Broadening and Deepening Multiculturalism

I first heard “I hate abroad” in the early 1970s. I’d hitch-hiked across most of Western Europe in my summer holidays and I laughed, scornfully, at those whose minds refused to be broadened by travel. By 2000 those people had been dubbed ‘Little Englanders’. Responding to the arrival of ‘abroad’ in the 1960s – the brown-skinned British citizens of our collapsed Empire – they had shown their political muscle by voting first for the National Front in the 1970s and then for the British National Party in the 1990s. They could not longer be dismissed with that special scorn mustered by the educated, privileged elite; they needed to be understood and responded to politically.

These are the people described in Searchlight’s recent survey of British attitudes as the 13% of the population who hold ‘active enmity’ to multiculturalism. Another 10% are described as ‘latent hostiles’. One of the pre-eminent scholars on multiculturalism, Professor Will Kymlicka, defines multiculturalist policies as those which ‘[G]o beyond the protection of basic civil and political rights guaranteed to all individuals in a liberal-democratic state, to also extend some level of public recognition and support for ethnocultural minorities to maintain and express their distinct identities and practices’. About a quarter of the British population rejects those policies, it seems. Only 24% back them fully. I’m in that camp. And I love abroad.

I’m sitting in a wifi bar in the Turkish tourist resort of Dalyan. Tapping on my computer, spinning out an Efes beer, listening to Boy George intoning ‘Karma Chameleon’, I’m doing what sociologists do: trying to walk in the other’s shoes. My mind is being broadened as the Arabic call to prayer mingles with dreamy British pop music. I’ve just taken a photo of a huge bronze statue of Ataturk, profiled against the local mosque. Nearby, the AK party has crossed the street with dozens of its flags, advertising the party’s spanking new premises. Ali, my bar-owning friend, is worried that Turkey’s AK government will ruin the tourist trade by imposing ‘Islamic’ rules on dress and drink.

On the beach (a protected site for turtle breeding) the national flag flies alongside the European Union’s. Europe’s big beasts reject Turkey’s application with as superficial an understanding as Ali of what its government actually stands for, simply tarring it with the brush of Islamism. No sign of that here, and I am struck by how diverse this part of Turkey is.

The locals by no means all look alike, there are English and Irish residents here, my Jamaican-British friend lives in this region for half the year, and of course the tourists are from every part of northern Europe. On the boat to the beach, the Turkish man speaks English with his Thai girlfriend. In the market, a trader says to my daughter, “You’re from Yorkshire, so you say ‘Aah muuch? Too muuch’” while his mate at the adjacent stall calls, mocking Londoners, “Owww mach? You maaas be jowkin”. Beside us, Turkish women in headscarves sell the best fruit and veg I’ve ever tasted to locals and European tourists with the same quiet charm and easy smiles. Our grandkids are gazed at with the Mediterranean’s borderless love for children.

Of course it is not all sweetness and light. A young trader slaps my son-in-law’s shoulder as he walks away after refusing to make a purchase. Tourists can be annoying. Today’s Zaman reminds us yet again of the secularist fundamentalists plotting against the government.

There’s trouble in the UK too. We may now be celebrating the implosion of the British National Party, and the rag-bag English Defence League will not survive for long, but that survey demonstrated the fragility of Britain’s multicultural settlement: the middle ground is populated by ‘identity ambivalents’ who could move to the right, and ‘cultural integrationists’ who want authority restored by merging diverse identities into one.

The Blair and Brown governments responded to this unease. They made clear their commitment to the achievements of multiculturalist policies over the past fifty years, but they failed to develop a sophisticated response to the anxieties of the right or the centre. Prime Minister Cameron’s recent pronouncement on the defects of multiculturalism trudged in the Blair-Brown footsteps and reduced public understanding of this complex issue.

Two fears underlie the critics’ argument: immigrants and Muslims. While Blair-Brown-Cameron acknowledged the fact that Britain benefited from immigration, they failed to explain the complexity of the economic situation Britain has faced since 1945. Post-war governments believed they had to restructure British industry and open our borders to give the country any chance of success in the global capitalist market. Recently, some of those very brown-skinned people who felt the brunt of white racism in the 1960s and 70s have joined the chorus of complaint against the new migrants (many of whom are white), saying they are spongers, scroungers and (simultaneously) stealing ‘our’ jobs. The Searchlight survey showed a clear correlation between economic insecurity and hostility to multiculturalism.

Instead of explaining the realities of global capitalism, and ameliorating the economic hardship of all working people, white and brown, our leaders require us all to sign up to the Union Jack. There’s a danger that they are stealing the clothes of the far right, just as Mrs Thatcher did in the 1980s. Instead of discussing the causes of material hardship, they play up the threat of Islamism. Instead of pointing out that Mr Cameron’s ‘British values’ – freedom of expression, democracy, the rule of law – are actually universal values, they bang a drum whose skin, implicitly, is white. Instead of reminding the British public that Islam recognises no colour discrimination, offers no compulsion in religion, and, like Christianity and Judaism, speaks well of peace but is less impressive in practice, both Labour and Coalition governments prioritise policies against Islamists that frequently demean all Muslims. The new ‘Prevent’ agenda does nothing to reassure.

Change might be in the air. Significantly, the current Turkish Islamic model of government, expressing exactly the political values that are claimed to be British, has had a good press in public responses to the Arab spring. Gaddafi’s spectre of Al-Qaeda extremism fermenting the uprising in Libya has been ridiculed. There is some wonder at the insignificance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia. Maybe the Arabs want a Turkish-style government, pundits ask, with bated breath.

The West should recognise that this whole region cherishes freedom, and its surge for democracy, propelling inter-cultural debate, might inspire us to renew ours. British multiculturalism has something to offer the South, too. Its principles – still to be fully implemented – require full respect for the integrity of minority groups. It insists that human rights are indivisible, as important for the minority cultures as for the majority.

Since the origins of our species we have walked across the world and mingled. But global capitalism churns us all up to an unprecedented degree, and it makes life miserable for many. Whether we look at Britain, Turkey or Egypt, one thing is clear. Only through a deeper, cross-cultural dialogue in fully democratic settings, along with strong moves towards economic justice, can we begin to resolve the tensions that arise when ‘abroad’ comes home.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Prof Emeritus Max Farrar

Prof Emeritus Max Farrar

Professor for community engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University

Prof Max Farrar, a cultural sociologist, is the head of community partnerships and volunteering and professor for community engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University. An adviser to several boards and organisations on the issue of race, Professor Farrar has previously lectured in sociology and written research papers on the subject.

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