Open hostility to multiculturalism used to be the preserve of the nationalist right, but since 9/11 it's flooded the mainstream and bamboozled more than a few who proudly declare themselves liberals. In recent months, it's been noisily blamed for home-grown terrorism and the alleged 'self-segregation' of minority groups, damned as a gateway to moral relativism and social disintegration. Cabinet members lecture minorities about British values and the dangers of being too culturally different. The government has set up a Commission for Integration and Cohesion, whose remit is to come up with an antidote to the alleged excesses of our diversity.
It's not that multiculturalism is a sacred credo, beyond criticism. Far from it. It's important to remember that multiculturalism emerged as a concession to the anti-racist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. It offered official recognition for Britain's diversity - certainly a gain - but it never fully addressed the movement's core demand for full equality and human rights. Sometimes it became a mean of evading it. For that reason it was criticised from the start by anti-racist activists.
In familiar colonial fashion, multicultural policy construed ethnic minorities as discreet self-contained entities, neatly demarcated, without inner divisions, to be dealt with through designated community leaders. The emphasis was on symbolic representation - the visible inclusion of minorities in sports teams, advertising, television dramas, political posters or religious celebrations in schools. In a sense, multiculturalism is a victim of its own success. It has made ethnic minorities seem more accepted and more powerful, and racism less prevalent, than they actually are.That's grist to the mill for the racists and a get-out clause for the political establishment.
Much of the current discussion in Britain rests on a false paradigm that counterposes 'multiculturalism' to 'integration', which has replaced the discredited term 'assimilation' but carries similar implications. The choice the paradigm offers is unreal: neither ethnic isolation nor cultural uniformity is possible or desirable. As popularly construed, multiculturalism and integration both misconceive culture as reified and static; both seek to manage diversity through imposed categories.
Even as it grows more strident, the demand for integration becomes hazier.
What is it that minorities are being asked to integrate into? When pressed on what they mean by British values, the integrationists are unable to reach beyond platitudes. The question is unanswerable: are British values the values of Sylvia Pankhurst or Winston Churchill,Tom Paine or the Duke of Wellington, David Bowie or Geoff Boycott? The attack on multiculturalism as an agent of ghettoisation was stepped up after the London bombings of July 2005, which led Trevor Phillips to warn that Britain was 'sleepwalking to segregation'.
The din was intensified following the alleged air terror plot in August. The fly in the ointment in the multicultural dream is, it seems, Islam, or the Muslim presence in Britain.
Increasingly, criticism of multiculturalism has become a thin disguise for exercises in Islamophobia.
We're told that all that's intended is to open up an 'honest debate'. The discourse that then unfolds under this rubric tends not to challenge bigotry, but to confirm and license it, as Jack Straw's intervention on the veil illustrates.
The veiling of women is most certainly an issue for debate. As an institution, it's clearly inseparable from a system of gender-based inequality; and it should go without saying that the left has a duty of solidarity to all women who reject the veil.
However, our problem with the veil is not Jack Straw's problem. For him, it is objectionable as a visible symbol of cultural separation. He feels justified in asking women to remove their veils when they come to see him in his official capacity as an MP. The issue is not his discomfort with the veil, but his belief that the onus is on his constituents - and more broadly, the Muslim community in Britain - to relieve him of that discomfort. And the specific discomfort he and others have expressed about the veil - that it is a means of concealment, an element of unacceptable ambiguity - is derived from and bolsters the depiction of Muslims as suspect, unfathomable, a community that is obliged (as others are not) to earn our trust.
The right to wear a veil - or not - is a civil right, as is the right to public expression of one's religious or other convictions. On this, too, the left should have no doubt where it stands. Secularism requires the separation of state and religion. That means cabinet members should refrain from lecturing the population about the rightness or wrongness of religious practices (within certain obvious limits such as female genital mutilation). Above all, secularism is not compatible with the kind of double standards currently being applied to Islam and its adherents. Straw's stigmatising of the veil is actually a cause, not a cure, for social division.
Even as the headlines warn of the perils of multiculturalism, a steady stream of other news items shows the 'problem' in a very different light. Here's a sample from just the last two months:
- The number of reported racial incidents in Lancashire schools rose by 907 per cent between 1997-98, when there were 52 incidents, and 2004-05, when there were 472.
- A Prison Reform Trust survey showed that black and minority ethnic prison staff are more likely to experience racial abuse and discrimination from their colleagues than from prisoners.
- A Metropolitan Police study confirmed that black people caught with cannabis are more likely to be charged and less likely to be cautioned than white people.
- In Sheffield, taxi drivers demanded action from police after a spate of racist attacks in which drivers were assaulted and had their windows smashed.
- In Sunderland, a brick was thrown at an Iranian man in what police believe was a racist attack.
- In Wythenshawe, an Asian man suffered a fractured jaw after being racially abused and attacked.
- Ilfracombe's late night takeaways reported a rash of racist abuse.
- A pig's head was dumped outside a mosque in Newport hours before Ramadan began.
- Racist graffiti was daubed on the wall of a mosque in Basingstoke which had been subject to an arson attack a month earlier.
- A Muslim-owned dairy in Windsor was petrol bombed. In Carshalton, racists firebombed an Asian shopkeepers' car.
- In Preston gangs of white youth threw stones at a mosque and an Asian boy was stabbed in what police called 'racially motivated' violence.
Of course, back in June, there was the Forest Gate shooting, part of a pattern of racial and religious profiling that targets Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims - in airports and on the streets, where Asians are far more likely than white people to be stopped under the Terrorism Act.
Despite the reality that ethnic minorities are the victims of abuse and discrimination from their fellow citizens and the state, the onus is placed on them to 'integrate'. During the recent Tory party conference, London was awash with Evening Standard hoardings proclaiming 'Cameron will ban Muslim ghettos'.
Substitute Jewish or Catholic - it's unimaginable. Aggregates of Muslims, it seems, pose a particular menace, whereas the far more numerous aggregates of white people are entirely innocent.
The preoccupation with cultural difference disguises the real problem: the reluctance of a significant section of the white majority to 'integrate' into Britain's multicultural society, to accept its democracy, and the willingness of newspapers and politicians to pander to, exploit and encourage that reluctance.
While condemning the identity politics of minority groups, the attack on multiculturalism appeals to and bolsters the most powerful form of identity politics at work in Britain today, the identity politics of the white majority, inextricable from long-nurtured assumptions of western power.
The same government that lectures minorities about democratic values has sought an opt-out from inconvenient clauses in the European Convention on Human Rights and violated the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions. The same ministers who preach sermons about cohesion and integration implement policies that foster growing economic inequality, generating vast gulfs in income - differences in daily life far greater than the ones associated with cultural practices.
Yes, the population is becoming more segregated - by wealth, which means, inevitably, by health. To cite but one statistic, individuals who are 50-59 years old from the poorest fifth of the population are ten times more likely to die than their contemporaries from the richest fifth.
The paranoia over multiculturalism is unfolding within - and serves to mask - the twin pillars of the government's programme: the war on terror and neoliberal economics. Those policies, not cultural differences, pose the real threat to democratic, civil and secular values.www.mikemarqusee.com
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.