Can Muslims be accomodated into Britain- ten years and beyond?
Muslims are not the first religious and cultural minority to seek accommodation within the category ‘British’. There has always been cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity in Britain. The official public accommodation of this diversity within the definition of the nation has depended on different forces: the social and political power of the group that is seeking accommodation; the relationship between the domestic and the international context; as well as access to socio-economic wealth.
Looking back on the last ten years, the task of accommodating British Muslims has been made more difficult by the combination of international and domestic politics. The events of 9/11 in New York and the 7/7 bombs in London led to an unprecedented interest in whether Muslims can be ‘British’. One consequence has been to exaggerate the role of ‘cultural and religious difference’ as a cause of the bombings of July 7. Religious differences between British Muslims and other Britons (e.g. the wearing of the nikab) have been converted into entrenched ideological differences – a clash of civilisations – that is beyond political debate and negotiation.
Although leading politicians and public figures have been leading the field as critics of multiculturalism and reviving the debate about ‘Britishness’ as a bulwark against security risks, it is significant that one leading political thinker, John Gray, has reached the opposite conclusion. He observes that, “The attempt to create a liberal monoculture, which many commentators have urged, founders on the fact of diversity. The fantasy of a morally cohesive society has inspired some of the worst types of repression. It is ironic that a panicky reaction against the idea of multiculturalism should have engendered a liberal variant of this dream. The reality is that we cannot hope to share many of our fundamental values. But we can still rub along together, if we can relearn the habit of tolerance.1
Looking forward to the next ten years, there are a number of key priorities that can facilitate the task of accommodating British Muslims. First, and foremost, the primary responsibility falls on those with the greatest power – state agencies. National legal and political institutions, as well as key public bodies and local authorities, need to put into place legal and policy frameworks that deliver political, social and economic equality for British Muslims. Second, media and public figures, both Muslims and non-Muslims, should engage in this debate critically but with a greater awareness that the words and images about Islam and Muslims that they introduce into the public sphere may encourage the harms of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion.
Third, and finally, there is an urgent need for an internal critical debate. One consequence of the external criticism of British Muslims since 9/11 and 7/7 has been to reduce the space for an internal critical dialogue about greater equality for British Muslim women or responding to Muslim youth. Whilst it is true that the public space for this internal critique will depend on international events in the Muslim world, it is also the case that this domestic debate cannot be indefinitely suspended. Ultimately, British Muslims may have very little control over how state institutions, the media or public figures respond to them. They do, however, have control over how they organise and build their community institutions. The challenge, after all, is not just about the next ten years; it is about how to safeguard a prosperous – and permanent – future for British Muslims.
Maleiha Malik is Reader in Law at the School of Law, King’s College University of London. Her research and teaching interests include Discrimination Law. Her recent relevant publications include ‘Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the West = Past and Present,’ published by Routledge, 2010.
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