Multiculturalism has been described as a melting pot and as the best alternative to assimilationist policies, which have been perceived as fraught, due to the fear that people from cultural minority groups will lose distinctive features of their own cultural backgrounds if they adapt to the laws and lifestyles of host cultures. By contrast, multiculturalism seems to offer people from different backgrounds a fair and equitable means of celebrating their diversity in a harmonious way.
A multicultural society allegedly has the capacity to absorb all cultures and identities into a single whole, while keeping each group’s distinct identity intact. For those who subscribe to this model, the isolation of different groups on the basis of religion, ethnicity and culture is viewed as a matter of pride: it means that people are able to uphold their cultural and religious views, irrespective of any fundamental differences between them. Although many disagree with this approach, multiculturalism is a demographic reality for both host nations and immigrants.
However, a survey commissioned by UK anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate last year revealed that only 14% of British people believe that relations between different UK communities will improve in the future, while 43% predict that they will deteriorate. This raises the question of why there is such pessimism about multiculturalism in liberal British society, which tends to celebrate differences.
In 2011, former British Prime Minister David Cameron argued that multiculturalism had failed in Britain and that the hands-off approach to intolerance in the UK and other European nations had encouraged Muslims and other immigrant groups “to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.” Cameron was harshly criticized for using loaded language, which might feed anti-Muslim narratives. But the assertion that multiculturalism has failed to glue people into a cohesive unit needs to be carefully weighed.
Regarding one culture as superior to another is an impediment to social progress and cohesion. But defining all cultures as equally acceptable, despite clear contradictions between their fundamental values, only encourages skepticism among those on the liberal left and hostility to democratic values and human rights on the part of the religious right.
The Conflict Between Conservative Islam and LGBT Rights
Recently, in Britain, Muslim parents protested the fact that their primary school children were being taught about LGBT rights, arguing that the “sexual orientation aspect” of these teachings contradicts the Islamic faith. Some have threatened to pull their children out of school until the pilot curriculum No Outsider—which teaches respect and equality for LGBT people—is scrapped. Labour councilor Muhammad Idrees initially defended the Muslim parents, arguing that, since the school is “predominantly Muslim,” the school administration “needs to be careful.” He has since made a public apology—“I overstepped the mark”—but the question of how to deal with radical Muslim parents remains unaddressed.
This showcases an uncomfortable reality: it is disingenuous to assume that cultures that discriminate against people on the basis of gender, sexuality or faith and that infringe basic human rights such as freedom of speech are equal to those that ensure equality and protection for basic human rights for all human beings. Multiculturalism is a two-way street. Both host cultures and new immigrants have to reconcile their cultural values in order to achieve harmony in their day-to-day interactions.
According to the 2010 Equality Act UK, all British citizens are entitled to protection from discrimination. The No Outsider program aims to teach children about treating everyone equally and respectfully. The assumption that Muslims are being persecuted and marginalized because they are not allowed to discriminate against LGBT people is therefore off the mark. Granting any group the freedom to discriminate against vulnerable people is a human rights violation. Freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or any other immutable characteristic is a basic human right. It should be given preference over religious sensibilities—which are voluntary and ideological—in a civilized society.
Furthermore, deep-rooted prejudice against LGBT people within Muslim communities cannot be regarded as merely an outdated interpretation of Islam. Discrimination against homosexuals has never been abrogated or deemed inappropriate within traditional religious discourse. Such discrimination is very much validated by conservative community leaders and continues to be sanctioned by religious teachings right up to the present day. There is therefore no reason to assume that schoolchildren who are taught that LGBT people should be granted equality will continue to remember this principle for the rest of their lives. It is crucial to challenge regressive attitudes, when they prevent children from forming a sense of common identity, centered on democratic values, human rights, social cohesion and equality before the law.
Some have suggested that Muslim parents should accept No Outsider in British primary schools, in order to be able to live in modern day Britain. But this is a rather superficial way to deal with the deep-rooted homophobia within Muslim communities. According to one survey, half of all British Muslims believe that homosexuality should be illegal in Britain on religious grounds. Muslims who identify as homosexuals are very frequently ostracized and disowned by their families, as well as by their communities.
In 2016, the former head of Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Trevor Philips (who popularized the term Islamophobia) admitted that he “got almost everything wrong” about immigration. Phillips wrote in the Times:
Liberal opinion in Britain has, for more than two decades, maintained that most Muslims are just like everyone else … Britain desperately wants to think of its Muslims as versions of the Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain, or the cheeky chappie athlete Mo Farah. But, thanks to the most detailed and comprehensive survey of British Muslim opinion yet conducted, we now know that just isn’t how it is. He went on to argue that it is time for a more muscular approach to integration. Given that Philips commissioned the 1997 Runnymede Report into Islamophobia in Britain, his analysis of conservative Muslims’ worldviews and customs can hardly be discredited.
The absence of mutual cooperation disrupts the smooth functioning of multiculturalism. The results have been harmful to all parties involved, except for the most intolerant Muslims. Muslim organizations have been pushing for a religion-based agenda in the name of multiculturalism—this agenda is fostering intolerant attitudes towards the most vulnerable sections of British society. At some point, immigrants cease to be immigrants and instead become part of wider society. At that point, their engagement in harmful practices—such as female genital mutilation, the imposition of hijab on little girls at primary schools, the oppression of women by sharia councils, halal rituals and discrimination against apostates and homosexuals—become matters of concern for their compatriots as well. The push to make these pervasive, discriminatory practices acceptable to society only leads to intra-Muslim hostilities and resentment on the part of the wider secular liberal community. It is ironic that—despite their well-organized communities and significant public support and representation in the arts, politics, academia and economics—too many mainstream Muslims are unable to reconcile their culture and belief systems with liberal western values.
It is high time British Muslims, Jews, Christians and people of all faiths and no faith join hands to instigate a policy of tolerance and equality for all, in both faith and state schools across the UK. Clerics must be challenged and introduced to a wide range of concepts based on genuine diversity and tolerance—in which diversity is not merely defined as difference from the social values underpinning western liberalism. They must confront values outside of their religious discourse.
The right to practice a religion is a basic human right. Human rights are far more inclusive and comprehensive than religious rights, since they accommodate religious beliefs and freedom of conscience. Secular liberal western democracies may not be perfect but they are optimal, especially by comparison with the totalitarian regimes and crippled democracies of Muslim majority countries, where human rights are disregarded in the name of religious freedom. We must cherish our culture and celebrate its benefits unapologetically, while also acknowledging that modern secular states provide equal opportunities for people from a wide range of different backgrounds. This approach is far more appealing, I hope, than allowing regressive values to erode social cohesion.