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Has Multiculturalism a Future in Britain?

A conversation held at London’s Dialogue Society recently between David Goodhart (Director of the London based think tank Demos and Editor-at-large of Prospect, a British current affairs magazine) and Tariq Modood (Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol and founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship) illuminated a critical difference of opinion in the idea of ‘multiculturalism’. One opinion, held by David (the interviewer), saw multiculturalism through the principle of liberalism, something afforded by a host, white majority population to a minority population (of migratory descent), who in return shape and integrate into the ‘host culture’; the other, held by Tariq (the interviewee), saw multiculturalism through the principle of dialogue, a two-way process that must mutually engage and shape both majority and minority populations equally. Here is my translated (and supplemented) account of some of the conversation further explaining this ideological rift:

Q: Why should integration between the host majority and migrant minority populations be a two-way street? Isn’t the onus to fit in on those who migrate?

A: As it is, migrants generally do most of the fitting in, this is natural sociologically. But since migrants also become equal citizens, you can’t then give a greater burden to some citizens to ‘integrate’ or ‘fit in’. The responsibility has to be shared equally across all citizens.

Q: The heart of the problem appears to go to the principle of ‘democratic sovereignty’, which means that the country and its sovereignty does in fact belong to the white majority population. Why should they then hold the burden to integrate?

A: An alternative argument is that sovereignty belongs to all citizens as a whole. With regards to expecting migrants to simply assimilate or integrate, migrants are not just workers; whilst most have come for economic opportunities, they are still just as much cultural beings as are the host residents. Whilst the host majority population will inevitably exercise most command over institutions (thus their ‘democratic sovereignty’), it should be willing to dialogue with the various culturally diverse populations.

Q: But then if there is no unifying integration, isn’t there just ‘separatist’ or ‘hard-line’ multiculturalism: whereby the political sphere is weakened by people seeing themselves through their ethnic (minority) identity first and not through their identity as citizens of a nation? This undermines the ‘colour-blind’ principle of liberal multiculturalism; for example, instead of having a one ‘women’s society’ in a community, we get ‘Black African women’s society’ and a separate ‘Sikh women’s society’.

A: By expecting all culturally diverse women of a community to join a single ‘women’s society’ you are forcing them to de-publicise their different self-recognised identities. The fact is that, for example, black women didn’t feel included in the mainstream ‘feminist’ dialogue because it is implicitly white women-based. For them to integrate into and so belong to this dialogue would require them forsaking to a certain extent their true sense of themselves. (This is a distillation of difference). Highlighting these various self-identities is not a necessarily negative in that it instates separateness. It is a form of inclusion based on explicitness not separateness. It doesn’t weaken one’s sense as a citizen belonging to a nation either. 

Q: But surely the principle of explicitness runs counter to the bigger picture of nationalism and citizenship?  Your ‘inclusion based on explicitness’ appears as wishful thinking as it encourages an emphasis of ethnic difference versus a unified national identity. My concern is that minority identities are trumping political citizenship: to take the case of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, much of the Muslim population there affirm their political identity through their religious identity. Thus we have block voting according not to the consciousness of ‘nationhood’ but ethnic and religious affiliations to Muslim representation. This is a problem because it separates this population off from the space of ‘nationhood’, and thus it leads to the deconstruction of the liberally inclusive state. This self-chosen separation is in contradiction, for example, to a previous wave of Hindu and Sikh migrants from East Africa who used the space afforded to them in a liberal society to launch themselves and integrate into that society.  

A: To take the example of Tower Hamlets: there is definitely a large Muslim population whose identity is wholly and strongly affiliated to the East London Mosque. This mosque becomes a strong civil society institution, offering a social welfare service. It is then a resource that the local authorities must use to reach the Muslim population affiliated to it, so it becomes a local civil service partner (like churches once were and trade unions have been). Indeed ‘the state’ needs to be viewed as incorporating such multiple levels or ‘platoons’ of mediation between the government and the individual. These ‘platoons’ are not separatist; they link to other ‘platoons’, forming the texture of a truly democratic society. In this way mediations such as the East London Mosque publicly preserve the self-perceived identity of the Muslim population.  

Q: Isn’t there a risk of letting these separate or explicit ‘platoons’ be driven by very conservative forces (to take the past example of the extremist preacher Abu Hamza at Finsbury Park Mosque)? Should we allow conservative thought running counter to shared national values - such as ‘girls should not be taught science’ - to preach?

A: Anyone may be entitled to hold conservative views, but they should be challenged by most among us on these points.

There will always be conservatives, but the democratic process will hopefully educate minorities away from conservative thinking and supporting it, so that people do not vote blindly according to ethnic or religious affiliations. Instead, as a duty to democratic citizenship, they will vote more critically, according to whom they agree with. Although, many if not most citizens forming the electoral body – including the white majority - do vote according to perceived comfort zones more than through analysis and scrutiny.  

Although the debate was engaging, what is evident in the discussion above is that the very purpose of dialogue seemed stalled by a fixed difference of approach between the two sides to the concept of multiculturalism. David’s view was insistently based on the idea of seeing ‘the state’ as ultimately and fairly belonging to a white majority population, which was something that Tariq’s view – and many in the audience – sought to deconstruct. At one level then, it felt quite surprising that in our ‘progressed times’ (let us say) – which Tariq’s view felt to advance - David’s view continued to establish an essentially imperial power relationship between a white majority and a coloured minority through the argument of democratic sovereignty, which meant there was no question of the white majority integrating into anything.

In this way he appeared to represent the sentiments of the current government under Cameron, who see multiculturalism as a failure and want to encourage a closer one-way integration of all difference through, for example, an insistence on everyone learning and speaking the English language. Is this to the complete effacement of multilingualism? From my point of view, this seems slightly ambitious and imposing, when I – nonetheless educated from a top class English university - consider my own personal upbringing surrounded by my mother tongue (and my maternal grandmother who after decades still has no real facility in English, though whom I happen to treasure as pure refuge of my culture ‘at heart’).

A true dialogue is indeed a two-way process, meaning the very minority that make Britain ‘multi’ are to also have some power in shaping the majority – this is finally the move away from just cosmetic multi-racialism and multi-ethnicity (the stuff of ‘sarees and samosas’, to quote Tariq – which may please an entertained white majority but is extremely meaningless to those such as myself!) to a more deeply constructive and exciting multiculturalism. This doesn’t strike me as anything drastic – it requires a bit more intellectual and even spiritual opening up on the part of the white majority towards the many different worlds that inhabit the society. But any such responsibility to integrate terrifies the white majority, says David - disappointingly I would add, not least as a student of the London branch of the Institute of Indian Art and Culture, where I in fact see a number of white learners.

To conclude, it seems to me that much of the debate boils down to the ever sensitive issue of identity politics. David, representing a white majority, wants to preserve the identity of a national British culture (and I am also ‘guilty’ of holding a culture ‘at heart’), which does affirm the power of a white majority. Perhaps this has only become pronounced through feeling intimidated by a foreign ‘Muslim’ culture whose values are perceived as somewhat divergent (a perception unfortunately sparked off by terrorism and conservative or extremist currents). In turn, according to David, it is this culture that is making most demands of the state, wanting to publicly preserve its self-perceived identity through the process of being operationally integrated. But unlike the white majority this culture is not in national command.

I think in our increasingly globalising world, the idea of nationhood may slowly loosen from any associated cultural given, something that many of the white population such as David may understandably find uncomfortable. If cultural extra-territoriality is becoming a stronger fact in nationhood, this suggests an interesting reversal of the nationalised world – nations of course being a product of western imperialism. But, even if such multiculturalism might complicate the political connection between the state and the minority individual citizen, in principle this needn’t undermine the operation of nation.

Varun Verma is currently an intern at the Muslim Institute with an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.