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Muslims and European multiculturalism

How prevalent is the discourse that describes Muslims as making unreasonable demands on European society? Why do we so often hear Muslims described as 'them' instead of 'us'? [Reposted form openDemocracy, May 2003]

There is an anti-Muslim wind blowing across the European continent. One factor is a perception that Muslims are making politically exceptional, culturally unreasonable or theologically alien demands upon European states. My contention is that the claims Muslims are making in fact parallel comparable arguments about gender or ethnic equality. Seeing the issue in this context shows how inescapably European and contemporary is the logic of mainstream Muslim identity politics.

Muslims in Europe: a question of belonging

European anxieties and phobias in relation to immigration and cultural diversity focus on Muslims more than any other group. This however begs the question: in what way are Muslims a group and to whom are they being compared? Here I can do no more than note that there is no satisfactory way of defining those people of non-European descent whom Canadians call ‘visible minorities’, and therefore no way of listing the constituent groups that make up this category. Nevertheless, it is clear that the estimated 15 million people in Europe who are subjectively or objectively Muslim, whatever their additional identities, form the single largest group of those who are the source of public anxieties.

Muslims are not, however, a homogeneous group. Some Muslims are devout but apolitical; some are political but do not see their politics as being ‘Islamic’ (indeed, may even be anti-Islamic). Some identify more with a nationality of origin, such as Turkish; others with the nationality of settlement and perhaps citizenship, such as French. Some prioritise fund-raising for mosques, others campaigns against discrimination, unemployment or Zionism. For some, the Ayatollah Khomeini is a hero and Osama bin Laden an inspiration; for others, the same may be said of Kemal Ataturk or even Margaret Thatcher (who helped create a swathe of Asian millionaires in Britain, brought in Arab capital and was one of the first to call for Nato action to protect Muslims in Bosnia).

The category ‘Muslim’, then, is as internally diverse as, say, ‘Christian’ or ‘Belgian’ or ‘middle-class’, or any other category helpful in ordering our understanding of contemporary Europe. But just as internal diversity does not lead to the abandonment of social concepts in general, the same is true of the category ‘Muslim’.

My contention, then, within the limitations of all social categories, is that Muslim is as useful a category for identifying ‘visible minorities’ as country of origin – the most typical basis for data collection and labelling. It points to people whose loyalties, enmities, networks, norms, debates, forms of authority, reactions to social circumstances and perception by others cannot all be explained without invoking some understanding of Muslims.

Muslims in Europe do not form a single political bloc or class formation, although they are disproportionately among the lowest-paid, unemployed and under-employed. Muslims also have the most extensive and developed discourses of unity, common circumstance and common victimhood among peoples of non-European Union origin within the EU. This sense of community may be partial, may depend upon context and crisis, may coexist with other overlapping or competing commitments or aspirations; but it is an actual or latent ‘Us’, partly dependent upon others seeing Muslims and partly causing others to see Muslims as a ‘Them’.

For many years, Muslims have been the principal victims of the bloodshed that has produced Europe’s asylum seekers (think of Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan) and so are vulnerable to the anti-refugee mood and policies in the EU today. This, of course, also affects Muslim residents and citizens, and the situation has been thrown into sharp relief by 11 September 2001 and its aftermath.

There are many reports of harassment and attacks against Muslims; and Muslims, having expressed both vulnerability and defiance, have become a focus of national concern and debate. They have found themselves bearing the brunt of a new wave of suspicion and hostility, and strongly voiced if imprecise doubts are being cast on their loyalty as citizens.

There has been widespread questioning about whether Muslims can or are willing to be integrated into European society and its political values. In particular, whether Muslims are committed to what are taken to be the core European values of freedom, tolerance, democracy, sexual equality and secularism.

Across Europe, multiculturalism – a policy suitable where groups want to maintain some level of distinction among communities – is in retreat and ‘integration’ is once again the watchword. These questions and doubts have been raised across the political spectrum, voiced by individuals ranging from Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn to eminent Guardian intellectuals such as Hugo Young and Polly Toynbee. Theo Veenkamp in People Flow also urges us to abandon ‘romantic multiculturalism’ in the hope that ‘the dichotomy between multiculturalism and integration’ can be overcome.

In the UK, many politicians, commentators, and letter-writers and phone-callers to the media from across the political spectrum, have blamed such concern on the perceived cultural separatism and self-imposed segregation of Muslim migrants and on a ‘politically correct’ multiculturalism that has fostered fragmentation rather than integration and ‘Britishness’.

Europe: a diversity of national contexts

The same wind might be blowing across the continent, yet the landscape is not uniform. Of the three largest European countries – Germany, France and Britain – the first two have, in both absolute and relative terms, a larger foreign-born population and population of non-European origin than the third. Yet in Britain, issues of racial discrimination, ethnic identity and multiculturalism have far more prominence.

One aspect of this is that national debates on these topics in Germany and France are less intense, and moreover less frequently led by non-whites or non-Europeans, who are more the objects of, rather thanparticipants in, the debates.

Another aspect is the relative lack of data about ethnicity and religious communities on the continent of Europe, and consequently of research and literature. Yet this is not a simple matter of scale. Each of the countries in the EU has a very different conception of what the issues are, depending upon its history, political culture and legal system.

The German experience is dominated by the idea that Germany is not a country of immigration; those newcomers who can show German descent are automatically granted nationality while the others are temporary ‘guest workers’ or refugees: none are immigrants. Hence, out of its population of 80 million, Germany has 5 million without German citizenship. This includes about 2 million Turks and Kurds, some of whom are now third-generation Germans but who until recently were excluded from citizenship by German self-conceptions of nationality as descent.

In contrast, France has a history of immigration which it has proudly dealt with by a readiness to grant citizenship. But it has a republican conception of citizenship which does not allow, at least in theory, any body of citizens to be differentially identified, for example as Arab.

In Germany, a person of Turkish descent cannot be German. In France, a person can be of any descent, but a French citizen cannot be an Arab. In either case, US-style (and now UK-style) composite identities like ‘Turkish German’, ‘Arab French’ or ‘British Indian’ are ideologically impossible. The surrender of pre-French identities and assimilation into French culture is regarded as a requirement of the acceptance of French citizenship. If for some reason assimilation is not fully embraced – perhaps because some people want to retain pride in their Algerian ancestry, or to maintain ethnic solidarity in the face of current stigmatisation and discrimination – then their claim to be French and equal citizens is jeopardised.

The French conception of the republic, moreover, also has integral to it a certain radical secularism (laïcité), marking the political triumph over clericalism. The latter was defeated by pushing matters of faith and religion out of politics and policy into the private sphere. Islam, with its claim to regulate public as well as private life, is therefore seen as an ideological foe and the Muslim presence as alien and potentially both culturally and politically inassimilable.

The British experience

Against the background of these distinctive national contexts and histories, it is quite mistaken to single out Muslims as a particularly intractable and uncooperative group characterised by extremist politics, religious obscurantism and an unwillingness to integrate. The case of Britain, the one I know best, can be illustrative of this.

In contrast to continental Europe, the British experience of ‘coloured immigration’ can be seen as an Atlantocentric legacy of the slave trade. Policy and legislation were formed in the 1960s in the shadow of the US civil rights movement, black power discourse and the inner-city riots in Detroit, Watts and elsewhere. It was, therefore, dominated by the idea of ‘race’, more specifically by the idea of a black-white dualism. It was also shaped by the imperial legacy, one aspect of which was that all colonials and citizens of the Commonwealth were ‘subjects of the Crown’. As such they had rights of entry into the UK and entitlement to all the benefits enjoyed by Britons, from National Health Service (NHS) treatment to social security and the vote. (The right of entry was successively curtailed from 1962 so that, while in 1960 Britain was open to the Commonwealth but closed to Europe, twenty years later the position was fully reversed.)

The relation between Muslims and the wider British society and state has to be seen in terms of the developing agendas of racial equality and multiculturalism. Muslims have become central to these agendas even while they have contested important aspects, especially the primacy of racial identities, narrow definitions of racism and equality, and the secular bias of the discourse and policies of multiculturalism.

While there are now emergent Muslim discourses of equality, of difference and (to use the title of the newsletter of the Muslim Council of Britain, of ‘the common good’), they have to be understood as appropriations and modulations of habits of thought and action already formed in anti-racist and feminist discourse.

While one result of this is to throw advocates of multiculturalism into theoretical and practical disarray, another is to stimulate accusations of cultural separatism and revive a discourse of ‘integration’. While we should not ignore the critics of Muslim activism, we need to recognise that at least some of the latter is a politics of ‘catching up’ with racial equality and feminism.

In this way, religion in Britain is assuming a renewed political importance. After a long period of hegemony, political secularism can no longer be taken for granted but is having to answer its critics; there is a growing understanding that the incorporation of Muslims has become the most important challenge of egalitarian multiculturalism.

Roads to British equality

The presence of new population groups in Britain made manifest certain kinds of racism, and anti-discrimination laws and policies began to be put into place from the 1960s. These provisions, initially influenced by contemporary thinking and practice in relation to anti-black racism in the United States, assume that the grounds of discrimination are ‘colour’ and ethnicity.

Muslim assertiveness became a feature of majority–minority relations only from around the early 1990s; and indeed, prior to this, racial equality discourse and politics were dominated by the idea that the dominant post-immigration issue was ‘colour racism’. One consequence of this is that the legal and policy framework still reflects the conceptualisation and priorities of racial dualism.

To date, it is lawful to discriminate against Muslims as Muslims because the courts do not accept that Muslims are an ethnic group (though oddly, Jews and Sikhs are recognised as ethnic groups within the meaning of the law). While initially unremarked upon, this exclusive focus on race and ethnicity, and the exclusion of Muslims but not Jews and Sikhs, has come to be a source of resentment.

Muslims do enjoy some limited indirect legal protection as members of ethnic groups such as Pakistanis or Arabs. Over time, groups like Pakistanis have become an active constituency within British ‘race relations’, whereas Middle Easterners tend to classify themselves as ‘white’, as in the 1991 Census, and on the whole have not been prominent in political activism of this sort, nor in domestic politics generally. One of the effects of this political pattern was to highlight race.

A key indicator of racial discrimination and inequality has been numerical under-representation, for instance in prestigious jobs and public office. Hence, people have had to be (self-)classified and counted; thus group labels, and arguments about which labels are authentic, have become a common feature of certain political discourses.

It has also become gradually apparent through these inequality measures that it is Asian Muslims and not, as expected, Afro-Caribbeans, who have emerged as the most disadvantaged and poorest groups in the country. To many Muslim activists, the misplacing of Muslims into ‘race’ categories and the belatedness with which the severe disadvantages of the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have come to be recognised mean that race relations are perceived at best as an inappropriate policy niche for Muslims, and at worst as a conspiracy to prevent the emergence of a specifically Muslim socio-political formation. To see how such thinking has emerged we need briefly to consider the career of the concept of ‘racial equality’.

The initial development of anti-racism in Britain followed the American pattern, and indeed was directly influenced by American personalities and events. Just as in the United States the colour-blind humanism of Martin Luther King Jr came to be mixed with an emphasis on black pride, black autonomy and black nationalism as typified by Malcolm X, so too the same process occurred in the UK (both these inspirational leaders visited Britain).

Indeed, it is best to see this development of racial explicitness and positive blackness as part of a wider socio-political climate which is not confined to race and culture or non-white minorities. Feminism, gay pride, Québec nationalism and the revival of a Scottish identity are some prominent examples of these new identity movements which have become an important feature in many countries, especially those in which class politics has declined in salience; the emphasis on non-territorial identities such as black, gay and women is particularly marked among Anglophones.

In fact, it would be fair to say that what is often claimed today in the name of racial equality, again especially in the English-speaking world, goes beyond the claims that were made in the 1960s. Iris Young expresses well the new political climate when she describes the emergence of an ideal of equality based not just on allowing excluded groups to assimilate and live by the norms of dominant groups, but on the view that ‘a positive self-definition of group difference is in fact more liberatory.’

Equality and difference: the public–private distinction

This significant shift takes us from an understanding of ‘equality’ in terms of individualism and cultural assimilation to a politics of recognition; to ‘equality’ as encompassing public ethnicity. This perception of equality means not having to hide or apologise for one’s origins, family or community, and requires others to show respect for them. Public attitudes and arrangements must adapt so that this heritage is encouraged, not contemptuously expected to wither away.

These two conceptions of equality may be stated as follows:

  • the right to assimilate to the majority/dominant culture in the public sphere, with toleration of ‘difference’ in the private sphere;
  • the right to have one’s ‘difference’ (minority ethnicity, for example) recognised and supported in both the public and the private spheres.

While the former represents a liberal response to ‘difference’, the latter is the ‘take’ of the new identity politics. The two are not, however, alternative conceptions of equality in the sense that to hold one, the other must be rejected. Multiculturalism, properly construed, requires support for both conceptions.

For the assumption behind the first is that participation in the public or national culture is necessary for the effective exercise of citizenship, the only obstacle to which are the exclusionary processes preventing gradual assimilation.

The second conception, too, assumes that groups excluded from the national culture have their citizenship diminished as a result, and sees the remedy not in rejecting the right to assimilate, but in adding the right to widen and adapt the national culture, and the public and media symbols of national membership, to include the relevant minority ethnicities.

It can be seen, then, that the public–private distinction is crucial to the contemporary discussion of equal citizenship, and particularly to the challenge to an earlier liberal position. It is in this political and intellectual climate – one in which what would earlier have been called ‘private’ matters had become sources of equality struggles – that Muslim assertiveness emerged as a domestic political phenomenon. In this respect, the advances achieved by anti-racism and feminism (with its slogan ‘the personal is the political’) acted as benchmarks for later political group entrants, such as Muslims. While Muslims raise distinctive concerns, the logic of their demands often mirrors those of other equality-seeking groups.

The Muslim campaign for religious equality

So, one of the current conceptions of equality is a difference-affirming equality, with related notions of respect, recognition and identity – in short, what I understand by political multiculturalism. What kinds of specific policy demands, then, are being made by or on behalf of religious groups and Muslim identity politics in particular, when these terms are deployed?

I suggest that these demands have three dimensions, which get progressively ‘thicker’.

No religious discrimination

The very basic demand is that religious people, no less than people defined by ‘race’ or gender, should not suffer discrimination in job and other opportunities. So, for example, a person who is trying to dress in accordance with his or her religion, or who projects a religious identity (such as a Muslim woman wearing ahijab), should not be discriminated against in employment. At the moment in Britain there is no legal ban on such discrimination.

While discrimination against yarmulke-wearing Jews and turban-wearing Sikhs is deemed to be unlawfulracial discrimination, Muslims, unlike these other faith communities, are not deemed to be a racial or ethnic group. Nor are they protected by the legislation against religious discrimination that does exist in one part of the UK: being explicitly designed to protect Catholics, it covers only Northern Ireland.

The same argument is behind the demand for a law in Britain (as already exists in Northern Ireland) making incitement to religious hatred unlawful, to parallel the law against incitement to racial hatred. (The latter extends protection to certain forms of anti-Jewish literature, but not anti-Muslim literature).

After some years of arguing that there was insufficient evidence of religious discrimination, the hand of the British government has been forced by Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty (1999), which includes religious discrimination in the list of the forms of discrimination that all member states are expected to eliminate.

Accordingly, the government has announced its intention to implement a European Commission directive to outlaw religious discrimination in employment by December 2003. This is, however, only a partial ‘catching-up’ with the existing anti-discrimination provisions in relation to race and gender. The proposed legislation will be confined to employment (not extended to discrimination in provision of goods and services), and will not create a duty upon employers to take steps to promote equality of opportunity.

Parity with ‘native’ religions

Many minority faith advocates interpret equality to mean that minority religions should get at least some of the support from the state that longer-established religions do. Muslims have led the way on this argument, and have made two particular issues politically contentious: the state funding of schools and the law of blasphemy.

After a political battle, the government has agreed in recent years to fund a few (so far, four) Muslim schools, as well as a Sikh and a Seventh Day Adventist school, on the same basis enjoyed by thousands of Anglican and Catholic schools and some Methodist and Jewish schools. (In England and Wales, over a third of state-maintained primary and a sixth of secondary schools are in fact run by a religious group – but all have to deliver a centrally determined national curriculum).

Some secularists are unhappy about this. They accept the argument for parity but believe this should be achieved by the state withdrawing its funding from all religious schools. Most Muslims reject this form of equality in which the privileged lose something but the under-privileged gain nothing. More specifically, the tension here between ‘equalising upwards’ and ‘equalising downwards’ concerns the very legitimacy of religion as a public institutional presence.

Muslims have failed to get the courts to interpret the existing statute on blasphemy to cover offences beyond what Christians hold sacred, but some political support exists for an offence of incitement to religious hatred, mirroring the existing one of incitement to racial hatred. The government inserted such a clause in the post-11 September security legislation, in order to conciliate Muslims, who, among others, were opposed to the new powers of surveillance, arrest and detention.

As it happened, most of the latter were made law, but the provision on incitement to religious hatred was defeated in Parliament. It was reintroduced in a private member’s bill from a Liberal Democrat, Lord Avebury, which also sought to abolish the laws governing blasphemy. Although unsuccessful, these provisions may yet return to Parliament in some form.

Positive inclusion of religious groups

The demand here is that religion in general, or at least the category of ‘Muslim’ in particular, should be a category by which the inclusiveness of social institutions may be judged, as they increasingly are in relation to race and gender.

For example, employers should have to demonstrate that they do not discriminate against Muslims by explicit monitoring of Muslims’ position within the workforce, backed up by appropriate policies, targets, managerial responsibilities, work environments, staff training, advertisements, and outreach.

Similarly, public bodies should provide appropriately sensitive policies and staff in relation to the services they provide, especially in relation to (non-Muslim) schools, social and health services; Muslim community centres or Muslim youth workers should be funded in addition to existing Asian and Caribbean community centres and Asian and black youth workers.

To take another case: the BBC currently believes it is of political importance to review and improve its personnel practices and its output of programmes, including its on-screen ‘representation’ of the British population, by making provision for and winning the confidence of, say, women, ethnic groups and young people. Why should it not also use religious groups as a criterion of inclusivity and have to demonstrate that it is doing the same for viewers and staff defined by religious community membership?

In short, Muslims should be treated as a legitimate group in their own right (not because they are, say, Asians), whose presence in British society has to be explicitly reflected in all walks of life and in all institutions; and whether they are so included should become one of the criteria for judging Britain as an egalitarian, inclusive, multicultural society.

There is no prospect at present of religious equality catching up with the importance that employers and other organisations give to sex or race. A potentially significant victory, however, was made when the government agreed to include a religion question in the 2001 Census. This was the first time this question had been included since 1851 and was largely unpopular outside the politically active religionists, among whom Muslims were foremost. Nevertheless, it has the potential to pave the way for widespread ‘religious monitoring’ in the way that the inclusion of an ethnic question in 1991 had led to the more routine use of ‘ethnic monitoring’.

These policy demands no doubt seem odd within the terms of, say, the French or US ‘wall of separation’ between the state and religion, and may make secularists uncomfortable in Britain too. But it is clear that they closely echo existing anti-discrimination policy provisions in the UK.

British Muslims: from ‘them’ to ‘us’

The emergence of Muslim political agency has thrown British multiculturalism into theoretical and practical disarray. It has led to policy reversals in the Netherlands and elsewhere, and across Europe has strengthened intolerant, exclusive nationalism.

We should in fact be moving in the opposite direction: by extending to Muslims existing levels of protection from discrimination and incitement to hatred, and duties on organisations to ensure equality of opportunity, not the watered-down versions of legislation proposed by the European Commission and the UK government.

In consultation with religious and other representatives, we should target more effectively the severe poverty and social exclusion of Muslims. And we should recognise Muslims as a legitimate social partner and include them in the institutional compromises of church and state, religion and politics, that characterise the evolving, moderate secularism of mainstream western Europe – resisting the wayward, radical example of France.

Ultimately, we must rethink ‘Europe’ and its changing nations – so that Muslims are not a ‘Them’ but part of a plural ‘Us’, not mere sojourners but part of its future. A century ago, the African American theorist W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the 20th century would be the century of the colour line; today, we seem to be set for a century of the Islam–West line. The political integration or incorporation of Muslims – remembering that there are more Muslims in the European Union than the combined populations of Finland, Ireland and Denmark – has not only become the most important goal of egalitarian multiculturalism but is now pivotal in shaping the security, indeed the destiny, of many peoples across the globe.


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