Multiculturalism and 7/7: neither problem nor solution

Paul Kelly
19 October 2005

Tariq Modood’s openDemocracy article “Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7” is an important rejoinder to the facile linkage of the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London to the policy of multiculturalism.

Martin Wolf, Gilles Kepel and William Pfaff in different ways blame the London bombings on a policy of multiculturalism that has allowed London to become “Londonistan”. The implication is that British society needs to get tough with woolly-minded multiculturalists and bring about a more solidaristic civil society where Muslims in particular (it seems to be only Muslims who are a problem) start to shape up and bear the burdens of British civility.

This approach would be underpinned by a more militant liberalism that would require people to share liberal public values and show zero tolerance for those who preach radical differences of belief (such as advocating the establishment of a caliphate). The proposed anti-terror legislation in Britain is full of such thinking. Its knee-jerk reactions assume much that is not yet known – for example, the real and perhaps complex motivations for why four young British Muslims blew themselves up and killed so many innocent people.

Tariq Modood offers an important corrective to this kind of thinking. He is right to argue that to blame multiculturalism for the bombing is no more sensible than blaming the Iraq war. No doubt both have some influence – but neither will be even a proximate cause on its own.

Paul Kelly is professor of political theory at the LSE. His most recent books are Multiculturalism Reconsidered (Polity Press, 2002) and Liberalism (Polity Press, 2004).

Paul Kelly is responding to Tariq Modood’s openDemocracy essay, “Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7”

Also in our debate on British Muslims, multiculturalism, and democracy:

David Hayes, “What kind of country? ”

Gilles Kepel, “Europe’s answer to Londonistan“

Ehsan Masood, “British Muslims must stop the war”

Saleh Bechir & Hazem Saghieh, “The ‘Muslim community’: a European invention”

Neville Adams, Stephan Feuchtwang & Kazim Khan, “Tariq Modood’s multicultural project”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

The problem of identity politics

That however, is as far as I want to go in supporting Modood’s argument – for I too take a robustly liberal line in the face of multiculturalism as a policy agenda. There is an important sense in which multiculturalism is indeed the problem, which both its advocates (like Bhikhu Parekh, Iris Marion Young and Tariq Modood himself) and its critics (like Trevor Phillips, David Blunkett and David Goodhart) fail to recognise.

Both groups are wedded to an idea of identity politics. This sees the recognition of identities as central to equal concern and respect in the public sphere. It leads Tariq Modood to argue for collective recognition and representation as a condition for the equal integration of diverse cultural groups in modern British society. It matters as much, in this view, that a person’s identity is equally valued as that he or she does not suffer from economic and material inequality. Indeed, the influence of the work of the Canadian political theorist Will Kymlicka might suggest that cultural and identity politics has displaced the earlier politics of economic and social inequality.

But Modood’s opponents too, in seeking a more solidaristic sense of British national identity, buy into the same dubious political rhetoric. Their argument is that if only one identity can be replaced with another then bombers will no longer emerge from within the society.

The quest for a new national identity can be seen in initiatives taken by the former home secretary David Blunkett, and by ideas fostered by Bernard Crick and (in his now infamous Prospect article of February 2004) David Goodhart. These figures accept the multiculturalists’ basic premises about the centrality of identity; the difference is that multiculturalists accept multiple sources of identity whilst “solidarists” seek a unitary identity.

This latter perspective is bolstered by reference to the American political scientist Robert Putnam’s work on social capital. He argues that social capital, evident in levels of civic engagement, declines in the face of diversity. So to stop bombers, more social capital and therefore less multiculturalism is needed. Modood, by contrast, argues that to avoid bombers the need is for more recognition of diverse identities, to retain social capital within ethnic or religious groups.

Both sides are trapped in a dead-end of identity politics, because both see the alternative as an unattainable liberal neutrality. Both are too hasty in rejecting the possibility of a political liberalism, which actually underpins whatever is valuable in either position.

A liberal alternative

The solidarists’ view that a robust sense of Britishness is a condition of social solidarity is overstated. The Putnam thesis is superficially attractive but does not withstand critical scrutiny. As for the claim by Goodhart and others that diversity undercuts social solidarity, the evidence is at best inconclusive. Militant liberals such as Wolf and Kepel, meanwhile, overstate the case for assimilation or French-style republican secularism. Where does that leave multiculturalism?

Modood, Parekh and Young suggest that group identities are primary to our sense of self-worth. This is undoubtedly true in part, but it does not generate a workable politics as Modood’s political conclusions suggest. Once groups are accepted as authoritative entities in the public realm then the problem of voice and representation is merely displaced. British experience shows that it is far from clear who can legitimately speak for British Muslims and what identity goes with being a Muslim in Britain. Cultures are sites of diversity and contest as a much as of identity, so giving them rights or recognition is deeply problematic, even if it were desirable.

But why are cultures valuable at all? In the end, multiculturalists cannot avoid the claim that cultures are valuable because their bearers value them. It is the bearers and not the culture that should be given equal concern and respect. But this raises the question of how equality should be pursued. It is not obvious that giving political authority, or even social authority, to a minority within a group is the only way to achieve the goal of equal treatment, as many such cultures will not be egalitarian or even humanistic in the appropriate sense.

Even on Modood’s own terms it is not obvious that group recognition is the only way forward. Perhaps a better option would be to consider eradicating group privileges such as public funding for all religious schools, and not about how many Sikh or Islamic comprehensives are needed.

This might seem to fall into the trap of militant secularism that Modood opposes, but secularism should not be dismissed without care. There are two very different ways of viewing secularism. First, it can be seen as part of a militant republicanism that rejects religion as a source of superstition and oppression. If this were the dominant public philosophy, then equality and impartiality would be imposed from above – so much for liberal tolerance.

openDemocracy author Rajeev Bhargava is one of the leading writers on secularism, and has proposed an original assessment of its influence in shaping Indian thinking about democracy and the place of religion in the public sphere:

“India’s model: faith, secularism and democracy” (November 2004)

Secularism and its Critics (edited by Rajeev Bhargava, Oxford University Press 2005)

But secularism does not have to be seen as a militant and Godless assault on good Muslims and Christians alike. A second view sees secularism as merely the recognition that the political realm, as opposed to the wider public realm, cannot be colonised by religion in a world of religious diversity and difference.

This is not religious indifferentism but a demand for civility and clear thinking. A person who wants his or her religious views treated equally in the public realm can only do this by imposing them on those of different views or accept compromise. This compromise has to be political – and that involves stepping away from core beliefs as the basis of political engagement. There is simply no third way here, and multiculturalists who argue otherwise are being deceptive. The goal is to make sure everyone does this equally; it is this process that creates a liberal political space.

The task facing Britain – one replicated in other societies like the Netherlands confronting similar problems – is to return to a genuinely inclusive and liberal politics, that rejects the false charms of multiculturalism and solidaristic liberal nationalism. The politics of identity has ill served public debate in Britain and the United States: if 7/7 has helped to kill it off so much the better. The attempt to resurrect it as renewed multiculturalism or as solidaristic liberal nationalism should be discarded. Both are a dead end. We need to rediscover the inclusiveness of a genuinely liberal politics.

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