This essay was published in the Observer, 5 April 2015, under the headline ‘Diversity and immigration are not the problem. Political courage is…’
Two events this week, some 2000 miles apart, captured the fraught character of the current debate about multicultural Britain. On Wednesday, nine Britons from Rochdale were arrested in Turkey, apparently as they tried to cross the border into Syria. One was the son of a local Labour councilor Shakil Ahmed, who said he was ‘shocked’ to hear of the arrests. ‘My son’, he added, ‘is a good Muslim and his loyalties belong to Britain, so I don’t understand what he’s doing there.’
The next evening in Salford, a hop and a skip from Rochdale, came the General Election leaders’ TV debate. UKIP’s Nigel Farage elicited outrage by blaming foreigners for seemingly all Britain’s social ills. But while his claims about ‘health tourism’ and about foreigners with HIV undermining the NHS might have enraged liberals, they seemed to play well to his core constituency. Post-debate polls showed both great support and great loathing for Farage. While many despise what they regard as racism, others applaud the UKIP leader for, as they see it, speaking the truth.
From Salford to the Syrian border, the question of how to respond to multiculturalism remains fraught and divisive. Some celebrate multiculturalism for having transformed Britain into a vibrant, cosmopolitan nation. For others, Britain has become too diverse. Too much immigration and too little integration have, they suggest, combined to erode social cohesion, undermine national identity and corrode public trust.
The two groups foregrounded last week have, for very different reasons, come to dominate the debate: Muslims and the ‘white working class’.The growing numbers of young Britons drawn to jihadism are, for many, emblematic of the refusal of Muslims to integrate and revealing of the failures of multiculturalism. According to YouGov poll last month 55 per cent of the population thinks there exists ‘a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society’.
Meanwhile rising support for UKIP has drawn both fear and contempt. Many fear that without mainstream politicians adopting tough anti-immigration policies, support for populism will grow. Hence the ramping up of anti-immigration rhetoric in recent months. Fear of UKIP is often mixed with contempt for the supposed racism and backwardness of the UKIP-voting masses. Times columnist Matthew Parris described Clacton, where last October Tory defector Douglas Carswell became UKIP’s first MP, as ‘Britain on crutches’. Its ‘voters are going nowhere’, Parris sneered, for ‘This is tracksuit-and-trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain.’
The idea that Muslims as a group are poorly integrated is not borne out by the facts. Numerous polls have shown that Muslims tend to identity with Britain to a greater degree than the population at large. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 77% of Muslims said that they identity ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ strongly with Britain – compared to 50% of the population at large. Similarly, a 2011 Demos poll found that 83% of Muslims were ‘proud to be British’, as opposed to 79% of Britons in general.
British Muslims certainly tend to be highly conservative in their social attitudes, being far less liberal on issues such as homosexuality and abortion than the general public. Such conservatism does not make their beliefs incompatible to British values – there are plenty of Christians, Jews and atheists who are equally illiberal – or suggest that Muslims are unable to integrate. Nor does Islam necessarily make one socially conservative. Muslims in other Western nations – France, Germany and the USA, for instance – are notably more liberal. As indeed were previous generations of Muslims in Britain.
There is much talk, on both sides of the multiculturalism debate, about ‘the Muslim community’ – and about its views, needs and aspirations. Until the late 1980s, however, few Muslims in Britain had thought of themselves as belonging to any such thing.
The first generation of postwar Muslim immigrants to Britain, in the 1950s and 1960s, were pious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore the hijab, let alone the burqa or niqab. Most attended mosque only occasionally. Their faith defined their relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. They were more likely to call themselves Sylheti or Punjabi than Muslim.
The second generation – my generation – was broadly secular. The organizations we looked to for guidance and support were not religious but political, groups such as the Asian Youth Movements or the Indian Workers’ Association.
Only in the late 1980s did Muslims begin to identify with ‘the Muslim community’. A generation that, ironically, was far more integrated and ‘westernized’ than the first became more insistent on maintaining its distinctiveness.
The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in a tangled web of political changes, including the collapse of the left and the rise of identity politics. Partly they lie in international developments, such as the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, which played an important role in fostering a heightened sense of Muslim identity. And partly they lie in the promotion by the state of multicultural policies.
Multicultural policies emerged in the 1980s largely in response to the anger within minority communities created by racism, an anger that found an explosive vent in the inner city riots of the late 1970s and 1980s. To assuage this anger, the authorities pioneered a new strategy of drawing black and Asian communities into the mainstream political process by designating specific organizations or community leaders to represent their interests.
In this process was born the idea of Britain as ‘a community of communities’, as the influential 2000 Parekh report on multiculturalism put it. The authorities attempted to manage diversity by putting people into particular ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people were put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. They treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogenous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined by a singular view of culture and faith. The most conservative figures often came to be accepted the authentic voices of minority groups.
The consequence has been to create a more parochial sense of identity and a more tribal vision of Islam. And for a small group of Muslims, tribalism has led them to find their identity and an authentic Islam in Islamism. The attractions of jihadism to some Muslims is an issue that needs confronting. But it does not reveal a problem with Muslim integration as such, or with too much immigration.
The problem of multiculturalism is not one of too much immigration or diversity. It lies, rather, in the impact of the policies enacted to manage diversity. When we talk of ‘multiculturalism’, we often conflate the lived experience of diversity with public policies towards minority communities. The failure of those policies has led many to blame diversity itself as the problem.
This leads us to the second issue at the heart of the multiculturalism debate. The debate about UKIP, and about hostility to immigration in working class communities, is as misguided as that about Muslim integration. UKIP certainly draws support from hardline racists and many of its policies are bigoted. But it also enjoys wider support, from people whose hostility towards immigrants or Islam is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity.
Over the past three decades, a host of economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the growth of inequality, the creation of a more atomized society – have combined with a series of political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power, and the distancing of the Labour Party from its old working class base, to corrode the social bonds that once provided strength and identity to working class communities and to diminish their status in society. The result has been the creation of what many commentators now call the ‘left behind’ working class, who feel politically abandoned, voiceless and detached from the mainstream political process.
The ‘left behind’ have been left behind largely because of economic and political changes. But many have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so the ‘left behind’ have also come to see their problems in cultural terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent.
Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural attribute, then those regarded as culturally different come to be viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration. The forces of globalization or the internal wranglings of the Labour Party are difficult to conceptualise. The Polish builder or your Bangladeshi neighbour is easy to see. So, immigration has become the means through which many sections of the electorate perceive their sense of loss of social status. It 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.
Most politicians today defend multiculturalism, and sneer at UKIP policies, while assiduously fostering fears about immigration and adopting populist anti-immigration policies. What we actually need to do is the opposite. We need to defend diversity and immigration while challenging multicultural policies. And we need to engage with the concerns of UKIP voters while also challenging prejudices about Muslims and immigration. Will any politician have the courage and vision to do this? I’m not holding my breath.
The paintings are all by British Muslim artists. From top down, Shafaq Ahmad, Al Mussawwar; Vaseem Mohammed, The Favour; Vaseem Mohammad, Untitled; Ali Omar Ermes. Waw.