Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths

September 16, 2010

Has Britain succeeded in integrating its African and Asian immigrants (Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims) into the larger society? Have its policies of integration resulted in a just and egalitarian society? Rumy Hasan's answer, in Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths, is a resounding no. Unlike France, which he sees as a model to be emulated, the UK has been more tolerant of expressions of cultural difference among its immigrants, less interested in imposing a restrictive conception of secularity on them, and more willing to address racial discrimination.

As Hasan recounts, British integration policies evolved through a number of phases reflecting legal changes as well as efforts to accommodate minorities' self-definition. The Race Relations Act of 1976 signalled the end of a first phase that began in the aftermath of the Second World War. The second phase took place under the Thatcher government subsequent to the riots of the 1980s in London and other cities. Immigrants hailing from Africa and the Caribbean won the label of "Black British", preferred to "coloured immigrants", whereas South and East Asians became identified as "Asians". With the extension of citizenship rights to greater numbers of immigrants, a third phase saw British society declared "multicultural", or composed of citizens of various ethnic and racial affiliations.

However, in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001, multiculturalism morphed into "multifaithism", resulting in religion-based identity. This fourth phase, Hasan argues, represents multiculturalism's failure.

Multiculturalism qua multifaithism is the source of all evils. Ironically, initiated as a way of combating racism, multiculturalism has become hostage to special interests represented by community leaders as well as politicians eager to secure votes.

It is a violation and distortion of the democratic ideal of universal rights because it accords privileges to ethnic-religious communities; it increases segregation and ghettoisation; it fans sectarian hatred within communities; it leads to social harm as it restricts or prevents intimate contact with members of the larger society, who feel alienated as a result; it triggers right-wing extremism among "whites" and "chauvinistic faith-based organisations"; it fosters resistance to "mainstream" culture as well as "psychological detachment", a condition of being in, but not of, British society.

More important, Hasan sees multicultural policy as a successor to the old imperial divide-and-rule strategy. This means that the state remains aloof from serious social problems that occur within immigrant communities, which it shields by accepting their claim to cultural specificity.

Much of Hasan's critique of multicultural policies has already been said by their conservative opponents. However, he is right to draw attention to the unintended consequences of multicultural policies, as he is in denouncing the fixing of identity in religion alone.

But he goes one step further in blaming multiculturalism for the resilience of racism and ethnic communities for willing their socio-economic marginalisation. Clearly, racial prejudice is not caused by policies aimed at diminishing its occurrence, but by fears of loss of power and privilege that some in the majority experience before an influx of people of different cultures and races. After all, even the election of a half-black president in the US has not quelled racial prejudice.

Nevertheless, Hasan provides some insights: he denounces the silence of the Left before the revival of practices that restrict the freedom of minority youth, especially women. In fact, the Left, departing from its heritage of opposing identity politics, frequently justifies revivals of customs such as re-veiling and arranged or forced marriages.

However, Hasan's particular focus on re-veiling among Muslim women speaks more to his strong personal feelings about Muslims (whom he perceives as beyond the pale) than to developing a coherent alternative to multiculturalism. Surely there are other issues of equal importance - such as unemployment, poverty and poor education - that face ethnic communities, but these are issues he touches on only lightly.

At any rate, he offers little hard evidence of his gloomy depiction of Asian communities, relying instead on generalisations and gross stereotypes.

Hasan's solutions range from the reasonable to the extreme. Among other things, he proposes that multicultural policies should be discontinued and religious courts prohibited; the Church of England disestablished; social mixing and intermarriage between minorities and members of the larger society encouraged; identity built on commonalities instead of religion.

As interesting as some of these suggestions are, they fall short of the mark. How do we build a human community in which neither race nor religious affiliation matter when the global and geopolitical environment is beset by wars, poverty and injustice? Decentring ourselves may be a more effective first step than denigrating minorities' cultures wholesale, as Hasan does. British policies, regardless of the problems they encounter, may be preferable to forcing minorities into a single idealised cultural mould.

Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths

By Rumy Hasan. Politico's, 296pp, £12.99. ISBN 97818452371. Published 8 April 2010

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