Multiculturalism, cultural rights, public freedoms and integration

Multiculturalism, cultural rights, public freedoms and integration

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Open Discussions / Gulf Cultural Club

Multiculturalism, cultural rights,

public freedoms and integration

Professor Tahir Abbas*, Arzu Merali **


Mutliculturalism has become one of the testing grounds of modern liberal democracy and is facing enormous challenges. The recent flare up of Islamophobia and the confusion surrounding Muslim women dress, in addition to the PREVENT programme are real challenges to pluralism and inclusiveness. Yet integration is often presented as the lacking element in the minds of Muslims residing in the West. These multiple facets of the human-habitation need to be studied if proper evaluation of the ideological foundations of the modern world is to be understood. These issues will be addressed by the panelists.

Date: Tuesday, 13th September 2016

Professor Tahir Abbas:  Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to you about multiculturalism. Multiculturalism has become a dirty word  What happened? There was a time when multiculturalism was seen as an opportunity to celebrate differences and diversity in society:  those differences that we could celebrate as a part of a collective notion of citizenship of being a Briton in what is a British society. So for all of its limitations it has now disappeared off the map.


I want to tell you the story about what has happened to it and try to understand what the tipping points were in relation to its changes. Multiculturalism  has been around since the late 1970s and early 1980s. But even when it did start to make its first inroads in education it was seen as problematic as essentially it did not challenge racism.


Racism was seen as a  challenge to the workings of society, about structural problems and institutional problems. Multiculturalism was seen as this fluffy surface orientated idea.  Once a year there were multicultural events but for the rest of the year we do not talk about race and differences and diversity. It disappeared from our school curriculums. At least we have done this for one day of the year. That is just one example from education.


In terms of a philosophical approach it was very popular among liberals who felt that managing  diversity in the context of national citizenship would be a good thing. It would allow for diversity to be celebrated. Differences would be valued and accepted. It would improve tolerance and generate positive inter cultural relations.


There were the 1970s and 1980s when multiculturalism surfaced in different pockets up and down the country more as an ideological perspective rather than as a policy tool.  Multiculturalism has never been a policy tool, not in this country anyway. By the end of the 1980s we had the flash point of the Salman Rushdie affair which threw many of these questions into the air.


It was the end of the cold war and with the increasing visibility of Muslims in Western Europe suddenly the differences among South Asian Muslims predominantly were seen as a problem. Not any more were these quiet pliable working class men in towns up and down the country. They were now loud and angry and they were wanting certain rights and obligations – in this case the banning of the book that was published by Rushdie.


The 1990s started with this particular eposide and the implications of the Rushdie affair raised questions about freedom of speech, the freedom to offend, blasphemy etc which have remained in play right up until the cartoons affair when these issues came up again. What do we do in the context of misrepresentation of specific important figures in the religion of Islam? Do we hide away and let it happen and hope that no fuss will be the optimum objective or do we create a great deal of fuss and try to mobilise a certain kind of action.


You can also imagine that in the 1990s  the end of the cold war led to new challenges for the world order. There were also issues  in Europe that reflected how Muslims were seen.  We recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. The Bosnian crisis from 1993 – 1965 galvanised a Muslim identity in Britain and it created lots of challenges for young people who felt quite emotionally upset and angry. And that anger and sense of hopelessness  has remained a consistent  feature among young Muslims today especially when we think about drivers of radicalisation and reasons  for people taking the journey to violent extremism.


So the 1990s led us to 9/11. That is another flash point in our recent world history. Immediately the reaction was that differences in relation to our Muslim identities were a problem especially if they directly challenged the workings of the state. In other words terrorism. And ever since 9/11 we have been living with a counter terrorism state. This is a quote I take from a recent article from a colleague at the  LSE  who writes on preventing violent  extremism discourses.


So we get to the 2000s and we have other issues that affect Britain, namely 7/7 and other parts of Europe like the Netherlands affair and Spain in terms of terrorist incidents.  It was raised as a concern that Muslims who lived among us relatively invisible until the Rushdie affair  were now a threat to who we are as a nation, as a body of people where there are particular challenges as to how we define ourselves in terms of globalisation.

One of the main factors in breaking down identities is globalisation which  has challenges that affect us all.


Invariably there is a response on the part of the state which introduces measures that try to curb terrorism. It is a contest that has emerged quickly and led to prevent. The prevent brand. I had an interesting meeting earlier on and I can tell you what the people inside government think is the problem and what needs to be done.


So this is a quick overview of events and discourses over three decades. What does it  tell us? It tells us that racism has a habit of reinventing itself from colour in the 1940s and 50s to race, to ethnicity and now religion. Religion is  now seen as a marker of difference that separates you and me, us and them.  The religious category is now aimed at the Muslims.


When it comes to visible differences in relation to both men and women there is this constant focus on men as aggressive and a risk and women as weak and submissive, incapable of demonstrating individuality. So it is a consistent profile in relation to an orientalist discourse with regards to men and women. Men are perpetrators of aggression and violence. They are patriarchal, they are insensitive. Women are vulnerable and weak and they need rescuing, first from the men and then from general issues in the religion and culture.


Since 9/11 we have seen the world in more divided terms between the haves and have nots. It is no surprise that we have many angry men who enter the scene. It is not just the radical Islamists but also the far right which has grown exponentially. The conversation I had today suggests that the far right is a bigger problem than the so-called radical Islamists.


We also have different kinds of battles going on in terms of how we see differences and in terms of how we value those differences which are physical but also digital in the sense of the power of social media to galvanise individuals along certain tribalistic norms some of which can lead to violence.


We also realise that some of the most acute challenges about differences in society are to do with hot spots up and down the country. London is very diverse. Two out of three Muslims live in London. We have every ethnicity, language, heritage and culture represented in London. The situation outside of London particularly in the north and in the Midlands is less diverse. It is a far more homogenous community and less socially mobile or politically and socially engaged.


As a result of the lack of social mobility many communities remain trapped in those poor areas that they first migrated to where the jobs were. Once the  jobs disappeared their ability to move out of those areas also disappeared. It is the second and third generations who suffer from the problems of poor education, unemployment and under employment in these areas in the Midlands and in the north due to the structural changes to the economy during the past 20 – 25 years. The end of the manufacturing base, the shift towards the service economy, particularly insurance and finance which drives the rest of the country so people are being left behind.


We talk about the left behind communities: poor white working class angry communities who feel marginalised, disempowered, alienated and a complete dislocation between the self and the state – anomy – is the result. It is also an issue that affects Muslim groups. It is not a religious issue. Nor is it an ideological question. Analysis keeps telling us. Even the recent data mining of the ISIS recruits, 1000 people or so reveals this. Poverty, low education, and criminality is the profile of the fighters. Not people well versed in Islamic scripture. Far from it.


Most tension is found among angry young people in the poor parts of cities in the Midlands and in the north who are  right next to each other but live in separate communities.You have the most anger and the most bitter resentment between communities for the least in society, for the crumbs of society in which  the south and certain parts of London have no real interest in.


We also have the issue of integration. There is a presumption that there is a problem with multi-culturalism and that  Muslims should do more to integrate. Integration is a two way street. It is also important that the state provides opportunities for individuals to integrate. It cannot happen without some kind of resource investment and some kind of ownership of the fact that we have these minorities who are here, who are taking part in society, making a contribution but we also need to protect them – protect their freedoms and liberties because we know that there is racial discrimination. We know that there are challenges for men, women, people of colour etc. So integration is something that the state has a responsibility to provide but it does not do it. We do not talk about integration anymore and least of all multiculturalism as a positive.


So there is a huge gap in the discourse. We have the media and the political spheres where there is a  charged arena about how we think about Muslims. Various newspapers regularly produce a story that demonises Muslims, homogonsies, demonises and essentialises and places into existing Orientalist stereotypes. But at the same time the state does little or nothing to integrate minorities. It has the proverbial stick ready to hit Muslims with for not being integrated. The discourse is entirely loaded against Muslims who are without adequate power and representation.


Politics shifts increasingly to the right. Main stream politics borders on British far-right politics when Cameron describes the Syrian crisis and the migrants and refugees as a swarm he is using the language of the far right. We also see the rise of Le Penn in France. The  Netherlands, Hungry, Poland and Denmark are also exhibiting tendencies of far right politics becoming the mainstream politics.


Structurally the problem has grown. If you think about educational performance and put together all the stats you might think that on average people are doing well. There is a certain section that are pulling ahead but there is a very long tail of underperformance. Underperformance leads to unemployment and unemployment often leads to criminality. Criminality leads to violence. The processes are quite straight forward to understand and we see this time and time again.  Education and health indicators suggest that the Muslim community is very far behind. Recently there was a report published on Muslim women in the labour market. They are still experiencing an ethnic penalty and a religious penalty.

But things are changing. Rising levels of educational performance are evident among the younger generation but the gap is still there.


Culturally the Muslims are seen as responsible for everything: honour killings, grooming, extremism, terrorism. All these are seen as evils that are not a part of us. It is entirely projected onto them, those Muslims. We know from various information sources when there is an incident in Nice or Munich the Muslim hate crime spikes. It also spikes when politicians speak.


Radicalisation has become a big focus. We are not sure what the term means. We never used it when we talked about northern Ireland. There are obviously major problems with prevent and now entering potentially into the realm of thought crime. Educationally to we have seen how teachers are given the duty to monitor their five, six and ten year olds but don’t have adequate training or skills to pick out the problems which traumatises young people.


We have basically a counter terrorism state. Muslims who critically engage with government policies are seen in suspect terms. Integration is securitised. It is a form of forced assimilation. There is a lot of criticism of the prevent agenda which is the main bone of contention among  a vast body of Muslims. Is the prevent agenda doomed to fail? Does it have real operational value. Is there a misinformation problem on the part of prevent. Is there evidence to demonise it or it is just rhetoric? And what is the relationship between the British Muslim community and the state – the delivery arm of prevent and the political arena which also hyper sensationalises these issues?


We have moved on from muscular liberalism – to quote Cameron again  – and we may have actually end up in the realm of racist, ethnic nationalism, especially so in the light of Brexit which has exposed quite deep fissures, not so far below the surface. So while there has been a great deal of fuss in the past 36 hours about British Islam, soon we may even be talking about an English Islam which may have more challenges and opportunities.


Arzu Merali: I would like to touch upon a scenario that Professor Abbas raised that we are moving out of muscular liberalism to ethnic nationalism. This ties in to what I was going to talk about because for me I don’t think that is a very long journey and if anything they are two sides of the same coin. Tahir has covered very well the idea of multi culturalism as an idea. In the United Kingdom we always used to be very proud of it even when people like myself were deeply critical of it. It was a superficial discourse. People still say that Britain is the best place in  Europe  for Muslims and for minorities. There is a recognition of difference. It is also a very good way of maintaining inequality. It meant that you could be celebrated wearing your shewar khemis and it did not matter if the school was systematically discriminating against you, either at the level of the school or at the level of the whole education system. You are in the shewar khemis and it is the school uniform and we love you. Even that is not the  world that we live in  now.


So we had the kind of academic discussions about what is multiculturalism. We do not need to go into that so much here. It does have a policy link. It came out of Roy Jennkins. I will read a quote from him that makes me want to go and hug him if he is still alive. I think he is deceased. You don’t want to be forcing assimilation onto all these people who have come to our country to be a stereotypical English person.


There is also something that  became the common sense understanding of  what multi culturalism is and that common sense understanding which became internalised by the dominant community is not a very nice one. It was  seen perversely as something that was disproportionally empowering for minorities. They were getting very special treatment. That is how multi culturalism became a dirty world. It became a dirty word through the commentators. Not just the right-wing commentators but also people with a so-called liberal and left leaning, journalists, broadcasters and so on.


Foisting this idea of minority grievance as being entirely unjustified because we are a multicultural country and we gave everything – why is it that you are not giving anything back. This was essentially in response to the demands that came from grass roots organisations that were mobilising in the 1970s and 80s and even after the  Rushdie affair mobilising as Muslims and actually seeking a redress for structural issues of racism.  Rather than having a response that acknowledged properly and with some humility that we do have serious structural issues of racism. They did not turn up post 1945. They were there throughout the duration of the empire and they go a long way back. What we got instead was a reversal of the issue to suppress the narrative and as with so many things to create a distraction from other issues that were causing social problems.


These are kind of classic tools of a kind of xenophobic discourse or rhetoric that becomes more and more popular as we have seen with the economic crises in the past ten years, we have seen an upsurge of this. It is not a coincidence.  When we are in times of social crisis this type of narrative picks up. In the  past ten years we have had a huge shift from the idea of multi culturalism to the idea of social cohesion. Multiculturalism is no longer favoured by liberals. It is a dirty world. And sadly I think it is something that many people, including the Muslim minorities in this country have internalised. So we often find ourselves talking about social cohesion as well. We start talking about things like British values every time there is a shift in the discourse, every time we have a  new counter terrorism measure that is supposedly to do with hearts and minds.


Prevent came out of this idea of capturing hearts and minds. It is a concept that is about ten years old now.  It actually predates  seven / seven but in most peoples’ understanding it is post seven/seven.


The introduction to this event which I was sent, and this is where I was originally going to start, suggests that we have seen a kind of crisis in terms of the political freedoms that Muslims, but also other minorities in this country enjoy. Tolerance and the protection of minority rights is an intrinsic part of liberal democracy. I want to question this as premise. It is something that we assume. My daughter is studying politics for A level and that is something that she learned. Britain is a democracy and democracies are good because they protect minorities.


But you want to look at something like the  Fox data set which is ten years old but  is still a major piece of work. It used the data set of minorities at risk and two other data sets to see how minorities are treated  under different kinds of regimes. The findings are actually counter intuitive. What you assume is that autocracies will be the absolute worse when it comes to both ethnic minorities and ethno religious minorities. Liberal democracies will be the champions of all the freedoms.


What you actually find, and there are a lot of deep and nuanced findings,  is that liberal democracies come out really badly, especially when it comes to religious minorities. So-called religious democracies or semi democracies are the ones that protect those rights better. And even on some issues, but not all, autocracies do better though generally they are the worse of the worse.


The point is that liberal democracies do not come well out of this and this suggests that there is something  ideological behind that. This is something we need to  start looking at very seriously because we keep shifting whether we are working at the level of civil society or in academia or  what  we are experiencing  if we are working at the grass roots is the fall out from this. We keep living in a cycle of expecting something from the state which actually the state does not really seem to be either ideologically inclined to give or even able to give. We are missing that fundamental question by having a totally different conversation based on essentially internalised assumptions, good intentions, good expectations but not really based on empirical issues.


We have things like the data set but we also have our lived experiences as Muslims in the United Kingdom and we can actually look at France and say it is much better here than in France. We can also look at the things that are happening here. Let us look at the poll that was done on burkas and burkinas two weeks or ten days ago. What we see is that we may not have laws about this as we do in France but the amount of feeling that has been internalised among the majority of people in this country is as negative as in France.


So while we have not had this enacted in law we certainly have the social conditions in which it is very difficult for people to express themselves in the way they dress. Women in particular. They are sought out.


The Islamic Human Rights Commission has done quite a lot of research on this not just in terms of  collecting reports of hate attacks but we  actually do surveys across the United Kingdom of people’s experiences of Islamophobia and whilst there isn’t much of  a difference between what men and women experience the things that women experience are very much targeted around the way they dress. I don’t just mean a face veil, I don’t just mean a head scarf. It can be differently marked clothing. The fact that you are a bit more covered up or perceived to be a bit more covered up than you should be.  There is a complete obsession now of targeting women with the idea of unveiling them and  removing their clothing.


So we have seen the picture of the four armed police on the beach in Nice telling a woman who is not even in a burkini, just in quite normal clothes, to remove her top. There is a ban on burkinis.


Then you have the social experiment that took place in this country ten days ago. Somebody pretending to be dressed up as a police officer approached a woman in a burkini who was also part of the experiment. He said you have to remove this. The only people who came to her defence were black and Asian women.  Everybody else just sat on the beach watching and not feeling inclined to intervene. That is a very serious crisis we now have in the United Kingdom.


The bonds that tie us should make us just a little bit sympathetic when you see somebody under pressure. This is a woman not committing a crime. You may not agree with the way she dresses but a policeman starts pulling her scarf off. This is how much the decline of multiculturalism has set in. People will now look on and maybe silently applaud and maybe loudly applaud acts of systematic discrimination by the authorities of people from  different minorities and will also perpetrate them.


Those people on the streets who commit this are as much victims of the Islamophobia and racism that is being peddled because they are internalising it not from each other but from the rhetoric of politicians, from the rhetoric of commentarians, from the laws like the anti-terrorism laws which create this boggy man in everybody’s mind. These three institutions reinforce each other. What we have in our education system is not even the saris and somaosas approach.  We wish we had not criticised this because it was better than what we have now.


What we have now is an aggressive promotion of British empire.  The plan was and it is still being executed under this administration to promote the good things of the British empire. Funnily enough that is what they did a few years ago in France. We think we are very different from  France but we are learning from them as much as they have learned from us things like CBE (countering violent extremism). London is the hub of an industry that has been developed around this concept. It has been exported to the US.  We have unions like the National Union of Teachers who are very much against prevent both from an ideological point of view but also from the way it is being implemented.


So we go back now to the idea of this being a liberal democracy. Maybe it is. I don’t know. But what I do know is that the expectations that I have of what a liberal democracy should be which a lot of us had are not realities – definitely not for the Muslim community. That is actually something that has been tested. We have asked what are your experiences of discrimination at school, discrimination in the work place, hate attacks. Do you see people telling offensive jokes. What do you see on the media? What do you hear from politicians? We have  asked these questions for many years and have years upon years of data which shows the situation worsening but during the past five years catastrophically worsening for Muslims.


The last survey that we undertook was in 2014 and in that period there had not been a major incident after which there was a spike and there clearly are spikes after acts of terrorism within the United Kingdom or anywhere else. Quite a big spike in reporting to us was after Jack Straw’s comments about the veil in 2006.  There was a spike in attacks against Muslim women which could be directly attributed to his comments.


Liberal democracies: we are talking about tolerance, we are talking about pluralism.  People who I do not have any affinity for examined these questions and they came to some conclusions. One of them is that liberal democracies can be plural so long as you are from a minority and you accept the views and values  that underpin the state. And now you have British values that are being pushed out in schools. We have a law that all public servants and doctors have to monitor their customers, patients and clients to check that they are fulfilling this check list of British values and in case they are not let us refer them to a deradicalisation programme or even the police.


Pluralism only works to the extent that either you accept these values or you do not actively challenge them. If you actively challenge them then your  difference not just marks you out -we live with laws that will expel you from being a citizen either literally because you can be deported. You can have your nationality stripped. This has not happened to many times.  It can push you out of the public space. You will be marked. You will not be able to get jobs, you will be stigmatised.


In schools it is quite devastating that children of four and five years old are being referred to the  police.  From the sense of the reports that many of the organisations that are working on prevent cases  receive there is an epidemic out there.  A four year old child drew a picture of a cucumber clock and the teacher thought they said cooker bomb and referred them to the police. Tourist house and terrorist house – honest mistakes that children make that in the current atmosphere are interpreted as maligned because the person who said it or the child who said it is a Muslim.


So where I am going with all of this? It is to take us to the question of what kind of conversation are we having at the level of Muslim civil society and at the grass roots and I think they are entirely separate from each other. Muslim civil society is quite diverse but does not represent the diversity of the community  that has not come to terms of what is needed in critiquing the idea of liberal democracy or even the nature of the state that we live in.


Integration is important, integration is a must but it is a two-way street. Right now we are failing to grasp the fact that the government does not create  space for integration and I would  go one step further and say it does not want integration whether it is from Muslims, disenfranchised white working class communities of which there are many more than Muslims. We could make a long list.



It takes me back a long time when Dr Kalim Siddiqui was still alive. You have got to be of a certain age to remember him. And whatever you think of his thinking he raised the issue of integration. And maybe I can just leave it there. He said we are not dismissing integration. We are seeking integration but that integration has to be on our terms, otherwise it is not integration. And if you are going to set the terms for our participation then it becomes assimilation. And this is the crisis that we have not been able to get our heads around for a long time. We have been falling into what is now essentially an assimilationist agenda at the end of which we will not find ourselves fitting in. But in the process we will be expelled from the public space whether it is physically or psychologically. We are already going along  that road whether it is under the regime of muscular liberalism or ethnic nationalism or both, but we are there.


* Professor Tahir Abass is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London (2016-). He specialises in urban ethnicity and minority-majority relations. Having just completed his book on ethnicity, Islam, and politics in Turkey, he is writing on areas of Islam, Islamism, Islamophobia, radicalisation, identity politics and social conflict in Western European contexts. Previously, he was Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul (2010-2016), Reader in Sociology at Birmingham University (2003-2009), and Senior Research Officer at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice in London (2001-2003). He has held visiting professorships or fellowships at the Remarque Institute of New York University, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Institute for Religious Studies at Leiden University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, and the Graduate School of the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

Abbas is the author of The Education of British South Asians (Palgrave-Macmillan), Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics (Routledge) and Contemporary Turkey in Conflict(Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). He has published numerous (co)edited collections with Zed, Edinburgh University Press, IB Tauris, Routledge and Hurst. He has also published in many sociology, education, Islamic studies, geography and political science journals. Abbas has written for The Guardian, Times Higher Education, NZZ, Prospect, openDemocracy, Prospect, New Internationalist and Fair Observer among others.

** Arzu Merali is writer, researcher and activist in the field of human rights. Her academic career includes degrees in English literature, law and international relations at Cambridge University, Nottingham Trent University and the University of Kent. Merali co-founded and currently directs the research department of the Islamic Commission for Human Rights (Islamic Human Rights Commission – IHRC), a non-profit organisation, based in London, with consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council promoting campaigns, research and advocacy, struggling for justice for all people regardless of race, religious belief or political identification. Was chief editor of the Palestine Internationalist, an online newspaper focusing on issues of struggle for the liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian people. Arzu Merali  published  books and frequently writes articles about Islam, human rights and other subjects for academic and non-academic publications.


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