After the July 2005 bombings in London, Frances Stead Sellers wrote a piece in The Washington Post (August 22, 2005) arguing that “multiculturalism as a political ideology” wasn’t working in her native Britain. She expressed happiness over seeing that Britons had “overcome the racism of their colonial past and learned to appreciate the carnival of color.” But she stressed the need to cultivate a stronger sense of Britishness across the country’s cultural divides. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had blamed the terrorist attacks on Islam’s “evil ideology.” Sellers quoted his statement, approvingly, that “staying here carries with it a duty … to share and support the values that sustain the British way of life.” He apparently was echoing the feeling among many Britons that the terrorist acts of a group of Muslim youths indicated that British Muslims were not adequately loyal to Britain and its values.
Many of the reactions to her article were “surprisingly hostile,” Sellers, an editor at the Post, told me. “I suppose the very mention of multiculturalism offends many people.” I thought, however, that Britain’s transition to multiculturalism was irreversible, and that, if it isn’t working, it needs to evolve further to accommodate the country’s fast-growing minorities of non-European faiths, especially the Muslims.
My thoughts on the question were enriched further by Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain. Tariq Modood, a leading British sociologist, published the book before the London bombings, but it spotlights the disconnection between the brouhaha over “Islamic terrorism” in Britain and the reality of British Muslim life in greater depth than any other works I have read.
Integration has been the British government’s and intelligentsia’s goal for minorities, but British nativism has been a major obstacle to reaching that goal. Native Britons have hardly been cuddly about minorities of non-European origins, especially Muslims. And the symbols they have used to differentiate non-white minorities from the white mainstream have changed over time. Race has been the classical one, and the generic name for discrimination against non-white minorities is called “racism.” The arrival of brown South Asians blurred the old code of “color racism” and also heightened Britons’ awareness of the Other because of the addition of a variety of new religious and ethnic strains to society. As the old black-white racial dichotomy broke down, culture became a more convenient concept for defining and discriminating against the Other. Blacks and browns; Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists — all were culturally different from native whites. Discrimination against minorities continued, with the difference that “color racism” was replaced by “compound racism,” the addition of culture to skin color as the marks of the Other (p. 7).
A professor of sociology and public policy at Bristol University, Modood recalls that changing symbols to define the Other has been as old as the arrival of non-Europeans in Europe. After the Spaniards completed the Reconqista of the Moorish kingdoms in 1492, many Jews and Muslims were expelled from Iberia and many of those who remained converted to Christianity in the hope of avoiding persecution. But the converts or their offspring were not accepted into the Christian mainstream. A new doctrine developed to justify discrimination against them: “[T]heir old religion was in their blood” (p. 10). Eventually, the Muslim cultural space in Europe was blotted out, but many Jews continued to hang around. The Europeans secularized and lost interest in religion, but the Jews continued to be persecuted for centuries for their Semitic racial origin.
Since the Holocaust, race has become taboo in discourse on group relations in Britain, as it has on Muslims’ lives elsewhere in the West. Hence the use of culture or ethnicity to define minorities. Yet many Britons are surprisingly resistant to acknowledging the mainstay of most minority cultures, especially those of the Muslims: religion. And the salience of religion in Muslims’ lives has alienated them not just from conservative Christians, but from many liberals, who traditionally have defended minority causes.
I think ignorance is partly to blame for it. Years ago, when I lived in London, a journalist friend from the Financial Times invited me to a party where I met a certain young woman. Learning that I was a Muslim born in India, the beautiful blonde demonstrated her quite impressive knowledge of Indian history, religions and demography. She had read a lot of books about India to visualize the lives of her grandparents and great-grandparents, who had lived there, serving in the British colonial bureaucracy. She had learned that most Indian Muslims are descendants of Hindu converts. “You [Indian Hindus and Muslims] are like us Christians,” she explained. “I am an Anglican whose ancestors were Catholics.” I wondered if that was how a Briton who had studied Indian cultures viewed Muslim-Hindu relations in India, how would those who had not?
Many native Britons’ antipathy for religion has a historical basis. European liberalism, Europe’s sociopolitical ideology, evolved from bitter struggles between the Catholic Church and secular governments and elites (which did not occur in the Islamic and other civilizations). Hence bitterness toward religion inheres in the historical memory of many Europeans, especially in countries such as Britain, France and Spain, where those struggles became particularly nasty.
Many Britons’ hostility to Islam has been a main source of Muslim-native tensions in Britain. Britons used to call Muslims and other non-white minorities “blacks.” In the late 1980s, they began to distinguish “Asians” as a separate minority category from the Afro-Caribbeans. In practical terms, Asians meant South Asians, and two-thirds of Britain’s
1.6 million Muslims are of South Asian origins. For them, Asian was as meaningless as a group identity as black. As Asians, a Muslim from Bangladesh, a Hindu and a Sikh from India, and a Buddhist from Sri Lanka were all treated as members of the same ethnic or cultural group. This was absurd.
One could argue that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists of South Asian origins often socialize and sometimes intermarry and can be considered members of a loose social category (although those ethnic groups would protest it). But Muslims are a breed far apart. They don’t socialize with non-Muslims very often and rarely marry them. Because Islam is part of the Abrahamic religious tradition, an Indian Muslim may marry a British Christian, but not a Hindu, Sikh or Jain from his native India.
Many Britons ignore the fact that Islam, unlike some other faiths, is not just a set of beliefs and prayer rituals but also a cultural pattern and system of values from which Muslims derive their sense of self and purpose in life. Yet many Britons regard the term Muslim as “a politicized religious identity” (p. 167). Multicultural Politics underscores Muslim anguish over the denigration of their faith and cultural symbols that follows from this attitude. “[A]n oppressed group feels its oppression most according to those dimensions of its being that it (not the oppressor) values the most; moreover, it will resist its oppression from those dimensions of its being from which it derives its greatest collective psychological strength” (p. 104).
Modood makes an important observation that encapsulates Islam’s special role in Muslim life in Britain and the West and focuses on the context in which British Muslim youths engaged in London bombings. Islam, says the author, is Muslims’ “mode of being,” i.e. it represents what they are. He distinguishes it from the “mode of oppression” that defines some other disadvantaged minority groups. The mode of being would distinguish a disadvantaged minority from others after its economic or social disabilities are removed. People’s consciousness of their mode of being is bolstered by hostile social environments. The antiracist movements, which define groups “in terms of the primacy of the mode of oppression, … fail to understand [Muslims and some other minorities] and cut them off from sources of their group pride” (p. 107).
This brings us to Blair’s diagnosis of the cause of Muslim terrorism and its antidote. A survey by London’s Chatham House think tank and a Guardian newspaper poll show that most British Muslims are upset by British participation in the Iraq War, in which tens of thousands of their fellow believers have been killed and countless others wounded or left without homes and jobs. And unless one is to believe that educated, fun-loving young men decided to hide the reason for which they chose to die, we know from the statements of one London bomber (videotaped before he set out for his suicide mission) and a bombing suspect arrested in Rome that the terrorists were distressed by the sights of Iraqi Muslim women and children wailing in the ruins of their homes over their relatives’ deaths from invaders’ bombs. It was not an “evil ideology,” but the inhumanity of Western governments that drove the Muslim terrorist to their inhuman acts.
Multicultural Politics was written prior to the terrorist attacks on London, and the author didn’t get to comment on this point. My take on it is as follows: The aggression against Iraqi Muslims had deeply offended these youths’ Islamic “mode of being,” as it had that of most other Muslims in Britain and elsewhere. Identification with Islam imbues Muslims with consciousness of their ties to the umma, the global Muslim community.
Umma solidarity, which can be described as the translocal dimension of Muslims’ mode of being, rallied Muslims from around the world to the cause of the Afghan Mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. It is now bringing them to the aid of the insurgents who are fighting the Anglo-American coalition forces in Iraq.
Many Britons, who lack an understanding of Muslims’ conception of their identity, have a hard time coming to grips with the umma connection that drove the terrorists into the mayhem in London. Surveys by the British Home Office and other agencies have shown that an overwhelming majority of British Muslims are loyal, law-abiding citizens. Citizenship, however, is the local dimension of Muslims’ identity; it coexists with their umma solidarity, its translocal dimension. Native Britons, too, have multidimensional identities, which don’t negate one another. A Briton’s allegiance to the Crown today is the local relationship, while his membership in the European Union, his Anglo-Saxon racial bond and his attachment to Western civilization are the translocal ties. Few Britons consider their allegiance to Britain or adherence to “British values” (whatever that means) exclusive since the inception of EU, which has been increasingly splitting their allegiance among local, national and transnational institutions and agencies. Some Britons may frown at my mention of their Anglo-Saxon racial bond. I do not mean to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons are an “evil race” but wonder what could possibly explain Britons and Australians joining up with Americans in the illegal and unwarranted Iraq War that cost so many innocent lives and brought so much misery to so many! All the same, Blair ought to understand that British Muslims can simultaneously live the “British way of life” and that of the Muslim umma.
The crimes committed by Muslim terrorists in London, New York and elsewhere flout all cannons of Islamic and national laws and ethnics, and they must be denounced in the strongest terms. But that ought not blind us to the causes of those crimes. The terrorists were reacting senselessly to a senseless aggression that offended a dimension of their Muslim self. Most other acts of Muslim terrorism have had similar causes. To prevent such tragedies in the future, it is necessary to diagnose their sources. The multiracial and multicultural British society cannot afford to ignore Muslims’ conception of themselves and their sense of meaning. I hope Frances Sellers’s British readers will realize that their model of multiculturalism needs to evolve further to accommodate a debate about the concerns of an important group of their fellow citizens, the Muslims.
“The emergence of Muslim political agency,” says Modood, “has thrown British multiculturalism into theoretical and practical disarray.” Neither Britain nor Europe can afford to ignore the problem, because “there are more Muslims in the European Union than the combined populations of Finland, Ireland and Denmark.” Recalling W.E.B. Du Bois’s prediction that the twentieth century would be “dominated by struggles about [skin] color,” the author says the challenge facing the twenty-first century is “the political integrations or incorporation of Muslims” through “egalitarian multiculturalism” (pp. 208-209).