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Tariq Modood calls for a multiculturalism of hope

Moderate secularism and respect for religion are vital if we are to move from a multiculturalism of fear towards genuine pluralism

Since 9/11 it has been said that Muslims have killed multiculturalism. Suspicion and insecurity surround Muslim/non-Muslim relations and there is a kulturkampf between what are perceived to be Islamic practices and liberal, British values. Yet as a governmental policy, multiculturalism and specifically the recognition and accommodation of Muslims, far from dying, has been growing in this last decade.

Outlawing religious discrimination and incitement to religious hatred has only happened in the last few years, during which the number of faith schools has expanded, religious communities have been invited into partnership with the government on a number of fronts, not least preventing violence and extremism – and in all these areas Muslims have been at the forefront.

Nevertheless, there has been a shift of mood: a movement from a multiculturalism of hope to a multiculturalism of fear. Institutional accommodation is developed, not because an ideal is at work but out of fear of the consequences of not accommodating. The mood is not one of valuing diversity but of avoiding conflict, or a sweetener to make other actions – an aggressive foreign policy – more acceptable.

We need to find hope again. It is clear that it must relate to the theme of religion, and especially Muslims, for that is the area of fear and conflict. I believe that there are at least two grounds for hope, which are often obscured. They can be approached by seeing how each can contribute to addressing a conflict. One is about the current anxieties about the conflict between religion and secularism, and the other is the conflict across religions.

The secularism I am referring to is not about who made the universe and so on but a form of politics in which political authority and the nature of politics has some autonomous character and does not rest on religious authority. Most commentators think that there are two versions of political secularism available to democrats.

In one version, religion is excluded from the state and ideally from politics, too. No state institution, office holder, law or policy must make any reference to or fund religion. This is liberal secularism and is enshrined in the constitution of the United States – except that the same constitution protects a degree of religious freedom, which makes it impossible to keep religion out of the public square, even while there is a strict wall of separation between the state and religion.

This problem is addressed in the other version of secularism, a form of republicanism in which the state works to actively limit the scope of religion in public affairs. The school becomes a primary site for the production of republicanism and hence it is vital that religious symbols and identities are not permitted. France is a leading example of this version.

Many people talk as if these are the only two versions of democratic secularism. But actually neither version captures the kind of secularist accommodation of religion that has evolved in Britain and most of north-west Europe. Here has developed a historical practice in which, explicitly or implicitly, organised religion is treated as a potential public good or national resource (not just a private benefit), which the state can in some circumstances assist to realise.

This can take not only the form of an input into a legislative forum, such as the House of Lords, on moral and welfare issues; but also to being social partners to the state in the delivery of education, health and care services; to building social capital; or to churches belonging to "the people". So, that even those who do not attend them, or even sign up to their doctrines, feel they have a right to use them for weddings and funerals.

This accommodative secularism is now taking a pluralist path, so that even where one church may be pre-eminent there is a spirit of inclusivity – such that, for example, the head of state, who also happens to be the supreme governor of the Church of England, can use her Christmas Day broadcast to offer a paean to multifaith Britain.

This accommodative secularism and the path towards multifaith inclusivity is a source of hope that we will be able to resist simpler, more radical forms of secularism and integrate ethnoreligious communities, as visible, active, public elements into existing and novel structures of consultation and partnership – of social governance in the wide sense of the term.

But this leads to the second anxiety. Can diverse religions get on with each other? It is striking that so many religious people believe that the value of religion does not simply reside in one's own religion. One's own religious heritage is to be cherished and honoured, but so are those of others.

This is now common in contemporary Britain but historically it has been more prevalent in the Middle East and South Asia. That is perhaps one reason found among contemporary Muslims in the west. A recent Gallup World Poll found that Muslims in Paris and London sought respect for Islam and its symbols but wanted to extend the same respect to religion in general.

It is not only religious people who can feel this way. Agnostics can equally value the good that religion does in the world – just as non-scientists can respect science and feel that society would be poorer without it. Such activities are part of good living and while not all can cultivate it fully, it is good that some do and they should be honoured and supported by others.

Increasingly since the 1960s, European cultural, intellectual and political life has become dominated by secularism, with secularist networks and organisations controlling most of the levers of power. Indeed, the accommodative character of secularism itself is being dismissed as archaic, especially on the centre left. Thus respect for religion is made difficult and seems outlandish but may be necessary as one of the sources of counter-hegemony and a more genuine pluralism. So, respect for religion and moderate secularism are kindred spirits and are sources of hope for a multiculturalism that gives status to religious, as to other, communities.

Professor Tariq Modood is director of the Centre for Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol. He has recently published Still Not Easy Being British: Struggles for a Multicultural Citizenship.