We are in Bradford, shortly after a fractious general election, and with the country about to go to war in the Middle East. The Conservatives are holding their party conference in the city. Protestors gather in an Occupy-like camp outside the conference hall.
Kash, a liberal Muslim, local councillor, and wannabe MP, is preparing to address the Tory conference about the need to build trust between communities. His white partner Natalie secretly converts to Islam, much to Kash’s shock. Natalie’s mother Lyn, all pearls and gin, is fond of Kash but gives vent to UKIP-style tirades lamenting a lost England. Kash’s teenage daughter Qadira becomes ‘radicalised’ and is persuaded to carry out an act of protest at the Conservative Party conference.
Actor John Hollingworth’s first full-length play Multitudes, which has just ended a run at London’s Tricycle Theatre, may sound dull and worthy. Actually, it is fast, funny, sharp, acerbic and provocative. Director Indu Rubasingham’s production is pacy and smart.
The trouble is, Multitudes is also quite cartoonish. The title of the play is taken from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’, part of which acts as an epigram:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)
Yet, what the play lacks are multitudinous contradictions. It maps the discussion about multiculturalism onto debates about racism and political tribalism. But it does so in a way that obscures as much as it illuminates. Those opposed to multiculturalism are racists. Tories (boo hiss) hate multiculturalism. The leading Tory Muslim is a Bullingdon Club-type figure called Julian who says of Bradford ‘I thought it would be more Asian‘. Qadira is a Muslim teenager waiting to be radicalised. Her Islamist handler is an almost silent burqa-clad woman. The result is not so much an exploration of complexities as the recreation of commonplace caricatures.
Hollingworth wants to present the conflicts within Kash’s family as symbolic of the broader social tensions, torn apart as it is between the different ideas and experiences of Kash, Natalie, Lyn and Qadira. But because the individuals are less fleshed-out characters than symbols – the liberal Muslim, the ‘I’m not racist but…’ racist, the tortured liberal, the radicalized teenager – so the family, too, becomes something of a caricature.
I have long made the point that the problem with the debate about multiculturalism is the black-and-white view of the issue that both sides adopt. The debate about multiculturalism has become conflated with the debates about racism, diversity and immigration. Many people (particularly liberals) imagine that those opposed to multiculturalism are also opposed to immigration, diversity and are, to some degree, racist. They imagine, too, that to be antiracist one must be in favour of multiculturalism. It is, however, because I am an antiracist, and and because I defend diversity and mass immigration, that I am critical of multiculturalism:
The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
It is, I argue:
critical to defend diversity as lived experience – and all that goes with it such as mass immigration and cultural diversity; this particularly important as a time when many raise arguments against immigration, especially Muslim immigration, in the name of defending ‘secularism’ or ‘freedom’. It is equally important, however, to oppose multiculturalism as a political process and to oppose, too, the demand that we must recognise, affirm and institutionalise cultural differences in the public sphere.
We need to recognize, too, that those who oppose diversity or immigration do not necessarily do so for racist reasons. ‘Anxieties about immigration’, I have argued, ‘are an expression of a wider sense of political voicelessness, abandonment and disengagement.’ Immigration has ‘become both a catch-all explanation for unacceptable social change and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of voters.’
All of which means that the debate about multiculturalism, diversity, immigration and Islam needs to be tackled with nuance. Multitude’s heart is in the right place. It explores important issues all too rarely aired on the stage. But it needs to let its ideas breathe, to really contain multitudes, to be not frightened of contradicting itself, and to refrain from shoehorning the debate into a set of well-worn categories.
The Tricycle Theatre organized a series of discussions based on the themes of the play, including one on multiculturalism, in which I took part together with Nazir Afzal, Sunny Hundal, Innes Bowen, David Goodhart and Tazeen Ahmad. We tried in the discussion to bring out some of the complexities of the multiculturalism debate.
Afterwards I met John Hollingworth, who is a lovely, engaging man. He listened with much grace to my criticisms of (as well as my praise for) his play. Part of the problem, he suggested, is that any work for theatre must to a degree be cartoonish. Otherwise it would not work as a play. Which is undoubtedly true. Yet, complexity and theatricality are not necessarily antagonistic. Hollingworth views the play, I think, as a work in progress, as a first attempt to address the issues. He may, he said, rework Multitudes when it goes on the road and take on board both the experience of bringing the work to stage, and some of the issues that have been raised in response, and not just by me. I look forward to that. Critical I may be of aspects of the play, but it is a work well worth seeing and debating.
Multitudes has finished its run at the Tricycle Theatre but is due to play at different venues across the country.