Multiculturalism and citizenship: responses to Tariq Modood

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Nick Pearce Nick Johnson Sunny Hundal
20 May 2007


Nick Pearce, Institute for Public Policy Research

An ambiguous rescue

A new book on multiculturalism by one of its leading theorists is an event in its own right. But Tariq Modood's intervention, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, is not just of academic interest. It is politically significant. For it takes its place in a gathering movement to retrieve multiculturalism from the dustbin of history into which an unlikely alliance of conservatives, radical left gurus and the liberal commentariat have threatened to consign it ever since 9/11.

Like Bhikhu Parekh, and more recently, Anthony Giddens, Modood insists that multiculturalism supports, rather than undermines, civic integration. He is careful to define his terms: he makes the usual disclaimer that integration is not the same as assimilation but simultaneously insists that multicultural citizenship also stretches beyond the liberal citizen. For Modood - a case presented too in his openDemocracy article, "Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity" - multiculturalism involves the recognition of group identities, albeit pluralist, shifting and contested ones. And he asserts that an inclusive, capacious national identity is not just compatible with multicultural politics, but a necessary condition of their success. This is a multiculturalism attuned to the demands of integration and national citizen solidarities, which at the same time refuses to abandon the merits of a positive politics of recognition.

Nick Pearce is director of the Institute of Public Policy Research

He is responding to the article by Tariq Modood:

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

Tariq Modood's article draws on his new book, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea http://www.polity.co.uk/book.asp?ref=9780745632896 (Polity, May 2007)

But Modood weakens this otherwise impressive and politically important case by making two theoretical moves which, in my view, detach multiculturalism from the liberal egalitarian tradition of which he rightly argues it is a part. First, he follows Will Kymlicka in rejecting the liberal argument that the state should remain neutral between competing visions of how to live a good life, on the grounds that (as is also argued by many communitarian critics of Rawlsian liberalism) this is both impossible and normatively invalid.

In reality few people believe that the state can or should embody one version of the good life, however. Whilst all liberal states reflect the cultural, political and religious histories of their communities, and imperfectly match the criteria of neutrality, the "fact of pluralism" usually means that the critique of Rawlsian neutrality ends up extending eligibility to recognition by public authorities, in an effort to be even handed and inclusive, rather than restricting it.

In Modood's case this leads to a second problem, since he goes on to argue that multicultural group politics should embrace religious identities. He rests this on the claim that religious belief is comparable to other ethno-cultural forms of belonging, and therefore should take its place alongside them in a legitimate politics of recognition. But he offers few reasons for why this might be the case, other than the fact that people do not choose the religions of their parents and cannot help it if wider society discriminates against them on the basis of their faith. These are insecure foundations on which to build such an elaborate conceptual architecture.

A combination of these two theoretical moves leads Modood to propose that the state should give equal and even handed support to religions, such as in faith-school policies or the allocation of seats in the House of Lords. But multicultural politics are thus prevented from criticising the insertion of faith into public policy and indeed may end up giving public recognition to groups which endorse fundamentally illiberal and even irrational goals.

This brings us back to whether multiculturalism represents an extension of the liberal egalitarian project, in which claims to cultural or group recognition are used to critique the gap between the normative values of that project and its fulfilment, as feminists, anti-racist campaigners and others have argued over many years; or whether it represents something related but also new, nourished on other values and purposes. The danger of Modood's approach is that it rescues multiculturalism from glib denunciations and political cowardice at the cost of weakening its moorings in the liberal Enlightenment tradition which, at its best, it should extend.

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Sunny Hundal, New Generation Network

The multicultural straitjacket

It is a pleasant surprise to see that Tariq Modood has tentatively embraced the ideas of Britishness and the need for a national identity as a way to promote multicultural citizenship.

As someone who has banged the Britishness drum for several years now, I am glad the discussion is moving in a more positive direction: that of encouraging ethnic minorities not just to engage in the debate on a newly imagined national identity but more actively contribute towards a vision of civic participation. We can then start to examine what sort of values should be enshrined and included as part of this national identity.

Overall, I find Tariq Modood's spirited defence of multiculturalism as a model that can continue to have relevance within a national identity persuasive. At the same time, I have one quibble and one larger problem with his approach. The quibble is over the question of definition. The bald description of multiculturalism in his openDemocracy article as "the political accommodation of post-immigration minorities" reflects Modood's longstanding work in this area, and clearly focuses on the dimension of policies initiated by governments and civil institutions. But it may be useful to expand the definition to accommodate multiculturalism's reality as the lived experience of Britons in many areas of life, which cannot be taken away from them. Without this wider element being taken into account, and setting out what we want and don't want in relation to it, all sorts of problems arise.

The main issue I have is that Modood doesn't undertake a sufficient exploration of multiculturalism's failures, and therefore in what ways the model can be reformed and improved rather than being done away with entirely. I will briefly refer to two aspects of this.

The first failure of Britain's particular brand of multiculturalism is New Labour's close links with "community leaders" (this is something, as Ehsan Masood recounts, that Canada has managed to avoid; see "Muslims and multiculturalism: lessons from Canada", 7 March 2007). When launching New Generation Network in 2006 I pointed out how these organisations helped perpetuate the view that those of ethnic-minority backgrounds actually live in very monolithic communities, thus ensuring that only a few tightly controlled voices were heard by politicians and policymakers.

Multiculturalism has to a large extent (certainly, politically) pigeon-holed minority communities as primarily defined initially by their ethnicity and now their religion. It Modood's championing of "the right of all, especially previously marginalised or newly admitted groups, to make a claim on the national identity" still retains something of this straitjacket element (see "Multiculturalism and nation building go hand in hand", Guardian, 23 May 2007). It needs to be broken out of if a multifaceted national identity is indeed to flourish.

Multiculturalism's second failure is related to this. It is that policymakers and enforcers end up viewing minority cultures as static entities frozen in time that must be defended - usually to the detriment of women and smaller religious minorities (a phenomenon apparent in Britain and Canada).

For example, there have been numerous cases cited on both sides of the Atlantic where men have been let off lightly in cases of domestic violence - involving sexual assault and so-called "honour killings" - because it is deemed to be "in their culture". Likewise, it has taken far too long for the British government to put some resources and commitment behind dealing with forced marriages. In this context, where policymakers deem minority cultures to be preserved and respected as patriarchal entities, multiculturalism is inevitably skewed against women and liberals seeking to challenge such views.

When these failures go unaddressed, the routine cry of the conservative Daily Mail newspaper that multiculturalism is "political correctness gone mad" takes on an element of truth that liberals are afraid to confront and "community leaders" unwilling to challenge.

Any effort to preserve the ideals behind multiculturalism, which I would support, cannot afford to ignore these glaring problems.

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Nick Johnson, Commission for Racial Equality

An integrated Britain

Too much of the debate about multiculturalism in recent years has been in danger of creating differences of opinion over terminology, rather than exploring questions of substance. Tariq Modood's new book Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea can hopefully act as a catalyst to take the discussion of the issue forwards.

Britain is undoubtedly a multicultural society and the better for it. Our diversity is a force for good - socially, culturally and economically. However, we also need to promote a greater sense of social solidarity. The multicultural society must also be an integrated one.

We are currently experiencing a reduction in interaction between persons of different ethnic groups, a narrowing of social and personal experiences, a rise in extremism and a reduction in trust and understanding between communities.

Nick Johnson is director of policy at the Commission for Racial Equality

He is responding to the article by Tariq Modood:

Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity
(17 May 2007)

Tariq Modood’s article draws on his new book, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, May 2007)

Part of the responsibility for this must go to policies that promoted a form of "multiculturalism" at the cost of cohesion. Divisive policies that resulted in favouring one community over another and causing competition between groups based on one facet of their identity did no favours to race relations in our society; their fruits have been separateness and resentment.

There is a vicious cycle of segregation and inequality, the one constantly reinforcing the other. Therefore, we need to build a more integrated society, based on three equal tenets: equality itself, interaction and participation.

Everyone should be treated equally and have a right to fair outcomes; all groups in society should expect to share in how public decisions are made. Furthermore, no one should be trapped within his or her own community, and race or ethnicity should not constrain who people work with or the friendships they are able to make.

We need to deliver equality for all sections of the community, participation by all sections of the community and interaction between all sections of the community.

The best and fairest societies are those in which people share experiences and ambitions whatever their racial, religious or cultural backgrounds. In essence, we must reassert the value of a society based on solidarity in which everyone's life-chances are unaffected by where they were born or what group they were born into.

To achieve this integrated society we need to look at ways of encouraging civic engagement and a richer notion of British citizenship with its attendant rights and responsibilities.

Tariq Modood is right when he recognises that we need a national identity, something that brings us all together, something that we can belong to - essentially something that helps build an integrated society.

Britishness should not be seen as a threatening identity. It has always existed alongside other identities, both national and religious. Indeed, that is a source of strength in the context of an increasing multiplicity of identities and group loyalties.

Britishness should also be a very local and practical concept. If it is about sharing space, that applies as much to the town centre or even the workplace as the nation.

Britishness can provide a framework for an integrated society that is diverse but still unified and which recognises both the individual and the collective. It is also a framework through which we can address some of the difficult issues that society is wrestling with - including immigration, the role of faith in public life and the nature and requirements of citizenship.

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