Multiculturalism’s civic future: a response

Tariq Modood
20 June 2007

I thank the six commentators who offered me some comments on my original openDemocracy article ("Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity", 17 May 2007) and on the book whose arguments it summarised (Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea¸ Polity, 2007). Each contribution has given me some food for thought, and I would like here both to respond to some of them and use the opportunity to clarify some points of my position.

Liberals and multiculturalists

Nick Pearce objects to my joining those who deny the possibility of state neutrality in relation to culture and identity. He says that I thereby regrettably place myself outside the liberal egalitarian tradition, but then adds that "in reality few believe that the state can or should embody one version of the good life". So, it is unclear to me what the objection about neutrality is.

Pearce also argues that I give few reasons why religious identities are comparable to other ethno-cultural forms of belonging. The main reasons I give are that each of these might be grounds for racism and exclusion and can be important to a group of citizenry. I assume, therefore, that for the political inclusion of religious groups no reasons need to be given in addition to those that are given in relation to ethno-cultural or ethno-racial groups. Pearce fears that this "may end up giving public recognition to groups which endorse fundamentally illiberal and even irrational groups". In some cases it might, but the case with ethno-cultural groups is no different. In neither case would I necessarily want an uncritical acceptance of such goals (I say a little more about this below).

Tariq Modood is responding on the writers who commented on his openDemocracy article "Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity"
(17 May 2007):

"Multiculturalism and citizenship: responses to Tariq Modood"
(21-24 May 2007 - reflections from Sunny Hundal, Nick Johnson and Nick Pearce)

Yahya Birt, "Multiculturalism and the discontents of globalisation"
(25 May 2007)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka"
(29 May 2007)

Paul Kelly, "Multicultural problems, liberal solutions"
(30 May 2007)

Abdul-Rehman Malik, "Beyond formula: response to Tariq Modood" (31 May 2007)

Sami Zubaida, "The many faces of multiculturalism"
(5 June 2007)

I argue that multiculturalism is an outgrowth of and a possible direction for democratic citizenship. This means that I assume a backdrop of normative constraints that I do not specify. These would include many things that are generally interpreted as human rights, or at least as individual rights and personal freedoms. I would certainly also want to endorse some version of the "harm principle" in relation to ethno-cultural and (thus, by extension) religious claims such as those of some African groups (not of any one religion) who wish to practice clitoridectomy on their pubescent daughters. The harm this does to the girl is a gross violation that can't be justified by an appeal to "difference" and so is a cultural practice where state intervention is justified.

So I, no less than anyone else, assume that multicultural recognition has its limits; that these will emerge as hard cases appear; and that through cross-cultural and inter-group dialogue, we create a body of arguments for handling the hard cases. The question is not whether multicultural recognition has its limits, but whether it has any normative force and political attractiveness at all. Once we have answered that question in the affirmative, it becomes possible to explore the limits. Some critics of multiculturalism worry about "where it will all end", and so deny that multiculturalism is compatible with individual rights, with equality before the law, with civic belonging. It is this denial that my book is arguing against by offering a conception of multiculturalism and of citizenship in which the two are compatible and mutually enhancing.

As Paul Kelly notes, true multiculturalism is not an "ism" alongside liberal egalitarianism but a critical development that owes much to liberalism, and so is as much an extension as a repudiation of aspects of liberalism. This does not mean, as he suggests, that I am critical of Bhikhu Parekh, from whose ideas I have received great stimulus and instruction. Parekh and others want to argue for more than I do; to use a Rawlsian phrase, they want to argue for a comprehensive or a philosophical multiculturalism. In contrast, I am content to argue for a political multiculturalism which in my view neither needs nor has to be critical of a more ambitious ethics, and is compatible with a range of ethical perspectives.

More substantially, I clearly do not accept Kelly's suggestion that the privatisation of religion (and perhaps of all culture and identity) is the ideal condition, and that even in non-ideal conditions the politics of recognition is a distraction from the pursuit of social and economic equality. I think that respect for identities is an ideal (though how we deal with it in the here and now will be about non-ideal adjustments); that it is part of and not antithetical to the ideal of civic equality; and that it is partly dependent upon the realisation of socio-economic equalities, but also vice-versa. While I am unsure about how to formulate the ideal of socio-economic equality, and about its relation to the ideal of equal respect, I do insist that equal respect is urgent in resolving some current conflicts.

Kelly and I are in agreement, however, that there can and should be mutual learning between liberals and multiculturalists. Moreover, I endorse his suggestion that we need to reinterpret political liberalism in the light of contemporary socio-political developments. I suggest that liberalism has been experiencing an internal contestation: between a comprehensive version which emphasises the privatisation of religion (and in its more radical wings the structuring of public life on the assumption that God does not exist), and a form of political liberalism based on inclusivity that seeks a modus vivendi in which neither religious nor non-religious people have to "privatise" their beliefs (see William Galston, Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State, Cambridge University Press [1991]). I think this ideological division within liberalism will grow and it will be a divide in which each side will elaborate a (post-)liberalism with a view to whether groups such as Muslims need to be "converted" or whether they will be ethical-political partners. The question will be whether one side possesses the truth or whether it lies in civic and global dialogue.

In this respect Yahya Birt's suggestion that cosmopolitanism or the idea of conviviality is better equipped to accommodate Muslims qua Muslims rather than my formulation of multiculturalism seems implausible to me. Those approaches are more suggestive of dismantling multiculturalism and then putting it together, in ways that would (amongst other things) deprive Muslim identity-politics claims of legitimacy and offer Muslims accommodation only as privatised religious believers; a form of liberalism I believe Birt would be disappointed with.

Communalism, identity and representation

Nick Johnson thinks that multiculturalism has involved "divisive policies that ended up favouring one community over another and causing competition between groups". But it was not multiculturalism that was doing this. Rather, it was the prioritising of race over religion and a particular definition of "ethnic" in English law that meant that Jews and Sikhs were an ethnic group, their members fully protected by the Race Relations Acts, while Muslims were not.

Legal judgments stated that Muslims were not an ethnic group and so only indirectly protected against discrimination, because they were composed of a multitude of ethnic groups - a most bizarre result given that the worldwide Jewish diaspora is made up of a variety of ethnic groups and "colours" (cf Danish Jews, the Falasha of Ethiopia and the Jews of western India) and yet are taken to be a paradigm of a "race" in British legislation and European consciousness. Consequently, some of us spent the 1990s in working for a broadening of racial equality into a multicultural equality that included Muslims in a full way; and with mainly positive results.

True, many people now think that Muslims are getting undue attention and political favours. I think this is due to three factors (besides the "catching up" with racial equality referred to above):

  • Problematic: Muslims are perceived to be a much bigger problem than any other group and so are the object of governmental, security and media attention. There is no point in inviting a Sikh delegation to 10 Downing Street and telling them to get tough with extremism and to help the security services in relation to possible terrorist cells.
  • Scale: Muslims are as numerous as all other religious minorities together and are growing at a faster rate. That may not yet be more than about 3% of the United Kingdom but at about 15 million, Muslims in western Europe are larger than the combined populations of Ireland, Denmark and Finland; and with an even larger international reach. For example, the Danish government could ignore Danish Muslims when they protested about offensive cartoons, but when those Danes mobilised other Muslim populations and governments, it was the Danish government that found itself out of its depth.
  • A double agenda: Muslims, being a faith group and mainly non-white, are able to appeal to a "racial equality" policy agenda and to state provision for a religious-organisations agenda. This enables them to appeal to action against institutional racism on the one hand, and faith school funding on the other, and so gives them a bigger policy-engagement frontage than groups that are merely "ethnic" or merely "religious"'.

Sunny Hundal says it is a pleasant surprise that I should make a case for Britishness in the context of multiculturalism. Well, it is good that we are on the same side yet I cannot but experience some disappointment that he has not read anything relevant by me before. If he cares to look at my first collection of short essays on these topics, written between 1988-1992 and published as Not Easy Being British: Colour, Culture and Citizenship, he will see that I there argue that issues of racism and cultural identity cannot be resolved without a positive conception of national identity and I have been boringly consistent since. He should at least note that the book is from a time when few from the centre-left, and even fewer among commentators on "race", had anything positive to say about British national identity.

Hundal enjoins me to extend the definition of multiculturalism to include the multicultural reality as "the lived experience of Britons in many areas of life", and Sami Zubaida also talks about a multiculturalism of "cultural diversity, hybridity and fusion in music and the arts, literature, food, dress and religion". My response is that I am talking about political multiculturalism but I do interpret this in a very broad way, that is, not just in relation to the state and law but also the varied areas of civil society. Moreover, I don't define multiculturalism in terms of a mosaic of groups and can allow for and welcome the mixing of cultural influences and the creation of newly experienced forms of synthesis. What I do insist on is that the socio-political perspective on such phenomena allows for the fact of groups (with all their internal variety, overlap and fluidity) and does not reduce them to what is acceptable to liberal individualism or cultural vanguardism. Groups will no doubt change over time and weave themselves into and alongside a wider culture, including negotiating its liberal assumptions, but it would be sociologically mistaken to think of multiculturalism simply in terms of experiences uninformed by a larger politics.

Hundal and Zubaida are concerned that political multiculturalism in practice has simply meant government talking to (and as Abdul Rehman-Malik adds, controlling) "community leaders". It is true that I am not as averse to what is being disparagingly described here as most people have become. But, I do not see this as the only way of institutionalising the recognition of differences. Indeed, it is important to my point of view that I do not offer a single model of nor a one-dimensional approach to multicultural representation. I am open to government consultation and partnership with community interest groups (such as, say, the Muslim Council of Britain or the National Black Police Association or Stonewall). I see this as no more than an extension of democratic governance through consultation with stakeholders.

Another form of representation that I also favour is the pluralising of the existing compromises between (the principal forms of) Christian churches and Jewry and the British state to include the new minority faiths. A yet further model I recognise as part of the institutionalisation of multiculturalism is the creation of autonomous sections in trade unions and political parties modelled on say the women's sections in the Labour Party or the black and minority ethnic groupings in some trade unions. Different again but equally valid as one of the models that I wish to encourage is of the informal kind where an institution such as a health trust or a voluntary association or Channel 4 chooses to try to achieve "gender balance" or "mirror the community" or "include all the stakeholders" in a governing board or important committees. While all these are legitimate forms of multicultural representation, in many ways the latter is most appropriate to civil society.

This institutional architecture cannot be and should not be determined in advance but will grow through dialogue and social change and no doubt will result in something pragmatic, contingent, ramshackle and in what I call in my book, borrowing a term from elsewhere, a "variable geometry". So, while I do not view symmetric representation as an ideal, there should be ongoing debate on how to include excluded or newly emerged groups. For example, amongst some employers, including my own, networks of women, ethnic minorities, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals (GLBT), and people with disabilities have been set up and there are special consultative and training opportunities for people eligible for group membership. This is both an illustration of how representation of "difference" can gradually expand and that it would be wrong to not consider the case of new claimants.

The claimant group(s) I am particularly interested in, both intellectually and politically, are Muslims. I accept - indeed, insist on - that there are, as Zubaida notes, different kinds of Muslims. The point about internal diversity applies to all the other groups that I have referred to in the above two paragraphs. Some people are over-reductive of the category "Muslim" (as they have been or are of "working class", "black", or "women"). Others react by emphasising a diversity which is equally simplistic because it is seen as exploding the category "Muslim" (or "working class" and others) into smithereens which have nothing in common. But that cannot be the case because then we could not point to the diversity as a Muslim diversity.

Moreover, in emphasising Muslim diversity, we have to use other social categories ("young people", "Arabs", "migrants", "middle class"), each of which is redolent of the same differentiation as "Muslim"; so if the argument against an overarching category of "Muslim" is offered as one of logic, it will suffer from an infinite regress (I elaborate this further in chapter 5 of my book). Of course the argument may be sociological or political. I don't see anything sociological that suggests that talk of Muslims lacks empirical substance. Indeed, my experience now of studying ethnic-minority subjectivities and socio-economic characteristics over nearly two decades, suggests that religious communal categories, are just as - if not sometimes more important than - categories such as "black" or "Asian" or "mixed race". Not that these categories are exclusive of each other. I take the same view politically.

In my book I point to the diversity of ways in which people can be Muslim or are making claims as Muslims. Some British Muslims think that the Muslim Council of Britain has been overemphasising issues around religion, and they set up platforms around the need to address the disproportionate socio-economic marginality of Muslims or to challenge conservative patriarchal interpretations of Islam. I welcome that as part of what I call a "democratic constellation", though I would advocate a coalitional approach amongst Muslims, as part of ethno-religious minorities and indeed of centre-left politics as a whole. It is for the same reasons that I argue that a corporatist multiculturalism (like the French model of corporatist religious pluralism) is a second-best form of multiculturalism.

A transnational Muslim identity

Sami Zubaida accuses me of acquiescence of a Muslim mythology about a global Muslim community that is being victimised by the west. He believes the myth can be punctured when we note that for reasons of Realpolitik, "American imperialism, in fact, sides with some Muslims against others".

While I do not think there is a simple West v Islam war taking place, I do think there is hostility against Muslim self-determination where that means loss of United States control in certain regions of the world and over certain resources. Hence British and American governments are forced into systematic double standards over international law and democracy. Britain or the US veto United Nations resolutions against Israel and resist all punitive measures but are willing to isolate, economically cripple or invade certain Muslim countries if they flout UN resolutions. Similarly, undemocratic and brutal Muslim regimes are our friends as long as they serve our interests but Muslim regimes who stand up to us and Israel are to be punished even if they are more democratic than compliant regimes (as Zubaida's own comparison between Iran and Saudi Arabia illustrates).

Tariq Modood is professor of sociology, politics and public policy and the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

He is a regular contributor to the media and policy debates. His books include (as co-editor) Ethnicity, Nationalism and Minority Rights and Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy: Comparing the US and UK (both Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Multiculturalism, Muslims and Citizenship: A European Approach (Routledge 2005); and (as sole author) Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (Edinburgh University Press, 2005).

His latest book is Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, 2007).

Also by Tariq Modood in openDemocracy:
"Muslims and European multiculturalism"
(15 May 2003)

"Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7"
(29 September 2005)

"The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification?"
(8 February 2006)

"Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity"
(17 May 2007)

Finally, this brings me to Birt's comments about the transnational character of British Muslim identities and political hopes. I do acknowledge this in the original openDemocracy article, and in the book Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea point out the similarities to transnational Jewish identities. Birt has a point though when he notes that I do so mainly to portray jihadism as an external intrusive disruption of British multiculturalism. I do think that this is largely the case, for instance in the form of salafi preachers - mainly Arab exiles in London in the 1990s - who had no interest in becoming part of Britain but targeted the British-born generation of Muslims with parents originating in south Asia; but I think I may have underestimated some of the ways in which transnational Islam, the umma, is being called upon in support of British multiculturalism.

The scholars' roadshow, the Radical Middle Way, consists primarily (though not exclusively) of overseas scholars, and is designed to allow British Muslims, especially young audiences, to hear mainstream Islam that combines traditional knowledge with contemporary relevance to counterbalance the salafi message. While the roadshows were a recommendation of the post-7/7 taskforces and are resourced by the government, they are something which British Muslims on their own lack the intellectual capital to do.

The government support for and up-scaling of the University of Cambridge's Inter-Faith Programme's conference on Islam and Muslims in the modern world on 4-5 June 2007 - at which delegates, primarily Muslims, from over thirty countries spoke to and with representatives of the British government and other Britons, but above all with British Muslims - is another example of the government acknowledging and utilising the umma, and not just in relation to the international sphere but centrally for domestic goals. These are two examples of state-assisted Muslim transnationalism and there are far more non-state examples in relation to education, humanitarian aid, religious mission and argument, and political debate.

The transnational characterises the hyphenated British-Muslim identities in many more ways than I discuss in my book and so analysis must remain alive to both sides of the hyphen. We should not, however, think of one half of the hyphen as primarily domestic and the other primarily extra-national. I note for instance the key recommendation of the report for Britain's department for education and skills by Ataullah Siddiqui (Islam at Universities in England - meeting the needs and investing in the future, Ataullah Siddiqui, 4 June 2007), which is based on extensive consultation with British Muslims. This is that Islamic studies in British universities are too focused on texts, on the Arabic language, and on the middle east, and need to be more focused on Islam and the Muslim experience as lived out in the west; and also need to focus on Britain. Thus while the previous examples acknowledge that Britain needs something from abroad, that British Muslims need to be hooked up with international Muslim learning, civil society and politics, it is still the case that we will have to absorb such learning and work hard to adapt it to our own contemporary, multicultural circumstances.


I repeat my thanks to these commentators and reaffirm my view that we should mend not end the multiculturalism that has been developing in Britain and elsewhere. This multiculturalism is not antithetical to an inclusive, yet not narrowly individualistic and secularist, liberalism; nor to hybridity and multiple identities (though it is not coterminous with such experiences); and not to transnational linkages and loyalties. Yet above all, it is a multiculturalism that is grounded in equal citizenship and manifested in and shaped by national conversations.

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