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A corrosive national danger in our multicultural model

A corrosive national danger in our multicultural model

Author: Hugo Young
Publication: The Guardian, UK
Date: November 6, 2001

Introduction: British Muslims must answer some uncomfortable questions. We tiptoe round the norms and obligations that are central to being British

When immigration was first becoming an issue in British politics, the question of patriotism barely arose. Loyalty was not the major problem, let alone the right of a citizen to support war against Britain and her allies.

The discussion in the 1960s and 70s was rooted in the harsh, unabstract realities of everyday life. Housing, education and jobs were the focus, together with an increasingly bilious argument about numbers. How many Jamaicans, Pakistanis and Indians could be integrated into British society? Enoch Powell wasn't the only person prepared to ask. All parties were already engaged in an auction to keep the number smallest.

The debate revolved around a proposition that is now being reversed. At that time what bothered social reformers and politicians was whether, and if so how, non-white migrants would be allowed to become full members of this society. The presumption was that they wouldn't unless the state intervened - and even then, the chances might be slim.

Now the question is the opposite. It asks: do all citizens of migrant stock, particularly Muslims, actually want to be full members of the society in which they live? A shocking and unacceptable reversal, September 11 threw up many crises for the world. For Britain, none could be more profound than this one.

A 1969 study, Colour and Citizenship, edited by EJB Rose, paints a faithful picture of that, era. It's a detailed socio-economic report and a manual of liberal aspirations, but what strikes a contemporary re-reader is what it doesn't say. It barely mentions Islam. It describes migrant Pakistanis as being less pre-occupied with religion than with their economic problems. It deplores immigrant ghettoes less for their cultural impact on the newcomers than because they make "the link between colour and squalor which is firmly cemented in the public mind".

The Rose report was an invaluable document. It addressed the preoccupations of its time - for example, Jamaican rather than Asian migration, being numerically dominant, formed its major context. Its underlying stance was on the victim's side. This was earnest, liberal Britain asking itself, under influence from Boy Jenkins's first tour of duty as home secretary, how it could do the right thing by incomers afflicted by inequality. Its guiding light was a Jenkins formula that defined integration as "not a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance".

Thirty years on, the problems Rose tried to grapple with have not been solved. There's still plenty of prejudice and discrimination, still therefore the need for as much attention to equality, diversity and tolerance. In policing, in schools, in employment, the problems are better publicised, and so better understood. But the old diagnosis holds. The unglamorous remedies of law, regulation and persuasion will always have a vital place.

However, they're nothing like enough. Society has moved on, or perhaps back. Victimhood is an inadequate matrix for the depiction of a more, copiously multicultural country. The problems is no longer just one of hoisting oppressed communities into membership of a colour-blind majority but, it now turns out, of establishing the terms on which a religious minority is prepared to acknowledge prime loyalty to the society in which it lives and works. The aftermath of September 11 has dramatically changed the context in which this needs opening up, putting liberals to a question that's central to their beliefs.

British Muslims going to fight against British interests in Afghanistan is a quite extreme case. We don't know for sure if any have done that. In any case the numbers will be few, though there's an issue about whether they will get back unpunished. The telling question arises out of pervasive statements of support for the Taliban, backed up by a lot of airy declarations by Islamic leaders here that their religion comes before their country, together with a reluctance by British progressives to attempt a rigorous definition of the limits of multiculturalism.

A successor to the Rose report was produced last year under Lord Parekh. It does not read well in the, light of post-September Islamic outpourings. It made reasonable recommendations for enhancing the old remedies, and needed at the time some defence against the Powellite ranting that greeted it from the hard right. But its ideology can now be seen as a useful bible, for any Muslim who insists that his religio-cultural priorities, including the defence of jihad against America, overrides his civic duties of loyalty, tolerance, justice and respect for democracy. Very many Muslims, to judge from new opinion polls and a fair number of agonised but feeble statements, find it impossible to sort out this ambiguity.

As a cradle Catholic, I grew up amid a perception, if not the fact, of divided loyalties. But we were taught quite early that the papist conspiracy was a chimera in which we did not need to enlist. British Jews have been open to a similar charge, and have given every proof over centuries of its falsity. Perhaps the trouble for British Muslims as a community is that not enough of these uncomfortable questions have been asked of them. "Multiculturalism" gives them shelter from decisions about allegiance that the events of 11/9 can no longer allow to be postponed.

No one is arguing for mono-cultural uniformity, nor is any disrespect implied for the cultural varieties that enrich this country. But we're learning that, out of concern for the defence of immigrants, we tiptoe round the values and norms that constitute the obligations that are central to being British - and the policies to serve them.

Attempting to formulate these would be a big project. It sweeps in many controversial issues, from obligatory learning of English to faith-based schools. The American model, so much more enlightened and successful, rejects church-based state schooling with its capacity to harden communal separation. Tony Blair perversely wants to extend it. That's just one of the societal dilemmas that need to be confronted by anyone who sees the new politics of national identity in its true light, as the corrosive national danger that's capable of outliving terrorism.

It needs a long, honest debate. But the beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge the problem. This is being buried by collusion between old liberals and new hypocrites. Hypocrisy is the only word to describe people who live in British freedom, yet support systems of thought which deny that freedom, or Britain, must be defended. Liberalism is betrayed by other people who put the comfort of immigrant minorities before the insistence on an irreducible list of British civic values: democracy, mutual tolerance, equality of liberty, the rule of law. Let's hear it from the mullahs, right and left.


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