True multiculturalism acts as a bulwark against further extremism


Dr Rob Berkeley is the director of The Runnymede Trust (@RunnymedeTrust)

David-Cameron-Munich-Security-ConferenceSo we’re back to what is becoming an old chestnut; as the latest senior politician condemns multiculturalism. On Saturday, David Cameron took his place, behind Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Trevor Phillips, arguing that “state multiculturalism” has encouraged “different cultures to live separate lives” with a particular Cameron twist – that the UK needs a stronger national identity to prevent people turning to extremism.

Surely, such a panoply of senior politicians should have been able to organise the end of so-called state multiculturalism by now – unless of course it never existed in the first place, they do not really mean it, or the alternatives are simply too unattractive to countenance.

A key problem in debates around multiculturalism is that the term means different things to different people. Some believe that multiculturalism actively promotes separate religious and ethnic identities at the expense of common values, whilst others believe it simply means the existence and recognition of different identities in a shared political space within a framework of human rights. Runnymede’s understanding of the term has always been the latter.

This is why the insistence that multiculturalism is the root of all evil has always been confusing to us. On an everyday level, the people of these islands generally accept that different identities exist and for most, thankfully, this is trivial – what people choose to eat, what music they listen to, how they choose to dress, are not generally seen as controversial in this country.

The notion of a shared political space and the protection of individuals’ human rights however seem to be more problematic – and the inability to deal with these issues may explain why this debate so often generates more heat than light.

Support for multiculturalism does not mean support for segregation or a rejection of shared values.

We have regularly argued against policies which segregate groups – for example our research on faith schools argued that selection on the basis of faith should be ended, and criticized them for teaching a “single vision” rather than a “shared one”. Our work on employment has highlighted the dangers of workplace segregation. Our interventions with universities have noted the problems of ethnic segregation among students.

For us, it has been a long-held view that the way to build respect between different groups is through meaningful contact – in the school, workplace or university. The reason for building this respect is to help citizens recognise that we share a political space and as such our decisions should take into account the different ways of life in our society.

Everyone needs to know from what basis this respect derives and the recognition of human rights provides a set of minimum safeguards.

Mr Cameron may find that policies that:

• Remove the poor from housing in affluent areas;

• Deter students from poorer backgrounds from entering university;

• Create constituencies that disenfranchise the third of black and Asian people not on the electoral register;

• Increase youth unemployment (which is already double that of white communities for Pakistani youth); or

• Increase tension between black and Asian young people and the police.

…do not help in creating meaningful or positive contact between people from different backgrounds. Similarly, a patchy commitment to human rights, whether votes for prisoners, detention of children and the suggestion last week from Policy Exchange that we withdraw from the European Convention, cannot help in establishing what core values we expect from each other and our relationship with the state.

So instead of dealing with the difficult issues, we get more posturing from our politicians about separate lives. Yet evidence has repeatedly shown that ethnic residential segregation is a result of white flight and fear of discrimination rather than self-segregation (in any case why is there a problem with a positive choice to live with people you identify with – maybe ask the LGB and T communities of Brighton).

More about ‘national identity’ – when repeated polling has shown that more Muslims than Christians identify with British identity.

In Mr Cameron’s specific twist, the yoking of multiculturalism to extremism, we get avoidance and distraction rather than a seriousness in dealing with the thorny issue of how to combat violent extremism and anti-democratic movements in a democratic state. We would argue that true multiculturalism acts as a bulwark against further extremism.

Islamist extremists are just as much against multiculturalism as the far-right – they believe that the only way of living should be an Islamic one, and they reject other faiths and cultures. Instead, multiculturalism as we understand it offers a pragmatic democratic challenge – you can have a Caliphate/secular state/ban on all animal experimentation/no more immigration/etc if you can persuade enough people to vote for it and ensure individuals’ human rights.

Our political space, commitment to human rights, and belief in freedom is robust enough to deal with the challenge – a muscular multiculturalism should be robust enough to respond to Mr Cameron’s muscular liberalism.

Beyond the rhetorical attack, Mr Cameron and others in his tradition have failed to offer any credible alternative to multiculturalism. He speaks of the importance of a “collective identity” of common British values, but does not outline how these values will be determined, and who will decide what these values are. Surely, any collective identity needs to be determined by all British people, whatever their ethnicity or religion.

Sounds a lot like multiculturalism to me; unless the identity and values he refers to extend their reach to not only what you say and do, but what you believe. Unless of course, he means that any expression of identity that does not conform to the majority view is to be discouraged. I do not think that this was his intention, which can only lead me to think that he did not mean what he said.

These are tough times for our government – we have now had several days of the political agenda being focused on the speed and depth of spending cuts, the tensions in the coalition, the troubled NHS reforms or the unraveling of the Big Society. Mr Cameron’s speech was made on the same day of what was billed as England’s biggest anti-Islam march. Whilst Downing Street have argued that the speech has been in the diary “for months” it was unacceptable that there was no direct condemnation of the EDL in the speech given events simultaneously taking place in Luton.

Could “dog-whistle” politics explain this particular foray into this area? The lack of concrete proposals for change, or a credible alternative vision than the status quo, suggests that multiculturalism is a convenient whipping boy rather than the real problem.

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  • http://facebook.com Andrew J Chandler

    The problem with the prefix ‘multi’ is that it simply means ‘many’. It suggests a state of tolerance of difference, which is all very well, but its rather ‘soft’ and passive in approach, and can be taken to argue that we should tolerate separate development of different ethnic groups, as if they should all be treated with absolute equality in British Society. There should be more emphasis on an active deployment of ‘inter-cultural’ approaches and processes. This does not mean that we do not need to accept a dilution of our own cultural or religious identity in order to appreciate the cultures of others. Indeed, if we look to where old inter-cultural scores are being settled, such as in Ireland, we can see that this is not dependent of a dilution of cultures, but in a constructive engagement between them. True, active multi-culturalism, or inter-culturalism, calls for interaction, not segregation, but also integration rather than assimilation. In short, we need a society in which all cultures are valued as unique from the bottom up, rather than where an absolute and artificial equality is imposed from the top down. Models of integration from the Huguenots to the Ugandan Asians are worth revisiting. However, as hosts, we are right to ask newly-arrived immigrants what unique contribution they can make to British society, rather than what Britain can do for them. We need to reassert this integrationalist tradition which represents a fundamentally different, communitarian, approach compared with the assimilationist, ‘melting-pot’ approaches traditionally followed as part of the ‘rugged individualism’ of the USA. We don’t have an Ellis Island where people are expected to leave their cultural baggage behind in becoming citizens, but we do expect those who settle here to unpack this baggage, share it with us, and pick up some new items from us.

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  • http://juliekinnear.com Julie Kinnear

    But I don’t see anything bad about the emphasis put on promoting the traditional British values. When you look at the number of people who come to live in Britain even though they lack even the basic knowledge of the language or culture of the country it is clear that something must be done about these trends. After all, the majority of Muslim countries have much stricter rules and you have to obey them when you travel there.

  • Mr. Sensible

    couldn’t agree more, Dr Berkeley.

    The timing of Cameron’s intervention couldn’t have been worse; I read today that he has been praized by the leader of the French National Front.

    Interestingly, I notice he mentions values such as equality. Does that mean he will be as quick to condemn certain sections of the church for their views on women bishops?

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  • http://www.adrianhart.net Adrian Hart

    Let’s dump the M-Word?
    Rob Berkeley is right when he says “a key problem in debates around multiculturalism is that the term means different things to different people”. But he doesn’t exactly help the muddle by inferring that opposition to his (and Runnymede’s) preferred definition comes from those who regard multiculturalism as ‘the root of all evil’. All that does is set up the same old ‘you’re either for multiculturalism or a bit of a racist’ line, which serves mainly to shut down debate.

    Let’s start again. Rob, you probably heard this week’s Radio 4 Moral Maze on this exact same subject. Kenan Malik was attacked by the conservative Douglas Murray for daring to question aspects of Murray’s anti-multiculturalism (Murray hit back by simply calling Malik an “extreme left” communist). But Malik is also critical of multiculturalism. In fact at the start of the Moral Maze he made a very useful distinction. “We confuse 2 things”, he said, “one is the lived experience of a diverse society, the other is a set of polices to manage that diversity”.

    It is precisely the lived experience of a society enriched by a fizzing cosmopolitan diversity that unites many of us in our approval of modern multicultural Britain. But that doesn’t mean we must support the policies of state-multiculturalism. This has been a creed which, over several decades, encouraged the politicisation of identity in ethnic and religious terms. The principle of equality – that all people should be treated the same regardless of their skin colour, ethnicity or religion – became discretely swapped-out with the principle of diversity, whereby every ethnic and religious identity had to be given public recognition. ‘Diversity’ may as well of read ‘division’.

    Rob’s preferred definition of multiculturalism is, “the existence and recognition of different identities in a shared political space within a framework of human rights”. This is the essence of good old state-multiculturalism, which regarded ‘different identities’ as meaning ‘minority ethnic communities’. It was after the Handsworth riots that Birmingham City Council adopted multiculturalist policies, setting up community organisations based on ethnicity and faith. Newly ‘recognised’ in the political sphere, these organisations began to compete with each other for resources from the city budget. Pretty soon migrant communities that had not previously seen themselves as especially homogenised around race or religion started to do so. Don’t forget that in the Handsworth riots hundreds of people – black, white, Asian – took to the streets and stood shoulder to shoulder in the demand to be treated the same – not differently. Twenty years on, in neighbouring Lozells, it took a single, untrue rumour about the gang rape of an African Caribbean girl by a group of Asian men, to open up rifts fostered through policy and ignite a bloody clash between the two communities. At the sharp end, that’s the price of multiculturalism.

    In a more everyday sense, the relativism that insists we celebrate differences over commonality, that we respect all cultures, values and identities without question (or risk offence) – this has been the soft tyranny of multiculturalism. And yet the way we arrive at the much coveted ‘shared sense of collective identity’ based on ‘common values’ is surely through that time-honoured process of rigorously interrogating and debating the myriad values on offer – If there are any genuine liberals out there, unequivocally FOR diverse society, FOR immigration and FOR free speech (no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’) lets dump the M-word and get on with that.

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  • Samuel Dada

    With all respect we need to look at how we respond to extremism in our society, Open debate without attack on what we value. Yes, we need to re-examine how we define multiculturalism. To ask question whether its promote separation among groups and how to match integration with multiculturalism.
    I strongly believe there is a problem in debates around definition of multiculturalism, since the term means different things to different people. Some believe that multiculturalism actively promotes diversities in culture, celebration of our differences within common space, with respect for separate religious and ethnic identities, whilst others believe it simply means the existence and recognition of different identities in a shared political space within a framework of human rights. But we all believe this should be at the expense of common values.
    We need a society that gives everyone equal to right: To employment, education, and inclusion in all aspect of the society irrespective of colour, or religion.

    Don’t let fall into the hand of those who want to separate us more, we need open debate on religion extremism. We should come together, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Jew.

  • Frank

    One of the poorest contributions at this site. The last government funded organisations like the MCB which was continually found to have dubious views about integration, Jews, gay people etc. A lot of the ‘Prevent’ money went to produce dvd’s & other publications which are probably gathering dust right now at the bottom of a drawer. Using gatekeepers doesn’t work, anyway.

    Some socialists have a blind-spot re multiculturalism. State m/culturalism was a kind of ‘millet’ system, picking so-called community leaders rather than enpowering local communities. Ken Livingstone’s relationship with Yusuf al Qaradawi, spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood-an undoubted clerical fascist organisation. Is he naive or cynical, trawling for Muslim votes in a communalist way?

  • Sayed

    Portrait Of Handsworth Riot in 1985 – Pogus Caesar – BBC1 TV . Inside Out.

    Broadcast 25 Oct 2010.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey7ijaXv6UQ

    Birmingham film maker and photographer Pogus Caesar found himself in the centre of the riots and managed to document these images. The stark black and white photographs featured in the exhibition ‘Handsworth Riots – Twenty Summers On’ provide a rare, valuable and historical record of the raw emotion, heartbreak and violence that unfolded during those dark and fateful days in September 1985.

  • http://www.maxfarrar.org.uk max farrar

    Been away (in the brilliantly multicultural state of Kerala), so this is a belated reply. Rob’s argument is right, in my view (although I do think that Cameron meant what he said!), and I am disheartened by those who align themselves with Blairite, Cameroonian and even former communists who attack multiculturalist discourse. I was part of the ‘anti-racist’ assault on steel-band, sari and samosa approaches to dismantling racism in the 1970s and 1980s, but actually those people did excellent work in schools at a crucial period. And what is not properly acknowledged is that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government commissioned and published a monument to multiculturalism in schools (a summary of it was published by the Runnymede Trust) known as The Swann Report. Here’s an extract from a chapter in a book I’m co-editing (called ‘Islam’ in ‘the West’ – Key Issues in Multiculturalism’ (Palgrave 2011) [apologies for shameless plug]). Please read it and explain what is wrong with these ideas, and thus why ‘the M-word’ should be dumped:

    “Paradoxically, since the Thatcher government of the 1980s was widely regarded by its opponents as pandering to the racist sentiments circulating in Britain, the most significant publication on race in that period, sponsored and welcomed by the Conservative government, added considerable weight to the multiculturalist cause. The ‘Swann Report’, another doorstep of a book, had been given terms of reference by Sir Keith Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s right-hand man and Minister of Education. These terms included recognition of ‘the contribution of schools in preparing all pupils for life in a society which is both multi-racial and culturally diverse’ (Swann, 1985: vii). The report was quite explicit that the educational disadvantage of black children would only be redressed if a new curriculum, new attitudes and new methods of teaching for all the UK’s school students were introduced. The Swann Report comprehensively rejected racism. It proposed that one of the key features of a new educational programme in schools would be what it called ‘the appreciation of diversity’. Swann puts its ambitions rather cautiously, but these are clearly infused with multiculturalist assumptions: ‘a variety of ethnic groups, with their own distinct lifestyle and value systems’ will be living together . . . ‘It is also possible that there will be some degree of cultural interchange’. This however is some way in the future: ‘A multi-cultural curriculum [will exist when] it is accepted by all sections of society that to draw on a diversity of cultural sources, and to incorporate a world perspective, was proper and unremarkable’ (Swann, 1985: 324). The tone might be of a somewhat distant dream, but it is a positive vision that is being expressed. The report also includes some strong advocacy right now for ‘respect’ for diversity, using a 1982 quote from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of schools on the role of teacher training in promoting: ‘respect for and understanding of the cultural heritage which belongs to children growing up in our society: sensitivity to the diversity of cultural background in today’s population’ (Swann, 1985: 560).”

    Do we really believe that all this ‘has gone too far’, that ‘state multiculturalism’ has sold the pass to Islamism? I wonder if Cameron wants to dump this aspect of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy too? Shouldn’t Swann and his team be given some respect for offering progressive advice during some of the dark days of racism in Britain?

  • http://www.adrianhart.net Adrian Hart

    The last comment (Max Farrar) adds to Rob Berkeley’s spin by once again lumping together all criticism of ‘multiculturalism’ into a single, homogenised, ‘reactionary’ attack. I realise the rules of Argument Culture demand a red and blue cornered boxing ring but, if anyone’s left reading this thread, I’m going to try one last time to break the three-line whip on this one. Let’s make it a questionnaire. Question 1 – Do you regard Britain’s growing ethnic and cultural diversity as positive, enriching and something to be embraced? Ok, good – so do I (and we’ve already left those nasty rightwing types behind haven’t we!). Next, Question 2 – Do you agree that “multiculturalism” as a set of political policies is something distinct from multiculturalism as lived-experience? (i.e distinct from the issue raised by question 1). If ‘yes’, then try this one: Question 3 – Is it possible that the state’s political project, rolled out under the banner of multiculturalism, might have been a tad counter-productive? If ‘no’ then sorry to lose you, but if ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ I guess the last question would be: is it okay to openly debate these issues? (or shall we just pretend its all gone swimmingly well?)

    Even Rob Berkeley’s posting and the comments it inspired give us plenty to debate. They talk about the ‘active deployment of inter-cultural approaches’, they register concerns over how multicultural policies can foster separation or place too little value on common values. I’m sorry Max Farrar feels disheartened by those who criticise (or “attack”) multiculturalist discourse. But debate is surely a good thing? To simply demand conformity (‘you’re either for us or against us’) kills off debate; it makes people feel they can’t speak out. This is especially so if criticism of how diversity is state-managed is irritably brushed aside as though it were an attack on diversity itself.

    When the Swann Report spoke of ‘a variety of ethnic groups, with their own distinct lifestyle and value systems’ it seems to have inspired decades of the worst kind of managerialism that nervously views diversity as a set of potential conflicts to be minimised by sealing people into ethnic boxes and forever patrolling the boundaries. And yet – ironically – the best thing about diversity is its potential for cultural symbiosis, for mixing it up, acquiring something new and better, discarding what is archaic or no longer of use. Max thinks its a ‘paradox’ that the Thatcher government sponsored and endorsed the Swann Report. That’s a good one! State-multiculturalism is conservative through and through. It’s the lived-experience we need to get behind. So why not dump the M-word? It’s tainted. At an exponential pace, and most apparent in our schools, a super-diversity is bubbling up right under the noses of an older, race-obsessed generation too often trapped in yesterdays world. I’m very pleased to see that in Birmingham the Runnymede Trust – through the project Generation 3.0 – has taken note.

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