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Still Not Easy Being British

Struggles for a Multicultural Citizenship


Tariq Modood


Oakhill,Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 2010

Paperback. xiv+143 pp. ISBN-13:978-1858564807. £19.99


Reviewed by Nicholas Deakin

London School of Economics and Political Science




In March 2011 all households in the UK found themselves confronted with the task of completing their Census forms. As part of that process, respondents were required to define their national identity, their ethnicity and their religious identification. Many heads must have been scratched when confronted with a set of choices, none of them easy ones, that included making the distinction between being English (or Welsh or Scottish) and British. The implications of having to select the identity with which one is most comfortable is one of the key issues explored by Tariq Modood in his collection of republished essays.

Professor Modood has some claim to have made his own original contribution to these debates about identity. His 1992 essay, Not Easy Being British, played a significant role, as Robin Richardson points out in his foreword to the present volume, in shifting the terms of the debate on what used to be called “race relations” in Britain. The anti-racist perspective, with its roots in debates on the other side of the Atlantic and focus on racial discrimination has been overtaken by a cultural pluralist approach, in which religious difference, hitherto largely neglected as an element in race relations, has become an increasingly significant factor. Policies based on this shift of perspective, generally known as “multicultural”,  have become dominant in local and central government.

However, the period since 1992 has also been marked by a series of episodes that have put the approach adopted by local and central government in England under considerable strain. These have included the Satanic Verses episode and the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the fallout from the attacks by terrorist groups in New York, Madrid and then London (7/7), the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in the Danish press, disputes about dress (the veil controversy) and even on the possible implementation of sharia law.  All these have been presented in the popular media as illustrations of the way in which multicultural approaches have introduced or perpetuated divisions which threaten the stability and cohesion of communities and the traditional values of society as a whole. And it has been the most recently arrived of the identifiable ethnic and religious minorities, the Muslims, who have been the particular target of populist critics. The approach of these critics has ranged from the ridiculing of claims for respect for cultural and religious difference to displays of outright prejudice—what has come to be called “Islamophobia”.

Most recently, David Cameron, speaking at a conference of European leaders gathered to discuss more effective measures to combat terrorism, took that opportunity to denounce multiculturalism and to call, in the name of “muscular liberalism” for more effective measures to ensure that newcomers to Britain conformed with cultural norms and learned the language and customs of the society that they were joining.

Cameron’s speech echoed sentiments expressed about the presumed failure of “multiculturalism” by other European leaders of the moderate right—notably Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. However, both these leaders—and others in continental Europe—are under some pressure from their electorates and in Sarkozy’s case from the FN as the party of the further right. Such is not the case with Cameron: UKIP has failed so far to make any significant penetration at national level and the BNP had a catastrophic general election in 2010. An equally poor showing followed at the 2011 local elections and the BNP now seems well on the way to following the traditional pattern of the far right parties in Britain and falling apart into quarreling fragments.  However, by providing, at least by implication some endorsement of the criticisms of multiculturalism which have been prominent in the popular press and television Cameron might perhaps reasonably hope to position his party as a potential beneficiary of the BNP’s disintegration.

A more charitable explanation is that Cameron, like Gordon Brown before him, has begun to turn his attention to the issues of national identity and citizenship which have been a steadily increasing preoccupation of more serious commentators in the press and indeed essayists like Modood. In one of the most interesting contributions to the present collection, he and a colleague interviewed a number of “moderate Muslims” and sought to establish how far their sense of themselves included a commitment to being British. Although their replies covered a wide spectrum of positions there was no dissent from the core proposition that there was no inconsistency between being Muslim and feeling yourself to be British—the two were seen as wholly compatible. But on what terms?

Here, Modood enters controversial territory. In his discussion of “the accommodation of Muslims into a distinctively British multiculturalism” [12] he presents the concept of multiculturalism that he wishes to defend as operating at three levels. First, there is the simple acceptance of difference, of separate groups within society having their own distinct sense of identity.  Then, second, there is the political response to that social reality and the question of whether group identities can be accommodated within the political system. The third and most ambitious level is about “a positive vision of society as a whole—but remade so as to include the previously excluded or marginalised on the basis of equality and belonging” [6].

The key shift that is required here, he suggests, if the third level is to be reached and sustained, is for the state to respect the claims of religion. In a stimulating discussion of secularism as a motive force in determining the limits of acceptance, Modood argues that in democratic practice there should be space for recognition of not just the special status of groups defined by religion (of whom Muslims are the principal but not the only example) but also explicit protection from the law against instances of religious discrimination.

Modood recognises that “secularism” is a very broad term, covering the whole range from the “New Atheism” of Dawkins and Hitchens to the kind of indifference tinged with some Christian values but without any form of religious observance that now characterises most of the British Isles, with the obvious exception of Northern Ireland. This was reflected in the response to the 2001 Census question on religious identity and helps to explain the otherwise striking disparity between the proportion of those identifying themselves as Christian (around 70% of respondents) and the numbers actually practising their declared faith (well under half that figure). Similarly, in Europe as a whole and beyond a variety of different positions can be found, including French laïcité and the separation of church and state in the United States—though that is now more respected in principle than practice. Nevertheless, Modood argues in a key passage that all democratic states, whatever their fundamental stance on the role of religious faith in public affairs owe religion, of all kinds, respect “because it is a good in itself” [13]. No evidence is offered, however, to support this judgement.

If Modood’s position is accepted, with or without proof, it then follows that a form of social partnership between state and religious groups provides the best way to achieve a functioning and democratic form of multiculturalism. This can be seen in the British case, he argues, in a number of compromises in which the role of religion in public policy is explicitly recognised and even encouraged. Among Modood’s examples of successful partnerships is state support for schools run by faith groups. Here, the Muslim diaspora in England has been playing what Modood calls “catch-up” and is beginning now to have the same access to state funding of education by religious organisations that the Christian denominations and Jews have enjoyed.

However, faith education is a contested area. The consequences of educating the children of different religious groups separately and the implications for community cohesion have become the focus of heated debate. Critics point to the example of Northern Ireland as an illustration of social and cultural divisions reinforced by segregated education. Admissions policies for faith schools in England also carry risks in the clear evidence now emerging that these schools are discriminating in their recruitment of pupils against poorer children. There is also an issue about how far parents wishing to secure entry to highly prized faith schools are prepared to go in professing adherence to the religion in question  when they have no real commitment to it. 

A second problem with the approach that Modood advocates lies in the consequences of privileging forms of behaviour within ethno-religious minority groups that are at odds with the values in the society as a whole. This is particularly true of gender issues, where the use of the veil by Muslim women has become both a symbolic and a practical issue. However, at least in England the ground for dispute between the values of the secular state and religious groups is more significant for the Roman Catholic Church whose teachings on contraception, marriage and divorce and homosexuality have recently brought the church leadership into conflict with secular law on discrimination and equality.

This raises a third issue. Modood’s narrative on developing relationships between religious groups and the state in England takes as given a decline in conventional religious belief and practice. The assumption is also that the religious authorities will accept as inevitable an increase in secularisation as the basic context for their relationship with the state. However, it is far from clear that this is the case. It is true that steady decline still continues for the Church of England and once powerful nonconformist denominations. But the Eastern European migration of the last decade has given a timely shot in the arm to Roman Catholic Church attendances. And one of the most spectacular religious developments of the recent past has been the rapid growth in Christian evangelical churches, some of them with roots in the United States and often catering for the African Caribbean migration previously much neglected  by the mainstream churches. The appearance of so-called “mega-churches” in many cities and their flamboyant advertising of the services, spiritual and practical, that they can offer to their adherents has added a different flavour to relations between the secular state and religion.

One upshot of this shift in the dynamic has been a far more aggressive attitude on the part of religious groups of all kinds in their disputes with the state. A coalition of all the major players beat off an attempt by the Labour government to allocate a fixed proposition of places in faith schools to those children not belonging to the religious group running them. And test cases taken under the equalities legislation by Christian lobby groups have sought to establish, though so far not successfully,  that religious beliefs should be respected as reasons for not complying with the secular state’s laws.

This new assertiveness reflects wider trends outside Europe. All the great world religions, so far from being in decline, are currently expanding, rapidly and in some cases quite aggressively. Numerically and in terms of their capacity to influence public policy (witness the situation in the USA) the trend is towards a larger role for religions in the public space and an increasingly influential one. The borderline between the personal sphere, religion’s traditional domain and the public square is under greater pressure now than it has been since the nineteenth century.

None of this means that the multicultural enterprise as defined by Modood and its other leading advocates like Professor Bhiku Parekh is necessarily a mistake. Rather some form of lasting accommodation with religious groups is an essential part of the wider project to define identity and citizenship in terms suitable for twenty-first century societies. But it is not “muscular liberalism” to suggest that those now demanding further concessions to the claims of religious groups to special status for their beliefs and practices may have to do more to validate these claims than simply asserting that their religions embody self-evident truths. Respect should not mean simply a tolerant shrug of the shoulders and a decision not to challenge actions when their consequences for vulnerable groups and individuals may be serious.

In sum , Modood’s collection provides some valuable food for thought on some controversial issues. As is inevitable in collections of this kind, there are some weaker essays that do not justify resuscitation. It is also curious that he has found no space to discuss the circumstances of another large ethno-religious group, the Hindu diaspora in Britain and the different form of accommodation that they have made with the host society.

But in general his case that multiculturalism has been unfairly judged and condemned on very little solid evidence is well made. Modood may go further in making the case for social partnership between the secular democratic state and religion than some critics would wish. But at least he errs, if he does err, on the side of optimism and the hope that people from all religions and none can contribute to the development of a society in which judgements about individuals and groups can be made and actions taken without resort to prejudice and out-of-date stereotypes.



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