At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, David Cameron announced his belief that multiculturalism in Britain has failed:
Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we’ve encouraged different cultures to live separate lives apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.
He sees Islamic extremism and terrorism as an outworking of this problem. What’s the solution? We have to replace “passive tolerance” (which says that as long as we obey the law, we’ll be left alone) with “active, muscular liberalism.” The latter, according to Cameron, means,
believ[ing] in certain values and actively promot[ing] them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.
There is something in what he says. Considerable segregation does exist in our cities, and the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of many minority ethnic youth (not just Muslim men) needs to be tackled urgently – not least because it is affecting their educational and life opportunities. He also helpfully recognises that exclusion is chiefly a consequence of ‘our’ vision and policies. Those who study patterns of immigrant settlement consistently point out that whether newcomers end up assimilating, integrating or separating largely depends on established community attitudes, laws and systems.
The problem is that I’m not sure that he’s naming the right ‘wrong’ policies and actions, or digging deeply enough. What about foreign policy and the ways in which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created hostility and resentment of the West within some Muslim communities? His language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ also reveals why multiculturalism is floundering. Who are the ‘we’ he is talking about? What and who defines the ‘mainstream’? Who creates ‘our’ values? Is Cameron implying ‘white, Christian Anglo-Saxons’ (as if there was such a thing) or UK citizens or anyone who believes in liberal values? Whichever of these it is, it certainly doesn’t seem to include those in the ‘segregated communities’ he wants to be woven into the fabric of society. Our model of multiculturalism has, on the whole, been for communities to co-exist in their separate spheres while a powerful minority (drawn from the white and nominally Christian majority) calls the shots. Surely, the only way to achieve the result he wants is to co-create a vision with those who are currently excluded – to enter into conversation – rather than to state a set of pre-determined norms to which people must adhere if they wish to ‘belong.’ This is perhaps better labelled inter-culturalism – implying a web of connectedness and dialgoue – than multiculturalism. And yes, that cannot be a passive ‘live and let live’ affair: it requires strenuous effort to build real community and discover elements of shared identity, and there will be disagreements and ongoing struggles. But without this kind of conversation, can we really talk about the democracy, freedom and equal rights we wish to uphold?