Mr. Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism (5th Feb) was an important one, and presents a great opportunity for dialogue. Mr. Cameron raised a crucial point. Multiculturalism can too easily be seen as a movement that seeks simply to respect difference. There is no doubt that from the 1960s there has been the assumption in the UK that difference is good in itself, forming the basis of respect. However, respect without the capacity to challenge both thought and practice through critical dialogue is not truly respect. Respect for the other and the rights of the other needs to supplemented with responsibility. Responsibility involves at least three interconnected things: being responsible for our thoughts and actions, knowing what we think and believe and how our actions affect others; being accountable to the many different groups that we relate to; and sharing with others the responsibility that we all have for the social and physical environment that sustains us and is sustained by us. It is reasonable then, to challenge any group to examine their own thoughts and how they relate to practice, to invite any group to give an account of these thoughts and practices to the wider society, and to invite any group to join with others in being responsible for our nation and wider environment. Much of this is about David Cameron’s big society and the responsibility at its heart.
However, I would argue that he runs the danger of losing these vital interconnected ideas by stress on the problems of radical groups, especially in Islam, and a view of the core British identity that is simplistic. I work with many Muslims who are proud to be British and Muslim. I strongly suggest, for instance, that Mr. Cameron look at the works of the Turkish Islamic scholar Fetullah Gulen who sees human rights, democracy and plural identity at the heart of the Muslim faith. His many followers practice that in ways that enhance civil responsibility and identity. Sometimes we forget that the West only rediscovered Aristotle through Islam, and with that a highly sophisticated view of democracy and shared responsibility. Engaging that rich and diverse culture demands not a judgemental stance, but rather the capacity to generate dialogue. The mark of effective dialogue is that it enables narrative, and shared narrative enables reflection, respectful challenge and the development of identity which acknowledges shared concerns and commitments, alongside diverse histories.
The key to dealing with the fact of multiculturalism, as distinct from any ideology of the same name, is to enable the practice of this dialogue and storytelling. Hence, I would challenge Mr Cameron in two ways. First, how do we develop that capacity for critical dialogue? Where in the community are we enabling dialogue around responsibility? The simple assertion of a muscular liberalism is not sufficient. Dialogue demands greater stress on listening to the narrative of the stranger and how that relates shared concerns. Cameron gives the impression of trying to rush ahead, without carefully building those foundations. This is partly because he and the government seem to assume certain key shared values that go to make up British society. However, I do not think that these values are so obvious. Take the idea of liberalism. This has at its heart ideas like freedom and autonomy. So what do they mean? The government seems to identify these values with freedom of choice, in education, health and so on. However, it is simply not clear that freedom of choice, and with that an increasing stress on consumerism, is sufficient. In his blog, RSA’s Chief Executive Matthew Taylor brilliantly reminds us that freedom involves far more, not least the freedom to reflect on purpose and value and to give an account of that value. And the big society, for my money is all about putting value and purpose upfront. We cannot just assume these values. We have to talk about them. But even in Higher Education there is a danger of this critical dialogue being muscled out by the narrative of consumer choice (ironically beloved of Mr. Mandelson) and employability skills- neither of which engage value.
The second challenge to Mr Cameron is to invite him to include everyone in this dialogue, which means all the cultures that go to make up our nation. We are not a monoculture, and the experience of the Holocaust suggests that that is the last thing any of us wants. That means we have to deal with difference as part of who we are, not to place difference ‘out there’. Gulen’s stress on God’s creation of plurality and difference, and the responsibility we all share for that creation is a pretty good place to start.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society