Keep faith out of the limelight

Multicultural Politics
November 11, 2005

In the aftermath of the July 7 bombings in London, there was the inevitable questioning of multiculturalism as a public policy. This process began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US and was given the seal of approval by Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. It received confirmation with Tony Blair's comments that the "rules of the game have changed". These developments mark a dramatic reversal of new Labour's agenda in 1997 in which "cool Britannia" was to be refashioned in the image of cultural diversity.

In this collection of essays, written since the early 1990s, Tariq Modood, described by Bhikhu Parekh as "the foremost theorist of British multiculturalism", argues that contemporary pressure to move towards the politics of integration should be resisted and bodes ill for the outcomes they aim to achieve. Only a "moderate multiculturalism" that recognises Muslim claims for political and religious equality offers the possibility of seriously addressing the "Muslim question".

In this dense, repetitive volume, Modood builds his case on two arguments.

The first concerns the excavation of Muslim identity politics from the race relations discourses of the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Salman Rushdie affair that first brought the socioeconomic disadvantages of British Muslims to prominence. The second argument is that Muslim identity politics is in essence a protest movement for political and religious equality by a marginalised and disadvantaged group. As such, their demands can be accommodated if we go beyond the narrow limits of liberal and secular politics and recognise that cultural and religious diversity in contemporary Britain requires a polity that reflects this diversity, including a public role for Islam.

This volume's strength lies in its construction of the case of Muslim victimhood, which is backed by impressive data, though Modood avoids discussion of Muslims of Indian origin who are high achievers.

Less convincing is the argument for a multiculturalism that accords a significant public place to religion. It could reasonably be argued that many of the current difficulties arise precisely from the local multicultural policies that were only too ready to trade religion for votes, thereby marginalising constituencies of class, gender and other forms of identity and interest politics among Muslims and Asians. Bringing religion into the public sphere - even to end the inequities that arise from the historic imbalance towards the Judeo-Christian tradition - may provide some instrumentalist relief for politicians but it is hardly likely to produce a long-term solution, even if, as Modood insists, the identities of British Muslims are inseparable from their religion.

Indeed, there is little evidence that the much-vaunted dialogue between religions is leading to any serious reflection or recognition of diversity within religious traditions. Institutionalising a public role for the religions of South Asia is one of the surest ways of reproducing the politics of the subcontinent - as many Asian women and radicals in Bradford, Southall, Leicester and Birmingham are discovering. Modood's conception of multiculturalism offers few clues about its potential to placate future Muslim demands, let alone allay the fears of those who have to manage the "war on terror".

Gurharpal Singh is professor of inter-religious relations, Birmingham University.

Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain

Author - Tariq Modood
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 240
Price - £45.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7486 2171 7and 2172 5

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