“Buildings of glass, tile, and brick on a shared street”

As Europe struggles to accommodate pluralist democracies, it is necessary for countries elsewhere with minority populations to adopt a liberalism based on understanding, writes Kanishk Tharoor (Published in the Telegraph)

From Paris to Berlin and now to London, a grim consensus is emerging. David Cameron spoke this past weekend in Munich about the failure of “the doctrine of state multiculturalism” in the United Kingdom, suggesting that many British Muslims lead lives dangerously removed from the rest of society. His comments echo those of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, among others. The trouble of integrating Muslims, these leaders say, has stretched European liberal pluralism to its breaking point.

British critics of multiculturalism point to homegrown radicalism and Islamist violence (as evidenced by the July 2005 bombings), and to the notion that many Muslims do not share the same “values” as other Britons. They argue that the British state has encouraged Muslims to remain aloof from the mainstream, to fortify themselves in ghettos, and to refuse to accept modern democratic principles of individual rights and freedom of speech.

These symptoms of the multicultural malaise remain hotly debated and open to question. (One can quite rightly ask: Is Muslim piety antithetical to full participation in liberal, social democracy? How real is the threat of Islamist terrorism in Europe? Are the roots of terrorism not simply in radical ideology, but also in socio-economic conditions and foreign policy? and so forth). But what I found striking in the British prime minister’s comments was the inadequacy of the diagnosis. Has “multiculturalism” in Britain failed?

Part of the problem with Cameron’s speech was its vagueness, a bilious and blustering reliance on platitudes, soft on detail. The critique of “state multiculturalism” is disingenuous because it never clearly describes what it is against. It depends on the same “muddled thinking” derided by Cameron in Munich.

There are very few policies that can be seen as forming a British “doctrine of state multiculturalism”. Some measures — for instance, making “religious” discrimination as serious an offence as “racial” discrimination — are largely uncontroversial and eminently worth keeping. Others — like the funding of Muslim state schools — cannot be undone without seeming discriminatory, since Christian, Jewish and Sikh schools, and now even one Hindu school, receive significant public resources.

The only clear reform suggested by Cameron was the cutting of support for civil society groups like the Muslim Council of Britain. But the amount of public funds given to the MCB and its equivalents is as paltry as these groups’ ability to influence and shape British society. Such a minor move should hardly merit the sweeping tone of his speech.

“Multiculturalism” and “state multiculturalism”, as such, are straw men invoked for particular political aims. The multiculturalism described in official rhetoric and in the accompanying frenzied media debates does not reflect its granular, inescapable reality.

I lived for several years in the centre of a vibrant and scruffy neighbourhood in north London, where Muslim Turks and Kurds, immigrants from West Africa and the Caribbean, South Asian, white Polish and British people all brushed up against one another. The rowdy Irish pub where I went to watch the matches of the local football team —Arsenal — sits right next to a halal butcher shop and a domed mosque. As outlandish as this contrast may seem, when you live there it is perfectly natural, another swirl in the mosaic and filigree of British life. Critics of multiculturalism would have us see the mosque and the pub as antagonistic institutions rather than what they actually are: buildings of glass, tile and brick on a shared street.

This kind of natural mixing exists in many places in the UK, the product not of short-term government actions, but of long historical processes. Multicultural Britain is the inevitable result of the crumbling of the empire, of the ebbs and flows of globalization, and of Protestant traditions of frigid tolerance that run deep in northern Europe. It has not been made and micro-managed by State policy.

For this reason, the dogged politicization of multiculturalism is troubling. Slamming “multiculturalism” is just code language for appearing to take a robust position towards Muslims. It is part of a politer vocabulary of distrust, misunderstanding and veiled Islamophobia. In an unfortunate choice of political slogans, Cameron branded his vision for British identity as “muscular liberalism.” The term evokes Victorian “muscular Christianity,” the holy bravado that so imbued English imperialists of the 19th century.

In the UK, the sole purpose of this language is to score points among the “white working class” (in my view, an impossible category, but one nonetheless accepted as real by much of the British political establishment) in the country’s mildewing suburbs and rusting industrial towns, areas that were once comfortably in the hands of the Labour Party, but now form a contested battleground. To win these dour hinterlands, both the Conservatives and their Labour counterparts believe that they must pander to visceral anxieties about Islam. As Britain slumps through a bleak economic recession, it is unsurprising and tragic that these anxieties are easier to manipulate. Labour and Tory politicians mouth the same platitudinous tough talk about a failing multicultural “doctrine” that does not really exist, and about a Muslim threat that is being made more real through irresponsible discourse.

I do not deny that there are radical, potentially violent Muslims in Europe (albeit proportionally insignificant — the last official report of the European Union on terrorist attacks in the continent, for the calendar year 2009, found that only 1 out of 294 successful and thwarted attacks was by a Muslim or a Muslim group). I also accept that the current convulsions in European societies over religion and ethnic difference are complex, and cannot simply be dismissed as the fault of a racist, intolerant Europe.

But for those of us who believe strongly in the importance of pluralist democracy, Europe’s current struggle with integration and its discontents is a warning. Since the Second World War, European countries have led the way in constructing systems that best secure the rights and the dignity of their peoples. It is now incumbent on pluralist democracies elsewhere — as in South Africa, Indonesia, and especially India, with its large minority of Muslims — to build and safeguard better models of tolerance, and commit themselves to a liberalism based on understanding, and not on the callow assertion of strength.

One thought on ““Buildings of glass, tile, and brick on a shared street”

  1. Hi Kanishk,
    However Utopian it may sound, but a pluralist democracy is in my opinion, very attainable when there is an informed sympathy and a sense of fairness and tolerance and when we don’t try to problematize a simplistic view of the mosque or pub, as you say,as ” buildings of glass, tile and brick on a shared street.” I believe strongly and deeply in this, where even on a personal level having been born to a Bengali father and Kashmiri mother, (who sent me to a Jewish Girls School) and nurtured by an Irish Divine mother has enriched my vision towards life, pedagogy, culture and society. And it makes me wonder, had I not had such a culturally diverse background, would I have given in to discrimination and rancor?

    Thank you for making us introspect.

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