"I have long argued that the giving of offence, and even hate speech, should be a moral matter but not a matter for the criminal law. That is as true on the football pitch as on the streets. We should always challenge racism. We should also always challenge attacks on liberties in the guise of faux antiracism." Kenan Malik


Kenan Malik’s ‘What’s Wrong With Multiculturalism?’ Audio Download

What’s Wrong With Multiculturalism?

Friday, June 22, 2012 | Categories: Past Episodes |

Writer, lecturer, and broadcaster Kenan Malik

Writer, lecturer, and broadcaster Kenan Malik


How should European societies respond to the influx of peoples with different traditions, backgrounds and beliefs? In the 2012 Milton K. Wong Lecture, Kenan Malik looks at multiculturalism policies in Europe, at the ways in which different countries have approached immigration and diversity, and at the reasons for the current dissatisfaction. The lecture is presented by the Laurier Institution, UBC Continuing Studies and CBC Radio One. For more details, please visit the Milton.K. Wong Lecture website.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad (2009),Strange Fruit (2008), Man, Beast and Zombie (2000), and The Meaning of Race (1996). He has also written and presented a number of radio and TV documentaries including Disunited 
Kingdom, Are Muslims Hated?, Islam, Mullahs and the Media, Skullduggery, and Man, Beast and Politics. He is currently writing a history of moral thought.


This is a combined two part article of a recent lecture given by Kenan Malik. If you wish to comment on the article after having read both parts please head over to Kenans blog Pandaemonium. Why not sign up over there for updates while you’re at it!

Kenan also has a website here http://www.kenanmalik.com/


I gave the Milton K Wong lecture in Vancouver on Sunday.  I very much enjoyed the event- it was a stunning venue, a superb audience and a good discussion of the issues. My thanks to the Laurier Institution, University of British Columbia and CBC for inviting me. Entitled ‘What is Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perpective’, the lecture pulled together many of the themes about immigration, identity, diversity and multiculturalism of which I have been talking and writing recently. It was a long talk, so I am splitting the transcript into two. Here is the first part; I will publish the second part later this week. It will be broadcast in full on 22 June on the CBC’s Ideas strand.

It is somewhat alarming to be asked to present the European perspective on multiculturalism. There is no such beast. Especially when compared to the Canadian discussion, opinion in Europe is highly polarised. And mine certainly is not the European perspective. My view is that both multiculturalists and their critics are wrong. And only by understanding why both sides are wrong will we be able to work our way through the mire in which we find ourselves.

Thirty years ago multiculturalism was widely seen as the answer to many of Europe’s social problems. Today it is seen, by growing numbers of people, not as the solution to, but as the cause of, Europe’s myriad social ills.  That perception has been fuel for the success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe from Geert Wilders in Holland to Marine Le Pen in France, from the True Finns to the UK Independence Party.  It even provided fuel for the obscene, homicidal rampage last year of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo and Utøya, which in his eyes were the first shots in a war defending Europe against multiculturalism. The reasons for this transformation in the perception of multiculturalism are complex, and at the heart of what I want to talk about. But before we can discuss what the problem is with multiculturalism, we first have unpack what we mean by multiculturalism.

Part of the problem in discussions about multiculturalism is that the term has, in recent years, come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish.  It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.

As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different.  It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious.  On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity. That is why it is critical to separate these two notions of multiculturalism, to defend diversity as lived experience – and all that goes with it, such as mass immigration and cultural openness – but to oppose multiculturalism as a political process.

To make my case I want to begin by questioning three myths of immigration. Three myths at the heart of the discussion about multiculturalism. Three myths created by the confusion I have just described. Three myths that have also helped maintain that confusion. The first is the idea that European nations used to be homogenous but have become plural in a historically unique fashion. The second claim is that contemporary immigration is different to previous waves, so much so that social structures need fundamental reorganization to accommodate it. And third is the belief that European nations have adopted multicultural policies because minorities demanded it. Both sides in the multiculturalism debate accept these claims. Where they differ is in whether they view immigration, and the social changes it has brought about, as a good or as an ill. Both sides, I want to suggest, are wrong, because these three premises upon which they base their arguments are flawed.

*  *  *  *  *

The claim that European nations used to be homogenous but have been made diverse by mass immigration might appear to be common sense. In fact, most European nations are in fact less plural now than they were, say, a hundred years ago. The reason we imagine otherwise is because of historical amnesia and because we have come to adopt a highly selective standard for defining what it is to be plural.

Consider France. At the time of the French Revolution, less than half the population of France spoke French. The historian Eugene Weber has shown how traumatic and lengthy was the process of what he calls ‘self-colonisation’ required to unify France and her various populations. These developments created the modern French nation.  But they also reinforced in the elite a sense of how alien was the mass of the population. Here is the Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez addressing the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857:

Consider a population like ours, placed in the most favourable circumstances; possessed of a powerful civilisation; amongst the highest ranking nations in science, the arts and industry.  Our task now, I maintain, is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

One only has to read the novels of Émile Zola or the works of Count Arthur Gobineau, one of the leading racial scientists of his day, to recognize how widespread was this sentiment.

The social and intellectual elite in France, far from viewing their nation as homogenous, regarded most of their fellow Frenchmen not as ‘one of us’, but as racial alien, and so inferior that they stood below the ‘most inferior savage races’ and were ‘beyond cure’.

In Victorian England, too, the elite viewed the working class and the rural poor as the racial Other. A vignette of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, is typical of English middle class attitudes:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of a quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… Slaves are separated from whites by more glaring marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.

Modern Bethnal Green is not home to warehousemen or costermongers, but lies at the heart of the Bangladeshi community in East London. Today’s ‘Bethnal Green poor’ are often seen as culturally and racially distinct. But only those on the fringes of politics would compare the distinctiveness of Bangladeshis to that of slaves. The sense of apartness was far greater in Victorian England than it is contemporary Britain. And that’s because in reality the social and cultural differences between a Victorian gentleman or factory owner, on the one hand, and a farmhand or a machinist, on the other, weremuch greater than those between a white resident and one of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green today.

However much they may view each other as different, a 16-year-old kid of Bangladeshi origin living in Bethnal Green, or a 16-year-old of Algerian origin living in Marseilles, or a 16-year-old of Turkish origin living in Berlin, probably wears the same clothes, listens to the same music, watches the same TV shows, follows the same football club as a 16-year-old white kid in that same city. The shopping mall and the sports field, the TV and the iPod, have all served to bind differences and create a set of experiences and cultural practices that is more common than at any time in the past.

There is nothing new, then, in plural societies. From a historical perspective contemporary societies, even those transformed by mass immigration, are not particularly plural. What is different today is the perception that we are living in particularly plural societies, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. The debate about multiculturalism is a debate in which certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have cometo be regarded as important and others (such as class, say, or generational), which used to be perceived as important in the past, have come to be seen as less relevant. Why this has happened I will come to later.

*  *  *  *  *

The second myth I want to challenge is the claim that contemporary immigration to Europe is different, and in some eyes less assimilable, than previous waves. In his much-lauded book Reflections on a Revolution in Europe the American writer Christopher Caldwell suggests that prior to the Second World War, immigrants came almost exclusively from other European nations, and so were easily assimilable. ‘Using the word immigration to describe intra-European movements’, Caldwell suggests,  ‘makes only slightly more sense than describing a New Yorker as an “immigrant” to California’. According to Caldwell, prewar immigration between European nations was different from postwar immigration from outside Europe because, ‘immigration from neighboring countries does notprovoke the most worrisome immigration questions, such as “How well will they fit in?” “Is assimilation what they want?” and, most of all, “Where are their true loyalties?”.’

In fact, those were the very questions asked of European migrants in the prewar years. In 1903, the British Royal Commission on Alien Immigration expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’ and there were fears that there might be ‘grafted onto the English stock… the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’.

Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, was designed primarily to bar European Jews, who were seen as unBritish.  The Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, observed that without such a law, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution… nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’

In France, nearly a third of the population in the 1930s were immigrants, mostly from Southern Europe. Today we think of Italian or Portuguese migrants as culturally similar to their French hosts. Seventy years ago they were viewed as aliens, given to crime and violence, and unlikely to assimilate into French society. ‘The notion of the easy assimilation of past European immigrants’, the French historian Max Silverman has written, ‘is a myth’.

One of the consequences of postwar migration has been to create historical amnesia about prewar attitudes, just as it has created historical amnesia about the divided nature of European societies before such immigration.  From a historical perspective, there is little that is unique about contemporary migrants, or in the way that host societies perceive them.

*  *  *  *  *

The third myth that underlies much of the discussion of European multiculturalism is that European nations have become multicultural because minorities wished to assert their differences. The question of the cultural difference of immigrants has certainly preoccupied the political elites. It is not a question, however, that, until recently, has particularly engaged immigrants themselves.

Take Britain. The arrival in the late 1940s and the 1950s of large numbers of immigrants from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean, led to considerable unease about its impact upon traditional concepts of Britishness. As a Colonial Office report of 1955 observed, ‘a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken… the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached’.

The migrants certainly brought with them a host of traditions and habits and cultural mores from their homelands, of which they were often very proud. But they were rarely concerned with preserving cultural differences, nor thought of it as a political issue. What inspired them was the struggle not for cultural identity but for political equality. And they recognized that at the heart of that struggle was the creation of a commonality of values, hopes and aspirations between migrants and indigenous Britons, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences.

This is equally true of the group whose traditions, beliefs and mores are widely perceived to be most distinct from those of Western societies, and hence the group that is supposedly most demanding that its differences be publicly recognized: Muslims.

The patterns of Muslim migration have, in fact, been little different to that of other communities. The best way to understand it, as of much postwar migration to Europe, is in terms of three generations: the first generation that came to Europe in the 50s and 60s; the second generation that were born or grew up in the 70s and 80; and the third generation that has come of age since then. This is, I know, a somewhat crude characterisation, but it is also a useful to have a broad-brush understanding of the changing relationships between migrants and European societies. The illustrations I am giving come primarily from Britain. But the structure applies to immigration to other European countries too.

The first generation of Muslim immigrants to Britain, who came almost entirely from the Indian subcontinent, were pious in their faith, but wore it lightly. The British writer and theatre director Pervaiz Khan, whose family came to Britain in the 1950s, remembers his father and uncles going to the pub for a pint. ‘They did not bring drink home’, he says. ‘And they did not make a song and dance about it. But everyone knew they drank. And they were never ostracised for it.’ No woman wore a hijab, let alone a niqab or burqa. His family ‘rarely fasted at Ramadan’, Khan says, ‘and often missed Friday prayers. They did not boast about it. But they were not pariahs for it. It is very different from today.’

Khan’s experience was not unusual. My parents were very similar. And those of most of my friends. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy.

The second generation – my generation – was primarily secular. I am of a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or even often as ‘Asian’, but rather as ‘black’. Black was for us not an ethnic label but a political badge. The ‘Muslim community’, in the sense of a community that defined itself solely, or even primarily, by faith did not exist when I was growing up. Neither did the Sikh community, or the Hindu community.

Unlike our parents’ generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally fierce in our opposition to religion and to the traditions that often marked immigrant communities. Religious organizations were, in my youth, barely visible. The organizations that drove migrant communities were primarily secular, often socialist: the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s, that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important.  A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’. That in itself should make us question the received wisdom about how and why multicultural policies emerged.

The shift in the meaning of a single word expresses the transformation I am talking about. When I was growing up to be ‘radical’ was to be militantly secular, self-consciously Western and avowedly left-wing. To be someone like me. Today ‘radical’ in a Muslim context means the very opposite. It describes a religious fundamentalist, someone who is anti-Western, who is opposed to secularism.

What I have said of Britain is true also of other European countries, Germany, for instance, or France. The irony in France is that, for all the current hostility of the French state to Islam, and to public displays of Islamic identity, such as the burqa, for most of the postwar years, while migrant workers were defiantly secular, successive governments regarded such secularism as a threat and attempted to foist religion upon them, encouraging them to maintain their traditional cultural identities. Paul Dijoud, minister for immigrant workers in the 1970s government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, declared that ‘The right to a culture identity allows the immigrant, despite his geographical distance, to stay close to his country.’ The government sought in Islam ‘a stabilizing force which would turn the faithful from deviance, delinquency or membership of unions or revolutionary parties’. When a series of strikes hit car factories in the late seventies, the government encouraged employers to build prayer rooms in an effort to wean immigrant workers, who formed a large proportion of the workforce, away from militant activity.

The claim that minority communities have demanded that their cultural differences be publicly recognized and affirmed is, then, historically false. That demand has emerged only recently. The myth that multiculturalism was a response to minority demands gets cause and effect the wrong way round. Minority communities did not force politicians to introduce multicultural policies. Rather, as I shall show later, the desire to celebrate one’s culture identity has itself, in part at least, been shaped by the implementation of multicultural policies.

* * * * *

The three myths I have talked about are important because they underlie so much of the discussion of immigration and multiculturalism in Europe, and shape both sides of the debate. Having hopefully laid them to rest, I want now to rethink both multiculturalism and the criticism of it. And to begin to do that by looking at how multicultural policies historically have developed.

This is, however, not a single story. Throughout Europe, multicultural policies have developed in response to mass immigration. But they have done so in different ways. Britain and Norway, Sweden and Germany, Holland and Denmark  – every country has its own specific multicultural history to tell.  What I want to do, therefore, is to look at two contrasting histories –  that of Britain and Germany – to understand what these histories have in common despite their differences.

Let us begin in Britain. While the question of cultural differences preoccupied the political elite in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not one, as I have already suggested, that particularly troubled immigrants themselves. What preoccupied them was not the desire to be treated differently, but the fact that they were treated differently. Racism and inequality, not religion and ethnicity, were, for them, the key issues.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, four big issues dominated the struggle for political equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the struggle against workplace discrimination; the fight against racist attacks; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality.

These struggles politicised a new generation of black and Asian activists and came to an explosive climax in the riots that tore through Britain’s inner cities in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The authorities recognized that unless black communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustration could threaten the very stability of British cities. It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism emerged.

Local authorities in inner city areas pioneered a new strategy of making black and Asian communities feel part of British society by organising consultations, drawing up equal opportunity policies, establishing race relations units and dispensing millions of pounds in grants to minority organisations. At the heartof the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different.  The old idea of British values or a British identity was defunct. Rather than be expected to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity, different peoples should have the right to express their own identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.

Scepticism about the idea of a common national identity arose in part from cynicism about the idea of ‘Britishness’. There was widespread recognition among blacks and Asians that talk about Britishness was a means not of extending citizenship to all Britons, whatever their colour and creed, but of denying equal rights to certain groups.  But the new strategy did not simply challenge old-fashioned ideas of Britishness. It transformed the very meaning of equality. Equality now meant not possessing the same rights as everyone else, despite differences of race, ethnicity, culture or faith, but possessing different rights, because of them.

In 2000, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by the philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, published its report that famously concluded that Britain was a ‘community of comunities’ in which equality ‘must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner’. The Parekh report has come to be seen as defining the essence of multiculturalism. But the arguments at its heart had emerged out of the response, two decades earlier, to the inner city riots. The consequences of these arguments I will come to later. But first I want to turn to the question of multiculturalism in Germany.

*  *  *  *  *

Germany’s road to multiculturalism was different to Britain’s, though the starting point was the same. Like many West European nations, Germany faced an immense labour shortage in the postwar years and actively recruited foreign workers. Unlike in Britain, the new workers came not from former colonies, but initially from Italy, Spain and Greece, and then from Turkey. And these workers came not as immigrants, still less as potential citizens, but as ‘guest workers’, who were expected to return to their country of origin when no longer required to service the German economy.

Over time, however, immigrants became transformed from a temporary necessity to a permanent presence. This was partly because Germany continued relying on their labour, and partly because immigrants, and more so their children, came to see Germany as home. But the German state continued to view them as outsiders and to refuse them citizenship. There are nearly 4 million people of Turkish origin in Germany today. Barely half a million have managed to become citizens. Nor is it just first generation immigrants who are denied citizenship; their German-born children are excluded too.

Instead of creating an open society, into which immigrants were welcome as equals, German politicians from the 1980s onwards dealt with the so-called ‘Turkish problem’ through a policy of multiculturalism. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep their own culture, language and lifestyles. The consequence was the creation of parallel communities. The policy did not so much represent respect for diversity as provide a means of avoiding the issue of how to create a common, inclusive culture.

First generation immigrants were often secular, and those that were religious wore their faith lightly. Today, almost a third of adult Turks in Germany regularly attend mosque, a far higher rate than among Turkish communities elsewhere in Western Europe, and higher than in most parts of Turkey. First generation women almost never wore headscarves.  Many of their daughters do. Without any incentive to participate in the national community, many did not bother learning German.

At the same time as Germany’s multicultural policies encouraged immigrants to be at best indifferent to mainstream German society, at worst openly hostile to it, they also made Germans increasingly antagonistic towards Turks. The sense of what it meant to be German was in part defined against the values and beliefs of the excluded migrant communities.  And having been excluded, it has become easier to scapegoat immigrants for Germany’s social ills. A recent poll showed that more than a third of Germans think that the country is ‘over-run by foreigners’ and more than half felt that Arabs were ‘unpleasant’.

In Germany, the formal denial of citizenship to immigrants led to the policy of multiculturalism. In Britain, the promotion of multicultural policies led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority communities not as citizens but simply as members of particular ethnic groups. The consequence in both cases has been the creation of fragmented societies, the alienation of many minority groups and the scapegoating of immigrants.


The story I have told so far is of a Europe that is not as plural as many imagine it to be, and of immigrants less assertive of their cultural identities than they are claimed to be. Multicultural policies emerged not because migrants demanded them, but primarily because the political elite needed them to manage immigration and to assuage anger created by racism.

Why, then, have we come to imagine that we are living in particularly plural societies,  in which our cultural identities are all-important? The answer lies in a complex set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century, changes that include the narrowing of the political sphere, the collapse of the left, the demise of class politics, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Many of these changes helped pave the way for multicultural policies.  At the same time, the implementation of such policies helped create a more fragmented society. Or, to put it another way, multicultural policies have helped create the very problems they were meant to have resolved. I want to demonstrate this through two examples. The first is a riot in Britain, of which you may not have heard, the second a cartoon crisis in Denmark, about which everyone has heard.

In 1985, the Handsworth area of the English city of Birmingham was rocked by riots.  Blacks, Asians and whites took to the streets in protest against poverty, unemployment and, in particular, police harassment. In the violence that followed, two people were killed and dozens injured. It was almost the last flicker of the Eighties inner city conflagrations.

Twenty years later, in October 2005, another riot erupted in the area. This time the fighting was not between youth and police but between blacks and Asians. An unsubstantiated – and almost certainly untrue – rumour that a Jamaican girl had been raped by a group of Asian men, led to a weekend of violence between the two communities, during which a young black man was murdered.

Why did two communities that had fought side by side in 1985 fight against each other 20 years later? The answer lies largely in the policies introduced by Birmingham Council after the original riots. In response to those riots, the Council proposed a new political framework for the engagement of minority communities. It created nine so-called Umbrella Groups, organizations based on ethnicity and faith that were supposed to represent the needs of their particular communities while aiding policy development and resource allocation. These included the African and Caribbean People’s Movement, the Bangladeshi Islamic Projects Consultative Committee, the Birmingham Chinese Society, the Council of Black-led Churches, the Hindu Council, the Irish Forum, the Vietnamese Association, the Pakistani Forum and the Sikh Council of Gurdwaras.

Birmingham Council’s policies were aimed at drawing minority communities into the democratic process. The trouble was, there was precious little democracy in the process. The groups themselves had no democratic mandate, and indeed no mandate at all. After all why should the Council of Black-led Churches presume to speak for the needs and aspirations of African Caribbeans in Birmingham? Why should all Bangladeshis be represented by an Islamic organisation, or all Sikhs by the gurdwaras? And indeed what is the Bangladeshi community or the Sikh community and what are its needs and aspirations?

Imagine if the council had set up a ‘White Forum’ to represent the needs of the white community in Birmingham. Could such a group have represented the interests of all white people in the city? Clearly not. Why should we imagine that Bangladeshis or Sikhs or African Caribbeans are any different?

This points up a paradox in the multicultural vision. The staring point of multicultural policies is the acceptance of societies as diverse. Yet, there is an unstated assumption that such diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. Birmingham council’s policies, like much multicultural policy, treated minority communities as homogeneous wholes, ignoring conflicts within those communities. As the council’s own report put it,

The perceived notion of the homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.

Multicultural policies, in other words, have not responded to the needs of communities, but have helped create those communities by imposing identities on people. And they have created communities by ignoring internal conflicts – conflicts that arise out of class, gender and intra-religious and other differences. What multicultural policies do is empower not minority communities, but so-called ‘community leaders’, who achieve power not because they represent their community but because they have a relationship with the state.

At the same time as they ignored conflicts within minority communities, Birmingham’s policies created conflicts between them.  As one academic study of Birmingham’s policies observes,

The model of engagement through Umbrella Groups tended to result in competition between black and minority ethnic communities for resources. Rather than prioritising needs and cross-community working, the different Umbrella Groups generally attempted to maximise their own interests.

Once political power and financial resources became allocated by ethnicity, then people began to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and only those ethnicities.

Imagine that you are a secular Bangladeshi living in Birmingham. You don’t think of yourself as a Muslim, you may not even think yourself as Bangladeshi. Over time, however, you come to see yourself in those terms, not just because those identities provide you with access to power, influence and resources, but also because those identities possess a social reality through receiving constant confirmation and affirmation. It is how you are seen; so it is how you come to see yourself.  You come to fear and resent African Caribbeans and Sikhs and the Irish, partly because they are competitors for that pot of council largesse and power, and partly because the rules of the game are that your identity has to be affirmed as distinctive and different from the identities of other groups.  Being Muslim also means being not-Irish, not-Sikh and not-African Caribbean.

The consequence is what the great Indian-born economist Amartya Sen has called ‘plural monoculturalism’ – policy driven by the myth that society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures that dance around each other.  And policy makes such a segmented society a reality. The result in Birmingham was to entrench divisions between black and Asian communities to an extent that sparked inter-communal rioting.

*  *  *  *  *

Not only have multicultural policies entrenched the idea of homogenous communities, with disastrous consequences. They have also enabled the most conservative figures to be seen as the authentic voices of those communities.

Consider, for instance, the controversy over the Danish cartoons. We all know what happened. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a series of inflammatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Islam forbids the depiction of the Prophet. So millions of Muslims worldwide were enraged to the point of violence.

Except it never happened like that. For a start, there is no universal Islamic prohibition on the representation of the Prophet. It was, in fact, common to portray him until comparatively recently. A number of Islamic, especially Shiite, traditions continue to accept the pictorial representation of Muhammed.

Shortly after Jyllands Posten published the cartoons, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr reprinted them. They were accompanied by a critical commentary, but Al Fagr did not think it necessary to blank out Muhammad’s face, and faced no opprobrium for not doing so. Egypt’s religious and political authorities, even as they were demanding an apology from the Danish Prime Minister, raised no objections to Al Fagr’s full frontal photos.

So, if there is no universal prohibition to the depiction of Muhammad, why were Muslims universally appalled by the caricatures? They weren’t. And those that were driven by political zeal rather than by theological fervour. The publications of the cartoons in September 2005 caused no immediate reaction, even in Denmark. Journalists, disappointed by the lack of controversy, contacted a number of imams for their response. Among the first was Ahmed Abu Laban. He seized upon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesman for Denmark’s Muslims. Even so, it took more than four months of often hysterical campaigning, and considerable arm-twisting by Saudi diplomats, to create a major controversy.

Why did journalists contact Abu Laban in the first place? His Islamic Society of Denmark had little support. Out of a population of 180,000 Danish Muslims, fewer than a thousand attended the Society’s Friday prayers. He was, however, infamous for his support for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. From a journalistic viewpoint, it made sense to get a quote from someone so controversial. But politically, too, it made sense.

Western liberals have come to see figures like Abu Laban as the true, authentic voice of Islam. The Danish Muslim MP Nasser Khader tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing newspaper highly critical of the caricatures. ‘He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims’, Khader recalls.  ‘I said I was not insulted. He said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”.’ In liberal eyes, in other words, to be a real Muslim is to find the cartoons offensive. Once Muslim authenticity is so defined, then only a figure such as Abu Laban can be seen as a true Muslim voice.

The myths about the Danish cartoons – that all Muslims hated the cartoons and that it was a theological conflict – helped turn Abu Laban into an authentic voice of Islam, and to silence other voices.  At the same time Abu Laban’s views seemed to confirm the myths about the Danish cartoons.

The question at the heart of the Danish cartoon controversy is not simply ‘what is offensive?’ but also ‘who decides what is offensive?’ In other words, ‘Who speaks for the community?’ Abu Laban or Nasser Khader? That is also the question at the heart of many of the flashpoints about ‘offensiveness’, from the global confrontation over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to the local struggle over Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Bezhti which was forced off stage in 2005 by Sikh activists in Birmingham who objected to it.

The issue of free speech and the giving of offence has become central to the multiculturalism debate. Speech, many argue, must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For such societies to function and be fair, we need to show respect for all cultures and beliefs. And to show respect for all cultures and beliefs requires us to police pubic discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs, and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it,

If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.

One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

Leaving aside the question of whether there is anything morally wrong with giving offence (and I don’t believe there is), the problem with this line of argument is that what is often regarded as offence to a community is in reality a debate within that community.  That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, but also Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on.

Take the Rushdie affair. Neither Rushdie nor his critics spoke for the Muslim community. Each represented different strands of opinion in that community. Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in the 1980s was deeply entrenched. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots, but, rather, to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the truev oice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.

Just as Abu Laban was seen as an authentic Muslim and Nasser Khader as not a proper one, so Rushdie’s critics were seen as authentic Muslims and Kaur Bhatti’s critics as proper Sikhs, while Rushdie and Kaur Bhatti themselves were regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. The consequence  is that the most conservative voices are often seen as the authentic representatives of those communities, while the progressive voices get marginalized.

*  *  *  *  *

Having explored the problems of multiculturalism, I want briefly to look at the criticisms of multiculturalism. Much of that criticism is undoubtedly driven by racism, bigotry and sheer hatred for the Other. Nowhere is this more savagely evident than in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer.

Many feel that faced with a monster like Breivik, we must close ranks and defend that which he wishes to destroy. It is a version of an argument that has gained ground as rightwing leaders, from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Britain’s David Cameron to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have in recent years become more fiercein their criticism of multiculturalism. It is an argument that misunderstands both multiculturalism and Breivik’s hatred. The real target of Breivik’s assault is not so much multiculturalism as immigrants, immigration and diversity.

The problem with multiculturalism, I have suggested, is that in putting people in ethnic boxes it undermines diversity. I am critical of multiculturalism precisely because I want to defend diversity. Breivik, however, does not oppose multiculturalism because he wants to defend diversity. Rather, he opposes diversity because he wants to put people into cultural boxes, in his case primarily labeled ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’. In his twisted, fantasy world the presence of Muslims in the Christian box pollutes and defiles it and needs to be eliminated.

Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet, many agree with his intellectual assault. The idea that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat, that Muslim immigration amounts to an invasion, and that ‘Western civilization’ is facing collapse finds a widespread hearing. In a television debate during the French Presidential elections, Nikolas Sarkozy called for a restoration of border controls and passport checks in order ‘to defend a European civilization’. Christopher Caldwell, whose work I mentioned earlier, suggests that Islam has ‘broken’ the fundamentals of the European tradition, ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’, but ‘supplanting it’. In his polemical screed America Alone, the Canadian journalist Mark Steyn talks of the Madrid train bombings and of 7/7 attacks on the London transport system as the ‘opening shots of a European civil war’ that will lead to ‘societal collapse’, ‘fascist revivalism’ and a never-to-return journey into ‘the long Eurabian night’.

Such ideas draw their power from a vision of a world torn apart by a ‘clash of civilizations’. An idea first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon a decade before 9/11, it has, for many, come to define the decade after.

What is striking about these two approaches – multiculturalism, on the one hand, the clash of civilizations, on the other – is how much they have in common. It is true that there is little love lost between multiculturalists and clash of civilization warriors. The former accuse the latter of pandering to racism and Islamophobia, while the latter talk of the former as appeasing Islamism. Beneath the hostility, however, the two sides share basic assumptions about the nature of culture, identity and difference. Both view the key social divisions as cultural or civilizational. Both see cultures, or civilizations, as homogenous entities.  Both insist on the crucialimportance of cultural identity and on the preservation of such identity. Both perceive irresolvable conflicts arising from incommensurate values.

It’s not just multiculturalists and clash of civilizational warriors who draw upon these themes. The far right, too, in recent years, has increasingly, in public at least, swapped the old language of biologicaldifference, for the new idiom ofcultural identity. At the heart of the far right and populist assault on multiculturalism is a defence of ‘my culture’, ‘my history’, ‘my tradition’.

Listen to the language that Breivik employs. Multiculturalism, he told his trial, is a ‘hate ideology’. He lamented its ‘deconstruction of European cultures and traditions’, and saw himself as acting ‘in defence of my culture and of my people’.  This is precisely the language of culture and identity that multiculturalism has done so much to foster in recent years.

If the far right has appropriated the language of pluralism, many pluralists have slipped into the idiom of exclusion. The late Isaiah Berlin was probably the pre-eminent philosopher of modern pluralism, hugely influential, not least on that torchbearer of Canadian liberalism, Michael Ignatieff. Shortly before his death Berlin was interviewed by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Was it possible, Lukes asked, for peoples of different cultures to live together?

‘When you have two peoples of different origins and cultures’, Berlin replied, ‘it is difficult for them to live together in peace… it is quite natural that each side should think that they cannot lead free lives in an integrated society if the others are there in quantity.’ Black immigration to Western Europe, he added, was ‘a problem’ because ‘cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided’.

Berlin is not alone in making a multiculturalist case for ‘keeping them out’. Will Kymlicka, who gave this lecture four years ago, has perhaps inherited Berlin’s mantle as the most important and cogent philosopher of multiculturalism, a highly subtle thinker, and an unswerving liberal. In his book Multicultural Politics,Professor Kymlicka makes a case for the right of cultures to protect their unique characters from changes wrought from the outside. ‘It is right and proper’, he argues, ‘that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its  members’.  But ‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world’, he insists, it is quite another ‘to be swamped by it’.

That is a telling phrase. For the fear of being ‘swamped’ has long been a rightwing trope, used to whip up fears about immigration. It’s at the heart of the current hysteria about Islam. Professor Kymlicka is liberal to his bones, resolutely hostile to the arguments against immigration and Islam. Yet, once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist the anti-immigration arguments of the right.

The irony of the polarised debate in Europe is that the assault on multiculturalism is all too often pursued through the language of multiculturalism.  Perhaps the biggest indictment of multiculturalism is that it has transformed racism into another cultural identity.

*  *  *  *  *

I began this talk by distinguishing between the idea of diversity as lived experience and that of multiculturalism as a political process. I want to end this talk by returning to that distinction.

The real failure of multiculturalism as a political process, it seems to me, is its failure to understand what is valuable about diversity as lived experience.

When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflicts. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is the very thing that many people fear. And that fear takes two forms. On the one hand, you have the nationalist sentiment: immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of Britishness or Frenchness or Germanness. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions it brings in its wake.

To say that clashes and conflicts can be good does not mean, of course, that every clash and conflict is a good. Political conflicts are often useful because they repose social problems in a way that asks: ‘How can we change society to overcome that problem?’ We might disagree on the answer, but the debate itself is a useful one.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, by reposing political problems in terms of culture or faith, transforms political conflicts into a form that makes them neither useful nor resolvable. Multicultural policies both constrain the kinds of clashes of opinion that could prove politically fruitful, and unleash the kinds of conflicts that are socially damaging. They transform political debates into cultural collisions and, by imprisoning individuals within their cultures and identities, make such collisions both inevitable and insoluble.

The lesson of Europe, it seems to me, is that if we want to preserve diversity as lived experience, we need also to challenge multiculturalism as a political process.


Kenan Malik and Hanif Kureishi author of My Beautiful Launderette discussing free speech, identity politics, Islamism, multiculturalism, racism etc. 45mins well spent.


Time ‘To Dump’ Multiculturalism by Joe Reilly

Reproduced from Red Action Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 12, July/Aug 2001
Lightly edited by Libcom
A decade on and just as relevant..
The Bradford riots

Currently there is much discussion on how the rise of the far right can be halted. The truthful answer, says Joe Reilly, is that an anti-fascism joined at the hip with multiculturalism cannot do so.

Britain ‘has the highest number of interracial relationships in the world’ according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research. This supremely natural and healthy state of affairs, is however, not due to multiculturalism but in spite of it. For multiculturalist ideology, which believes that ‘culture makes man’ rather than the other way round, sets its face firmly against miscegenation, integration and assimilation – on principle.

“Multiculturalism actually promotes racism. It engenders confusion, resentment and bullying and prevents people developing a shared British identity. This idea should have been dumped long since”, claimed Minette Marrin in a Guardian article on May 29.

Though evidence to support her claim is legion, in the same paper on the same day, Vivek Chaudry a Guardian journalist rather underlined her point, by inverting the Norman Tebbitt ‘cricket test’. He castigated England captain Nasser Hussain for bemoaning the fact that people with origins in the Indian subcontinent continue to support teams from that part of the world rather than England. “My message to Hussain is this. You need to get in touch with your brown side” Chaudrey advised.

Though small, a not insignificant number of journalists are now beginning to publicly ask questions of multiculturalism. Marrin’s though is not a typical liberal view, nor is she a typical Guardian journalist. She is in fact a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, which explains why her article was entitled ‘A view from the right’. But is it? Might it not as easily, or more accurately have been entitled ‘A view from the Left’?

Mainly, what prevents the conservative left assessing the multicultural impact honestly, residual dullness aside, is the fear of being denounced. So instead of properly mocking the Robin Cook ‘chicken tikka’ statement, the conservative left feel under obligation to denounce any misgivings as ‘right wing’, and from that same standpoint feel under obligation to push the agenda toward what it sees as the opposite fundamentalist conclusions, when, and where ever, the opportunity presents itself.

Thus in Oldham, while the British National Party canvass the white working class neighbourhoods, the Socialist Alliance (SA), whose analysis sees the white working class as the sole culprits, nevertheless distributes its propaganda, only in the exclusively non-white areas.

What political purpose, one asks, is served by such tokenism, when if it took its responsibilities at all seriously the SA would have put up candidates against the BNP in the area to begin with? As it is, while the SA ‘intervention’ allowed impeccably white liberals to wear their multicultural heart on their sleeve for a few hours, the BNP went about its business establishing a bridgehead for the local elections in 2002 unhindered. None of this is not to suggest that the SA is politically equipped to win white working class minds. It is merely to point out that it has no ambition to do so. Instead it is perfectly happy to strike a pose, and pronounce on events from a thoroughly partisan, that is to say dishonest, perspective.

Other factors detected within the debris of multiculturalism that is Oldham, are also worth mentioning. First of all, there is the carefully cultivated myth that anti-racism is the preserve of social groups A, and B. Only with ‘education can there be enlightenment’ The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee announced recently. This is so often said, that it is now widely believed among all sections of society, to such an extent that for many, to be properly anti-racist it is necessary to be anti-working class.

Indeed to be properly anti-racist, it may for some, be necessary to instinctively feel ‘anti-white’. “What we now have is a new version of the deserving and undeserving poor – the noble new British working class, who are ethnic, and the thoroughly swinish old working class, who are white”. (Julie Burchill, The Guardian, 5.5.01)

Yet, even a casual glance at the make up of any inner-city community, reveals the conceit of an ‘inherently racist’ white working class to be a lie. It is among the working classes, and statistically, only among the working classes, that interracial relationships thrive. Elsewhere, apart from genially nodding to the man behind the counter in the corner shop, classes A and B contribute nothing to the project they loudly proclaim loyalty to.

On top of that there is the self-serving multicultural pretense that all ethnic communities are homogeneous, and in an ideal world, all would be treated as such.

Not only that, but while some such as ‘Operation Black Vote’ for instance, insist Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as African and those of West Indian and even Chinese descent, must for general electoral convenience you understand, be treated as ‘black’, along side this form of forced integration, other multiculturalists are working just as hard to see the term ‘black’ further sub-divided on the grounds of ethnicity and religion.

The aim? To have strict segregation in schools and housing (to begin with), not only for Blacks and Asians but, for Muslims, Hindus, Bangladeshis and so on, ad infinitum, finally ending in racial, cultural and political balkanisation.

Of course, in the midst of this racial engineering, one word is carefully avoided. That is the word ‘class’. For the very good reason that the promotion of cultural diversity is intended to kill off, and replace the idea of social diversity.Yet despite such sleight of hand, that ‘class’ is as big a factor in the sense of alienation experienced by ‘Pakistani’ youth in Glodwick, as it is in the predominately white Fitton Hill is undeniable. For what is striking about their situation, is that unlike many Indians, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi inhabitants of Oldham show little sign of the fabled enterprising spirit, all of Asian origin, are we are told possess.

They came here with nothing, to work in the mills as labourers, and labourers whether in work or not, they largely remain. They have not broken out – or up. Some pious humbugs like Ken Livingstone, will insist that this is entirely due to endemic racism in British society. But if true, how to explain the equally downtrodden white counterparts with whom they are at war? If racism is the root cause, how to explain the inability of ‘Fittonhillites’ to rise out of the ghetto? ‘Oh them, they are you know, just so much white trash’, many a multiculturalist will explain without blushing.

Recently describing for the New Statesman, a visit to Oldham a couple of years ago when he more or less predicted the ‘backlash,’ Darcus Howe uses that very expression, unashamedly, and apparently in ignorance of its American Deep South origins. No matter, his observations make a nonsense of the working assumptions of the ANL/SA, that there is ‘a uniform access to power for all whites, denied to all blacks’.

“For the first time in this country, I had seen people who fitted the American description ‘white trash’. Their homes had a stench of decay: of damp, sweat, and stale food cooked days before. The little picket fences were collapsing. The roofs were leaking and pallid faces staring.” These are the labour aristocracy, benefitting from imperialism and eager to protect their privileges and ill-gotten gains by voting BNP are they?

For a further insight into how skewed mainstream multiculturalism thinking really is, it is necessary only to take stock of the racially loaded invective of the ‘anti-fascist’ visitors to the National Front ‘guest-book’. These startlingly ugly contributions are, bear in mind, should you be tempted to look, all products of a multicultural education of thirty years standing.

In a further tribute to the influence of such teaching, one Asian group, allegedly set up to fight the NF and Combat 18 has chosen for itself the title; ‘Combat 786′. Like Combat ’18’ which represents the A and H in the alphabet, ‘numbers 786’ are The Observer reports, ‘a numerical representation of Allah’. The similarities do not, I suspect, end there.

Meanwhile that the segregationist ‘peace line’ solutions proposed by the BNP, are these days impeccably multiculturalist in tone and delivery is the final irony. ‘In one area’ an Observer article mentions ‘where an alleyway leads from Fitton Hill into an Asian street, the council plans to erect a metal gate to separate the communities’. Remarkably, the metal gate has since been erected in line with the Griffin edict.

How effortlessly euro-nationalism has appropriated the language of multiculturalism to meet its own objectives, also demonstrates just how far the anti-racism of the 1970’s has drifted. Furthermore, the ease and comfort of the euro-nationalist fit, unmasks the lie that multiculturalism is naturally progressive.

In reality it is more trouble than it’s worth. Not to say that people from the Indian subcontinent or anywhere else ought to be compelled to meet the ‘Tebbit cricket test’. But neither should it be demanded of them out of some sense of racial fidelity that they meet the Chaudrey test either. Multiculturalism however, more or less insists they must. And it is largely when the the left promotes or defends multiculturalism’s right to do so, that it becomes a politically dangerous liability, Oldham has exposed it to be.

Like many of the second generation Irish, whose support for the Republic at football is not entirely separate from an antipathy to England, similarly, as the unprovoked attacks of as many as 30 pubs in the Oldham area have illustrated, being pro-Muslim is not always entirely divorced from being anti-white. Clearly, such an ideology does not enhance authentic anti-racism – it subverts it.

Some commentators on the ‘SPIKEONLINE’ website (ex-Living Marxism magazine) have arrived at precisely such conclusions. “There was a time when the left was accused of stirring up race riots. Now it is the the far right that is accused of starting the violence. Where politicians once denounced violent blacks, today they are more likely to denounce violent racists. The establishment no longer relies on traditional British nationalism, but is more likely to talk in the language of anti- racism.”

Continuing in a similar vein another adds: “When every issue and incident is racialised and seen through the prism of race, it is not surprising that people start to see their problems in racial terms. The end result can only be more division and conflict.”

Professor Frank Furedi, one time mentor to the now defunct RCP is sure-footed on this subject at least: “today it is the race relations lobby and particularly New Labour that finds it difficult to avoid the temptation of playing the race card. By treating every routine conflict as racially motivated they are racialising everyday life. This process is as destructive as the old-fashioned racism.”

It is a process he warns that can only end in “Everyday human contact” becoming “recast in racial terms, with the consequence that racism becomes normalised. This confuses and disorients people, breeding a climate of suspicion and mistrust.” A by-product of this racialistion is that “it also trivalises the real experience of racism and distracts from confronting real cases of injustice” he concludes.

Currently there is much discussion on how the rise of the far right can be halted. The truthful answer is that an anti-fascism joined at the hip with multiculturalism cannot do so. Indeed the higher the activity of the likes of the ANL, and now, and even more ridiculously the SA, the more entrenched the respective working class communities will become. Put bluntly, ‘racialising social problems’ is the motive force of both euro-nationalism and multiculturalism alike. For purposes of anti-fascist strategy, if for no more principled reasons, multiculturalism is ‘an idea that should have been dumped long since’.



By Kenan Malik from his Pandaemonium blog.


Here is my introduction to the discussion on ‘immigration and citizenship’ at last week’s Trudeau Foundation conference on ‘The Making of Citizenship’, about which I have already written. I was part of a double act with Ruben Zaiotti, whose job it was to talk about the Canadian experience. Mine was just to be provocative.

The debate about immigration and citizenship in Europe is often presented as a debate between multiculturalism and assimilation. Not only does this oversimplify the debate, but the similarities between the two sides are often more important than the differences.  Both sides have broadly bought into a series of common myths about immigration and citizenship:

1. The starting point for both multiculturalists and assimilationists is the need to manage the pluralism created by immigration. But Europe is today perhaps less plural than ever before.

Both multiculturalists and assimilationists begin with the presumption that European nations used to be homogenous but have become diverse, though clearly they advocate different policies in response to this diversity. Both sides, however, are suffering from a collective memory loss. The homogeneity of Europe in the era before mass immigration is a myth.

Take, for instance, Britain in the nineteenth century. Here’s a view of the urban poor in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the mid-Victorian era:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.

The working class and the rural poor are not simply culturally distinct, they are the racial other.  As the historian of empire David Canadine has shown in his book Ornamentalism, the English ruling class viewed East End costermongers as alien as they did Jamaican peasants but saw Indian princes and West African tribal chiefs as ‘one of us’.

Similarly in France.  Here is Christian Buchez, a Christian socialist, addressing the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, about social differentiation in France:

Our task now… is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classes below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

We are so used to seeing difference, particularly racial difference, as between Europe and the Other, that we forget that for the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the Other lived inside the borders.

It was not simply a question of perception. The social and cultural differences between a Victorian factory owner and a machinist were probably greater than those between a native white Briton and a second generation British Asian or Afro-Caribbean today.  Unlike the factory owner and the machinist, a 16-yr old white boy born in Bradford and 16-yr of from Bradford of Pakistani origin probably wear the same kinds of clothes, listen to the same kind of music, support the same football teams.

The current narrative about immigration and citizenship has been created by erasing the history of difference with European societies, including the history of past immigration. In the 1930s, for instance, nearly a third of the French population were immigrants, mostly from Southern Europe. Today we think of Italian or Portuguese migrants as culturally similar to their French hosts. Seventy years ago they were viewed as alien as Muslims are today, given to crime and violence, and unlikely to assimilate into French society. ‘The notion of the easy assimilation of past European immigrants’, the historian Max Silverman has written, ‘is a myth’.

What all this suggests is that there is nothing new in plural societies. What is different today is the perception that we are living in a particularly plural society, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. For both multiculturalists and assimilationists, certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as particularly significant and others (such as class, say, or generational) as less relevant. The combination of historical amnesia and a one-eyed view of what constitutes ‘difference’ has come to shape the arguments of both multiculturalists and assimilationists.

2. The real debate is not between multiculturalism and assimilationism. It is between two distinct conceptions of multiculturalism and two distinct conceptions of assimilation.

Part of the problem in discussing multiculturalism is a confusion between two different meanings of the term. The first is the lived experience of diversity, the experience of societies enriched by mass immigration. The second is the set of political policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. Or, to put it another way, multiculturalism has come to define both a society made diverse by immigration, and the policies necessary to manage such a society. It has come to embody, in other words, both a description of society and aprescription for managing it.

There are similarly two notions of assimilation. On the one hand, assimilationism has come to mean the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. On the other it has come to mean an insistence that equality requires a certain degree of cultural homogeneity, and hence requires  immigrants to give up some of their differences, because too great a degree of cultural diversity would undermine social cohesion and national unity. This was one of the arguments underlying the various bans on the burqa. ‘The wearing of the burqa’, French immigration minister, Eric Besson,  claimed in 2009 should  ‘be systematically considered as proof of insufficient integration into French society, creating an obstacle to gaining  nationality.” A year earlier Mme M, a Moroccan immigrant married to a French citizen with whom she had had four French-born children, was refused French citizenship on the grounds that because she wore a burqa, her practice of her religion was incompatible with the essential values of the French nation. Assimilationism is this sense is a means not of enforcing equality but of pointing up differences, of tolerating, indeed institutionalising racism.

If I were to construct an ideal immigration/citizenship policy, it would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of enhancing the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. In practice what European nations have done is the very opposite. Different countries have institutionalised either multiculturalism, in the sense of policies to place minorities in boxes, or assimilationism, in the sense of equality as meaning the giving up of cultural or religious differences. Both, in other words, have rejected the best aspects of their outlook, and institutionalized the most wretched parts.

3. Both sides in the debate confuse the idea of peoples with that of values

‘Can Europe be the same with different people in it?’ asks the writer Christopher Caldwell in his controversial book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. His answer is a clear ‘No’. Caldwell is a columnist for the Financial Times and an editor of the conservative American magazine the Weekly StandardReflections on the Revolution in Europe is the latest in a succession of books by authors such as Mark Steyn, Oriana Fallaci, Bruce Bawer and Melanie Phillips warning of how immigration, and in particular Muslim immigration, is threatening the very foundations of European civilization. All immigrants, they argue, but most especially Muslim ones, bring with them a different set of values, incompatible with those of Western nations. The only solution is to stop immigration.

It is not difficult to see the problems with Caldwell’s line of reasoning. Not only does he erase the history of the ‘Other’ in Europe in which, as I’ve suggested, Europeans themselves were viewed as Muslims are today, but he confusespeoples and values. Being born to European parents is no passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia?

What is striking is that both multiculturalists and assimilationists, in their different ways, express the same confusion. Multiculturalists argue that the presence in a society of diversity of peoples erodes the possibility of common values. Assimilationists suggest that such values are possible only within a more culturally, and indeed ethnically, homogenous society.

Multiculturalists insist that different groups have their own given values and lifestyles which should be respected. ‘Justice between groups’, as the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has put it, ‘requires that members of different groups are accorded different rights’. The British sciologist Tariq Madood takes this line of argument to make a distinction between what he calls the ‘equality of individualism’ and ‘equality encompassing public ethnicity: equality as not having to hide or apologise for one’s origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.’ So society must protect and nurture cultures, ensure their flourishing and indeed their survival.

For assimilationists diversity is the very problem. Europe, Christopher Caldwell bemoans, has been turned into a ‘bazaar of world cultures’. Muslim immigration must be stopped because Muslims are ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’ but  ‘supplanting it.’ The melodramatic title of Caldwell’s book is a nod to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, his polemic against the 1789 Revolution, and reflects Caldwell’s belief that the impact on European of postwar immigration has been as dramatic as the fall of the ancien regime in 1789. There is, he suggests, no ‘fundamental difference between colonization and labor migration’, when such migration involves people who are not like us.

The result of both multiculturalism and assimilationism are policies supposedly designed foster integration but whose consequences are to define minority communities as being distinct from the rest of society and, in so doing, fostering division and disengagement: Consider, for instance, some of the consequences of multicultural policies:

    • The tendency to treat individuals from minority communities more as members of a group than as individual citizens, and to shape public policy according to group membership rather than to individual needs. As, Joy Warmington, director of the equalities organization Birmingham Race Action Partnership has put it, ‘Rather than thinking of meeting people’s needs or about distributing resources more equitably,, organizations are forced to think about the distribution of ethnicity.’
    • The tendency of politicians to subcontract out their responsibility to so-called community leaders, who effectively become the voice of those communities and the mediation between the state and those communities.
    • The failure to acknowledge the diversity of minority communities and conflicts within them. One of the ironies is that multiculturalists appear to believe that nations are diverse, but that such diversity stops at the edge of minority communities. Differences and conflicts of class, gender, nationality and generation that exist within minority communities  often get ignored in multicultural policies.

Similar points can be made with respect to the impact of assimilationist policies, too. So long as both sides confuse the diversity of peoples and the diversity of values, so there can be no rational discussion of immigration and citizenship.

4. Immigration does not create a problem of citizenship. The fraying of citizenship creates the perception that immigration is the problem.

The starting point of virtually all discussions about immigration and citizenship is the belief that immigration creates a problem of integration and of citizenship. Indeed, without such a belief there would probably be no debate about immigration and citizenship. The problem is usually seen as a failure of immigrants to integrate into civil society, or to identify with the nation, or to act like citizens. And the demand is for policies to address that failure.

The trouble is, the evidence for the failure is at best mixed. There have been polls that have revealed that, for instance, almost 40% of British Asians do not feel British. But others, show that, on both sides of the Atlantic, those of immigrants background, including Muslims, are often more likely to identity with the nation than many sections of so-called indigenous population. The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES), the results of which have not been fully published yet, has revealed that Asian communities tend to bemore satisfied with democracy, and more likely to identify with Britain, than the white population. In other words, insofar as there is a problem of integration and of citizenship, it is not simply a problem of immigrants, and those of immigrant background, but also of the indigenous population. And what needs to be addressed is less the specific failure of immigrants to integrate than the broader sense of social disengagement, afflicting many communities, including migrant communities.

One of the key characteristics of our era is that of political disenchantment, a sense of being rendered voiceless, of political institutions as remote and corrupt. There is a crisis of political representation.  It is true that many within migrant and minority communities have given vent to that sense of alienation. And, yet, the sense of political detachment has probably been most acute, not within migrant communities, but within the traditional working class, particularly as social democratic parties have sought new constituencies. And because the myths and assumptions about immigration and citizenship have not been challenged, but rather have been reinforced, so such alienation has often taken the form of scapegoating migrants for the fragmentation of society. Hence the success of many populist, reactionary movements across Europe.

Not only does the belief that immigration creates a problem of integration and of citizenship misunderstand the real issue, but in fostering hostility against immigrants, whom many come to believe are incapable of integrating, or unwilling to, such belief also establishes new tensions. In so doing it not only makes life harder, and often more violent and dangerous, for immigrants and minorities, it also constructs new barriers to integration.  The very belief that there is a problem of immigration and citizenship helps create the problem of immigration and citizenship.



From Kenan Maliks blog Pandaemonium

For someone like me, a European in favour of mass immigration but critical of multiculturalism, the Trudeau Foundation conference on ‘The Making of Citizens’ that took place last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was both intriguing and  fascinating. The Foundation was set up in 2001 in memory of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a key architect of Canada’s multicultural policy. Its aim is to promote and fund research in the humanities and social sciences and, while not attached to any political party, the Foundation’s work is indelibly stamped with the liberal humanitarianism that many see as Trudeau’s principal political legacy and which, in many ways, has come to shape Canada’s self-definition. Multiculturalism, in this sense, is to Canada as the welfare state is to Britain.

Two themes seemed to run through ‘The Making of Citizens’ conference. The first was the belief that the debate between multiculturalism and its critics maps neatly on to the debate between those who favour immigration and those who are hostile to it; in other words, that those who oppose multiculturalism necessarily oppose immigration and that those who defend immigration can only do so by defending multiculturalism. The second theme was the insistence that Canadian multiculturalism is distinct from the European version, and suffers from none of the defects of the latter.

The first point is unquestionably false. In Germany, for example, multiculturalism developed as a means of denying citizenship to Turkish migrants. Turks had come to Germany originally as temporary ‘guestworkers’ but had subsequently become permanent residents, largely because Germany continued to need their labour. The German government, however, until the law was changed a decade ago, did not wish to grant citizenship, even to those of Turkish origin born in Germany. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep own culture, language and lifestyles.  Multiculturalism developed, in other words, not as a means of embracing immigration but as a way of keeping immigrants at arms’ length. In Britain, multiculturalism developed as part of the ‘twin track’ strategy on immigration: on the one hand the imposition of  increasingly restrictive immigration controls, initially designed specifically to exclude non-whites, and on the other, the creation of a social framework aimed at facilitating the integration of black and Asian communities into British society.

In Canada, too, the relationship between multiculturalism and immigration is far from straightforward. Historically, the policy developed as a way not of welcoming immigrants but of mitigating the impact of ‘biculturalism’ – the fracture and tensions between French and English speaking Canada. And, for all the insistence that Canada has a liberal immigration policy, Ottawa has in fact worked very hard to keep out the ‘wrong’ kind of immigrant. Canadian policy is largely about cherry picking middle class professionals and making it almost impossible for unskilled workers to cross the border. Little wonder that many European nations are now looking to Canada’s points system as a model for immigration control.

The second theme – about the distinctiveness of Canadian multiculturalism, and about its success in comparison to Europe – is, on the surface at least, more plausible.  Community relations in Canada have certainly remained relatively peaceful, and there has been far less of the violence and tensions found in Europe. I remain unconvinced, however, by the argument that all is rosy in Canadian multicultural garden for a number of reasons. Many of the problems in Europe to which Canadians often allude – inner city riots, for instance – are the products, not of multiculturalism, but of racism, though multiculturalism has certainly helped entrench old racial divisions and create new communal  antagonisms. Canada is no Utopia free of racial discrimination, nor of the tensions it generates. Moreover, the underlying problems with multicultural policies, problems that I have explored here andhere and here and here and here and here, don’t vanish on crossing the Atlantic. Indeed, many of confrontations that have marked European multicultural tensions – such as over free speech issues or the wearing of the burqa – are present in Canadian society too.

One of my criticisms of multiculturalism, and of the debate around it, has been about the confusion of the lived experience of diversity and the policies enacted to manage that diversity, confusion, in other words, between adescription of a society and a prescription for that society. A number of conference speakers suggested that Canadian multiculturalism amounts largely to a celebration of the lived experience of diversity, rather than the imposition of political policies. This seems to me unlikely for a number of reasons. First, because Canadian policy involves, as all multicultural policies must, a degree of prescription, and hence suffers, to some extent at least, from the problems that inevitably arise from all multicultural prescription – such as, for instance, the subcontracting out of political responsibility to so-called community leaders and the treating of individuals with a minority background as members of a group rather than simply as citizens.

Secondly, Canada, as I have already observed, does not have an open immigration policy but a highly restrictive one. The closed character of Canada’s immigration rules clearly impacts upon immigrants and potential immigrants. It also impacts upon Canada’s economic needs, which are often for the kinds of immigrants Canadian law deems socially unsuitable to be citizens. To get round this, businesses and both provincial and federal authorities are now drawing upon the services of hundreds of thousands of ‘temporary workers’.  Temporary migration has, indeed, become the biggest source of new labour in Canada -182,322 temporary workers entered the country in 2010, coming to be fruit pickers, labourers, factory workers, janitors, waiters and chambermaids. They have few rights, no access to the services available to other immigrants, and are excluded from permanent residency or citizenship. Sound familiar?

The irony is that just as European nations are looking to Canada’s points system as a way of restricting immigration, Canada is adopting the European policy of temporary immigration without rights or status to fill its economic needs. This suggests that the same kinds of problems that Europe has faced may well be in store for Canada, too.  It also suggests that when it comes to celebrating diversity, Canada has a highly restricted definition of the term.  It is the diversity of those who are ‘like us’, not in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of class and outlook.

All of which explains why I remain sceptical about the claims for the success of the Canadian model. I will write a proper post about this in due course. I will also, in the next couple of days, post my talk at the conference. In the meantime, my thanks to the Trudeau Foundation for inviting me to speak, for accepting my scepticism with good grace, for a thoroughly enjoyable event and for opening up this much needed debate.

Cameron and Faith: Where Is The Big Society Going?

From Paul Stott’s blog

An interesting insight into the vision David Cameron has for Britain comes from an article he has written for issue 68 of Keep The Faith magazine.

For the uninitiated, Keep The Faith styles itself, according to its blurb on Google, as ‘Britain’s leading magazine about black faith’. Personally I am not sure how ‘faith’ can be black or indeed any colour, and I feel rather perturbed by the suggestion that it can be. Then again I have always been a staunch atheist, so what do I know?

In a way, Cameron’s approach to Keep The Faith is far from unique. Issue 68 is devoted to a series of condemnations of this summers riots, and Cameron makes it clear that he sees faith as a way of countering such violence. Underwhelmed as I was by the political content of the riots, it is hard not be reminded of the way the 1980s urban clashes were followed by politicians embracing multi-culturalism, community leaders and religious figures in the inner-cities – all to buy off future problems. Put simply, the Prime Minister does not want to see young black kids on street corners, but in church. Here Christianity remains in its traditional role as far as British political leaders are concerned – it is for civilising black people.

What is also interesting, and deeply disturbing, is how Cameron sketches the big society to this audience. Consider this quote:

“I don’t agree with people who say there is no place for faith in society and public service. Just look at the good work of faith schools – including the one my own son and daughter attend – or the work of Street Pastors and the Salvation Army. In every town and every city, there are charities and voluntary organisations of all faiths doing teriffic things. And through the new Localism Bill, they are freed up like never before to transform their local communities. This revival is at the heart of what I want to achieve.”

The privatisation or reduction of public services, with religious organisations filling the gap, was envisaged in the US by the neo-Conservative right and by George W Bush. In Britain, it picked up pace in London with Ken Livingstone’s funding of East London Mosque’s welfare programmes, and is set to continue with the big society. On this issue at least, the right, the left and the centre-right appears in harmony.

Several problems emerge with this approach. Firstly, what about those who don’t want their local community ‘transformed’ by the church down the road? When Cameron praises faith schools, is he really unaware of the division they have fostered in Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent Scotland? Why is their promotion in England going to be different, especially when we already see significant differences between, to take one example, Muslim and non-Muslim communties in places like Birmingham and east Lancashire? What if traditionally antagonistic faiths compete for influence in the same area, both looking to ‘transform’ the community?

Writing for Shift magazine in 2010, I warned that the big society was likely to end up as an Islamist beanfeast. The reality now appears worse – a beanfeast for any religious current going.