Category Archives: Multiculturalism

A Note to the Bishop: Self Segregation is a Myth

As Atif Imtiaz reminds us, Britain is the land of Hume. So, in response to the Bishop of Rochester, let’s look at some empirical evidence, which shows that self-segregation is a myth.

The most accurate data set around is the decennial national census. There are around 8000 electoral wards in England. In 1991, 57 wards had a minority white population and 15% of all non-white residents lived in them. In 2001, 118 wards had a minority white population and 23% of non-white residents lived in them. In the year before the last census in 2001, more non-white residents moved out of these 118 wards than white ones (14,716 verses 9747 respectively).

So we don’t have self-segregation at all. We have the mundane phenomenon of dispersal.

First, white and non-white residents move out of the inner cities when they can afford better housing and commuting costs. This usually happens in middle age. So if everyone generally moves when they can afford to, it can’t necessarily be put down to cultural tensions.

Second, the number of mixed neighbourhoods (or electoral wards) is increasing. Between 1991 and 2001, they grew from 864 to 1070. Also minority white wards are also still mixed wards: they are not segregated. So we’re getting less not more segregated.

Third, inequalities experienced by non-white residents whether in majority-white, mixed or minority-white wards are broadly similar. This shows that geography and ethnic mix are not salient factors in creating inequality. The employment rate of non-whites is roughly twice as high as whites in all these three sorts of ward. So ethnic differentials in poverty aren’t a function of these mythical ghettos either!

So it seems that if there aren’t really any no-go areas as such, just the ones that people like the Bishop of Rochester like to dream up in their heads.

Source: Ludi Simpson, “The Numerical Liberation of Dark Areas”, Sage Race Relations Abstracts, 31/2: 5-25 (2006).

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Filed under Inequality, Multiculturalism, Racism and Islamophobia

Ex-Muslims Excluding Muslims?

Today saw the Parliamentary launch of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) which is being backed by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS), headed by the British-Iranian feminist and human rights campaigner, Maryam Namazie. It is the sixth such chapter to have been set up in Europe, the previous five having been established in Germany, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

It may well be premature to raise a glass of (non-alcoholic) champagne to the fledging body — with twenty five founding members — or for “outraged” believers to make too much of a fuss. But it might not be too soon to say that this may prove to be a one-hit wonder. According to one eyewitness, the launch was a small affair, with some forty-odd participants: including twelve panelists, three camera crews, members of the national press and A. C. Grayling, alongside some other stalwarts. The initiative seems strongly connected to the Iranian expatriate left in the United Kingdom and in mainland Europe. Namazie entertained journalists with the normal Islam-bashing, and allegedly Inayat Bunglawala came in for a deal of lampooning. But above and beyond its particulars, the launch raises some interesting questions.

It confirms, yet again, that the public identity “Muslim” has arrived in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. Being an ordinary common-garden atheist won’t do: one has to declare one’s former Islam in order to get some attention, in a context where some American and European intellectuals, tiring or unsure of the Muslim Luthers (e.g. Tariq Ramadan), are now more keen to have a punt on the Muslim Voltaires (e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali) to raise the Islam-West Kulturkampf to the desired level. The “democratic constellation” (Tariq Modood’s phrase) is protean and indiscriminate in that it may throw up any configuration of public “Muslim” identities, and, yet, discriminate in the manner by which certain identities are promoted and lauded or excluded and demeaned. The sheer fact of such a constellation is not in dispute here, for it is more desirable than the attempt to commandeer and thereby mask or reduce them all into one tight frame, a charge one could level at both the ex-Muslims and the radical Islamists, and indeed many European governments and cultural elites. After all, it’s the demand for totalising public identities that cause all the political friction in the first place.

The question being asked is: if ex-Muslims are now calling for a more laic Europe (i.e. taking up the French model of secularism), then who are the Muslim believers to object? Yet the conflation of atheism with secularism implicit here forgets the entangled relationship the European Enlightenment had with religion. It was less about the triumph of secular ideology over religion, than that of true religion over superstition, whose reformers, in the words of Bruce Lincoln, dreamt of “a spiritual republic based on moral foundations” (which sounds very similar to democratic currents within Islamism!). Many of these reformers were Christians or deists. Some like Spinoza and Vico advocated a positive role for “public religion” in the new republic that upheld a non-sectarian vision of the common good (res publica) and worked to build “bridging capital”, to use the current horrid policy jargon for social glue. (Oddly Rousseau’s vision of “public religion” was rather more authoritarian.) These were and still are arguments against a rigid secularism, ones that today’s beleaguered believers might wish to recall.

After all the only pertinent question in Britain is what form of secularism would one wish to champion? And thus what future prospect is there for Britain’s tradition of moderate secularism which endorses a form of weak established religion, headed by an Anglican church with a track record of ecumenical and interfaith inclusivity that sits alongside a largely tolerant and secular political culture?

Similarly one would have thought it possible to champion universal human rights and reason without abjuring one’s faith, but the CEMB seems resolutely deaf to such a possibility. On the important issue of apostasy, the CEMB could find a growing body of religious authorities within Islam who take the position that it is not a matter for the state but of private conscience. A growing list of these scholars, many from the United States and some from Britain, like Abdal Hakim Murad, who uphold freedom of religion can be found here.

Another intriguing question is: what kind of ex-Muslim? After all, historically and today, one could define a cultural Muslim identity outside of religious faith, creatively engaged, at least, with history and culture. As with forms of secular Zionism, it could even work for Muslim political empowerment. The ex-Muslim with a sense of attachment to his or her history and culture, attentive to the political dreams and aspirations of Muslim peoples, who works to better their lot could or can express and encapsulate a desirable political project. Part of its desirability would include a commitment to treat all citizens equally — regardless of ethnicity, creed, gender, disability and sexual orientation — and not to endorse a chauvinist project.

Yet the other form of ex-Muslim public identity more likely to gain patronage and endorsement from Europe’s political and cultural elite is one that would only see such “secular Islamism” as communalism, and so the possibility of political progress and emancipation is thus delimited to the horizon of universalising European liberalism as a result. This more strident form of public Muslim atheism has anti-multiculturalist instincts, and is often, but not always, silent about the “war on terror” and the curtailment of civil liberties. To that extent, it is certainly experienced (whether so explicitly intended or not) as part of the cultural wing of a more general crusade that is anti-Muslim and more generally anti-religion.

The final question returns to the thorny issue of Muslim collective representation, much debated of late in Britain and elsewhere. CEMB’s press statement claims certainty in representing “a majority in Europe and a vast secular and humanist protest movement in [Muslim] countries like Iran”. What kind of representational legitimacy is being invoked here? I speak in your name in order to repudiate who you are? Is this the final endpoint of “integration” , a cultural and religious striptease, underlined by the proposition that “the only good Muslim is an ex-Muslim”? If nothing else it proves that “representational politics” can sometimes have few limits of coherence or credibility.


Filed under Multiculturalism, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

Multiculturalism and the discontents of globalisation

Reproduced courtesy of openDemocracy, 25 May 2007

Tariq Modood’s reconsidered multiculturalism needs to be extended to a global and cosmopolitan canvas, says Yahya Birt.

There is much to admire in Tariq Modood’s defence of multiculturalism, developed in his book Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea and presented in his openDemocracy article “Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity” (17 May 2007). The gist of his case is that it needs to be mended and not ended, surely the only sensible response to an inescapable shift to superdiversity in our globalising world. Multiculturalism may be reinvigorated by linking it positively to more inclusive notions of citizenship and national identity and belonging. If the nation-state is more inclusive, then the “multilogical” processes by which integration may take place allows more easily for the inclusion of minorities within an expanded vision of Britishness, which (as Modood indicates) has more to do with process than with lists of core values.

My main concern with Modood’s thesis is that it underplays the impact of globalisation in debates around multiculturalism. For example, al-Qaida is portrayed in these debates as a rude intrusion into what should otherwise be the more orderly business of restating multicultural citizenship, rather than as an unintended but integral outcome of the world created by the post-1970s neo-liberal consensus. Its signature motif was “deregulation”, or the freeing up of markets, but it had a more radical central tenet: namely, that (in the words of David Harvey) “market exchange is an ethic sufficient to regulate all human action”. As a result, borders have become more porous as people, commodities and ideas have spread everywhere.

The United Nations estimates that currently 200 million people live outside their countries of origin, an increase of a quarter since 1990; a March 2007 report by the Institute of Public Policy Research found that 5.5 million British citizens live outside the United Kingdom, rather more than the number of foreign nationals who live in the UK. This mobile global elite, the children of neo-liberalism, are prone to advocate cultural globalisation (presented as “virtuous deracination”); to champion open borders; and are less interested by nationalism, instead arguing for new sorts of regional and global reordering, like the simultaneous expansion of the European Union alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales.

The more profound outcome of neo-liberalism, however, is its emphasis on the consumer over the citizen, a process which places identities of consumption centre-stage through the mass media and weakens civic and nationalist identities that are primarily mediated through local and national state institutions.

9/11 might similarly be understood as the deregulation of the large-scale capacity for violence and destruction out of the hands of the nation-state. Al-Qaida’s politics cannot be placed within the traditional framework of nationalist self-determination, but are in fact part of the emergence of new globalised protest movements, two decades or so after the neo-liberal economic order helped to create huge prosperity and opportunity as well as inequality, exploitation and environmental degradation.

Unthinkable without globalisation and the internet, al-Qaida aspires to its own form of cultural globalisation, imagining that it might revive the fortunes of the Muslim supernation (umma) by overturning the nationalist order in the Middle East, without recourse to any recognised Islamic conception of ethics or law. Al-Qaida does not represent the revenge of pre-modern tradition against modernity, or “jihad vs McWorld” but, rather, as Slavoj Zizek appropriately extended Benjamin Barber’s formula, “McJihad vs McWorld”.

Where the state “no longer has the clout or the wish to keep its marriage with the nation rock-solid” (as Zygmunt Bauman argues), other possibilities suggest themselves. The horizon of political concern has itself expanded. Our interconnectedness means that what happens in Kashmir matters in Birmingham, and Northern Ireland in Boston. This in turn implies that we can no longer so easily divorce domestic from foreign concerns, nor disconnect nationalism so quickly from the other wider identity-claims that are made upon us.This would seem to suggest we need to expand the horizon of concern to think about multiculturalism in contexts larger than just the nation. The question is how to join these identities together in creative synthesis, to find a middle way between an unrooted abstract universalism and self-interested nationalism.

One such synthesis is “cosmopolitanism”, characterised by Kwame Anthony Appiah as “universal concern” for all humanity above family and nation and a “respect for legitimate difference”. Appiah recognises that these two values clash, and as such “cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge”, a challenge it seems that multiculturalism, at least in Modood’s formulation, is not prepared to consider seriously. If we are address globalisation and its discontents without recourse to abandoning multiculturalism at home and undertaking military intervention abroad, then we need to find ways to make “the global village” a more convivial place, one in which the Osama bin Ladens of this world will find no support.

Reproduced from the original, courtesy of openDemocracy, under the Creative Commons License. (c) 2007

[Addendum: Some correspondence I’ve received concerning this piece has shown that some clarification on my part is needed. The thrust of the piece should not be read as an endorsement of a position that denies group claims altogether within a more truncated formulation of multiculturalism, and that merely endorses individual claims only. Both should keep their rightful place, as Modood argues. The state retains an important role in fostering inclusion in an increasingly diverse society, and it not solely the preserve of Gilroyesque societal “conviviality” as such, although that too is an indispensable ingredient.

My piece is not, therefore, a criticism of the content of Modood’s admirable formulation of multiculturalism. His new book, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, presents a persuasive and well-argued restatement of multiculturalism that should be required reading for the commentariat, policy wonks, politicians and community activists. The piece is, rather, a call for the scope of multiculturalism to be extended to include the transnational, the diasporic, the global and so on. Globalisation has not only conjured up its own discontents but has also has come to widen our political horizons. This expanded vision should not, however, be expressed as a rootless, abstract universalism, which may lead to the kind of cultural (read “Western”) triumphalism which was noticeable after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or to counter-universalisms (like al-Qaeda’s), but to the creative tension inherent in upholding both human cultural diversity and universal moral concern as common goods. The full theoretical, let alone the practical, details of this “cosmopolitanism” have yet to be worked out, but Kwame Anthony Appiah, Bhikhu Parekh and John Gray, among others, have started to help us think through the implications of multiculturalism in contexts wider than that of the nation-state.]

Update: Tariq Modood replies to this piece and others here.

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Filed under Multiculturalism

Between Nation and Umma: Muslim Loyalty in a Globalizing World

It has become commonplace to suspect the loyalties of British Muslims, and all the more so after the London bombs in 2005.* British Muslims are constantly asked to deny their alleged sympathies for terrorism. Their feelings of Islamic solidarity are thought to equal at best indifference or at worst hostility to patriotism. Although there has been a more concerted intellectual and cultural engagement with British Muslims in the last few years, it is unsurprising that, on balance, being under the spotlight of scrutiny has created a polarised reaction. Opinion polls indicate that more Muslims than ever before have considered migrating, [1] and that their feelings about their sense of Britishness appear to be quite divided. [2] This intense examination has provoked a sharp discussion among British Muslims about identity and belonging. Generally, however, public debate has been slow to pick up on the insight that has become almost clichéd in the social sciences, namely, that collective public identities work to either fuse or divide the multiple and contextualized identities that we all carry around with us as part of the complex business of being human. [3]

It is therefore not so surprising that British Muslims seem to face the stark choice of being either “British” or “Muslim”, or, more subtly, being a “British Muslim” in a culturally-approved way. In its bluntest and most unanswerable form, the question being asked today is whether the umma or the nation comes first. It is predictable, then, that the insistence upon an overriding attachment to the umma and its suffering has become central to the sense of self-identity of British Muslims who feel excluded from and marginalized in wider society. This finds expression as a “reductive notion of umma solidarity”, [3a] provoked and shaped by the news cycle in the mass media. This collective identity, hardly rooted in transcendent values, appears as an epiphenomenon of systems of human representation. In such an agonistic maelstrom, arguments about integration, and developing a sense of national identity, are thought either to be self-interested or disloyal to the universalising bond of faith.

Recent Debate on Minority Status among British Muslims

Part of the reason for these perceptions is the legacy of a way of thinking still shaped by the struggle against imperial European nationalisms and the stultifying authoritarianism of secular nationalist governments, particularly in the Arab world. [4] For British Muslims as for minorities elsewhere, the traditional rationale has been a contractarian one, which rationalises compliance to the laws of the land in return for the provision of basic freedoms. [5] European Muslim intellectuals have already embarked upon the re-expression of this traditional legal vision into the calculus of Islamic citizenship in a liberal democracy, [6] mirrored by a shift among Islamist movements in Britain towards civic participation and engagement from the 1980s onwards. [7]

But this tradition of principled and cautious engagement within legal and moral norms was undermined (if never supplanted) in Britain by the global rise of Wahhabism. For the most part, its doctrine of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (glossed as “loving or hating for the sake of God”) was understood primarily in theological terms as the rejection of unbelief (kufr) and as loyalty to correct belief (`aqida). It was manifested as a sectarian polemic against the “deviant” Sunni majority, as isolation from a non-believing wider society, and as loyalty to the “rightly-guided” Muslims. In the 1990s, al-wala’ wa’l bara’ gained a harder political edge with the spread of the idea of global jihad, developed by the “Afghan” Arabs in the 1980s, directly inspired by the anarchist movements of 1970s Egypt like al-Takfir wa’l- Hijra and the Jihad Group. In its political form, al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ was linked to the concept of tawhid al-hakimiyya (the unity of governance), relating to the judgement that a Muslim leader who does not rule by the entirety of the Shari`a was an infidel who should be overthrown, by violent means if necessary. Its most infamous method was attacking “the far enemy” (the West and its allies outside of Muslim countries) in order to create the conditions in which Muslim governments could be overthrown. [8] In Britain, the linkage between credal purity and questions of political loyalty was also strengthened by the rising influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who emphasised the need to work for the reestablishment of the caliphate as the responsibility of every Muslim, a duty arising out of faith itself, over “unjustified” and disloyal nationalist modalities of engagement.

During the 1990s, a vocal jihadi minority in Britain, all of whom were at some point theologically Salafi in outlook, like Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Hamza, Abdullah al-Faisal and Abu Qatada, were able to set the terms of intra-Salafi debate, even if the majority of British Salafis held to a non-political view of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’. [9] After 9/11, however, British Salafism as a whole moved sharply away from al-wala’ wa’l-bara’, in both its theological and political forms, towards engagement, a process led by the largest Salafi grouping, Jam`iyat Ihya’ Minhaj al-Sunna. [9a] Similarly, the pragmatism of young British Muslims has forced Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party), particularly in the last four years, to re-engage with grassroots community issues. Additionally, the Party had begun, even before 7/7 and the subsequent threat of proscription under anti-terrorism legislation, to work co-operatively with other community organisations, toning down their more confrontational style of the early 1990s.

It is the nature of this relationship between theology and our sense of national loyalty and belonging that this essay seeks to explore, as the legacy of the radical 1990s fades away. It aims to ask how, beyond contract and duty, can a sense of national belonging find a rationale within our tradition? This is an admittedly difficult task when coping with cultural disdain, social exclusion and antiterrorism measures. And it will not be enough to envision “multicultural citizenship”, based on commonalities as well as differences and on a genuine cultural interchange of mutual enrichment, without an under-girding sense of “plural Britishness” to provide duty with its motive force. [10]

Debate on Muslim Nationhood in Pre-Partition India

It is helpful to reflect on these issues by returning to an earlier debate in India during the 1930s about nationalism and Islam, as Muslim intellectuals struggled to decide what kind of nation, alongside the related question of what kind of state, should emerge once independence from the British was achieved. Iqbal (1877- 1938), the poet-philosopher, insisted in his mature thinking that the basis of a nation (qaum) could only be credal (mazhab), two notions conjoined together in the terms, umma and millat, which Iqbal equated with religious nation or society.

After a first-hand experience of European nationalism during his doctoral studies, Iqbal was convinced that it could not avoid racism and imperialism as a consequence of turning a natural love of country (vataniyat, or patriotism) into a political ideology (qaumiyat, or nationalism). Interestingly, Iqbal’s sense of Indian patriotism was linked in his poetry to a love of India’s landscape, and not a political allegiance to the imagined history of a discrete territory, as demanded by nationalism. The basis of solidarity would be found instead in religious law, although Iqbal neither conceived of this in the traditional scholastic sense nor in the ideological form later advocated by Mawdudi. [11] Iqbal, in a letter to Nehru in 1936, encapsulates perfectly well the Muslim distrust of nationalism expressed in various ways during the twentieth century:

Nationalism in the sense of love of one’s country and even readiness to die for its honour is a part of a Muslim’s faith: it comes into conflict with Islam only when it begins to play the role of a political concept and claims to be the principal of human solidarity demanding that Islam should recede to the background of a mere private opinion and cease to be a living factor in the national life. [12]

Iqbal did at least have a point about the quasi-metaphysical claims of nationalism. While it has never made sense to talk of “my religion, right or wrong” as one might say of one’s nation — religion being the source of eternal goodness — nonetheless, the badness of nations is usually held to be only temporary. The goodness of nations lies more in intra-historical secular time, as opposed to the transcendence of religion: the obligation and duty towards future unborn nationals, the puritan rigour of nationalist movements, the association of pure patriotism with children, and the essential innocence of the memorialised national dead. [13] In his later poetry, Iqbal contended that the transcendent bond of faith could not find realisation in other more mundane expressions of solidarity; in his poetic vision, he preferred the sky-bound eagle to the earthbound nightingale. [14] The immanentalist claims of the nation to goodness could never be accepted.

Others were less satisfied than Iqbal with such theoretical musings. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani (1879-1958), the Rector of the famous seminary at Deoband and one of the leading figures in the struggle for independence, favoured a traditionalist pragmatism on the basis that “politics is not resolved through philosophy”, [15] and he recognised that constitutionalism, pluralism and democracy were the political currency of his day. This did not mean, however, that his stance had no scriptural basis. In his appeal to the Qur’an, Prophetic tradition and Arabic lexicography, Madani makes an authoritative and clear distinction between millat and qaum. Millat refers to religion (din) or religious law (Shari`a) or way of life, regardless of its truth or falsehood, whereas qaum refers to a group of men or a group of men and women, whether they are believers or not, provided that there is a point of commonality between them. This point of commonality may be linguistic, cultural, territorial or based on descent. [16] Similarly umma in scriptural and classical Arabic retains a sense similar to that of qaum, and need not be strictly linked to Abrahamic monotheism, as Iqbal argued. [17] And while the universal bond of Islamic solidarity remains paramount, [18] at the same time, the Covenant of Medina describes the Muhajirun, the Ansar and the Jewish tribes of the Prophet’s City as one nation or community (al-umma al-wahida). [19] Madani argues on this basis that:

The gist of my argument is that the Prophet brought together Muslims and Jews into one “nation” to fight against their enemies. […] Moreover in the covenant the word umma (followers) was used instead of qaum (nation), and it said that Muslims and Jews should be considered as one nation as against those who are not included in the covenant. […] If Muslims cannot form a nation with non-Muslims, if Islam does not permit it…then how was it that the Prophet formed a composite umma with the Jews? […] This proves that muttahida qaum (a nation united) irrespective of people being free to pursue their different religions is possible, and that they too can be considered [part of the] Muslim umma. [20]

Madani’s argument has a powerful resonance for current debates among British Muslims. It does much to provide the rationale for a sense of loyalty and belonging to a multicultural state in the difficult throes of expanding notions of plural Britishness, the frontier of which is currently measured against the Muslim community and the public role of Islam in Britain’s secular liberal democracy. It is the crucial insight that the Qur’an defines qaum and even umma in non-religious terms, and recognises the fact of extra-religious bonds as the basis of political cooperation, which provides the grounds for engaged Islamic multicultural citizenship.

Challenges to Nationalism in a Global Age

This argument is certainly not an abstruse consideration given that, in the recent past, the most widely projected — if neither the wisest nor most common — voices have stood firmly against the idea of loyalty to Britain, even against the sort of loyalty informed by the “critical citizenship” that defines the new generation of British Muslims. At a conference I attended on Islamophobia in 2005, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir suggested to the largely non-Muslim audience that Muslims had no need “to feel British”. Although I challenged him on that point in the panel discussion, during a private discussion after the event, when he predictably described the argument for patriotism as dangerous, he did more perceptively add that the idea of nationalism was “old hat” in a globalising world.

This is an argument that deserves attention, for many have hailed the imminent passing away of the Westphalian order, or the idea of mutual recognition of the autonomy of sovereign states. Since around 1970 or so, the ideological and practical dominance of neoliberalism (i.e. the doctrine that “market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action”) has unleashed a deterritorializing logic of global capital that is undermining the territorializing logic of nation-states. [21] Even if the largest economies in the world retain some ability to ameliorate the dispersal of global capital, and to order “deregulation” to their advantage, nonetheless, even in a prosperous Britain, the cultural and political after-effects are noticeable. Thus, the proposal to underpin an expanded definition of multicultural liberalism that allows for greater cultural diversity with a more inclusive sense of national belonging faces a serious challenge from several large-scale processes resulting from the reordering of global markets. These include:

(i) The advocacy of a form of cultural globalisation, pushed for by global elites, presented as a “virtuous deracination”, [22] who champion open borders, and are less interested by nationalism and instead argue for new sorts of regional and global reordering, like the simultaneous expansion of the European Union alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales, which has led to a cultural revival of Englishness, the inclusiveness of which is still ambiguous.

(ii) The commodification of cultural meaning communicated through the mass media, placing identities of consumption at the centre and weakening civic and nationalist discourses that are primarily mediated through local and national state institutions.

(iii) The further regulation of private life and civil society by the modern state that, in muddying the classic public-private distinction of liberal society, provokes public contestation from deprivatised identity movements.

(iv) The adverse impact of the “war on terrorism”, the core rhetorical code for US-led military expansion in the Muslim world, and of al-Qaeda type terrorism upon Muslims everywhere, which has become particularly salient in Britain after 7/7 with an intensification of policing, surveillance and media scrutiny.

In the current political climate, the simple restatement of nationhood in a pristine form is devolved disproportionately upon British Muslims, the marginalized objects of suspicion and ridicule. How natural it then seems at this juncture to seek in globalisation the opportunity to soar, eagle-like with Iqbal, above the immanentalist claims of the chauvinistic nation-state, to lay claim to a similar global, political reordering in an Islamic vein. And to argue likewise for the nation-state, albeit of the inclusive and multicultural variety, would constitute an unrealistic resort to nostalgia.

The Search for a Cosmopolitan Modus Vivendi

In responding to this, it is better to reiterate that it is political judgements that are at stake, to return to Madani’s point about the nature of politics, rather than credal or metaphysical nostrums. Thus any political adjudication might begin with the observation that globalisation represents a continuity with empire and nationalism in the organisation of power and capital on a larger and more intensive scale. Ordinary folk organised at a more local and smaller scale struggle to keep up, and part of this struggle has been to seek proper opportunity and equity within the nation-state. Cosmopolitans, whether of liberal or Muslim stripe, in their critique of nationalist chauvinism have missed “the extent to which nationalism not only expresses solidarity or belonging but provides a rhetoric for demanding growth and equality”. [23] Therefore the precautionary assessment is that the nation-state still represents the best vehicle for keeping up with capital and power. After all in any new attempt at global unification, it is the larger states of the world that would seek to set the rules. Furthermore, extreme liberal cosmopolitans in their critique of so-called backward tradition (Islam is the favoured target) miss the supreme importance of rootedness, manifested as a search for roots, in that very tradition and in communal social relations at a time of rapid change in which the vulnerable, the dispossessed and marginalized are at the mercy of the new rules. Without this rootedness, no voice of autonomy can be formed to stand against this large-scale integration, for the alternative is a final colonization of the non-Western imagination and mind. [24]

For cosmopolitanism to be rooted, it must recognise the “moral status of those who are political strangers” [25] whose lives may encompasses values and meanings very different from our own without recourse to granting them rights as cultureless instances of a universal humanity. Unlike either relativism or universalism, cosmopolitanism recognises that while there might be universal values that allow for the possibility of intercultural exchange, there is no single way of life that is universally valid. In other words, cosmopolitanism recognises the challenge of a continuous tension between two ideals: “universal concern” (e.g. against torture) and “respect for legitimate difference”. [26] But, as critics have pointed out, cosmopolitanism places a higher value upon peaceful coexistence than upon a universally applicable order of enforceable rights. It does nothing to find an ideological resolution for diametrically opposed premises. It is not a more sophisticated manifesto for “liberalism on safari”, but simply describes a modus vivendi. [27]

The Qur’an itself recognises that diversity is part of the Divine intent, and that human beings are bound to live in political orders smaller than the entire species (11:118-119) and that the modalities of “knowing one another” as “diverse nations and tribes” is a criterion of “righteousness” (49:13). If the basis of the common national bond admits to arbitrariness (how many suffered for the idea that every nation must find resolution as a state), the state on a smaller scale encapsulates “the many circles narrower than the human horizon that are the appropriate spheres of moral concern”. [28] In other words, cosmopolitianism is a political arrangement for peaceful relations between competing truth-claims both within and between polities, even if in metaphysical terms, the Islamic commitment to pluralism is “non-reductive” and not relativist. [29] Yet it is still also the case that in our tradition, “wisdom is the lost property of the believer”, [30] to be sought wherever it is found, thus implying a moral commitment to a global conversation dedicated to mutual enrichment as well as peaceable relations.

Thus the argument returns to the point that the multicultural state invested in a form of rooted cosmopolitanism remains preferable to the deterritorializing and detraditionalizing logic of universalising and abstracted (Western) cultural globalisation, which seems less likely to ensure “mutually assured [cultural] diversity”in the twenty-first century. [31] The challenge therefore lies ahead for British Muslims to find, as did Madani in his day, a new Covenant of Medina for a composite nationalism, the united nation (al-umma al-wahida) of our times.


* First published in Islam21, 40, January 2006, 6-11, and reproduced here with very minor amendments.
[1] 63 per cent of respondents in a Guardian/ICM poll, 26 July 2005.
[2] In a Telegraph/YouGov poll (23 July 2005) British Muslims described their feelings for their country as “very loyal” (46 per cent), “fairly loyal” (33 per cent) and “little or no loyalty at all” (18 per cent).
[3] E.g., P. Werbner, Imagined Diasporas Among Manchester Muslims (Oxford: James Curray, 2002), Chapter 2.
[3a] I owe this phrase to Professor Tariq Modood, personal email correspondence.
[4] A. El-Affendi, “On the State, Democracy and Pluralism” in S. Taji-Farouki and B. M. Nafi (eds.), Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 172-194.
[5] For a recent restatement of this see Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, “Muslims Living in Non-Muslim Lands” (1999), available at and elsewhere.
[6] Most notably T. Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[7] A perceptive overview is provided by S. McLoughlin, “The State, ‘new’ Muslim leaderships and Islam as a ‘resource’ for public engagement in Britain” in J. Cesari and S. McLoughlin (eds.) European Muslims and the Secular State (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 55-69.
[8] The majority of contemporary jihadis have preferred, unlike al-Qaeda, to operate within national confines see Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why the Jihad Went Global (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[9] J. Birt, “Wahhabism in the United Kingdom: Manifestations and Reactions” in Madawi al- Rasheed (ed.) Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf (London: Routledge, 2005), 168-184.
[9a] A process, however, that is far from complete as a recent documentary, “Dispatches: Undercover Mosque” (Channel 4, 15 January 2007) showed.
[10] T. Modood, Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005). This is also not to ignore the crucial point made that loyalty and belonging only become possible in an environment of acceptance and inclusion see M. S. Seddon, D. Hussain and N. Malik (eds.) British Muslims: Loyalty and Belonging (Markfield: Islamic Foundation, 2003) and their other collection, British Muslims between Assimilation and Segregation: Historical, Legal and Social Realities (Markfield: Islamic Foundation, 2004).
[11] F. Shaikh, “Millat and Mazhab : Rethinking Iqbal’s Political Vision” in M. Hasan and A. Roy (eds.), Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), 366-388.
[12] Ibid., 378.
[13] B. R. Anderson, “The Goodness of Nations” in P. van der Veer and H. Lehmann (eds.) Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia (Princeton: University Press, 1999), 197-203.
[14] Shaikh, 378-380.
[15] B. D. Metcalf, “Reinventing Islamic Politics in Interwar India: The Clergy Commitment to ‘Composite Nationalism’” in Hasan and Roy (eds.), 389-403, quotation at 399.
[16] H. A. Madani, Composite Nationalism and Islam [Muttahida Qaumiyat aur Islam] , translated by A. H. Hussain and H. Imam (Delhi: Manohar, 2005 [1938]), 76-77, 79-80.
[17] Ibid., 85-90.
[18] Ibid., 90-96, 102-106.
[19] A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1990 [1955]), 232.
[20] Madani, 114.
[21] D. Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) and his A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[22] C. Calhoun, “Is it time to be postnational?” in S. May, T. Modood and J. Squires (eds.), Ethnicity, Nationalism and Minority Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 231-256, quotation at 246.
[23] Calhoun, 238.
[24] Z. Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture (London: Pluto, 1998), 13.
[25] K. A. Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 219.
[26] K. A. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: Norton, 2006).
[27] J. Gray, “Easier Said Than Done”, The Nation , 30 January 2006, available at
[28] Appiah, Ethics of Identity , 246.
[29] M. Legenhausen, “A Muslim’s Non-Reductive Religious Pluralism” in R. Boase (ed.) Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 51-73.
[30] Tirmidhi 2611, Ibn Majah 4159.
[31] Z. Sardar, Beyond Difference: Cultural Relations in the Twenty First Century (London: British Council, 2004).

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Filed under Ghuluw, History, Multiculturalism, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

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.


[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
[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
[6] New Generation Network, ‘Race and Faith: A New Agenda’, Guardian Comment is Free, 20 November 2006, available at
[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
[10] Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Improving Floor Target Performance, 14, available at
[11] Who wishes to remain anonymous despite have conceived of this luminous phraseology.

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Filed under Multiculturalism, Racism and Islamophobia, UK Muslim Politics

Is Britain now post-multicultural?

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.’ [1]

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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4]

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.

Interfaith Interface
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. [5] 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. [6]
(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. [7]

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. [8] 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. [9] 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 [10], 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. [11] 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? [12]

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. [13] 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.

Scholastic Strife
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. [14] 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. [15] 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. [16]

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’. [17]


[1] Mary Riddell, ‘Why I want to see the veil gone from Britain’ [interview with Harriet Harman], New Statesman, 16 October 2006, 12.
[2] ‘Rammell backs university’s Muslim veil ban’, Education Guardian, 11 October 2006.
[3] ‘Hospitals in a UK city ban wearing of veils by medicos’, Zee News, 16 October 2006.
[4] Vikram Dodd, ‘Universities urged to spy on Muslims’, Education Guardian, 16 October 2006.
[5] Jonathan Wynne-Jones, ‘Drive for multi-faith Britain deepens rifts, says Church’, Daily Telegraph, 16 October 2006.
[6] 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.
[7] Ruth Kelly, ‘Britain: our values, our responsibilities’ [speech], 11 October 20o6,
[8] Sean O’Neill and Philip Webster, ‘Kelly penalises mosques’ failure to tackle terror’, Times, 16 October 2006.
[9] DCLG News Release, ‘Kelly: local authorities crucial in tackling extremism’, 16 October 2006, 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).
[10] 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.
[11] Martin Bright, ‘Politics: One minister who understands the problem’, New Statesman, 23 October 2006.
[12] 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.
[13] An insider MCB view of this shift in the modalities of engagement, written anonymously and entitled ‘Sidelining genuine leadership’ is available here:
[14] ‘Non-believers for faith schools’, Observer, 15 October 2006.
[15] Jane Kramer, ‘The Dutch Model: Multiculturalism and Muslim immigrants’, New Yorker, 3 April 2006, 60-67.
[16] 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).
[17] BBC News Online, ‘Faith schools quota plan scrapped’, 26th October 2006, availalbe at:

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Filed under Education, Interfaith, Multiculturalism, Racism and Islamophobia, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

Sir Trevor, the Muslims and the new Equalities Commission

Why should the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR), to be launched in 2007, matter to British Muslims? Covering race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religion and human rights, with an annual budget of £70m, the CEHR will be Europe’s largest human rights body. The basic reason is that it addresses a thirty-year gap in race relations legislation that did not recognise religious origin as part of the definition of an ethnic group. This particularly affected Muslims as they were defined as a multiethnic religious group, which was not ‘legally true’ of Sikhs, Hindus or Jews (even if sociological fact is more complex).

The 2001 Census uncovered the painful fact of systemic Muslim disadvantage, the alleviation of which is still not campaigned for seriously by any of our lobby umbrella groups. A large proportion of British Muslims form an underclass. Some of the key statistics are:

• One-third live in the top 10% of most deprived areas in the UK
• Live in ‘deprived’ housing (41%), the most overcrowded (32%), the most in social rented housing (28%), and the highest proportion without central heating (12%) of any faith group
• Report the highest rates of ill health – 14% – of any faith group
• Unemployment rate (14%) is three times the national average. Muslims aged 16-24 had the highest umemployment rate of all (22%), twice the national average
• 31% of Muslims of working age have no qualifications. 14% have GCSE or equivalent qualifications (compared to national average of 22%), 12% have A-level or equivalent qualifications (compared to national average of 24%), and 4% have degrees compared with 9% of the general population
• Muslims of working age have the highest rates of economic inactivity: for men (30%) and for women (68%) compared to 16% of Christian men and 25% of Christian women

Ours is also a very young community, with over half under the age of 25. With all the political pressures around at present, tackling basic issues of inequality has become all the more difficult to achieve. And achieving this is even more vital if we are not going to fail our next generation.

The expectation has been that an extension in equalities legislation to cover religion and other strands as well as a new equalities commission would constitute a bulwark against all forms of inequality in British society. Discrimination in employment on the grounds of religion had already been covered back in 2003 as a result of harmonization with EU law (an advance that had nothing to do with lobbying by British Muslim groups at all). But the inclusion of a religion strand, and its shape and form, in current and upcoming equalities legislation was partly the result of discreet lobbying behind the scenes. This extends protection in the delivery of public goods and services on non-discriminatory grounds to religious groups. It is hoped that in future a new Single Equalities Act would enforce a positive duty to promote equality across all the strands making up the remit of the new Commission, including on the grounds of faith.

The arrival of the new Commission has been viewed with great reservations, particularly by the anti-racism movement, as the Commission for Racial Equality would be absorbed by it. Sir Trevor Phillips, the current Chair of the CRE, recognised this concern by successfully lobbying to get a stay of execution for the race watchdog keeping it out for an additional two years until 2009, arguing that its work was still vital in the current climate. It was therefore with some alarm, expressed by groups like the 1990 Trust and Stonewall among others, that Sir Trevor was announced as the first head of the new CEHR this month. In his previous campaign to preserve the CRE, Sir Trevor had himself described the CEHR as a ‘train wreck waiting to happen’. His change of heart looks very sudden.

There are two main qualms about this appointment. The first is Sir Trevor’s willingness to grab the attention of the more lumpen elements of the press with soundbites that stereotype Muslims (as well as other ethnic minority communities). This tendency only became publicly apparent after his appointment to the CRE, although seasoned activists noted Sir Trevor’s resistance to the faith agenda back in the late 1990s. Some of his statements include:

• In 2003, echoing the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, he called for Muslim extremists to be deported (even before Britain had agreed memoranda of understanding with certain Muslim countries to prevent the torture or execution of deportees, which groups like Amnesty International say have no real force or validity)

• Calling for an end to multiculturalism in April 2004, which for Sir Trevor suggested ‘separateness’, a call welcomed as a ‘paradigm shift’ by the British National Party (yet multiculturalism should rather be defined as integration with variable geometries for Britain’s various and diverse communities)

• In a major speech in 2005, he misrepresented a complex issue as ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ between various ethnic or religious groups as primarily a matter of choice (But the basic facts are far from agreed, e.g. Ludi Simpson at Manchester University, argues that ‘racial self-segregation and increased racial segregation are myths for Britain’. Some say that the key factor is not segregation as such but segregation plus poverty which does apply to some of our Muslim communities according to a 2006 review of the evidence base on faith communites.)

Muslim faith schools threaten the coherence of British society (January 2005) while suggesting that black boys needed special booster classes to get better educational results (March 2005)

British Muslims willing to live by the values of Shariah law were told to move abroad (February 2006)

In addition to all these pejorative comments, Sir Trevor has not said or done enough to look at the impact of policing and anti-terrorism measures on Muslim communities during his tenure. This was particularly noticeable after 7/7, with the CRE maintaining a studious silence throughout the summer, even on areas that it regards as within its direct competence such as shoot-to-kill and stop-and-search policies. In sum, these sorts of interventions have demonstrated the closeness of Sir Trevor with the government of the day. It is clearly in the public interest that the CEHR is — and is seen to be — politically independent.

The second major qualm has been the virtual ending of proper legal enforcement through the courts of defaulters against race relations legislation in Sir Trevor’s time at the CRE. This is a very serious matter, as it is by no means provable that a co-operative, negotiated approach (said to be the preferred approach at the CRE nowadays) will do anything to change recalcitrant public and private institutions. The figures speak for themselves:

CRE – Cases with Full Legal Representation against alleged discrimination
2003 81
2004 28
2005 03

The implications of this ‘softly-softly’ approach for the CEHR look ominous.

What a shame it is that the tipsters’ second-favourite for the job, the redoubtable Shami Chakrabarti, the widely-respected human rights campaigner and current Director of Liberty, was pipped to the post by Sir Trevor. In the first flush of power back in 1997, New Labour seemed willing to delegate genuine power to major institutions such as granting the ability to the Bank of England to set interest rates. Nine years on, it seems much more inclined to play it safe with trusted ‘old hands’. A troublemaker of the best sort in Chakrabarti might have done much to strengthen human rights culture in Britain and to have created a robust institution tasked with helping to create a more inclusive and equal society.

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Filed under Inequality, Multiculturalism