The many faces of multiculturalism

Sami Zubaida
5 June 2007

Tariq Modood is clearly correct in pointing out that common citizenship and nationhood do not depend on cultural uniformity or ideological consensus - which are, in any case, impossible to create in a complex society. Questions, however, can be raised about his argument - in his new book Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, 2007) and openDemocracy article ("Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity", 17 May 2007) - as to what constitutes multiculturalism in the present context, and how it is related to social and political alignments.

  • Cultural diversity vs. unit cultures

Multiculturalism in modern societies is clear for all to see: cultural diversity, hybridity and fusion in music and the arts, literature, food, dress and religion. Media, travel and commerce accelerate these processes of cultural mixing. This is a different sense of multiculturalism, however, from the idea of distinct unit cultures, whether ethnic or religious.

Cultural boundaries are fluid and shifting, especially over the generations. There are identifiable groups and locations of, say, Bangladeshi culture (more specifically, Sylheti), or Pakistani (more specifically Kashmiri and Punjabi), although these are in various processes of transformation and mixing over the generations. Each one of these cultural complexes includes a religious component.

Can we, however, discern a "Muslim culture" as such? There is a tendency, and Modood can be seen as contributing to it, of presenting religion as the essence of group identity. Sunny Hundal makes the point very well in his response, that diverse Muslims are totalised into a "Muslim community". It is not just that there are ethnic and social diversities within Muslims, but that many of them are nominal Muslims, and religion enters marginally, if at all, into their lives.

The political implication is that all Muslims are to be "recognised" in terms of their faith, as a community, which is clearly not sociologically viable. But it is politically pursued by those individuals and institutions that seek communal authority and leadership, encouraged by government quarters which seek such "leaders" for shows of consultation and participation.

Sami Zubaida 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 IdeaPolity, 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)

Abdul-Rehman Malik, "Beyond formula: response to Tariq Modood" (31 May 2007)
  • Islam and culture

Islam is woven into the cultures of different ethnic communities. It is often hard to disentangle what is religious from what is cultural. The question of separating the two arises frequently in relation to women and family issues, including veiling (are these rules and customs Islamic, or merely cultural?). Arguments on the issue proceed between conservatives, modernists and fundamentalists.

A most important consequence for the subject in hand is the emergence on different fronts of "pure" Islam, purified from culture, which had added to it layers of popular religiosity and practices which are judged by modernists and fundamentalists alike to be contrary and antithetical to "true" Islam. Salafis/Wahhabis, as is well known, reject and denounce the religious practices of the "folk". The veneration of saints, the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, the inclusion of music, dancing and charismatic elements in ceremonies, or indeed in weddings and other celebrations - all common folk practices of south Asians and other Muslims - are anathema to the fundamentalists.

Those latter have been most successful in recruiting the younger generation to their causes, whether conservative or militant. Active young Muslims, including jihadis, have rejected the religion and culture of their parents in favour of the stern religion of the scriptures and the sunna. Equally, modernists inclined to accommodation of Islam to the European mainstream, the Tariq Ramadan school, have also rejected the cultural boundaries of the older generation.

How, then, are we to accommodate this de-cultured Islam to Modood’s idea of multiculturalism? It is not a cultural complex that seems to be Modood’s object, but an imagined religious community. It should more appropriately be labelled "communalism" rather than "multiculturalism".

  • Culture and social boundaries

For the earlier generations of Muslim immigrants, cultural difference coincided with social boundaries. Residential concentrations, language barriers, confined sociability and intermarriage, perpetuated inner worlds of distinct cultures (now being recreated in certain quarters; see below). From a socio-political point of view, these cultural/social boundaries posed little problem for social order. The complete otherness of the British was taken for granted and did not typically lead to hostility. Equally, barring limited racist hostilities, the dominant British attitude was one of indifference more than tolerance. Cultural difference and social boundaries in that situation posed few and mild problems. The problems that are perceived now are the product of the erosion of cultural boundaries and the emergence of de-cultured religious ideology, which is not indifferent to the other.

New forms of social boundaries are being erected. Conservative salafis, such as those of the Tablighi sect, preach and practice total separation of Muslims from the surrounding society. Strict ritual observance and avoidance of the ambient world of sin, separate and insulate the believer from the infidel. Apologists and spokesmen for these groups argue that they are apolitical and that their religiosity does not imply hostility or militancy against non-believers. But in practice it is but a short step.

The other orientation of separation is that of the militant and jihadi ideologies. These are explicit in their hostility to non-believers and their solidarity with a (theoretical) umma of Islam, which is under attack from equally totalised Christians, Jews and Hindus. These views are typically held by the "de-cultured" new generations of Muslims, such as the actors of the 7/7 London bombings. These men are not culturally distinct from the mainstream. They were proficient and articulate in English, spoke with local accents, were products of British education, social life, sports and entertainments. They had separated from the cultural religion of their parents and embraced militant salafism. Their hostility to their British compatriots did not proceed from cultural difference but from ideological hostility, one that is phrased in the idioms of British culture. The recorded conversations played at the trial of other would-be bombers revealed them justifying the planned slaughter at a nightclub in terms of the "slags" dancing there: who could say they were "innocent"?

  • Social segregation

There is another form of social segregation, with cultural components which cannot be seen as compatible with "national integration" (itself an ideological notion). This is the continuation, or rather the reformation of ethnic and racial boundaries in poorer communities, especially in the old industrial enclaves of northern England.

Many reports show that schools in these areas are increasingly segregated, with over 90% majorities of pupils of Asian or white (see "Revealed: UK schools dividing on race lines", Observer, 27 May 2007). This is partly accounted for by racism, discrimination and "white flight". But there is also the inward consolidation of Asian communities, close intermarriage, including the importation of partners from the subcontinent. Media technology, satellite broadcasting and the internet, connecting these communities to the milieus of their "home" cultures, reinforce the insulation. These reinforced communal boundaries contribute to the disaffection and radicalisation of the youth.

This phenomenon is not "multicultural", but rather a socio-cultural ghettoisation. Expansion of faith schools can only contribute to this segregation. This phenomenon has been noted in relation to Turkish communities in some German regions (see "Many German Turks Wedded to Tradition", International Herald Tribune, 26-27 May 2007). It is estimated that as many as 50% of Turks seek their spouses from the home country. Children of these unions are less likely to be proficient in German language or culture, thus perpetuating segregation and alienation. In some towns, it is reported, Turks are self-contained within their parallel communities, with separate services and commerce.

Sami Zubaida is emeritus professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. Among his books is Law and Power in the Islamic World (IB Tauris, 2003)

Also by Sami Zubaida in openDemocracy:

"The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (February 2003)

"The next Iraqi state: secular or religious?" (February 2004)

"Understanding the insurgencies in Iraq" (April 2004)

"The London bombs: Iraq or the 'rage of Islam'? " (August 2005)

"Iraq's constitution on the edge"
(August 2005)

"In search of British Muslim identity…" (October 2005)

"Democracy, Iraq and the middle east"
(18 November 2005)

"Islam, religion and ideology"
(14 February 2007)


  • National integration

The trends surveyed here are not characteristic of most British or European Muslims, who, if religious at all (and we don’t know how many are) tend to be "cultural" Muslims. However, the "umma nationalism" of the radicals - the idea of a totalised universal Muslim community under attack by Christians and Jews - constitutes an "ideal-type" discourse which appeals to many otherwise indifferent Muslims.

The logic of this belief is that the allegiance of a European Muslim is to those of his community under attack, often with the connivance, it is perceived, of his/her European compatriots. Most ordinary people are not engaged in resolving or rationalising this dilemma, and, like most people drift into the routines of life which tend to integrate them into their societies, as revealed by the attitude surveys quoted by Modood. That umma nationalism, however, remains in the background, and is brought forth and strengthened by the surveillance and discrimination instituted by the security regimes in the west in confronting the hostility and potential violence of the jihadis.

A reality test

Tariq Modood refers to the powerful myth, discussed in the foregoing, of the complicity of British and European countries in the victimisation of "Muslims" in many parts of the world, and the sympathy and hostility this arouses among Muslims in Europe. This myth is prevalent, and has the effect of essentialising diverse conflicts as ones of religion.

American imperialism, in fact, sides with some Muslims against others (Saudis vs Iranians, for instance), and that has little, if anything to do with their being Muslims. During the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, the United States - alongside the Soviets, the British and most Arab governments - supported Saddam Hussein against Iran, then turned a blind eye to the massacres he perpetrated against the Kurds and the southern Shi’a.

During those episodes and subsequently, Saddam killed a great many Muslims, but not on account of their being Muslim. Yet when Saddam fell out with the Americans and most Arabs in the occupation of Kuwait (more "Muslims" killed), Islamist militancy confronted "the west" in the name of religion, with the mounting agreement of Muslim opinion in many quarters. Clearly, those situations, and the current ones in Palestine-Israel, Iraq, Kashmir and Afghanistan, can only be understood as political and military issues, not as wars on Islam. It becomes important for scholars and public intellectuals to point out these political considerations and not to acquiesce in the mythology of religious wars.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData