Reviewing Multi-Culturalism in Britain

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Since July's transit-system attacks, the British have taken a hard look at the impact of diversity. Tariq Modood of the University of Bristol in Great Britain, discusses the concept of multi-culturalism with Scott Simon.


Ever since the London bombings last month, Britain has been grappling with the question of what kind of country it wants to be. For years now, Britain has seen itself as a place that welcomes diverse people from diverse cultures around the world. In fact, London has become the world's most international city, a fact it was proud to trumpet when bidding for the Olympic Games. But the fact that four of the London bombers were British citizens born to Pakistani descent and not imported terrorists has made some Britains question how their society is to incorporate large groups of immigrants who may want to--in fact, are proud to--stay separate. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Tony Blair talked about people who'd lived in Britain for 20 years and didn't speak English and said `a feeling of separateness may be unhealthy.' Conservative leader Michael Howard has been more explicit. Mr. Howard, who is himself the child of immigrant parents, questioned the Blair government's concept of multiculturalism and made a plea for embracing what he called the ideal of Britishness.

So what is multiculturalism anyway? How is it different from integration and dissimulation, and can it work? Tariq Modood is a professor of sociology at the University of Bristol and the author of "Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain" published by Minnesota University Press. He joins us from his office in Bristol.

Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor TARIQ MODOOD (University of Bristol): Pleasure.

SIMON: And what do you call multiculturalism?

Prof. MODOOD: Well, I think multiculturalism is basically a political accommodation of minority groups such that people come to enjoy civic equality without a presumption of cultural assimilation. So if we wanted a contrast with another kind of equality, I think it would be fair to contrast it, say, with the civil rights movement of the US as led by Martin Luther King Jr., where there was an understanding that, oh, well, we're all the same under the different color of skins that we have, and all we want to do--all black people want to do is to join the existing American mainstream, the white mainstream. Whereas multiculturalism recognizes that there are genuine differences between groups of people--they are ethnic, cultural, historical, religious and so on--and that these differences represent histories and heritages that people can be proud of if they're given the opportunity.

SIMON: And how did this line of thinking develop historically over the past generation?

Prof. MODOOD: Well, in many ways, the politics of it actually arises through the social movements, the new social movements of the 1960s, that emphasized identities, identities like black, you know, black pride, black power, black is beautiful, feminist movements that emphasized female identities, gay pride movements and so on. So instead of flattening out difference, we need to respect and welcome difference and, indeed, give it some kind of public prominence.

SIMON: I think a great many Americans, at least, saw a distinct difference between, let's say, at least British and French approaches to multiculturalism in the head scarf ban of last year.

Prof. MODOOD: Yeah.

SIMON: We should explain--let's refresh our audience's recollection--that the government of France said that in the--at least in the state schools--that Muslim girls could not wear head scarves and, for that matter, Orthodox Jews could not wear skull caps.

Prof. MODOOD: That's right. There is a general philosophical principle in France that they refer to as (French spoken), their understanding of secularism, of the separation of state and religion. And they saw this as a necessary way of entrenching secularism from Muslim pressures and encroachments.

In Britain, we do have similar debates, but we don't have a problem with head scarves in schools. We see this as part of the natural diversity of society. And I think there are a number of aspects of British social and cultural life where the postwar migration has been welcomed and truly integrated in what we might call the British way of life. But we do need to emphasize our common British national identity more than we've done so far.

Britons, for all kinds of reasons we don't have time to go into, have been very reluctant to celebrate British identity. If you just think of the fewness of occasions in which you'll see the union jack, our national flag, in public places in Britain compared to how often you will see the stars and stripes in the US or the trickler in France. We have been self-effacing about our national identity, and I think that's made it difficult for new Britons to identify with Britain. It's much easier for them to be excited and to be emotionally caught up with other kinds of identities. And as we've seen, sometimes this has led to militant and extremist ideologies. So I wouldn't say that multiculturalism is to blame for our present situation. I wouldn't say that we have a crisis of multiculturalism. But we do need to rethink about multiculturalism and its relation toward British national identity in an ever interlinked global world.

SIMON: Professor, thank you very much.

Prof. MODOOD: Pleasure.

SIMON: Tariq Modood, professor of sociology at the University of Bristol. He is the author of the book "Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain."

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