TREVOR PHILLIPS, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, caused a storm last week by saying, ‘We should kill off the word multiculturalism. Multiculturalism suggests separateness.’
His comments were aimed at young Muslims who are supposedly failing to integrate into British society. He argued that there was an urgent need to ‘assert a core of Britishness’ across society. Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, supported Phillips. A number of activists told Socialist Worker what multiculturalism means to them in response to Phillips and Toynbee.
MICHAEL ROSEN is a poet, writer and broadcaster. He is on the Respect coalition’s list for the GLA elections
I TAKE the word ‘culture’ to mean ‘the way we do things’-habits, customs, languages and traditions belonging to a group of people.
This means that the UK has always been a multicultural society, while millions of people from the British Isles have emigrated to other countries. Racists say that they don’t want to live in a multicultural society. This is lies. They like living among the many cultures of white society. They mean that they don’t want to live with black people.
Phillips and Toynbee are taking up a position that is intended to sound different. They say that they aren’t attacking ‘diversity’-they are against ‘multiculturalism’.
What is this? Is it a philosophy that promotes that diversity? Is it the legal framework that is supposed to guarantee equal rights at work? Is it the policy that celebrates diversity in the media, the arts and education? Phillips and Toynbee aren’t really against these positions either. In other words, they aren’t really opposed to the things they are saying they are against!
They are aiming prejudice, fear and hate towards Muslims. New Labour have brought a crisis upon themselves-their economic policies have increased inequality. Their foreign policies have brought death, misery and destruction on millions of people. Their immigration policies are a lethal mix of discrimination and lies.
What Phillips and Toynbee are saying has its origins in Britain’s place in the world, and not in some ‘objective’ notion of freedom, equal rights and the like. Whatever they are saying about ‘young Muslim men’ is wrapped up with the Gulf wars and appeasement of Israel.
They are following the oldest political reflex in the book-those you discriminate against, you fear the most. You fear them because you are afraid that they resist you, so you demonise them as a way of trying to isolate them from support.
Multiculturalism emerged as a result of black immigration. It was a liberal way of trying to combat racism. Because it represents an advance on discrimination, I’ve always supported it.
That said, the powerful agencies at the heart of education, the media, the arts and entertainment have hardly come to terms with the real diversity of the UK. They still promote notions of white (usually Protestant) superiority, and that there is something called a ‘core Britishness’-both of which I strongly oppose. But multiculturalism often hits the buffers when it comes to grappling with causes.
It separates off ‘culture’ from the economic motors that generate change, migration, inequality, exploitation and war. It can’t cope with resistance and solidarity. I oppose Phillips and Toynbee for their attacks on ‘multiculturalism’, but not by taking up a purely multiculturalist stance. The government that Phillips and Toynbee are defending has bombed Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
I see something that includes multiculturalism but goes beyond it, inviting me to support resistance, which is creating new multicultural and internationalist ‘cultures’ as Toynbee, Phillips and Blunkett sing ‘God Save Britishness’. Britain is a diverse, multicultural society
HASSAN MAHAMDALLIE is on the Unite Against Fascism national steering committee (personal capacity)
THOSE ON the right, aided by their New Labour outriders, are attacking multiculturalism not because they have a more radical strategy against racism, but because they want a more openly racist society.
Phillips managed to resurrect a kind of Norman Tebbit cricket test-be like ‘us’ (whoever ‘us’ is) and you can be part of ‘our’ club. It is the old language of assimilation-blacks, Asians and Muslims will only be acceptable if they are invisible and silent.
What a time for Phillips to attack multiculturalism-when the bigots are throwing together immigration, race, Islam and terrorism into the same racist pot. The word ‘immigrant’ is increasingly a veiled code for Muslims (most of whom were born here or have lived here for decades). Phillips says Muslims must accept ‘common values’ and ‘work by the rules of the British people-and that excludes terrorism’.
What ‘common values’ are we talking about here? The big lie we have to swallow is that all ‘British’ people share the same values and black ‘immigrants’ have wildly different values.
We have seen very different ‘core values’ at work recently-the core values of a British state that conducts a bloody imperial war and occupation. We have also seen ‘core values’ expressed in a two million march against the war that united and radicalised people from all backgrounds, ages and beliefs. Anti-Muslim bigotry has become the acceptable racism of those media types who sup at the New Labour dinner table.
‘Why Trevor Is Right’ wrote Polly Toynbee in the Guardian last week in a poisonous little diatribe. She wrongly asserted that Muslims culturally ‘inhabit another universe’, and that Islam teaches women to ‘stay one step behind’. Trevor Phillips should stop spreading the lie that Britain’s Muslims have separated themselves off from society.
He should be asking why when Muslims protest against the war they are assumed to be ‘fundamentalists’ and in need of assimilation or the attentions of the security services.
The anti-multiculturalists delude themselves they are superior when they devise citizenship ceremonies at which you have to swear allegiance to the queen. Phillips should know better than preach British ‘democratic values’-he hails from Guyana, where in the 1950s British colonial forces deposed a newly elected government because they regarded it as too left wing.
For most people multiculturalism means the desire to live in a society rich with cultures and people from across the world. This should be the desire of any truly civilised person. It is nonsense to say that multicultural policies are the key cause of separation. It is racism and systematic discrimination that prevents people from different heritages living together.
All research shows that immigrants, Asians and Muslims in particular, wish to take a full part in British society-if only they were allowed to. There is no way that black and Asian people are going to return to the days when you had to put up with racism, and to be accepted you had to pretend to be something you were not. All of us, black and white, have to fight to make sure that never happens.
DR SIDDIQUI is the leader of the Muslim Parliament
MULTICULTURALISM IS one issue that can never be settled. It always has to be revisited. I think it’s right that Trevor Phillips raised this issue. It highlights the failures and the new possibilities which the changing times are presenting. This is linked to diversity and solidarity. We should rejoice at diversity, but we have to make sure the celebrations are not at the expense of basic universal principles.
We can only have solidarity when it is based on the sharing of opportunities. We see ghettoes everywhere in our society. People can question whether multiculturalism is right. But the ghettoes are created by government policies. In northern cities we have Muslim and Asian ghettoes. It’s not as if people there want this. It is because people don’t have opportunities.
In London the Irish community live mainly in Hammersmith and Kilburn and the Jewish community in Finchley and Hendon. No one objects to this. These people have had opportunities and moved on, but they still like living with people of the same culture.
They moved to these areas because of a long history of discrimination and persecution. It was a hard struggle. Given time and opportunities other people will make that jump and live in better areas. In 50 years people will be talking about the ghettoes of other communities. Education plays an important role in sharing opportunities. We have to teach young people about the fall and rise of civilisations.
Western civilisation is not the only civilisation that mankind has got. Centres of civilisation have moved from one place to another. It is not relevant to race, religion or colour. The Chinese, Arab, Dutch and Aztec peoples have all led mankind.
People have to have freedom from the idea that you have to be white to excel. We have to teach young people human rights, gender and racial equality, civic responsibility. Whatever myths and ideas we practise now, young people should be able to look at them critically. They may be bad. There is no reason why if something was practised 100 years ago it should still be practised.
When people talk about the ‘core of Britishness’ we need to decide what the core is, remembering that the core is not static. It is dynamic, changing with time. Different people define it differently. We ought to celebrate diversity, emphasising the core values to which we can all aspire, universal human values.
The world is changing fast. People now have multiple identities. We need to have a greater debate on what our core values ought to be in the 21st century.
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