I am giving the Milton K Wong Lecture in Vancouver in June. Entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perspective’, it will try to explain to a Canadian audience, for whom multiculturalism has a very different meaning than it does to a European one, the contours of the European debate, as well as my disagreements with both sides. In particular I want to show why both multiculturalists and many of their critics (particularly their rightwing critics) buy into the same set of myths about the history of immigration into Europe, these three in particular:

1 ‘European nations used to be homogenous but have become plural  because of mass immigration’

It is a claim that might appear to be common sense. After all, immigration has transformed Western European societies, and many seem to be riven by the kinds of cultural and religious conflicts that were rare in the past – from the controversy over The Satanic Verses to the debate about whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa. In fact, most European nations are less plural now than they were, say, a hundred years ago. The reason we imagine otherwise is because of historical amnesia and because we have come to adopt a highly selective standard for defining what it is to be plural.

Consider France. At the time of the French Revolution, less than half the population spoke French. The historian Eugene Weber has shown how traumatic and lengthy was the process of what he calls ‘self-colonisation’ required to unify France and her various constituent populations. These developments created the modern French nation.  But they also reinforced in the elite a sense of how alien was the mass of the population. Here is the Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez addressing the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857:

Consider a population like ours, placed in the most favourable circumstances; possessed of a powerful civilisation; amongst the highest ranking nations in science, the arts and industry.  Our task now, I maintain, is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

One only has to read the novels of Émile Zola - Nana, for instance – or the works of Count Arthur Gobineau, one of the leading racial scientists of his day, to recognize how widespread was this sentiment. Gobineau, for instance, had this to say about social distinctions in France in his Essay On the Inequality of the Human Races:

Every social order is founded upon three original classes, each of which represents a racial variety: the nobility, a more or less accurate reflection of the conquering race; the bourgeoisie composed of mixed stock coming close to the chief race; and the common people who live in servitude or at least in a very depressed position. These last belong to a lower race which came about in the south through miscegenation with the negroes and in the north with the Finns.

The social and intellectual elite in France, far from viewing their nation as homogenous, regarded most of their fellow Frenchmen not as ‘one of us’ but as racially alien, and so inferior that they stood below the ‘most inferior savage races’ and were ‘beyond cure’. The concept of ‘race’ today is so intertwined with the idea of ‘colour’, and of the distinction between Europeans and non-Europeans, that it is often difficult to comprehend nineteenth century notions of racial difference.  For  nineteenth century thinkers, race was a description not so much of colour differences as of social distinctions. The lower classes were, in their eyes, as racially different as were Africans or Asians.  The ‘Other’ were not peoples who came from without; they lived within the nation, and were part of it.

In Britain, too, the elite viewed the working class and the rural poor as the racial Other. In October 1865, a local rebellion by peasantry in Jamaica was put down with the utmost ferocity by the island’s governor Edward John Eyre. Eyre’s actions generated considerable debate in Britain.  Most of those who defended his viciousness did so on the grounds, not that Jamaicans were black, but that they were no different from English workers. ‘The negro’, observed the planter Edwin Hood, ‘is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very likely often nearly a savage with the mind of a child.’

A vignette of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, is typical of English middle class attitudes of this era:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… Slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.

Modern Bethnal Green is no longer home to warehousemen or costermongers, but lies rather at the heart of the Bangladeshi community in East London. Today’s ‘Bethnal Green poor’ are often seen as culturally and racially distinct. But only those on the fringes of politics would compare the distinctiveness of Bangladeshis to that of slaves. The sense of apartness was far greater in Victorian England than it is contemporary Britain. And that is because in reality the social and cultural differences between a Victorian gentleman or factory owner, on the one hand, and a farmhand or a machinist, on the other, were much greater than those between a white resident and one of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green today. However much they may view each other as different, a 16 year old of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green, or a 16 year old of Algerian origin living in Marseilles, or a 16 year old of Turkish origin living in Berlin, probably wears much the same clothes, listens to the same music, watches the same TV shows, follows the same football club as a 16 year old white teenager in that same city. The shopping mall and the sports field, the TV and the iPod, have all served to bind differences and create a set of experiences and cultural practices that is more common than at any time in the past.

There is nothing new, then, in plural societies. From a historical perspective contemporary societies, even those transformed by mass immigration, are not particularly plural. What is different today is the perception that we are living in particularly plural societies, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. The debate about multiculturalism is a debate in which certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as important while others (such as class, say, or generational), which used to be perceived as important, have come to be seen as less relevant. The real question, then, is not about how to manage uniquely plural societies, but about why we imagine that contemporary societies are uniquely plural.

2 ‘Contemporary immigration is different to previous waves, so much so that social structures need fundamental reorganization to accommodate it’

In his much-lauded book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe the American writer Christopher Caldwell suggests that prior to the Second World War immigrants came almost exclusively from other European nations and so were easily assimilable. ‘Using the word immigration to describe intra-European movements’, Caldwell suggests,  ‘makes only slightly more sense than describing a New Yorker as an “immigrant” to California’. Muslim migration, in particular, Caldwell sees as a form of colonization. ‘Since its arrival half a century ago’, Caldwell argues, ‘Islam has broken – or required adjustments to, or rearguard defences of – a good many of the European customs, received ideas and state structures with which it has come in contact.’ Islam ‘is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it’.

Caldwell is deeply hostile to multiculturalism. Many multiculturalists, too, however, see postwar immigration as different from previous waves, and demand major changes to social structures to accommodate those differences.  The British sociologist Tariq Modood, for instance, suggests that the new immigration requires a new ‘equality encompassing public ethnicity’. This means an ‘equality as not having to hide or apologise for one’s origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.’ Both multiculturalists and their critics, then, view new immigration as distinct from old immigration and as demanding major social surgery. Multiculturalists see this as positive, or at least as an acceptable necessity. Their critics see it as an intolerable problem. Both are wrong.

I will come to the question of postwar immigration in due course. Let me deal first with the claim that prewar immigrants were perceived as little different from the indigenous populations. According to Caldwell, prewar immigration between European nations did ‘not provoke the most worrisome immigration questions, such as “How well will they fit in?” “Is assimilation what they want?” and, most of all, “Where are their true loyalties?”.’

In fact, those were the very questions asked of European migrants in the prewar years. In 1903, the British Royal Commission on Alien Immigration expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’ and there were fears that there might be ‘grafted onto the English stock… the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’.

Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, was designed primarily to bar European Jews, who were seen as unBritish.  The Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, observed that without such a law, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution… nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’

In France, nearly a third of the population in the 1930s were immigrants, mostly from Southern Europe. Today we think of Italian or Portuguese migrants as culturally similar to their French hosts. Seventy years ago they were viewed as aliens, given to crime and violence, and unlikely to assimilate into French society. ‘The notion of the easy assimilation of past European immigrants’, the French historian Max Silverman has written, ‘is a myth’.

One of the consequences of postwar migration has been to create historical amnesia about prewar attitudes, just as it has created historical amnesia about the divided nature of European societies before such immigration.  From a historical perspective, there is little that is unique about contemporary migrants with regard to the way that host societies perceive them.

3 ‘ European nations have adopted multicultural policies because minorities have demanded them’

The irony of multicultural policies is that they were imposed not because minority communities demanded that their differences be recognised but because it was useful for policy makers that they were. The question of the cultural difference of immigrants has  always preoccupied the political elites. It is not a question, however, that, until recently, has particularly engaged immigrants themselves.

Take Britain. The arrival in the late 1940s and the 1950s of large numbers of immigrants from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean led to considerable unease about its impact upon traditional concepts of Britishness. As a Colonial Office report of 1955 observed, ‘a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken… the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached’.

The migrants certainly brought with them a host of traditions and habits and cultural mores from their homelands, of which they were often very proud. But they were rarely concerned with preserving cultural differences nor thought of it as a political issue. What inspired them was the struggle not for cultural identity but for political equality. And they recognized that at the heart of that struggle was the creation of a commonality of values, hopes and aspirations between migrants and indigenous Britons, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences.

This is equally true of the group whose traditions, beliefs and mores are widely perceived to be most distinct from those of Western societies, and hence the group that is supposedly most demanding that its differences be publicly recognized: Muslims. The patterns of Muslim migration have, in fact, been little different to that of other communities. The best way to understand it, as of much postwar migration to Europe, is in terms of three generations: the first generation that came to Europe in the 50s and 60s; the second generation that were born, or grew up, here in the 70s and 80; and the third generation that has come of age since then.

The first generation of Muslim immigrants to Britain, who came almost entirely from the Indian subcontinent, were pious in their faith, but wore it lightly. The British writer and theatre director Pervaiz Khan, whose family came to Britain in the 1950s, remembers his father and uncles going to the pub for a pint. ‘They did not bring drink home’, he says. ‘And they did not make a song and dance about it. But everyone knew they drank. And they were never ostracised for it.’  No woman wore a hijab, let alone a niqab or burqa. His family ‘rarely fasted at Ramadan’, Khan says, ‘and often missed Friday prayers. They did not boast about it. But they were not pariahs for it. It is very different from today.’ Khan’s experience is not unusual. My parents were very similar. And those of most of my friends. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all encompassing philosophy.

The second generation – my generation – was primarily secular. I was of a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or even often as ‘Asian’, but rather as ‘black’. Black was for us not an ethnic label but a political badge. ‘Officially, as it were’, observes Jamal Khan, the narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s novel Something to Tell You, ‘we were called immigrants, I think. Later for political reasons we were ‘blacks’… In Britain we were still called Asians, though we’re no more Asian than the English are European. It was a long time before we became known as Muslims, a new imprimatur, and then for political reasons.’  Or as the novelist Tariq Mehmood, one of the Bradford 12, puts it, ‘In the 1970s, I was called a black bastard and a Paki, but not a coloured bastard and very rarely was I called a Muslim’.

The ‘Muslim community’, in the sense of a community that defined itself solely, or even primarily, by faith did not exist in the 1970s. Neither did the Sikh community, nor the Hindu community. ‘I had grown up in a profoundly secular environment’, recalls Balraj Purewal, who was a member of Asian Youth Movement in the 1980s. ‘As a Punjabi I did not think about Muslim or Sikh. At school the person next to me was never a Muslim or Hindu. It never occurred to me to think like that.’ Unlike our parents’ generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally fierce in our opposition to religion and to the traditions that often marked immigrant communities. Religious organizations were barely visible. The organizations that bound together migrant communities, were secular, often socialist: the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 80s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important.  A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and ‘Westernised’ than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’. This in itself should make us question the received wisdom that multiculturalism has been a response to minority demands and an accommodation to their unwillingness to integrate. The shift in the meaning of a single word expresses the transformation through the postwar years. When I was growing up, to be ‘radical’ was to be militantly secular, self-consciously Western and avowedly left-wing. To be someone like me. Today ‘radical’ in a Muslim context means the very opposite. It describes a religious fundamentalist, someone who is anti-Western, who is opposed to secularism.

What is true of Britain is true also of many other European countries. In France, for instance, the irony is that, for all the current hostility of the French state to Islam, and to public displays of Islamic identity, such as the burqa, for most of the postwar years, while migrant workers were defiantly secular, successive governments regarded such secularism as a political threat and attempted to foist religion upon them, encouraging them to maintain their traditional cultural identities.

‘The right to a culture identity’, declared Paul Dijoud, minister for immigrant workers in the 1970s government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, ‘allows the immigrant, despite his geographical distance, to stay close to his country.’ The government sought in Islam ‘a stabilizing force which would turn the faithful from deviance, delinquency or membership of unions or revolutionary parties’. When a series of strikes hit car factories in the late seventies, the government encouraged employers to build prayer rooms in an effort to wean immigrant workers, who formed a large proportion of the workforce, away from militant activity.

The myth that multiculturalism was a response to minority demands gets cause and effect the wrong way round. Minority communities did not force politicians to introduce multicultural policies. Rather, the implementation of multicultural policies helped entrench the politics of identity within minority communities and shaped the desire to celebrate one’s culture identity.


Most of the quotes in the first two parts come from my books Strange Fruit and The Meaning of Race; most of those in Part 3 are taken from my book From Fatwa to Jihad. The photos are, from top to bottom, of the SS Empire Windrush, which brought the first group of Caribbean immigrants to Britain in 1948; an anthropometrics demonstration at the Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held in New York’s Museum of Natural History, 1921; a poster for an anti-immgration demonstration in 1902; an Asian mother and child arriving at Heathrow in 1968; and Jayaben Desai, leader of the Grunwick strike in 1976.

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