This is a transcript of a talk I gave at a conference last month in Oslo on diversity, faith and extremism.
How should we live in a diverse society? It is a question that has been asked with increasing urgency in recent years as the question of immigration, and in particular of Islamic immigration, has taken centre stage in public debate. At the heart of this question lies the dilemma of how Western societies should respond to the influx of peoples with different traditions, backgrounds and beliefs. What should be the boundaries of tolerance in such societies? Should immigrants be made to assimilate to Western customs and norms or is integration a two-way street? Such questions have bedevilled politicians and policy-makers for the past half century. They have also tied liberals in knots.
To answer the question, and to begin untying those knots, we first have to answer two more fundamental questions. What we mean by a diverse society? And why should we value it, or indeed fear it? My aim is not so much to provide a set of solutions as to suggest that we need to rethink some of the basic concepts we use in discussing these questions.
When we think about diversity today in Europe, the picture we see is that of societies that in the past were homogenous, but have now become plural because of immigration. We only picture Europe in this fashion, however, because of historical amnesia; and because we have come to define diversity in a highly peculiar and highly restricted way.
When we talk of European societies as historically homogenous, what we mean is that they used to be ethnically, or perhaps culturally, homogenous. But the world is diverse in many ways. Societies are cut through by differences, not only of ethnicity, but also of class, gender, faith, politics, and much else.
European societies of the past were not exactly conflict free. Many worry today of the clash between Islam and the West, and fear that Islamic values are incompatible with Western values. We assume that such classes and such fears new, the product of a Europe made diverse through mass immigration. But religious conflict was the norm in the old homogenous Europe.
It may be hard to imagine now but Catholics were until relatively recently seen by many much as Muslims are now. The English philosopher John Locke is generally seen as providing the philosophical foundations of liberalism. His Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship. But he refused to extend such tolerance to Catholics. They were a threat to English identity and security, he argued, because, in accepting the pope as head of their church, they ‘deliver themselves up’, in Locke’s words, ‘to the protection and service of another prince’ – an argument echoed today by many critics of Muslim immigration to Europe.
Until the nineteenth century Catholics in Britain were by law excluded from most public offices, and were denied the vote; they were barred from universities, from many professions, and from serving in the armed forces. Protestants were banned from converting to Catholicism, and Catholics banned from marrying Protestants.
Such vicious anti-Catholicism existed well into the twentieth century, and not just in Europe. In America, the historian Leo Lucassen observes, Catholicism was perceived in America as ‘representing an entirely different culture and worldview, and it was feared because of the faith’s global and expansive aspirations’. ‘It is the political character of the Roman Church’, wrote the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘that makes it incompatible with our institutions & unwelcome here.’
Jews were seen even more of a threat to European identity, values and ways of being, so much so that they became victims of the world’s greatest genocide. But the treatment of Jews as the ‘Other’ was not confined to Germany. It was a central theme in most European nations, expressed in everything from the Dreyfus affair in France to Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, which was designed principally to stem the flow into the country of European Jews. Without an immigration law limiting the Jewish influx, the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour argued, British ‘nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we should desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’ Very similar, in other words to contemporary fears about Muslim immigration. The Conservative MP Major Sir William Eden Evans-Gordon described the fears with an extraordinary metaphor. ‘Ten grains of arsenic in a thousand loaves would be unnoticeable and perfectly harmless’, he told Parliament, ‘but the same amount put into one loaf would kill the whole family that partook of it.’
Europe was rent not just by religious and cultural but by political conflict too. From the English civil war to the Spanish civil war, from the German Peasants’ rebellion to the Paris commune, European societies were deeply divided. Conflicts between communists and conservatives, liberals and socialists, monarchists and liberals became the hallmark of European societies. Of course we don’t think of these conflicts as expressions of a diverse society. Why not? Only because we have a restricted view of what diversity entails.
But even within that restricted notion of diversity, our historical picture of European societies is mistaken. We look back upon European societies and imagine that they were racially and ethnically homogenous. But that is not how Europeans of the time looked upon their societies. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the working class and the rural poor were seen by many as racial distinct.
A vignette of working-class life in Bethnal Green, a working class area of east London, that appearied in an 1864 edition of The Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, was typical of Victorian middle-class attitudes. ‘The Bethnal Green poor’, the article explained, were ‘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.’ Much the same was true, it suggested, of ‘the great mass of the agricultural poor’. ‘Distinctions and separations, like those of English classes’, the article concluded, ‘which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship… offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.’
There were similar attitudes in France. In a speech in 1857, the Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez wondered how it could 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 as below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.’ The ‘races’ that caused Buchez such anxiety were not immigrants from Africa or Asia but the rural poor in France.
So, the first point about diversity is that we only imagine our societies as particularly diverse because we rewrite the past, and because a very peculiar definition of what constitutes diversity allows us to ignore the diversity – and conflict and the fears – that then existed.
We not only ignore the diversity of the past. Paradoxically, we often ignore also the diversity of the present. So, many who view society as diverse, often fail to see the diversity of minority communities. It is one of the ironies of a multicultural view of the world that societies are seen as diverse, but diversity somehow comes to an end at the edge of minority communities.
There is a tendency to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith; a tendency to put people into ethnic and cultural boxes, define individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy.
In so doing, the diversity of minority communities is all too often ignored. Minority communities are no different from any other communities. Few people imagine that there is a single ‘white’ community, or that all white people think the same. We acknowledge that some whites are conservative, some are liberal, some are social democratic, a few are communist or fascist. Some are religious, others militantly secular. Some believe in equal rights. Others don’t. Some think that Europe should keep out Muslim immigrants. Others don’t. Some supported the war in Iraq, others did not. And so on.
Why do we imagine that minority communities are any different? Why do we imagine that a single organization or single set of community leaders can speak for the whole community? Indeed, why do we speak of a community? There is no single Muslim community. There are many Muslim communities. There is no single black community. There are many. and so on.
One consequence of this perverse way of thinking about diversity is that the most progressive voices within minority communities often get silenced as not being truly of that community or truly authentic, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the authentic voices of minority groups.
The Danish MP Naser Khader tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a liberal Danish newspaper highly critical of the Muhammed caricatures. Seidenfaden claimed that ‘the cartoons insulted all Muslims’. Khader responded that ‘I am not insulted’. ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’, Seidenfaden responded .
‘You’re not a real Muslim.’ Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Muhammed caricatures offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. Here leftwing ‘anti-racism’ meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For too many liberal anti-racists, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim. It is a view that gives legitimacy to reactionary voices, and betrays those within Muslim communities, in the West and in Muslim majority counties, fighting for progressive change.
It is not just multiculturalists who erase the diversity of minority communities. French politicians often claim that their ‘assimilationist’ policies avoid the divisive consequences of British-style multiculturalism. France, they insist, treats every individual as a citizen, not as a member of a particular racial or cultural group.
But it doesn’t, any more than Britain, or Germany or Norway does. For instance, it is often claimed that there are some 5 million Muslims in France, making it the largest Muslim community in Europe. In fact there are arpund five million people of North African origin, but they have never constituted a single community, still less a ‘Muslim’ community. Migrants from North African have been broadly secular, indeed often hostile to religion. Even today, just one in four attend mosque.
Those of North African origin in France are also often described by politicians and policy makers and journalists as ‘immigrants’. In fact, the majority are second-generation French citizens, born in France and as French as any voter for the Front National.
The use of the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘immigrant’ as labels for French citizens of North African origin is not, however, accidental. It is part of the process whereby the state casts such citizens as the Other – as not really part of the French nation.
Ten years ago, riots swept through many French cities, from Paris to Marseilles, a response largely to racism, discrimination and police harassment. Few of those who rioted saw themselves as Muslim . But the riots were presented, by journalists, by politicians, by policy makers, less as a response to racism than as an expression of Islam’s growing threat to France.
In principle, the French authorities reject the multicultural approach of a country like Britain. In practice, however, they treat North African immigrants and their descendents as a single community, primarily a Muslim one.
What in today’s France, asks the French writer and film maker Karim Miské, ‘unites the pious Algerian retired worker, the atheist French-Mauritanian director that I am, the Fulani Sufi bank employee from Mantes-la-Jolie, the social worker from Burgundy who has converted to Islam, and the agnostic male nurse who has never set foot in his grandparents’ home in Oujda? What brings us together if not the fact that we live within a society which thinks of us as Muslims?’
‘We are’, Miské observes, ‘reminded every day – during conversations around the coffee machine, in news reports and in magazines – that we share a part of responsibility for such phenomena as the wearing of the burqa and praying in the street… Further, it is potentially our fault if the republican pact is undermined, and if the identity of France is in danger; and, incidentally, if little Afghan girls don’t go to school or if building churches in Saudi Arabia is banned.’
In his 1945 essay Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean Paul Sartre suggested that the authentic Jew was created by the anti-Semite. Miské makes the same point about the authentic Muslim: that it is the way that the outside society treats those of North African origin that creates the idea of the authentic Muslim, and indeed of the Muslim community itself.
But while many in France look upon its citizens of North African origins not as French but as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Muslim’, many in the second generation within North African communities are often as estranged from their parents’ cultures and mores, and from mainstream Islam, as they are from wider French society. 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.
Consider, for instance, the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. They were raised in Gennevilliers, a northern suburb of Paris, home to around 10,000 people of North African origin. The Kouachi brothers were not particularly religious, only rarely attended mosque, but were driven by a sense of social estrangement. They were, as Mohammed Benali president of the local mosque, put it, of a ‘generation that felt excluded and humiliated. They spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic.’
Caught between a society that sees them only as Muslim, and their own alienation from mainstream Islamic organizations, some get drawn to Islamism. We can see the same story in the trajectory of other recent jihadis, from Mohammed Siddique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombings in London, to Kreshnik Berisha, a German born of Kosovan parents, who went to fight with Islamic State, eventually returned home and become the first German homegrown jihadi to face trial.
What creates such wannabe jihadis is, to begin with at least, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.
There is, of course, nothing new in the youthful search for identity and meaning. What is different today is the social context in which this search takes place. We live in a more atomized society than in the past; in an age in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions and in which moral lines often seem blurred and identities distorted.
In the past social disaffection may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to anti-racist campaigns. Today, such organizations often seem equally out of touch. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics but the politics of identity. Identity politics has, over the past three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms. A generation ago, today’s ‘radicalised’ Muslims would probably have been far more secular in their outlook, and their radicalism would have expressed itself through political organizations. Today they see themselves as Muslim in an almost tribal sense, and give vent to their disaffection through a stark vision of Islam.
Most homegrown wannabe jihadis possess, however, a peculiar relationship with Islam. They are, in many ways, as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from Western societies. Most detest the mores and traditions of their parents, have little time for mainstream forms of Islam, and cut themselves off from traditional community institutions. It is not through mosques or religious institutions but through the Internet that most jihadis discover both their faith and their virtual community.
Disembedded from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, shaped by black and white ideas and values, driven by a sense that they must act on behalf of all Muslims and in opposition to all enemies of Islam, it becomes easier for wannabe jihadis to commit acts of horror and to view such acts as part of an existential struggle between Islam and the West.
What this leads us is to the question of integration. Diversity and integration are often seen as conflicting aims. That too much diversity inevitably undermines the possibility of integration. But just as we have a restricted notion of diversity, so we have a restricted notion of integration.
The debate about integration is framed in such a way that immigrants are viewed as a problem to solved, and integration as the solution to that problem. Framing the issue in this fashion makes ‘integration’ in any meaningful sense much more difficult.
What should immigrants be integrated into? For many policy makers the something into which immigrants are to be integrated is usually defined in Burkean terms: a nation, or a community, shaped by a set of values, which in turn are defined not merely by moral or political content but also by the history, tradition, ethnie and place. The consequence, as the philosopher Bridget Anderson observes, is that such nations and communities are also often defined against those without such a history, tradition, ethnie and place; in other words, against the migrant.
Communities or nations are not, however, fixed entities into which people have to be slotted. They are ever-changing bodies, created and recreated by those living within them – including migrants. Britain or France or Norway are significantly different places than they were fifty years ago. Partly that change has been brought about by migration. But had not one migrant set foot in Britain or France or Norway, these would still be very different societies than they were half a century ago. From the decline of old industries to the rise of social media, from the emergence of pop culture to the acceptance of women’s equality, from the growth of youth as a social force to the disintegration of the left – a host of social, political and economic developments have transformed society, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – and often to a greater degree than has immigration. But it is immigrants who primarily have become symbolic of change, and of change for the worse. Why? Because of the way that the immigration debate has been framed. From the beginning, immigration has been viewed as a problem, even as a threat, that needs to be sorted.
Rather than look upon integration as a special process applicable only to immigrants, it is better seen as an expression of a much broader set of developments through which the relationships between individuals, communities and society are forged.
One of the features of contemporary Europe is the disaffection that many have with mainstream politics and mainstream institutions. It is one of the reasons for the rise of populist and far right groups, from Front National to the UK Independence Party to the Sweden Democrats. Such disaffection is the product a host of social and political changes, that have left many, particularly from traditional working class backgrounds, feeling politically abandoned and voiceless, and detached from mainstream society.
A much-discussed 20i3 report on social attitudes in France, organized by the Centre for Political Studies Sciences Po found that 50 per cent of the population believed ‘the decline of France’, both economic and cultural, to be ‘inevitable’. 62 per cent considered ‘most politicians’ to be ‘corrupt’.
The report described a ‘fractured France’, divided into tribal groups, alientated from mainstream politics, distrustful of their leaders, and resentful of Muslims. We could describe this as a problem of integration. But we don’t. Why not?
Or take a recent study of British attitudes produced by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at Manchester University, called ‘Who feels British?’ The study revealed that while the majority of people of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Caribbean origin defined themselves as British, 72% of ‘white British’ rejected that label, viewing themselves only as English. They could have defined themselves as both English and British, but the majority chose not to. The figures suggest a fragmentation of identity, and a high level of disengagement among those classified as ‘white British’ from a sense of Britishness.
There are studies in many European countries that suggest similar trends. And yet integration is seen as problem of immigration, disaffection as a problem of non-migrant communities. Why?
What I am suggesting is that rather than look upon integration as a special process applicable only to immigrants, it is better seen in broader social terms. This is not to say that there are not issues specific to immigrants and minority communities, but they are best understood in the context of the wider debate about the relationship between individuals, communities and society.
All of which brings us to the second question I raised: why should we value (or fear) diversity? When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement.
Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse.
Diversity is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create a more universal language of citizenship. But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgments, that is often suppressed in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’. The very thing that is valuable about diversity – the clashes and conflicts that it brings about – is what we have come most to fear.
We can see this in the debate about the giving of ‘offence’. There has come to be an acceptance in many European nations, especially among those who value diversity, that it is morally wrong to give offence to those of different cultures or faiths or beliefs.
For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.
I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a mythical homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.
But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, it is also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. Once we give up the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
Part of the problem is that the notion of tolerance has been turned on its head. Tolerance used to mean the willingness to be exposed to things you don’t like’, the ability to live with views or attitudes that you find may find distasteful. Today, though, tolerance has come to mean the right to silence others whose views you may not care for.
The meaning of diversity has transformed in much the same way. Where once it used to mean the creation of a space for dissent and disagreement, now it describes a space where dissent and disagreement are expunged in the name of respect and tolerance, where in Tariq Modood’s words, people have ‘mutually to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’.
So, let me return to the question that is the title of this talk: how should we live in a diverse society?
First, need to recognize how narrow a view of diversity we have today; and that our narrow concept of diversity is at the very heart of many of our problem. If we look upon our differences in political or moral terms, they are often negotiable. If we see them in ethnic or cultural or religious terms, almost by definition they are not. Our peculiar perception of diversity has therefore made social conflict more intractable.
Second, we need to distinguish between diversity as lived experience and multiculturalism as a political process. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is positive. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity through the public recognition and affirmation of cultural differences and by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes.
This conflation of lived experience and political process has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many to present the problems of social cohesion as the product of mass immigration and turned minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of freedom and liberty, such as free speech and equal treatment, in the name of defending diversity. It is critical to defend diversity as lived experience, but also to oppose multiculturalism as a political process.
Third, we need to recognize that integration is not an issue simply of immigration. We should talk rather of the broader processes through which relationships between individuals, communities and society are forged. Societies have become fragmented because these relationships have frayed, and not just for minority communities.
Finally, a guiding assumption throughout Europe has been that immigration and integration must be managed through state policies and institutions. Yet real integration, whether of immigrants or of indigenous groups, is rarely brought about by the actions of the state. Indeed , the attempts by the state to manage diversity has been at the heart of many of the problems.
Real integration is shaped primarily by civil society, by the individual bonds that people form with one another, and by the organizations they establish to further their shared political and social interests. It is the erosion of such bonds and institutions that has proved so problematic and that explains why social disengagement is a feature not simply of immigrant communities but of the wider society, too. To repair the damage that disengagement has done, and to revive what I call a progressive universalism, we need, not so much new state policies, as a renewal of civil society.
The pictures are from European films about migration and identity. From the top down Udayan Prasad’s ‘Brothers in Trouble’ (1996); Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Ida’ (2013); Bourlem Guerdjou’s ‘Vivre au Paradis’ (1997);Tevfik Baser’s ’402 m Deutschland’ (1986); Sembene Ousmane’s ‘La Noire de…’ (1966); Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine'(1995); Jacques Audiard’s ‘Un Prophète’ (2009); Kenneth Glenaan’s ‘Yasmin’ (2004); Rainer Fassbinder’s ‘Angst Essen Seele Auf’ (Fear Eats the Soul) (1974); Horace Ové’s ‘Pressure (1975) Stephen Frear’s ‘My Beautiful Laundrette (1985); Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (2004).