Is Britain becoming a post-multicultural nation? It’s the right time to ask the question. The government wants to rebalance its relationship with British Muslims — to insist that they do more to tackle extremism. It has announced that single faith schools should become more multi-faith. And the debate on the niqab (face-veil) has moved to the question of restricting it in schools, universities and hospitals.
Can Principle Prevail?
It’s been a tumultuous few weeks. The imbroglio over the niqab seems to have overshadowed everything else, including the sobering claim in a peer-reviewed journal that over half-a-million Iraqis may have died since 2003. One contributory element to the persistence of the issue is that cabinet discipline has broken down in the fin de siècle atmosphere of the end of the Blair era, with ministers commenting on it outside their departmental briefs.
While Ruth Kelly, John Prescott, Peter Hain and Patricia Hewitt stuck to the principle of personal choice, they were outgunned by the support Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman and Phil Whoolas gave to Jack Straw. The antis made two main arguments: that the niqab is a bar to integration, and that it denies the equal participation of Muslim women in society. While no-one has called for an outright ban, it is clear that this heavyweight group would prefer to see the niqab disappear altogether rather than tolerate its continued presence. The veil should go, as Harriet Harman argues, ‘because I want women to be fully included. If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it.’ 
The reductive element here is not only to cast the veil as a symbol of defiant cultural differentiation, or of subjugation to men (i.e. simultaneously denoting radical agency and passive victimhood), but to see veiling merely as an individual act. Dr Bano Murtuja from Blackburn made the point, in a recent radio documentary, that women of her generation maintained the modest dress code of their aunts and mothers, but, unlike them, went to work, with some going into the professions. Thus this ultra-modest dress code constitutes a form of negotiated access to the world of work in continuity with the mores of the more conservative Muslim communities. (There is also the separate phenomenon of the spread of veiling amongst the small Salafi segment of younger British Muslim women in the last ten years or so, which, in principle, still centres – like the aforementioned trend – on the issue of personal choice.)
The tragedy here is that the current phase of policy on the hoof is therefore in danger of placing legal restrictions (and not just the hurdle of cultural censure) on the active participation of this particular group of Muslim women in the professional environments of schools, hospitals and universities. Neither the Prime Minister nor Phil Whoolas should have publicly supported Kirklees Education Authority in its employment tribunal case with Ms Aisha Azmi, a teaching assistant suspended for refusing to remove her veil in the presence of male colleagues, prior to its conclusion. Similarly, Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, has said that he would endorse the decision of other universities to follow the lead of Imperial College, University of London, in banning the face-veil, for both teaching staff and students.  Subsequently, (although the decision may not be organically connected,) the University Hospital of Birmingham NHS Trust banned niqabs from clinical environments including hospital buildings and GP surgeries.  It is noticeable, too, how the encouragement of a niqab ban on campuses coincides with the strategy of promoting the surveillance and policing of Muslim student activities in fear of actual or presumed radicalisation by the universities themselves. 
While there may very well be extenuating arguments to be made in any particular work-related context, overall the cumulative effect of the legal debarring of the niqab in certain professions and in higher education may well be to achieve the opposite of what ministers intend, by hindering rather than speeding up the integration of Muslim women who choose to dress this way.
Another corollary of these interventions is that ministers and the press have together managed to create an atmosphere in which verbal and physical attacks on Muslim women have increased, alongside attacks on mosques. When will they take responsibility for this? It matters very much that politicians now act to becalm this situation rather than inflame it further.
Alongside the veil and its discontents, two other important policy initiatives have come to light, which are possibly of even greater significance.
The most important is the move away from interfaith, as a paradigm for engaging certain minority communities as ‘faith communities’, to prioritising counter-terrorism imperatives, focusing on the Muslim communities. Following this, the government has also shifted from looking to promote a single representational body (a policy pursued, approximately, between 1994-2005), to one of multi-track engagement, which, it is now apparent, is guided by the principle of ‘combating extremism’.
The Conservatives under John Major and then New Labour, prior to 9/11, certainly looked to promote and endorse the idea of a single interlocutor with government – and, at the time, the preferred candidates were the Muslim Council of Britain and its precursor, the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs. However, on balance, the government has seen the Council as too oppositional to the ‘war on terror’ in a period when Britain has stayed close to Washington’s lead. A decisive shift came about after 7/7, with the government putting more energy into local and national consultations, and widening the scope of Muslim actors with whom it was willing to engage. The days of the MCB as primus inter pares moved to a period of ‘MCB plus’, or including a wider range of other community groups.
The shift from singular to multiple interfacing between Muslims and government, and the move from interfaith to counter-terrorism, has been opposed by senior figures in the Church of England, according to a leaked internal memorandum of advice to the House of Bishops.  The memo advises that political attention given to Muslims, and the extra monies being sent their way, is causing inter-community tension particularly from other minority faith groups. The government, the memo argues, thus risks unbalancing interfaith relations as envisaged by the Church of England and, crucially in its view, allowing the faith agenda to be set by the imperatives of counter-terrorism, by focusing on the Muslim community. The urge to regain the agenda, which is perfectly understandable in its own way, is marked by the memo’s reassertion of Christianity as Britain’s core heritage, in contradistinction to a focus on minority faiths that constitute less than 5% of the general population. The Christian-Muslim Forum, established just this year, has been excluded from these considerations. There is, moreover, an element of mythologizing in the memo’s assessment (at least as can be gleaned from this particular newspaper report) because:
(i) The evidence, such as it is, points to under-funding across all Muslim community organisations, in view of the historic exclusion of Muslims from the race relations settlement and funding regimes, and from lottery monies for reasons of religious conscience, a point borne out by several social indicators of systemic Muslim disadvantage.
(ii) The current focus on British Muslims as a problem community, by the government and the press, does not amount to either social prestige or political clout.
(iii) The Church appears to report misperceptions that other faith communities have about British Muslims and their relationship with government, but one might ask: how much is it challenging them?
(iv) The most authoritative research shows that Muslim leaders are generally highly enthusiastic supporters of the Anglican establishment, and have not wished to undermine Britain’s Christian heritage. Indeed, they see its preservation as beneficial to the interests of all other faith communities. 
(v) While there is merit in the view that counter-terrorist imperatives are unbalancing interfaith relations, it is clear, at the same time, that these counter-terrorist imperatives cannot be formulated or conducted within the framework of interfaith either. The challenge, rather, is to manage the interrelationship between the two carefully.
In the shift from singular to multiple engagement, the Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly has gone a step further than any other government minister in the past by moving on from ‘engagement for engagement’s sake’.
It is not good enough to merely sit on the sidelines or pay lip service to fighting extremism. That is why I want a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on. […] In future, I am clear that our strategy of funding and engagement must shift significantly towards those organisations that are taking a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values. It is only by defending our values that we will prevent extremists radicalising future generations of terrorists. 
It is unclear presently as to which funding stream this ‘rebalancing’ refers to, although one report mentions a fund of some £11m established in 2005 to tackle extremism.  Obviously Muslim organisations seek public funding for all kinds of projects, including on the basis of interfaith, as might be obtained from the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. Is the additional criterion of combating extremism to be added to funds like this too? And might this not potentially clash with discrimination legislation, passed by this government, on the grounds of religion in the delivery of goods and services?
The second issue here is that no serious counter-terrorism policy names groups and highlights their government connections, since this immediately robs them of the credibility to deal with radicals in the first place. Serious de-radicalisation measures are never launched by high profile speeches like this one: they are quiet, low-key efforts led by credible individuals, like ex-radicals, who work independently at the grassroots.
Organising the New Jihad
So if Ruth Kelly is not talking about combating extremism directly, what, then, is she referring to? It seems to me that she is looking to the longer term to invest in the younger generation. This is all really more about mainstreaming and integration, which has been backed by Ruth Kelly also meeting 17 key local councils and other agencies serving large Muslim populations, and urging them to be similarly mindful of the need to ‘tackle extremism’ too.  If this is so, then the allegation against those who have not provided effective leadership within the Muslim community is more damning than it appears to be at first glance. The criticism is not just about a failure to take on the radicals, but also to provide the vision and leadership to make British Muslims part of the mainstream of society. And it is specifically a criticism laid at the door of Islamism , and of the organisation now thought by Britain’s elites to embody it most effectively – the MCB.
How is it then that the MCB has gone from a favoured to a pariah status since 9/11? Four issues have undermined the MCB within government circles. The first is its boycott of the Holocaust Memorial Day since 2001, which Ruth Kelly referred to in her speech. The second is the judgement formed by government that the MCB has not been able to provide decisive leadership in tackling extremism (and the MCB leadership has taken a divergent view, namely that extremism, in terms of scale, has been a problem blown out of proportion, even though Muslims should still take measures against it). The third issue has been the political effect of investigative journalism that has examined, one has to say in a mostly simplistic way, the MCB’s historic links with Islamist groups like the Jama`at-i Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood.  The fourth and probably the most important reason has been the opposition of the MCB to the government’s foreign policies since 2001.
Over the last twelve months, this has led to an emerging consensus among government and the press that ‘Islamists’ will have to say and do more to disassociate themselves from this heritage, and to be less quick to play the identity politics card by pinning all, and not just some, radicalising discontent on the conduct of foreign policy. The question at present is how the MCB, still the largest Muslim umbrella group with around 400 affiliates, will respond to this rebuff? 
In the short term, it has responded strongly in an open letter rebutting the substance of Kelly’s argument, but – in her reply – the Minister has responded coolly by outlining how the MCB ought to comply with the new set of requirements that are now expected.  One example of how things might develop is the United States, where, for the last five years, Islamists have been politically marginalised and sent away from the corridors of power. This has resulted in these groups moving back into grassroots community work centred around advocacy on civil rights issues. It is not unlikely that if this ‘rebalancing’ persists, matters might take a similar course in the United Kingdom.
The second major policy initiative is a push forward on faith schools to curtail their alleged social divisiveness by requiring that 25% of their pupils come from outside its faith community, thereby revisiting a chief proposal of the Cantle Report of 2001 in the wake of the Northern riots that was thought too impractical to pursue at the time. In the current set of proposals, local councils are to be given powers to require faith schools to meet the quota where they deem it to be reasonable or achievable. If there is strong local opposition to the proposals, the decision will need the consent of the Education Secretary.  This is more of a symbolic issue because only 0.5% of Muslim kids go to such schools, and there is no compelling evidence that they are driving separatism or indeed extremism; this has been more asserted than proven. The focus should rather be on underperforming state schools in poor inner city areas that attempt to educate much larger numbers of Muslim pupils than the faith school sector, whether publicly funded or not. Furthermore this policy change is symbolic of a new post-multiculturalist politics.
In sum, it appears that Britain’s post-multicultural moment may have arrived, as it did for the Netherlands back in 2004 after the murder of Theo van Gogh.  At present no-one can say for sure how far this will all go or which direction the public mood, the political climate and new assimilative policies will take. It may be observed that British Muslims have become used to the discourse of difference and cultural authenticity, of a language of rights that was suited to multiculturalism. The struggle may now be to find a new language during this transition to post-multiculturalism, which, in the words of Raymond Plant, is:
concerned with the links between citizenship, value pluralism, the role of community and the possibility of achieving what might be called neutral justification: that is to say, an argumentative strategy which could be endorsed by quite diverse religious and cultural communities as a way of securing a common constitutional framework within which to live. 
Only a week after the government announced an intention to legislate to require publicly funded faith schools to accept 25% of pupils from other faiths, it has managed to broker a voluntary consensus in this sector (as of 2006 the numbers of publicly-funded faith schools in the UK are as follows: Church of England, 4,646; Roman Catholic, 2,041; Jewish, 37; Muslim, 8; Sikh, 2). Prior to the suggestion of the quota, the CoE had already announced its intention to get its new schools to take in a quarter from other faiths or of none. The sticking point had been the Roman Catholic Church, which has now agreed to take non-Catholics into its schools, and which has allowed the government to pursue its agenda on a non-legislative basis. As for Islamic faith schools, it was revealed that they already had an inclusive policy to accept non-Muslims but it was recognised that they could not attract sufficient numbers because of their poor public image. It has been agreed to proceed on the basis of promoting ‘inclusion and social cohesion’. 
 Mary Riddell, ‘Why I want to see the veil gone from Britain’ [interview with Harriet Harman], New Statesman, 16 October 2006, 12.
 ‘Rammell backs university’s Muslim veil ban’, Education Guardian, 11 October 2006.
 ‘Hospitals in a UK city ban wearing of veils by medicos’, Zee News, 16 October 2006.
 Vikram Dodd, ‘Universities urged to spy on Muslims’, Education Guardian, 16 October 2006.
 Jonathan Wynne-Jones, ‘Drive for multi-faith Britain deepens rifts, says Church’, Daily Telegraph, 16 October 2006.
 Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 66, notes from her sample database of Muslim leaders that the lowest number (13%) supported church-state reform in the UK compared with their counterparts in five other European countries.
 Ruth Kelly, ‘Britain: our values, our responsibilities’ [speech], 11 October 20o6, http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1503690.
 Sean O’Neill and Philip Webster, ‘Kelly penalises mosques’ failure to tackle terror’, Times, 16 October 2006.
 DCLG News Release, ‘Kelly: local authorities crucial in tackling extremism’, 16 October 2006, http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1002882&PressNoticeID=2266. The seventeen councils included three from Yorkshire (Calderdale, Kirklees and Bradford), four from London (Newham, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich and Waltham Forest), two from the South East (Wycombe and Slough), three from the North West (Manchester, Oldham and Preston), Dudley in the West Midlands, two from the East (Luton and Peterborough), and two from the East Midlands (Derby and Leicester).
 I use the term ‘Islamism’ advisedly here to mean simply the application of Islam to modern political contexts. It doesn’t necessarily imply a fixation with forms of modern totalitarian political philosophies and their vision of the state. Most British Islamists are today engaged in nothing more formidable than a bit of faith-based activism, interfaith and lobbying on Muslim issues, even if they read Qutb and Mawdudi as teenagers. There is such a thing in the world as Islamic social democracy with conservative nationalist and progressive leftist wings.
 Martin Bright, ‘Politics: One minister who understands the problem’, New Statesman, 23 October 2006.
 In comparison, the British Muslim Forum had 253 affiliates at the last count, the Union of Muslim Organisations, 114, and the Sufi Muslim Council, a partner organisation with the BMF, 102.
 An insider MCB view of this shift in the modalities of engagement, written anonymously and entitled ‘Sidelining genuine leadership’ is available here: http://www.salaam.co.uk/themeofthemonth/september03_index.php?l=64.
 ‘Non-believers for faith schools’, Observer, 15 October 2006.
 Jane Kramer, ‘The Dutch Model: Multiculturalism and Muslim immigrants’, New Yorker, 3 April 2006, 60-67.
 Raymond Plant, ‘Afterword: Liberalism and Toleration’ in Siân Jones, Tony Kushner and Sarah Pearce (eds.) Cultures and Ambivalence and Contempt: Studies in Jewish-Non-Jewish Relations (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1998), 307-311 (310).
 BBC News Online, ‘Faith schools quota plan scrapped’, 26th October 2006, availalbe at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6089440.stm.