Multiculturalism or Bust

Review of Hassan Mahamdallie (ed), Defending Multiculturalism: A guide for the movement (London: Bookmarks, 2011)

In February 2011 the British prime minster, David Cameron, made a speech in Munich about security and Islamist terrorism. The speech was cautiously crafted and Cameron was careful to hedge and qualify his comments. For example, he disavowed the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis which suggests an inevitable conflict between the liberal west and mainstream Muslim views as Islamophobia, and was clear that he was focusing on the radicalism of some young Muslims in Britain. He argued that:
‘… some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But they also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values …

‘… hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology. For sure, they don’t turn into terrorists overnight. What we see is a process of radicalisation … In our communities, groups and organisations led by young, dynamic leaders promote separatism by encouraging Muslims to define themselves solely in terms of their religion.'(1)

Cameron was clearly playing to an increasing anti-Islamic feeling among some sections of the public, and would certainly have been aware that his hedging and qualification would not be reflected in the news headlines. Even more so, his criticism of ‘state multiculturalism’ was odd since his government continued to promote faith schools and the role of religious organisations in representing minority views and the delivery of welfare services. This can hardly be called, as it is by Weyman Bennett in this book, ‘crudely Powellite’. This is no Rivers of Blood speech, and there is little comparison to Enoch Powell’s claims in his 1968 speech suggesting that within a few years immigrants would have the ‘whip hand’ over white people and that (white) old ladies would be terrorised out of their houses with shit being poked through their letters boxes. Powell’s answer was not a greater sense of shared citizenship but rather the expulsion of black and Asian people from Britain. It is interesting how hazy many of the authors of this book are on Powell and his impact particularly on events in 1968. Hassan Mahamdallie claims that the Labour government were panicked by Powell’s speech and passed the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act slamming the door to Asians who held British passports and were being expelled from Kenya; in fact the law was rushed through parliament late February 1968, Powell’s speech was in April that year.

The explanation of this exaggerated response to Cameron’s speech, which in terms of its content said little beyond what had developed in mainstream community relations policies in Britain since the riots of 2001, is that it was part of a campaign by the would-be revolutionaries of Britain Socialist Workers’ Party. This itself was very much in the current of the politics it developed since the early days of the Stop the War Coalition, which actively sought the involvement of the Muslim Association of Britain (not a Muslim community organisation but a front for the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK). This was followed by their break-up of the united left electoral front, the Socialist Alliance and replacing it with Respect which soon became a vehicle not for working class or anti-war politics, but a vehicle for George Galloway to seek election on Muslim votes. It is unsurprising then that this book and its ill defined attempt to defend multiculturalism is actually a more vaguely defined attempt to defend Islam in Britain from criticism.

Not all of the contributors to the book were SWP members. Two of the best chapters were written by non-SWP academics, Tariq Modood and Danny Dorling. Modood’s explanation of the backlash against multiculturalism is reasonable and starts with the campaign by some Muslims against The Satanic Verses in 1989. As Modood points out, this was not a one way street and in many ways multicultural policies had their heyday after 1997. Particularly, ‘ethno-religious communitarianism’ was accepted, as expressed in the state funding for religious schools, and representative bodies for Muslims which, if anything, became stronger after 9/11 and 7/7 . Beyond this, Modood points out that multiculturalism never meant much in policy terms, thus Cameron’s speech has little real content. Most notably, Modood lays out both what the different meanings of multiculturalism and integration might be, something that is sorely lacking for much of the rest of the book. Dorling’s chapter too is clear and incisive, pointing out why immigration has been good for Britain. Billy Hayes of the CWS uses his time fruitfully attacking Maurice Glasman and ‘Blue Labour’

These three chapters aside, the book is remarkably poor. The chapters written by non-SWP members do not amount to much. The ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, sees things only from the point of view of capital, arguing that ending immigration would deny London’s employers some of the best workers. An alleged trade union perspective from Zita Holbourne of the civil service trade union the PCS and the TUC writes that multiculturalism consists mainly of articles about Islam in union journals.

Much of the rest of the book consists of chapters written by various members of the SWP and each of which is terrible. They are linked in that there is no attempt to define what multiculturalism is. Most serious discussions on multiculturalism start with an explanation that multiculturalism can both be a description of the diversity of a society (often as a result of immigration),but also be a policy to accommodate, foster and promote that cultural diversity. These chapters simply fail to recognise this. Maybe this is because if they did so they would be faced with the problem that David Cameron’s speech referred to ‘the doctrine of state multiculturalism’ if they admitted to such a distinction it would have to engage with the policy, rather than seeing the speech simply as an attack on the presence of racialised minorities, or more particularly Muslims, in British society. Thus, Cameron’s speech is (deliberately, one has to assume) misrepresented by Mahamdallie as ‘declar[ing] war on our multicultural way of life’ and that for the government ‘the vast majority of Muslim organisations … are now to be viewed as merely a staging post to suicide bombing.’ It is not my brief to defend Conservatives, but this is simply not what Cameron said.

A second issue that binds these contributions together is an overwhelming concentration on Islamophobia (anti-Semitism is also a theme, but notably, only in the context of the 1900s as a parallel for what is happening today to Muslims). Two chapters by non-SWP members (who are nonetheless close allies of the SWP) concentrate almost exclusively on Islamophobia. Sabby Dhalu (who was, and is, joint secretary of the SWP front Unite Against Fascism) has a chapter entitled ‘One society, many cultures’ which recognises only one culture, or rather religion, as the subject of discrimination. Similarly the then Birmingham Respect leader (who at that time was still close to the SWP), Salma Yaqoob, indentifies only Islamophobia in her chapter. To differing degrees this is true in much of the book.

An important aside. I would not use the term Islamophobia, but would prefer the term anti-Muslim racism. As Benjamin Opratko and Fanny Müller-Uri (2) (and many others) have argued, Islamophobia is a neologism of political Islam to foreclose any criticism of the religion and demands that those subject to this kind of racism only be considered as Muslims. Rather, they suggest, the term anti-Muslim racism should be used to identify racism directed against those seen as Muslims is a far better term: it maintains that this is a form of racism alongside other forms of racism and does not essentialise its subjects (as the racists do) as Muslims.

The persistent use of Islamophobia creates a huge confusion through the book. Islam is not a culture. A Somalian Muslim, a Turkish Muslim, a Nigerian Muslim, a Chechnyan Muslim, a Uyghur Muslim and a Pakistani Muslim will not have a culture in common. They will (to a degree) have a religion in common. It is unlikely that a Nigerian or Chechnyan in Britain will directly experience anti-Muslim racism, it is directed at people of a Pakistani/Indian and perhaps Turkish background. This is not to say that discrimination based on religion is not a real and serious issue, and this is certainly not to say that one of the main expressions of racism in Britain has been based on various implied faults of British-Asian Muslims, although this exists alongside anti-immigrant racism largely directed at East Europeans (a theme that is, with the exception of Danny Dorling’s chapter, entirely ignored in this book). This book takes the whole issue at face value and by insisting on the label Islamophobia fails develops analysis of how elements of cultural chauvinism (and possibly fair criticism of some aspects of reactionary Islamic practices and beliefs) mix with a more straightforward racism.

More importantly, the use of the term Islamophobia tends to foreclose any form of criticism of Muslim religious practice. This seeps into the book in a number of ways. In a truly awful chapter Colin Wilson discusses homophobia in the context of the backlash against multiculturalism. I would not wish to suggest that all Muslims are homophobic, or that attitudes are uniform. But there can be little doubt that most British Muslims find homosexuality morally wrong (a poll of 500 British Muslims in 2009 found that none believed it to be morally acceptable). This is not inevitable, similar polls in Germany and France found that Muslims there had much more liberal attitudes.(3) A likely explanation of this anti-gay feeling in Britain is a result of the dominance of conservative Islam rooted in Pakistan, something that has had little impact in France or Germany. Wilson simply refuses to discuss it and instead has a long discussion of homophobia in Uganda. He blames this on a variety of external factors: US fundamentalists (which is certainly true), missionaries and colonialism (where there is certainly some impact) and the Anglican church (which is nonsense, here the British leadership wanted to allow the ordination of opening gay clergy, but it was particularly African members of the communion threatened a schism on the issue). But to see homophobia as something simply programmed into Ugandans by external forces is a form of racism in itself seeing Ugandans merely as the passive recipients of external forces. This parallels another theme in the book that political Islam can only be seen as a result of western imperialism, rather than something that has its own roots (and indeed opponents) in predominantly Muslim states as well as amongst Muslims in the west.

This leads Wilson to fundamentally undermine every tenet of international solidarity when he suggests that European activists should leave well along and that the road to liberation in the post-colonial world will be one that LGBT activists there will have to find their own way along. More to the point, he has nothing to say about how to react to oppression of gay people (or women, or indeed anyone else) in or by racialised minority communities in Britain. No-one would argue that these are questions with straight forward answers, but if the left cannot tackle them then the right have proved they will opportunistically seize on them.

This problem is demonstrated in Mike Rosen’s chapter. This chapter starts well suggesting that culture is not value free, but as Marx would say, the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. But he then suggests that minority cultures are not such examples of oppressive ideology, but rather multiculturalism and diversity are forms of ‘cultural resistance’ ‘We should of course support all resistant cultures whilst indentifying ruling lies about their own desirable purity’, he tells us. Surely, in this analysis minority cultures are merely the left over bits of the ruling cultures of other societies. If retaining one’s own culture in a foreign land is, per force, an act of resistance, it can only be assumed that when retired estate agents, gangsters and other ne’er do wells on the Costa del Sol refuse to learn Spanish and hang out in the English Pub all day drinking Watney’s Red Barrel and reading The Sun, they are engaged in an act of counter hegemonic practice.

What is perhaps behind Rosen’s thought is the rather Maoist idea that the more oppressed one is, the better one’s ideology is. A similar idea is also represented in a very odd chapter by Mahamdallie on ‘Muslim working class struggles in Britain’. By his own admission, the chapter is not writable since many of the workers concerned did not see themselves as Muslims. He thus throws any Asian strike into the pot, including those led by the Indian Workers’ Association (Woolf’s Rubber, Southall) which were Sikh based, and Grunwick a very mixed workforce, the leader of the strike Jaybean Desai bore a Hindi name but would never have described herself as a Hindu). Weyman Bennett writes in his chapter, the trade unions in the 1950s to the 1970s often did not help black and Asian workers struggles. A little simplistically he sees Grunwick as the turning points, after which everything was apparently OK. This is certainly an overly optimistic view of the unions, there are still examples of unions not backing the struggles of low paid immigrant workers, most recently with the workers in the 3 Cosas campaign at the University of London and their conflict with Unison.(4) The softness of the SWP on the union leadership is perhaps explained by the cosy relationship their front UAF has with the trade union bureaucracy. It is funded by many national trade unions, a relationship that perhaps is too comfortable on both sides, the trade unions effectively outsourcing their anti-fascist work.

The tendency to reorder history around current concerns is even more evident in Weyman Bennett’s chapter. Here, all of the confusions about the nature of multiculturalism come home to roost. The argument is that in the 1960s and 1970s, the British ruling class saw immigration as necessary (actually, this started much earlier in the late 1940s and 1950s, but by the early 1960s this was being moderated by electoral pressure and black and Asian immigration which was first controlled by the 1963 Commonwealth Immigration Act). Then Bennett suggests that Britain’s rulers in the 1960s and 1970s sought to accommodate immigration by seeing that the cultural differences had a ‘rightful’ but ‘inferior’ place (actually the assumptions behind policy were confused in the 1950s and early 1960s, based on a belief that black and Asian immigrants would integrate cultural but not intermarry; in a famous speech in 1965 the then Labour Home Secretary declared that the goal of policy should be ‘not … a flattening process of assimilation but … equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’; this nascent multiculturalism was never fleshed out into a rounded policy and much practice remained rooted in the assumptions of assimilation). Entirely without foundation, Bennett suggests that this was forced on the government by anti-colonial struggles. He continues that this form of multiculturalism lasted until the early 1980s (in reality, it developed somewhat patchily under the Labour government under its Urban Programme from 1968, and much local government practice in the early 1970 creating community leaderships through which to negotiate the distribution of resources).

Bennett continues, the situation was transformed by the (SWP led) anti-racist movements of the late 1970s, particularly the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which ‘initiated a tradition of unity against the fascists that brought together Labour Party activists with revolutionary left organisations’ (this is not what the ANL was at all, it was a much broader organisation including Liberals and Conservatives, as is its successor, UAF; it is ironic to note in this context that one of the founding signatories of the UAF in 2003 was a Conservative MP by the name of David Cameron; As Nigel Copsey shows in his Anti-Fascism in Britain the ANL broke up the unity of the anti-fascist movement and shifted the politics away from the confrontation of fascists to carnivals). Bennett continues that the rising tide of British fascism in the 1970s was destroyed by the ANL and black/Asian movements (this is an exaggeration of the ANL’s role, British fascism was buoyed by a rising tide of dissatisfaction with a liberal and vacillating leadership of the Conservative Party under Heath in the early 1970s, and although black and Asian resistance, the trade union movement and anti-fascists all played a role, what really took the wind out of the National Front’s sales was the rise of a popularist right-wing Conservative under Thatcher’s leadership).

Bennett continues that this anti-fascism as well as the riots of the early 1980s that led to the growth of ‘multicultural institutions’ (I have no idea what these multiculturalism institutions of the early 1980s might be; there may have been a growth of multiculturalism after the 1981 riots through more government funding for inner-city programmes and this was mediated by Labour local government but Bennett is unclear about this). Bennett: this pressure ‘forced the authorities to acknowledge, at least in part and reflected in legislation, that the fundamental problem was racism in society rather that the mere presence of ethnic diversity.’ (Again, the time line here is entirely warped. The laws that promoted greater racial equality were the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976.) Thus, Bennett claims that in the 1980s a ‘more inclusive and equalitarian version of multiculturalism’ emerged, but that this is one that is now under attack.

The confusion here is thus palpable. Exactly what is under attack is entirely unclear. British multiculturalism, if it exists as a set of policies at all, is a ramshackle set of compromises and half thought through policies implemented without conviction. It was probably most fully developed under the Blair governments, although Bennett of course cannot admit to this because it does not fit with the simplistic narrative of increasing state Islamophobia after 2001. It is also the case that it was mixed in with increasing emphasis on the policies of community cohesion after the 2001 riots which took policy in a less multicultural direction, but such detailed engagement with reality is clearly not the purpose of this book.

The self-aggrandisement of the role of the SWP is also evident in the chapter on the English Defence League (EDL) by the (now disgraced) SWP organiser, Martin Smith. One notable feature about this is that Smith is unwilling to countenance that the EDL feed off real tensions. The EDL is seen as originating in the activities of Alan Lake (now exposed as merchant banker Alan Ayling). Although the role of Ayling is still unclear, and Smith is probably right that the EDL has much to do with organised football hooligans in the off-season and the collapse of the BNP, there is more to it than that but Smith prefers Manichean simplicity. This is shown in Smith’s distortion of the events that are usually credited with the creation of the EDL. These focus on a military parade of soldiers returning for Afghanistan in March 2009 in Luton. Smith says, ‘An angry crowd set upon small groups of young Muslims protesting at the march past.’ The image is of some kids innocently protesting against the war, a wholly dishonest representation. This was a politically motivated act by former members of Al-Muhajiroun (now banned as recruiting agents for the Jihad, and whatever one thinks of the band, the accusation is true). Nor do they appear to have been ‘set upon’ by the crowd, although it is fair to say that the presence of a police cordon around them was the main reason why they did not get hit.

Beyond this, Smith builds up a picture of the SWP/UAF driving the EDL off the streets. This too would not stand up to critical scrutiny. There is strong evidence that the UAF’s role is to organise static protests rather than working with local Asian communities to help them defend themselves.

Thus, defending multiculturalism ends up as a confused mess. There is no clear sense of what is being defended, why it should be defended or how it would be defended. This is demonstrated in Gary McFarlane’s piece where he tells us ‘I have more in common with a refugee from Somalia than I ever will with the millionaire parasites of the City.’ There is nothing wrong with this as an expression of solidarity, but it flies in the face of the assumptions of multiculturalism, that cultural ties are lasting and important. McFarlane (rightly) dismisses them as less important than class. He continues, ‘” Workers to the world unite” is not an abstract slogan but does drive to the heart of a socialist understanding of multiculturalism – where for the right to be different in bringing about real equality; it’s the culture of the many against the few the world over.’ Here, at least, is the beginning of wisdom. What socialists must argue for is working class unity, and whatever and whatever form of multiculturalism we promote should facilitate that unity.

1 the full text of Cameron’s speech can be viewed here:
2 See Opratko and Muller, ‘L’islamophobie et les théories critiques du racisme,
3 Riazat Butt, ‘ Muslims in Britain have zero tolerance of homosexuality, says poll’ in The Guardian 7.5.2009.
4 Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘The true cost of private contracts in universities’ The Guardian 24/3/2104.

One response to “Multiculturalism or Bust

  1. Pingback: Multiculturalism or Bust | British Contemporary History

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