“I’m a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the niqab — and every day I have to plan ahead. ‘Am I going to be attacked today or am I going to be abused today?’” added Shamin, from the West Midlands. “But it’s my right to be wearing it.”
Under the hashtag #MyHijabMyChoice, women have been calling to be left to make their own, personal decision about whether or not they wear a veil, without the interference of politicians.
In total, there are around 2.7 million Muslim people in the UK. While there are no official estimates of the number of women who wear veils, it’sreportedly very few. In France, for example, which has a larger Muslim population than the UK, it’s no more than a couple of thousand women.
But this debate about burqas stretches significantly further. Against a background of Brexit, which has already divided the nation, it’s become about migration, integration, and Islamophobia — with some raising concerns that it has the potential to encourage violence.
Hate crimes against Muslims in London have risen threefold in the wake of the Paris attacks, according to police. British Muslims fear further attacks after MPs voted to extend airstrikes against Islamic State (formerly ISIS/ISIL) from Iraq into Syria.
Last week, nine British Muslims were arrested on the Syrian border as Nigel Farage tapped into his constituency’s unease about modern Britain. We need our leaders to respond to this unease with reason – and a positive vision
Two events last week, some 2,000 miles apart, captured the fraught character of the current debate about multicultural Britain. On Wednesday, nine Britons from Rochdale were stopped in Turkey, apparently as they tried to cross the border into Syria. One was the son of a local Labour councillor Shakil Ahmed, who said he was “shocked” to hear of the arrests. “My son,” he added, “is a good Muslim and his loyalties belong to Britain, so I don’t understand what he’s doing there.”
The next evening in Salford, a hop and a skip from Rochdale, came the general election leaders’ TV debate. Nigel Farage elicited outrage by blaming foreigners for seemingly all Britain’s social ills. But while his claims about “health tourism” and foreigners with HIV undermining the NHS might have enraged liberals, they seemed to play well to his core constituency. While many despise what they regard as racism, others applaud the Ukip leader for, as they see it, speaking the truth.
From Salford to the Syrian border, the question of how to respond to multiculturalism remains fraught and divisive. Some celebrate multiculturalism for having transformed Britain into a vibrant, cosmopolitan nation. For others, Britain has become too diverse. Too much immigration and too little integration have, they suggest, combined to erode social cohesion, undermine national identity and corrode public trust.
The two groups foregrounded last week have, for very different reasons, come to dominate the debate: Muslims and the “white working class”.
The growing numbers of young Britons drawn to jihadism are, for many, emblematic of the refusal of Muslims to integrate and revealing of the failures of multiculturalism. According to a YouGov poll last month, 55% of the population think there exists “a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society”. Meanwhile, rising support for Ukip has drawn both fear and contempt. Many fear that without mainstream politicians adopting tough anti-immigration policies, support for populism will grow. Hence the ramping up of anti-immigration rhetoric in recent months.
Fear of Ukip is often mixed with contempt for the supposed racism of the Ukip-voting masses. Times columnist Matthew Parris described Clacton, where last October Tory defector Douglas Carswell became Ukip’s first MP, as “Britain on crutches”. Its “voters are going nowhere”, Parris sneered, for “this is tracksuit-and-trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain”.
The idea that Muslims as a group are poorly integrated is not borne out by the facts. Numerous polls have shown that Muslims tend to identify with Britain to a greater degree than the population at large. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 77% of Muslims said that they identified “very strongly” with Britain, compared with 50% of the population at large. Similarly, a 2011 Demos poll found 83% of Muslims were “proud to be British”.
British Muslims certainly tend to be highly conservative in their social attitudes, being far less liberal on issues such as homosexuality and abortion than the general public. Such conservatism does not make their beliefs incompatible with British values – there are plenty of Christians, Jews and atheists who are equally illiberal – or suggest that Muslims are unable to integrate. Nor does Islam necessarily make one socially conservative. Muslims in other western nations – France, Germany and the US, for instance – are notably more liberal. As indeed were previous generations of Muslims in Britain.
There is much talk about “the Muslim community” – and about its views, needs and aspirations. Until the late 1980s, however, few Muslims in Britain had thought of themselves as belonging to any such thing. The first generation of postwar Muslim immigrants to Britain, in the 1950s and 60s, were pious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore the hijab, let alone the burqa or niqab. Most attended mosque only occasionally. Their faith defined their relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity. They were more likely to call themselves Sylheti or Punjabi than Muslim.
The second generation – my generation – was broadly secular. The organisations we looked to for guidance and support were not religious but political, groups such as the Asian Youth Movements. Only in the late 1980s did Muslims begin to identify with “the Muslim community”. A generation that, ironically, was far more integrated and “westernised” than the first became more insistent on maintaining its distinctiveness.
The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in a tangled web of political changes, including the collapse of the left and the rise of identity politics. Partly they lie in international developments, such as the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, which played an important role in fostering a heightened sense of Muslim identity. And partly they lie in the promotion of multicultural policies.
Multicultural policies emerged in the 1980s largely in response to the anger within minority communities created by racism, an anger that found an explosive vent in the inner-city riots of the late 1970s and 80s. To assuage this anger, the authorities pioneered a new strategy of drawing black and Asian communities into the mainstream political process by designating specific organisations or community leaders to represent their interests.
In this process was born the idea of Britain as “a community of communities”, as the influential 2000 Parekh report on multiculturalism put it. The authorities attempted to manage diversity by putting people into particular ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs by virtue of the boxes into which people were put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. They treated minority communities as if each were a distinct, homogenous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined by a singular view of culture and faith. The most conservative figures often came to be accepted as the authentic voices of minority groups.
The consequence has been to create a more parochial sense of identity. And for a small group of Muslims, tribalism has led them to find their identity and an authentic Islam in Islamism. The attraction of jihadism to some Muslims is an issue that needs confronting. But it does not reveal a problem with Muslim integration as such, or with too much immigration.
The problem of multiculturalism is not one of too much immigration or diversity. It lies, rather, in the impact of the policies enacted to manage diversity. When we talk of “multiculturalism”, we often conflate the lived experience of diversity with public policies towards minority communities. The failure of those policies has led many to blame diversity itself as the problem.
This leads us to the second issue at the heart of the multiculturalism debate. The debate about Ukip, and about hostility to immigration in working-class communities, is as misguided as that about Muslim integration.
Ukip certainly draws support from hardline racists and many of its policies are bigoted. But it also enjoys wider support, from people whose hostility towards immigrants or Islam is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity.
Over the past three decades, a host of economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the growth of inequality, the creation of a more atomised society – has combined with a series of political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power and the distancing of the Labour party from its old working-class base, to corrode the social bonds that once provided strength and identity to working-class communities and to diminish their status in society.
The result has been the creation of what many commentators now call the “left behind” working class, who feel politically abandoned and voiceless. The “left behind” have been left behind largely because of economic and political changes. But many have come to see their marginalisation primarily as a cultural loss. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so the “left behind” have also come to see their problems in cultural terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent.
Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural attribute, then those regarded as culturally different have come to be viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration. The forces of globalisation or the internal wranglings of the Labour party are difficult to conceptualise. By contrast, the Polish builder or your Bangladeshi neighbour are easy to see. So immigration has become the means through which many sections of the electorate perceive their sense of loss of social status. It has become both a catch-all explanation for unacceptable social change and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of voters.
Most politicians today defend multiculturalism and sneer at Ukip policies, while assiduously fostering fears about immigration. What we actually need to do is the opposite – defend diversity and immigration while challenging multicultural policies. And we need to engage with the concerns of Ukip voters while also challenging prejudices about Muslims and immigration. Will any politician have the courage and vision to do this? I’m not holding my breath.