Incoherent on cohesion

By Faisal Bodi, a specialist writer on Muslim affairs (THE GUARDIAN, 01/09/06):

New Labour has not been shy of tapping into the public mood. Whether it's asylum seekers, antisocial behaviour or terrorism, the Blair administration has demonstrated a readiness to exploit a societal concern, usually by helping to hype it up and then cracking the legislative whip.Multiculturalism, dealt a blow by Ruth Kelly last week with the launch of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, appears to be the latest target. In fact it has been under sustained attack since 2001, when far-right agitation and attacks sparked rioting by young Muslims in northern England.

Many people blame multiculturalism for encouraging a sparseness of common reference points and values, leading to conflict and segregation. They say the answer is to reorient our policy towards creating a society where people of different racial and religious backgrounds mix more and celebrate more what they have in common than what divides them. But beyond that limited consensus the suggestions vary from near-total assimilation to a multiculturalist integration that does not efface cultural difference but sublimates it to a shared national ethic.

I have some sympathy with the latter view. Multiculturalism is fatally flawed, and not only because it encourages minorities to subdivide without placing a corresponding emphasis on cooperation and integration. Groups use funding to retreat into ghettoes and accentuate their specificity without contributing anything more meaningful than curries and carnivals to our national culture.

Multiculturalism is also a markedly secularising project. It sees communities through the blinkers of race or nationality and ignores minorities who define themselves in other terms, such as faith. For Muslim groups especially, funding to redress discrimination and deprivation depends on putting on a secular face.

The context is important when you realise that it is Muslim communities, as much as migrants from eastern Europe and Africa, who are the new commission's main focus. Although their potential contribution has been largely excluded from the conceptualisation and practice of multiculturalism, it appears that Muslims are now being held responsible for its disintegrative consequences. The 2001 riots were closely followed by the September 11 attacks on the US and the war on terror, a key plank of which consists of demonising Islam.

This Islamophobic discourse has also infected the debate about multiculturalism, manifested in the assumption that Muslims cannot be loyal citizens. This belies the facts. A recent survey by the Islamic Human Rights Commission found that over 80% of Muslims saw no contradiction between their faith and being a good British citizen. And many of these cited religion as the main reason for their loyalty, suggesting that instead of excluding Islamic values, policymakers should be harnessing their potential for promoting social cohesion.

At any rate, conceiving of the problem in terms of race and religion is also misguided. Social cohesion is also strained by socioeconomic factors such as unemployment, crime, drug addiction, family breakdown and extremist politics. The problem is so great, it should be exercising nearly every Whitehall department. The decision to confine it to a quango suggests the government is more interested in playing mood music than having the genuine debate we all need.

But perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Any discussion on multiculturalism in today's poisonous climate risks conflating unrelated issues. The widespread - but false - belief that it may be linked to terrorism, indicated by the level of current interest in the concept, is a sign that the conversation is better put off to a more appropriate day.