Dirty Words: Multiculturalism and Religion

In western Europe, ‘multicultural’ has become a dirty word.

In Britain, the aversion to multiculturalism (and Muslims in particular) began in 1989, with the furore over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, says Tariq Modood.

‘A passionate religious identity was too multicultural for many.’

Then came September 11 2001, and the London subway bombings in 2005.

Tariq Modood diagnoses ‘a movement from multiculturalism of hope to a multiculturalism of fear’.

Tariq Modood diagnoses ‘a movement from multiculturalism of hope to a multiculturalism of fear’.

In France, national (and international) debate was sparked by a school principal’s refusal to admit three students unless they would agree to not wear their headscarves on school premises.

In the Netherlands, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was the victim of a religiously motivated murder in protest against his film, Submission, which projected verses of the Qur’an onto the bodies of naked women (written by outspoken former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali).

Religion has become a dirty word, too, with the explosion of what moral philosopher Raimond Gaita calls ‘the new atheism’, led by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Multiculturalism of fear

Yet while antipathy towards both multiculturalism and religion (particularly Islam) runs high in the UK, multicultural government policies paradoxically grew in the decade since September 11.

Religious discrimination and incitement to religious hatred were only outlawed in the past five years. During that period, the number of faith schools expanded and religious communities were invited into partnership with Muslims ‘on a number of fronts’, according to Tariq Modood.

Why this generosity? Modood attributes it to ‘a movement from multiculturalism of hope to a multiculturalism of fear’. Britain’s policies were motivated not by high ideals, but by a fear of what might happen if Muslim communities were not accommodated.

While a step in the right direction, such actions are not enough.

‘We need to find hope again,’ he says.

Organised religion as public good

Modood finds some hope in the way that the UK has developed a partnership of sorts with religion; keeping its political institutions autonomous from religious authority without shutting religious groups – and communities – out.

‘Organised religion is treated as a potential public good or national resource (not just a private benefit).’ Faith organisations are invited to give input to legislation on moral and welfare issues, to be social partners in the delivery of education, health and care services, and are recognised as valuable in building social capital.

Increasingly, these kinds of partnerships and conversations are being had with a variety of faiths and religious groups.

Respecting all religions

Many religious people value not only their own religion, but those of others, says Modood. He believes this shows another positive way forward for an inclusive, multicultural western Europe.

‘A recent Gallup World Poll found that Muslims in Paris and London sought respect for Islam and its symbols but wanted to extend the same respect to religion in general.’

‘Agnostics can equally value the good that religion does in the world – just as non-scientists can respect science and feel that society would be poorer without it.’

Politics of respect

Muslim populations within Europe are growing, says Modood – and this means that communities need to find a way to peacefully co-exist.

Most of the largest cities of north-west Europe are 20-35% non-white (not of European descent). It is predicted that this will stabilise, reaching or exceeding 50% in some cities in the next few decades – or sooner. The majority of the non-whites in Europe are Muslims; an estimated 12 to 17 million Muslims live in western Europe now.

In this context, questions about integration, equality, racism and Islam, and their relation to terrorism, security and foreign policy, have become central to European politics.

‘The challenge of creating equality between historically privileged and disadvantaged groups within a citizenry is unlikely to be achieved by acting as if group identities no longer exist,’ says Modood.

‘The best approach is a politics of respect which turns these negative identities into positively valued ones and to remake the sense of common citizenship and nationality to include them.’

This means that both multicultural policies and accommodation of religion – and religious communities – are more essential than ever for Europe’s future.

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