Mind the Generation Gap

The New Generation Network, a collective of progressive public commentators, intellectuals and policy wonks, was launched this week and they have published a new manifesto on race and faith, thirty years on from Britain’s 1976 Race Relations Act.

Their intent is a good one. The multicultural consensus around race and faith is fraying badly, and a new coalition undoubtedly needs to be built, somewhere in the middle ground between the Euston Manifesto group and, let’s say for the sake of example, Melanie Phillips. One wants to exclude religion entirely from public life; the other wants to reassert a Judeo-Christian basis for British national identity to the exclusion of those deemed truculent, even dangerous, parvenus. The manifesto seeks to appeal, according to one signatory, not to the ‘silent majority’ just among ethnic minority or non-Christian faith groups, but to the country at large. [1]

The manifesto, as it stands, represents a statement of intent; it is not presently a fundamental rethinking. But it does boldly articulate some core issues that are crucial in moving towards a ‘saner’ debate on race and faith.

This charter aspires to a spirit of optimism, based on the fact that most people are tolerant and do get on together, despite the tensions that it also flags up. It reflects the weight of empirical evidence that, generally speaking, far from ‘sleepwalking to segregation’, Britain is becoming less segregated, and that, if there is still some segregation, it cannot be simply understood as ‘self-segregation’ but as a complex set of factors that include ‘white flight’, structural inequalities and the natural processes of demographic expansion in new communities.

The manifesto doesn’t abandon multiculturalism but restates its main purpose: to bring people together in creative synergy and not to reinforce cultural enclaves of the mind and heart.

The charter reinforces a commitment to anti-racism and recognises the current centrality of Islamophobia, even if it is debatable that it is merely a ‘proxy’ for racism. It is better described as a kind of cultural racism that overlaps and has similarities with colour-racism.

The manifesto doesn’t support the myth that when people come to the public sphere, they can be transformed into neutral rational agents without varying cultural backgrounds, viewpoints and commitments. After all, the secular public sphere works best when it can create a broad consensus about what needs to be done, without necessarily seeking to create an absolute uniformity of motivation. This is the modus vivendi model of secular liberalism, which I read the manifesto as supporting. [2]

This charter recognises the reality of multiple identities and that ethnic or faith identities are largely, but not always, a source of empowerment.

The manifesto recognises that crucial structural issues like poverty and equality of access and opportunity need to be tackled right across the board, and cannot be issues that are owned by particular groups, or lead to certain impoverished groups being ignored.

The charter offers an incisive critique of the ‘politics of representation’ by which community leaders are expected by government to manage their allegedly monolithic communities by some form of proxy. The crucial part is the ‘anointing’ of such leaders by government as Gary Younge points out. [3] With respect to South Asian communities, this interface between local government and the first collective institutions set up by these communities – their places of worship – was developed in the 1980s. The government of the day later realised that it was through these institutions that it could deliver social goods in deprived inner city wards. As a civil servant intimately involved with this process back in the early Nineties reflected, it was a pragmatic decision ‘to mobilise the faith communities in order to enable government to have better dialogue with people on the ground because in so many inner-city areas the faiths were the only structures on the ground that existed for organising people.’ [4]

Thereafter a conservative male leadership came to act as primary interlocutors for South Asian communities first at a local and then a national level. However, the democratic deficit does not lie primarily with the constitutional procedures of umbrella bodies like the Muslim Council of Britain, but lies in the fact that – to take the example of the Muslim community – British Muslims do not generally see mosques as institutions that represent their political aspirations, even if they are most certainly grassroots, spiritual institutions at the heart of these communities. When asked – in an academically-sound survey – who represented Muslims in Britain, 57% were unable to answer the question, 30% were unsure about the question, and tiny percentages mentioned certain organisations (Muslim Council of Britain – 4%, the mosque – 3%, Muslim Association of Britain – 1% and the Islamic Society of Britain – 1%). When asked the more general question about ‘who represents you politically’, 39% had no answer or didn’t know, 26% said their MP or their local councillor, 17% said the mosque, 11% said the Muslim Council of Britain and 3% said their trade union. [5] But while making this critique, the manifesto doesn’t appear to seek to end collective claims made by faith groups, but says they should be seen for what they are – lobbies:

We are not arguing that faith or race based groups should be restricted, but rather that their arguments be treated as one argument amongst many others and on their own merit. They have a right to argue for the enforcement of civil liberties and minority rights but they should be seen as lobby groups, not representatives of millions of people. [6]

And each interest group, every community, has a lobby and – loved or loathed – they are intrinsic to British politics. The question really then is how well they perform, and how relevant they are to articulating issues that do matter to minorities and to society at large. These considerations, moreover, apply just as much to the New Generation Network itself – another lobby – though one that plays more directly, given the nature of its makeup, to the court of public opinion.

In sum, the manifesto articulates many important points that should be championed, and it should be supported in these goals. But, at least in my personal view, some substantial objections remain.

The first objection is to do with ‘priorities’, as Gary Younge puts it [7], which in turn dictate what sorts of alliances matter in building this coalition. And the key gap in this document is that it does not place the ramifications of the ‘war on terror’ for issues of race and faith squarely at the centre of its analysis. This is strange, because many of the signatories are well known to have taken strong stands on the erosion of civil liberties since 9/11 and the creation of Britain’s Muslims as the ‘new Irish’. A new report has made the connection and its policy implications explicit:

[A]pprehension of the terrorist threat has been ‘racialised’. An important part of the government’s ability to pass its counter terrorism laws and developing police practice lies in the idea that these laws and their enforcement will not be employed against Tony Blair’s ‘law-abiding’ majority: they will not be used against ‘us’, they will be used against ‘them’. […] Stringent measures are possible in part because the general public does not feel vulnerable to being kept under surveillance, watching their words, being arbitrarily stopped, searched, raided, beaten, arrested or shot. By contrast, people in the Muslim and other minority communities do. [8]

As we are talking about fundamental civil liberties here, this would mean a platform that would include all the main Muslim activist groups, who are well aware from their grassroots connections of the impact the ‘war on terror’ is having on Muslim communities. And we can see the shape of such a platform in various conferences being held this autumn: The ‘Race and Faith Leadership Summit 2006: CRE RIP’ being lead by the 1990 Trust; ‘Racism, Liberty and the War on Terror’ led by the Institute of Race Relations; ‘National Rally to defend freedom of religion, conscience and thought’ led by the British Muslim Initiative and Liberty; and ‘The Emerging Pan-European Islamophobic Hysteria’ led by the European Muslim Network in association with the Greater London Authority. And this is no doubt cumulatively, with many other such rallying points, a serious campaign, which is saying that one can only really fight terrorism by upholding human rights and democratic values, and not by violating them. This is being run as a good old-fashioned grassroots campaign – building alliances across all sorts of boundaries – and its dynamic is entirely different from the ‘politics of representation’ that the manifesto criticises.

So which option is therefore more important for the New Generation Network? Is it clearly distinct from the ‘politics of representation’ focused on the issue of integration, or is it a platform that recognises the civil liberties strand as fundamentally central to issues of ‘race and faith’ in which the rights of all – even of those who might be defined as non-progressives – matter very much. The former position allows for a distancing from religious conservatives, the latter for a coming together on fundamental rights out of principle, if not on a clear progressive platform. However, in my judgement it would be possible to stand on this broader ticket while articulating a critique of ‘representational politics’ and promoting progressive politics at the same time, as people are well able to understand the importance of protecting fundamental rights. [9]

This dilemma plays out on another issue – freedom of speech. Very few people view it as an absolute principle, but, ideally, argue and debate certain restrictions on a case by case basis. The manifesto stands up for the free expression of art to be challenging, subversive, even insulting – and that’s fine. If something really oversteps the mark, it should never be the subject of censorship but of free debate exploring the complexities of cross-cultural sensitivities, which can challenge and change the tendency to portray wilful crassness as heroism. But the manifesto doesn’t mention the other big free speech issues of the moment. The first is the exploitation by the British National Party of a legal loophole that prohibits incitement to racial hatred but not (until the law comes into force next year) incitement to religious hatred. The second is the anti-terrorist legislation criminalising the ‘glorification of terrorism’; Liberty warned at the time that ‘outlawing [of] passionate speech and criminalizing non-violent political parties will make Britain less safe by silencing dissent’. In short, the manifesto, with its disconnection from the wider civil liberties agenda, misses the opportunity to make explicit the point that restrictions on free speech rarely resolve either racial tensions or the political grievances that feed violent extremism. In the rush to legislate (by governments and lobbies), proper politics has been short-circuited. So the second objection is that the manifesto indicates a commitment to free speech that does not go far enough.

My third objection relates to the demand, echoing Ruth Kelly’s speech last month, that those deemed non-progressive faith groups should be denied public monies. But matters are more complex then that. Firstly, under some current funding regimes it may be difficult to apply this additional criterion without falling foul of anti-discrimination law. Secondly, a major tool of government in pushing religious groups towards positive and collective working together with others has been funding regimes with tightly regulated controls and precise aims. For instance, it is clear that one of the main aims of the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund is to push interfaith initiatives and even to encourage the multi-faith NGO sector. Thirdly, some funding was used by religious groups to get messages about fundamental rights and responsibilities out to harder-to-reach constituencies. One successful example was the work done between mosques and the local council in Tower Hamlets to warn against pulling pupils out of term time, which, using the medium of the imam’s minbar, had a striking impact on pupil attendance in the borough. One assessment concludes:

The Council’s Education Directorate worked in partnership with the Council of Mosques. Outreach workers from East London mosque worked closely with parents to stress the importance of their children attending school. The project started in 15 primary schools and has now built on good practice and been mainstreamed. [10]

All this suggests a rather more complex and probably productive approach to working with religious conservatives than the manifesto, with its simple call for a blanket ban, implies.

The final objection rests upon a more general point. The manifesto is making general demands about how religious conservatives ought to conduct their politics – they shouldn’t ally themselves with progressives even on fundamental human rights issues or foreign policy, they shouldn’t claim to represent anyone but themselves (a common enough rhetorical device that the manifesto itself falls into), they shouldn’t promote or defend orthodox or ultra-orthodox religious practices through rights talk or legal appeals, and they should be rendered ineligible for public funding, notwithstanding the more complex picture on the ground. If, in theory, these measures were applied, this would not only cut down the ability of religious conservatives to present themselves as representative bodies but also to operate lobby groups or to run grassroots campaigns. It would effectively eviscerate the political capacity of that very community that is most in danger of losing out on its fundamental civil liberties – and in my judgement there is nothing out there which might effectively replace it.

The point is not to end political engagement by religious conservatives, but to challenge their limited inclination to articulate the common good, and to enact practical campaigns to promote it. By and large, they have no worked-out vision of multiculturalism or Britain’s future. They don’t engage seriously in generic issues affecting all Britons. They don’t work to protect the rights of many other marginalised minorities and groups. To quote a friend and academic [11], they have to move from ‘identity politics’ to a form of ‘religious humanism’ that would allow them to mainstream their communities and to express their concerns in genuinely universal terms. It is not therefore not about ending their political engagement, but about seeking to challenge them to change the style and substance of their politics.

A challenging inclusiveness really is, in my view, the only constructive way forward, and this manifesto has, for me, missed out on this opportunity, despite the admirable way in which it endeavours to promote a positive restatement of multiculturalism.

Notes

[1] Personal email correspondence, and thanks to the BBRC for the their usual insights.
[2] I.e., that we share enough to talk together and to live together without the expectation that we can fully agree on everything, including a definitive ranking of core human values and their ramifications, even if they are widely held by pretty much everyone. See a discussion of this by the philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (New York: Norton, 2006).
[3] Gary Younge, ‘So much for so little’, Guardian Comment is Free, 21 November 2006, available at http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/gary_younge/2006/11/
post_671.html.
[4] Jonathan Birt, ‘Good Imam, Bad Imam’, Muslim World, 96/4, October 2006, 687-705(690).
[5] GfK NOP Social Research, Attitudes to Living in Britain: A Survey of Muslim Opinion, 1 September 2006, 37-38, available at http://www.gfknop.co.uk/content/news/news/Channel4_MuslimsBritain
_toplinefindings.pdf.
[6] New Generation Network, ‘Race and Faith: A New Agenda’, Guardian Comment is Free, 20 November 2006, available at http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/new_generation_network/2006/11/
why_we_need_a_new_discourse_on.html
[7] Gary Younge, ibid.
[8] Andrew Black, Tufyal Choudhury and Stewart Weir, The Rules of the Game: Terrorism, Community and Human Rights (York: Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, 2006), 12.
[9] A point also being made by Salma Yaqoob, ‘Strength in Numbers’, Guardian Comment is Free, 20 November 2006, available at http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/salma_yaqoob/2006/11/
freedom_of_belief_is_worth_def.html
[10] Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Improving Floor Target Performance, 14, available at http://www.renewal.net/Documents/RNET/Research/
Improvingfloortarget.pdf
[11] Who wishes to remain anonymous despite have conceived of this luminous phraseology.

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