Multiculturalism: there is no alternative

A conference in London exposed the authoritarian bent to diversity policies.

In recent months there have been some high-profile debates about the excesses of multiculturalism (along the lines of ‘It’s multiculturalism gone mad!), yet the solution is usually to call for more diversity policies and recognition of ‘difference’. The Mosaic of Multiculturalism, a conference held last Friday at Goodenough College in London, exemplified this seemingly contradictory trend. The conference’s subheading, ‘Falling Pieces’, suggested a withering away of the multiculturalist vision. Every session, however, seemed to conclude with a resounding ‘There Is No Alternative’ to multiculturalism.

Professor Paul Gilroy’s opening keynote speech was, to be frank, lazy and ill-informed. Much of his assessment, that Muslims are being systematically targeted by Bush and Blair, seemed to extrapolate a leftish framework from the 1970s to today. From this perspective, critics of multiculturalism are apparently peddling ‘authoritarian populism’ as a sop to the ‘tabloid readers’ who vote for the far-right British National Party. When I asked Gilroy what he thought of the authoritarian and conformist trajectory of multicultural policies, he claimed, rather bizarrely, that ‘official multiculturalism doesn’t exist’. From time to time, veteran academics lose sight of charting recent developments in society, and Gilroy seemed to be a case in hand. But I couldn’t help wondering whether he was in denial about the uncomfortable realities of the multicultural dream.

Prior to Gilroy’s speech, the director of Goodenough College, major-general Andrew Ritchie, introduced the day’s proceedings. In his clipped, officer-class voice, he told us about the importance of diversity with cheery anecdotes about Her Majesty the Queen’s liking for ‘diverse, multicultural colleges like this one’. Now, when you have high-ranking military officers and the Queen promoting diversity, it’s hard to see how anyone can say there is no official multiculturalism – or to equate multiculturalism with anti-imperialist radicalism, as some on the left do.

The panel discussion on Religion and Multiculturalism seemed to take its cue from the Gospel According to Jacques Derrida. ‘Multiculturalism is not an option because humans are intrinsically different’, said Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. What ever happened to the universalism that is central to Islamic teaching? Dr Bari also argued that wayward mosques and clerics were the fault of not having enough ‘outcomes and structures in Muslim organisations’. Clearly, this religious scholar has been spending too much time with Tony Blair. What next, a ‘best practice’ charter for prospective imams?

Still, Dr Bari made some sensible comments on how Western rather than Islamic sensibilities are influencing second- and third-generation Muslims. Simon Keyes, director of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, confessed all of the church’s ‘sins’ as if he were running for a bus. ‘We’ve been bastions of patriarchy, we’ve been guilty of homophobia and even racism’, he spluttered breathlessly. Keyes’ faith, it seems, is in something other than the Christian church.

Religion dominated further discussions on ‘positive contacts between Muslims and Jews in Britain’, with Dr Richard Stone advocating a relentless round of national self-abasement and apologies for past crimes. Yet stoking up ancient grievances hardly seems the best route to producing inter-ethnic harmony. Far better was Dr Jennifer Jackson-Preece’s talk on ‘Multiculturalism and security after 9/11’. Her points on how ‘security has become the core value in life’, as well as downplaying the scale of the terrorist threat, provided a welcome bout of level-headed analysis.

Far too often, though, conference speakers and subsequent discussions merely explored different dimensions of multiculturalism, rather than questioning its very premise. After all, who could possibly be against the marvels of diversity other than ‘tabloid-reading’ trolls? This is why strident criticism of multiculturalism was met with bewildered silence rather than outraged heckles. In the discussion on perceptions of multiculturalism and minorities in the media, Dr Shakuntala Banaji agreed that the limitations of multiculturalism itself, rather than the editorial policy of TV producers, would be a better issue to explore, ‘except that’s for a different and longer discussion altogether’. Really? And there was me thinking that the aim of a conference like this should be precisely to dissect the pros and cons of multiculturalism.

Occasionally, though, critics did cut through the bemused, dismissive veneer. In the final ‘Citizenship and education’ discussion, Professor Tariq Ramadan talked about the need for a ‘plurality of memories’ in the teaching of history and creating a ‘sense of belonging’ for ethnic minorities through history becoming a branch of ‘citizenship studies’. Elsewhere, Dr Rob Berkeley from the Runnymede Trust said there was ‘no going back to a monoculture solution’, and that education must reflect Britain’s cultural diversity. Then, from the audience, writer and academic Munira Mirza attacked these notions that education should only be related to fixed identities. Rather than box students in with what they already know, she put the case for education enabling students to transcend narrow, particular experiences.

Any complacency on the part of panel speakers only reflected the pervasive ascendancy of multiculturalism. Far from a rigorous and open debate about multiculturalism, the boundaries of debate only allow discussion of issues within multiculturalism - with the predictable conclusion that more diversity is needed.

What’s particularly worrying is how undemocratic and unconnected much of the discussion and policy appears to be. Too often there’s a projection of what ‘diverse groups’ are supposedly interested in and how, therefore, they should be treated. Far from multiculturalism being a vibrant, cosmopolitan vision of society, it’s merely an instruction manual for micro-managing groups defined by tick-boxes, regardless of their wishes. Far from critics of multiculturalism pandering to ‘authoritarian populism’, this seems a fair description of multicultural practitioners themselves.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

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