May 2007) Tariq Modood's article draws on his new book, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, 2007) Also in openDemocracy, further debate on Tariq Modood's recent work: "Multiculturalism and citizenship: responses to Tariq Modood" (21-24 May 2007 – reflections from Sunny Hundal, Nick Johnson and Nick Pearce) Yahya Birt, "Multiculturalism and the discontents of globalisation"(25 May 2007 ) Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka"
(29 May 2007) Paul Kelly, "Multicultural problems, liberal solutions" (30 May 2007)

Nonetheless, a vibrant civil society has emerged among British Muslims. Voluntary and community-sector organisations work to ameliorate social, economic and political disadvantage off the sanitised policy radar. Strengthening this undervalued sector entails government loosening its control and placing trust in passionate, unpredictable democratic exchange.

Ash Amin's call for a radical departure from conventional wisdom is critical to this discussion. He argues that a strengthening of local democratic culture and institutions is needed, developing sites (schools, markets, town centres) where the daily negotiation of difference can take place. This is where "micro-publics" can easily develop, where there is no imposed formula for interaction except to engineer "endless talk and interaction between adversaries or provision for individuals to broaden horizons." These are not just public spaces which can become easily territorialised and manipulated by government, but places for dialogue between equals where identities are not fixed. If "common values, trust, or a shared sense of place emerge, they do so as accidents of engagement, not from an ethos of community." In these spaces, social conflict within the bounds of civility is necessary. Such to-and-fro seems the natural outcome of the multilogical debate Modood advocates.

Yahya Birt is right to point out the global dimensions of the multiculturalism problem. The identities on the "Muslim street" stretch beyond national borders. To the global soul, discrete national identity can seem like a straitjacket.

Modood posits that Muslim identity isn't necessarily connected to religiosity. Perhaps it ought to be. Religion is not about political identity. It is about honouring the sacred and upholding high moral values and ethical standards. British Muslims, while organising themselves along faith lines, should not allow themselves to become just another cookie-cutter interest group. Islamic civilisation and thought has much to contribute to informing our citizenship. It is a unique way in which we can contribute to the debate. To try to understand British Muslims without reference to faith and religious discourse is a mistake that disregards the very basis of religious identity.

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