Multiculturalism, Britishness, and Muslims

The idea of multiculturalism has been subjected to greater criticism in recent years, especially on the grounds that it is divisive and undercuts other solidarities of society, class or nation. But a fuller understanding of the context in which the arguments for multiculturalism arose and evolved can help both address some of the simplifications that now cluster around it and achieve a more nuanced view, says Tariq Modood.
Tariq Modood
27 January 2011

Much has changed in relation to the discussion of Britishness since my collection of essays, Not Easy Being British: Colour, Culture and Citizenship was published in 1992. For me the most important is that the suggestion made there - that the issue of racial equality led inevitably to the bigger questions and “isms” of multiculturalism, national identity and rethinking secularism - is now commonplace.

When the essays in Not Easy Being British... were being written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, very few observers made these connections. Most racial egalitarians thought that “multiculturalism” was not sufficiently challenging of racism; indeed that as it was merely about “steel bands, saris and samosas” it did not cut very deep into society.

Moreover, those who did think of themselves as political multiculturalists - for whom it meant more than black music, exotic dress and spicy food - saw British nationalism as the property not of the British people but of rightwing ideologues. Their main reaction to any talk of “Britishness” was to denounce it as reactionary and racist; many argued too (or instead) that as no one could define what they meant by “British” in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, the concept referred to a fiction and should not be used.

In this sense the “anti-racists” and the the “multiculturalists” were united in their rejection of the discourse of Britishness (as indeed over their view that secularism was intrinsic to anti-racism and multiculturalism). It was these views that I set out to challenge almost twenty years ago.

At the time I was in a very small minority, especially amongst racial egalitarians. The essays collected in Not Easy Being British: Colour, Culture and Citizenship were written in my private time whilst I was working as an equal-opportunities officer at the London Borough of Hillingdon, and then at the head office of the Commission for Racial Equality. I was forever being told that the issues I was raising were unnecessary, confused and divisive - above all that they had nothing to do with racial equality. The rest of my career has more or less been spent in proving this charge mistaken. I may not have been as successful as I would have liked, but in at least three ways there has been a substantive change in the intellectual and social climate.

First, the vast majority of people now believe that a broad, serious discussion of multiculturalism, national identity and secularism is essential if Britain is to become a society in which ethnic minorities are treated with respect and are not the targets of prejudice.

Second, in the late 1980s it was still routinely controversial (especially amongst racial egalitarians) to say that most ethnic-minority people actually wanted to be British, indeed that many wanted to be British more than some white people did, and that this particularly applied to Asian Muslims. This proposition too is no longer as contentious as it used to be, though in the case of a minority of Muslims some misunderstandings persist.

Third, the post-1997 devolution of power from Westminster to Edinburgh and Cardiff (and agreement to transfer powers back to Belfast when certain conditions have been met), reflects a decline in the frequency and intensity of identification with British identity relative to Scottish, Welsh, English and (pan- or Northern-) Irish.

Against this large canvas, I have collected a set of essays from the 2000s - including two published in openDemocracy - in a companion volume to the 1992 one, entitled Still Not Easy Being British: Struggles for a Multicultural Citizenship (Trentham Books, 2010). The developments I most focus on relate to post-immigration ethno-religious differences within Britishness (as opposed to territorial and national ones). Here the story is about the rise and fall - or at least the mixed fortunes - of a communitarian multiculturalism. This article examines two key elements in this twenty-year story: the evolution of the idea and practice of multiculturalism, and British Muslims’ relationship with it; and of British Muslim identity in the context of the larger society.

Multiculturalism: past its sell-by date?

A linking theme of the essays assembled in Still Not Easy Being British... is the belief that multiculturalism is neither intellectually nor politically out of date. But to begin to make this argument it is necessary also to understand the three distinct levels at which the term “multiculturalism” (no less than “integration” or “assimilation”) operates, which are also sometimes combined.

First, there is the sociological level which acknowledges the fact that racial and ethnic groups exist in society. This acknowledgment works both in terms of minorities being told they are “different” and (from the “inside”, so to speak) of minorities having their own sense of identity. This social recognition is sometimes termed “multicultural society” in order to distinguish it from political concepts.

Second, there is the political level which is part of a wider discussion about the best response to that social reality. The prominent answers include assimilation, and liberal integration based on respect for individuals (but no political recognition of groups). Multiculturalism is another response; it bases itself not just on the equal dignity of individuals but also on the political accommodation of group identities as a means of challenging exclusionary racisms and practices and fostering respect and inclusion for demeaned groups.

Third, there is what might be called the imaginative level that projects a positive vision for society as a whole - a society remade so as to include the previously excluded or marginalised on the basis of equality and belonging. This involves enlarging the focus on exclusion and minorities to a stage where it is possible to speak of “multicultural integration” or “multicultural citizenship” (see, for example, Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory [Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2005]).

This third level - which both incorporates the sociological fact of diversity, groupness and exclusion and goes beyond notions of individual rights and political accommodation - has perhaps been least emphasised. That may be why many have come to understand multiculturalism as “only” about encouraging minority difference, without any countervailing emphasis on cross-cutting commonalities and a vision of a greater good. This has led many commentators and politicians (sometimes sincerely, sometimes cynically or polemically) to talk of multiculturalism as divisive and productive of segregation).

A popular-academic critique of multiculturalism of this kind was already evident in the 1990s across several European countries - including those that had never embraced multiculturalism (such as France and Germany) as well as those that had (such as the Netherlands and Britain). In the following decade, especially after the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 and their sequels in Madrid (11 March 2004) and London (7 July 2005), fears about international terrorism and associated wars and conflict coalesced with anxiety about Muslims’ failure to integrate into their “host societies”.

The discourses of anti-multiculturalism gradually increased in influence in the media and relevant policy fields, and to be at the forefront of politics. The notions of “community cohesion” and “integration” were prominent in this shift, though they overlooked the fact that no major theorist or advocate of multiculturalism - nor any relevant policy or legislation - had promoted “separatism”. Indeed, prominent theorists of multiculturalism such as Charles Taylor and Bhikhu Parekh, as well as related policy documents such as the Commission on Multi-Ethnic Britain (CMEB) (2000) and enactments such as those in Canada - universally regarded as a pioneer and exemplar of state multiculturalism - all appealed to and built on an idea of national citizenship.

True, some urged a “post-national” analysis of society and advocated transnationalism or cosmopolitanism (see, for example, Yasemin Soysal, Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe [Chicago University Press, 1995]); David Held, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance [Polity, 1995]); and David Jacobson, Rights Across Borders: Immigration and the Decline of Citizenship [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997]) - though these authors are not multiculturalists in the sense being discussed here.

Hence, from a multiculturalist point of view, though not from that of its critics, the recent emphasis on cohesion and citizenship - what has been called “the civic turn” (Per Mouritsen, 2006) - is a necessary rebalancing of the political multiculturalism of the 1990s, which largely took the form of the second level of multiculturalism in the above typology (see Nasar Meer & Tariq Modood, 2009). In this view the “turn” cannot be understood simply as a move from multiculturalism to integration, as it both continues to recognise exclusion and identity as sociological facts and to persist with group consultations, representation and accommodation.

In fact, the latter have actually increased. The British government, for example, has found it necessary to increase the scale and level of consultations with Muslims in Britain since 9/11 and 7/7, though it has been dissatisfied with existing organisations and has sought to increase the number of interlocutors and the channels of communication. Even avowedly anti-multiculturalist governments have worked to increase corporatism in practice, for example with Nicholas Sarkozy’s creation of the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (French Council of the Muslim Faith) in 2003 to represent all Muslims to the French government in matters of worship and ritual; and by the creation of the Deutsch Islam Konferenz in Germany in 2006, an exploratory body yet one with an extensive political agenda.

It cannot be denied that these bodies are partly top-down efforts to control Muslims or to channel them into certain formations and away from others; but it is clear also that such institutional processes cannot be understood within the conceptual framework of assimilation or individualist integration. In contrast, British Muslims have neither been offered nor sought a single formal institutional basis such those in France or Germany. The British arrangements are instead a mixture of semi-formal and ad hoc, yet compose a set of extended minority-majority relationships that can still best be described as “multiculturalism” (even if the term has become as unfashionable in Britain as it is elsewhere in Europe).

This multiculturalism has no single legal or policy statement (unlike Canada). It is evolutionary and multifaceted, having grown up - sometimes in contradictory ways - in response to crises as well as to mature reflection. The “multi” is an essential feature of what I am talking about, for the policy and institutional arrangements have grown out of and continue to be part of ways to address not just Muslims but a plurality of minorities. The “multi” thus refers both to the fact that a number of minority groups are within the frame, and to the fact that there are different kinds of groups - some defined by “race” or “colour” (for example, black or Asian), some by national origins (for example, Indian or Pakistani), some by religion (for example, Sikh or Muslim).

Indeed, the origins of British multiculturalism, both as an idea and as policies, lie in the experiences of African-American struggles for equality and dignity. British racial-equality thinking and policy was directly and consciously influenced by developments in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. This policy paradigm was referred to as “race relations”, and the group that policy-makers were most focused on was young black men. As the population of south Asian origin became more numerous, visible and assertive, especially in relation to their cultural-community needs, the terms “ethnicity”, “ethnic minorities” and “multiculturalism” replaced “race” in an effort to better capture a changing reality.

This history is also an important reminder that Muslim/non-Muslim relations in Britain are based upon white/non-white relations, and that no British policy-maker (or social scientist) understood “coloured immigrants” from the Commonwealth in terms of religion or expected, let alone desired, religion to have political significance.

The new political relevance of religion has come not from the state or “top-down” action but from the political mobilisation of specific minorities (or parts of minorities) who prioritised their religious identity over that of ethnicity and “colour” (which is not to say that they deemed the latter insignificant). The Sikhs were the first religious minority to politically mobilise and win concessions from the state in relation to the legal recognition of the turban. So, in many ways, Muslim political assertiveness arose in the context of an anti-racism movement, equality legislation and Sikh mobilisation - in short a political multiculturalism.

Muslims, as late arrivals, have tried to catch up with the rights and concessions already won by racial and ethnic groups. This helps explain why it sometimes looks as if multiculturalism is a movement that Muslims have virtually taken over, though at the price of damaging the support for it - perhaps even mortally.

The event in which Muslim political agency first significantly manifested itself in Britain is over the battle over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1989 and subsequent years. The “Rushdie affair”, as well as raising important issues of freedom of expression (which are not part of my concern here), revealed five important characteristics about the politics of the emergent Muslim communities.

First, Muslim politics was not created nor desired by the state but was a challenge to existing majority-minority relations from below.

Second, Muslim politics - unlike most minority struggles up to that time (though not the Sikhs’) - consisted of the nominal and actual mobilisation of a single minority; Muslims neither sought nor received support from other British minorities. They looked to the British establishment (publishers, the political class, the politicians, the law courts) to intervene on their behalf, and some of them looked for allies amongst Muslim forces outside Britain.

Third, the Rushdie affair both shifted the focus of minority-majority relations from the Atlantic to “the orient” and marked the beginning of the internationalisation of British minority-majority relations on a scale never achieved through pan-black or “global-south” solidarities. Global “subaltern” politics had arrived in Britain but in ways that few advocates of global activism had envisaged or desired. As much as it has provided a resource in a potential transnational or “ummatic” solidarity, this international association has also made life difficult for British Muslims (from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa to terrorist networks).

Fourth, the Rushdie affair threw up both a radical and a pragmatic (or “moderate”) leadership amongst Muslims in Britain. Among evidence of the latter is a change in the way the main Muslim umbrella body generated by the campaign - the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA) - expressed the offence which had angered Muslims. Initially it described this as “apostasy”; realising that this achieved little comprehension (let alone sympathy) amongst the political class, it soon switched to the more British term, “blasphemy”; but when that too failed to rally support, the committee spoke of “incitement to religious hatred”, echoing legislation for Northern Ireland (and that over incitement to racial hatred in Britain).

Fifth, the pragmatists were never able decisively to defeat the extremists, who continued to have some ongoing presence. There was and is no centralised authority in British Islam (or for that matter in Islam per se, especially Sunni Islam), such that access to that authority was sufficient to lead or guide Muslims. Muslim leaders who spend their time criticising extremists find themselves in a double-bind: they give even more publicity to these extremists (already often “popular” hate-figures in the media) and are criticised by the main body of Muslims for being divisive and not focusing attention on getting concessions from the state. (It has also to be said that British Muslim political culture can resemble leftwing student politics of a generation earlier - a sort of “holier-than-thou” quality, which makes it easier to win approval for radical political rhetoric than support for practical compromises.)

These five features of the Muslim campaign against The Satanic Verses remain relevant, for they are all present today. Nevertheless, a pragmatic Muslim politics has been relatively successful in achieving the goals it set itself. The lead national moderate organisation, the UKACIA, later broadened out into the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB, founded in 1998) and came to be accepted by the government and other bodies as a leading - if not the leading - voice of Muslims.

As domestic and international crises affecting British Muslims became more frequent and rose up the political agenda, the MCB became the chosen interlocutor with more regular access to senior government policy-makers than any other organisation representing a minority (religious, ethnic, or racial). The MCB’s pre-eminence began to suffer from the mid-2000s, as it grew increasingly critical of the invasion of Iraq and of the “war on terror”. The government started accusing it of failing to clearly and decisively reject extremism, and to seek alternative Muslim interlocutors.

From the early 1990s to that point, UKACIA/MCB lobbied primarily on four issues:

* mobilising and establishing a Muslim religious community voice, not subsumed under an Asian or black one, that would be heard in the corridors of national and local power - and ensuring that the UKACIA/MCB should be that voice

* securing legislation on religious discrimination and incitement to religious hatred

* persuading governments to implement socio-economic policies targeted on the severe disadvantage of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and other Muslim groups

* getting the state to recognise and resource some Islamic schools.

All four of these goals have in part been met, especially since New Labour came to power in 1997. Although, as noted, there continues to be a problem about representativeness which particularly relates to issues of foreign policy and security

To a degree the security agenda (which can too easily be seen as anti-Muslim) has come to eclipse the Muslim equality agenda. Yet the latter has got as far as it has is because of Britain’s liberal and pragmatic political culture on matters of religion, which would have been unlikely in an order of more thoroughgoing secularism that requires the state to control religion.

Moreover, Muslims have not just pursued their own interests but utilised and extended previously existing arguments and policies in relation to racial and multicultural equality. The result is that most politically active Muslims have, in respect of domestic issues (such as discrimination in education and employment, in political representation and the media; and “Muslim-blindness” in the provision of healthcare and social services), adjusted to and become part of British political culture in general and British multiculturalist politics in particular.

The process of accommodation of Muslims into a distinctively British multiculturalism has entailed tensions and conflicts, and there may be more to come. The unfolding of a British Muslim identity has run in parallel, and it is this which forms the second part of this article.

Muslims and multiculturalism

British Muslim identity politics was, as discussed above, stimulated by the intense dispute over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in 1989. This was a crisis that led many in Britain to think of themselves for the first time as Muslims in a public way. With any identity, for some it will be a background, while others will often foreground it, although much will depend on context. So it is with Muslims.

Even with those for whom a Muslim identity is in many contexts more than a background, it does not follow that the religious dimension will be most prominent; rather, this could be a sense of family and community, or a commitment to collective political advancement, or righting the wrongs done to Muslims. Indeed, it cannot even be assumed that “being Muslim” means the same thing to all.

Among other things, it can be understood in terms of community membership and heritage; a few simple precepts about self, compassion, justice and the afterlife; membership of a worldwide movement armed with a counter-ideology to modernity. Some Muslims are devout but apolitical; some are political but do not see their politics as being “Islamic” (indeed, may even be anti-”Islamic”).

In light of the foregoing, it is striking that Muslims in Britain today are experiencing pressures to be “British Muslims” in the same context where members of other minorities might be coming to feel an easing of identity pressures and greater freedom as individuals to “mix and match” identities. It is interesting here to note the emergence of organisations (albeit still on a modest scale) seeking to belong to the family of “public Muslims” yet thoroughly critical of a religious politics; what is particularly distinctive about them is the relative thinness of their appeal to Islam to justify a basically social-democratic politics. In principle they could just as easily seek to privatise their Muslimness - but they feel a socio-political obligation to do the opposite, to join the public constellation of Muslim identities rather than walk away from it.

Some contemporary Muslim identity politics, then, responds to (external or internal, or both) pressure in pragmatic fashion, by seeing “British Muslim” as a hyphenated identity in which each part is to be valued as important in terms of one’s principles and beliefs. It follows that to bring together two (or by extension several) identity-shaping, even identity-defining, commitments will have an effect on each of the commitments.

These will begin to interact, leading to some reinterpretation of the distinct parts, a process that often leads to scholarly engagement with the Islamic intellectual heritage. Two such areas of engagement are worth highlighting.

The first area of renewal and reinterpretation is equality and related concepts. In debates about gender equality, for example, Muslim cultural practices and assumptions have been subjected to severe critique through fresh readings of the Qur’an, the sayings and practice of the Prophet Mohammed, and Muslim history; these readings trace the emergence of conservative and restricted interpretations at moments when other interpretations could and should have been favoured (see, for example, Fatima Mernissi, Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry [Blackwell, 1991]).

The second area is plurality, which is emerging as an important idea in Muslim discourse. Most Muslims have no theological or conscientious problems with multi-faith citizenship - after all the Prophet Mohammed founded just such a polity. The earliest organised, settled Muslim community was in the city of Medina which was shared with Jews and others and based on an inter-communally agreed constitution. The late Zaki Badawi, one of the most learned Muslim theologians to have lived in modern Britain, once described the latter as the first example of a multicultural constitution in history in that it guaranteed autonomy to the various communities of the city.

Islam has a highly developed sense of social or ethical citizenship. It has some parallels with contemporary western “communitarian” thinking in that it emphasises duties as well as rights. This is illustrated in one of the “five pillars” of Islam, namely zakat (the obligation to give a proportion of one’s income or wealth to the poor and needy). This requirement has an inherent civic character, in that it extends beyond family or even neighbours and workmates to strangers, to an “imagined community”.

This widening sense of citizenship is reflected too in a current of thinking about Islamic modernity, chiefly from within Europe and north America, which challenges the authoritarian idea that a state is needed to enforce social citizenship or, more generally, religious law (itself very much a post-colonialist theology that seeks to place the political over the legal [the sharia]).

The Islamic-modernity argument counters by positioning the sharia not as a body of unchanging law, but as a set of ethical principles with legal conclusions that apply only to specific places and times and thus have to be continually reinterpreted; the effect is to place the ethical over the legal and the political (see Ziauddin Sardar, The Future of Muslim Civilization [Mansell, 1987] and Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam [Oxford University Press, 2005). This is an example of how scholarship can draw on extra-European heritages and reinterpret them in a context of a democratic citizenship.

As Muslims’ discussion of these matters develops, and as their discourse becomes an integral part of British debates, one positive effect could be that a broader range of Muslim voices or civic participants are able to contribute. Such a development would reflect a healthy internal variety among Muslims (as within any group), part of which is that different individuals or members will want to locate themselves variously across the representational landscape (secular, religious, close to government, distant from political parties). That, after all, is true integration; new groups should have similar opportunities to old groups and do not need to conform, or feel obliged to conform, to a special “minority” perspective.

These discursive and institutional processes have two implications. The first is that an increasing acceptance that Muslims can politically organise “as Muslims” without any sense of illegitimacy - in raising distinctive concerns or having group representation in public bodies, for example - means allowing them to choose the paths they think appropriate at different times, in different contexts and for different ends.

The result will be a democratic constellation of organisations, networks, alliances and discourses in which there will be agreement and disagreement, in which group identity will be manifested more by way of family resemblances than the idea that one group means one voice.

The second implication is that where there is “difference” there must also be commonality. That commonality is citizenship, a citizenship seen in a plural and dispersed way. There is no contradiction here, for emphasising and cultivating what we have in common is not a denial of difference - it all depends upon what kind of commonality is arrived at, something that cannot be taken for granted. Difference and commonality are not either-or opposites but are complementary and have to be made - lived - together, giving to each its due.

More than that, commonality must be difference-friendly, and if it is not, it must be remade to be so. This does not mean as a corollary weak or indifferent national identities; on the contrary, multiculturalism requires a framework of dynamic national narratives and the ceremonies and rituals which give expression to a national identity. Minority identities are capable of generating a sense of attachment and belonging, even a sense of a “cause” for many people. If multicultural citizenship is to be equally attractive to those people, it needs a comparable (and counterbalancing) set of emotions; it cannot be merely about a legal status or a passport.

A sense of belonging to one’s country is necessary to make a success of a multicultural society. An inclusive national identity is respectful of and builds upon the identities that people value and does not trample upon them. So integration is not simply or even primarily a “minority problem”. For central to it is a citizenship and the right to make a claim on the national identity in the direction of positive difference.

An intellectual as much as a political vision of social reform and justice in the 21st century must include these aspects of multicultural citizenship. The turning of negative into positive difference should be one of the tests of social justice in this era.

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