“Together in diversity” was one slogan used to promote multiculturalism in Britain in the 1980s. The intention was that recognising different cultures would help to build a unified society. However, the results of multiculturalism have been devastating in terms of the ghettoization and radicalization of Muslim communities, particularly in the North of England. It has made it harder for young Muslims to walk the delicate path between respect for their home culture and the culture of the West, and it has driven wedges between communities that have resulted in the further radicalization and strength of the Far Right.
While it may be considered important to recognise different cultures as a means to help unite groups of people in implementing anti-racist policies, the anti-racist struggle was, and remains a struggle for equality in all walks of life, whereas multiculturalism demanded separate rights, exemptions and provisions. Rumy Hasan, author of, Multiculturalism: some inconvenient truths, takes the view that, “Though there is likely to be a strong correlation between racists and opposition to multiculturalism, one can be anti-racist yet oppose multiculturalism”. He adds, “Most people oppose racism and multiculturalism, on grounds of equality, advocating equal rights and opportunities regardless of race on the one hand and, on the other, equal treatment without the conferral of privileges on the grounds of religion and culture”. He goes further to suggest that, “There is no demonstrable evidence of a backlash with respect to anti-racism, but there is good reason to think that there exists increasing alienation and resentments in regard to the conferral of cultural and religious privileges”.
While it would clearly be a mistake to hear the most radical voices within Islam as being representative of the diverse communities within that religion they certainly drive the agenda in ways that significantly affect us all. The concept that the casual observer will be most familiar with is that of Jihad, which has been perverted by radical Islamists to support the creation of a new Umma or Caliphate run according to the principles of Sharia Law. Such a Caliphate would involve the reconquest or conversion of countries within Europe as did earlier Caliphates. The radicalization of Muslim youth consequent upon, among others, Western foreign policies toward the Islamic world and the higher incidence of calls for Jihad after 9/11, and the Anglo-American response to that disaster is only the most violent of the strategies used to reach this ultimate goal. What is unlikely to be won by violent struggle can also be prepared by propaganda and cultural tools; tools which were often originally forged by Liberal westerners in the spirit of fairness and diversity with the concept of multiculturalism and the birth of a new type of phobia: Islamophobia.
Following the 9/11 attack in the USA, the term Islamophobia became the buzz word for any form of criticism of Islam. Though the literal meaning of the term is “irrational fear of Islam”, it was created in the same spirit that drove Anti-Racism and Anti-Gay initiatives but has been twisted into something entirely different to cover grievances such as racial, cultural and social problems that had nothing to do with Islam. Moreover, it has become a blunt instrument used by Muslim religious leaders to suppress both criticism from outside their sphere of influence and dissent within it. Muslim leaders have been explicit in their use of Islamophobia as a tool somewhat like the way that radical Zionist supporters of Israel have successfully used Anti-Semitism as a means of creating guilt and thereby acquiescence in the West towards racist and anti-democratic policies.
Many apologists for political Islam claimed that to criticize any aspect of Islam or its practices was to be guilty of racism and Islamophobia. However, much of the criticism was directed not against Islam itself, but against political Islam. Much of that criticism came from Muslims who wanted to distance themselves from fanatical elements of the Koran. How then could this have been racism or Islamophobia? However much activists might like to try and insist that it is, it simply can’t be as people of all races can be Muslims and one cannot guess from outward appearances who is or isn’t one. The tragic proof of this is that many British Hindus and Sikhs of Indian origin had been attacked in the aftermath of 9/11 not as Asians, but mistakenly as Muslims. Scaremongering about Islamophobia has promoted a victim culture and has allowed some community leaders to inflame this sense of injury and thus contributed in fostering further alienation. Evidence for Islamophobia has been lacking and the claim disputed by several writers including Rumy Hasan in which he examined the way some Muslims and all Islamist organizations have and continue to use the term to serve their purpose in hindering criticisms of Islam and its practices.
In 2001 the Islamic pressure group FAIR (Forum against Islamophobia and Racism) began promoting a multifaith Britain signalling the transformation of multiculturalism to multifaithism. Apparently, multiculturalism has become obsolete. This multifaithism seems politically correct for its ultimate goal is “inclusiveness”. Cultural relativism too played its part in this transformation since there has been a near absence of challenge of religious beliefs and practices. Any such challenge would represent a breach of freedom of cultural and religious expression. For Muslims in particular, this absence has undoubtedly aided the transposing of multiculturalism into multifaithism seen as a means of achieving radical religious goals by a thousand small cuts.
Pragna Patel, in a report entitled, Faith in the state? Asian women’s struggles for human rights in the UK, discusses the government’s approach to religion since 9/11, which has involved treating all religious communities as ethnic blocs that all think the same way. They have pandered to reactionary and unelected “community leaders” without taking account of tensions or problems within those communities. She concludes that the increasing emphasis on religion and religious identities has led to the transformation of multiculturalism into multifaithism and the ones who suffer most are South Asian women.
The State’s belief in faith as a good thing or that faith groups have done a great deal for society’s less fortunate, has led to a situation where religious groups are showered with public money, involved in decision making and allowed to set the agenda no matter how archaic and small-minded they are. They try to convince us that multifaithism is the ideology that would brings us all together and combat extremism. This has been used to justify the outpouring of money into multifaith schemes, promoting Muslim schools, projects and community centres. There is no guarantee that this initiative will root out Islamist radicalisation and extremism for it does not tackle the root cause.
This naive belief of governments that by channeling resources to reactionary religious and community leaders can both assist in the alleviation of social problems while at the same time “appease” radicals. Such muddled and imprecise thinking is based on an arrogant misunderstanding of the real dynamics of these communities and leads to secular groups such as Southall Black Sisters who are doing good work and focusing on issues such as the oppression and injustice of South Asian women being all but ignored.
The naivety too of Western Liberals who would not acknowledge such oppressive practices from religions they are more culturally familiar with, combined with the arrogance of political elites who seek to “solve” the issue of Islamic radicalism without a proper grounding in the dynamics of Muslim societies are only playing into the hands of corrupt and reactionary elites, which in turn disgusts those who genuinely want to see a fair and open society and who misguidedly turn to the siren voices of radicalism.
Surely a better response would be to listen more carefully to the secular groups, such as Southall Black Sisters, within South Asian communities who are trying to address real problems with real and tangible solutions arising from the dynamics of the culture and not imposed from outside, however well-meaning those outsiders may believe themselves to be.
However good the intentions were for the idea of multiculturalism, it is now generally agreed that it has dangerously back fired, creating a segregated society and the disturbing rise of the political far right has been a direct result. It is not hard to see that the government’s misguided view of this new incarnation of multifaithism as a cure for a more inclusive society with an emphasis on religious rights, recognition and promotion will be just as damaging.
What we need is not special treatment and endless appeasement for Muslims or religion in general, but genuine equality, which sits as the bedrock of our modern democratic society.