Ziauddin Sardar: In Defense of Multiculturalism

April 25th, 2012

Multiculturalism is an idea that appears under attack these days. Professor Ziauddin Sardar argues it has been “very good for Britain as a whole, but particularly for Muslims.”

A leading British intellectual, who specializes in Muslim thought, science policy, and cultural criticism,  Sardar sat down with Cities of Migration’s Kim Turner to talk multiculturalism, interculturalism and integration. Their conversation began after a lecture called, “Writing Connections: Bridging the Divide between Islam and the West,” at the University Club of Toronto in April 2012.

What will it take for that transformative moment to come when people stop thinking about Muslims within our communities as “the other, ” but as “we?”

I think part of the problem lies in the fact that we see integration as a one-way process. There has been a mantra in Britain, for example, that Muslims must integrate. The fact is Muslims have integrated because nobody actually wants to live in a ghetto. Some Muslims, especially new arrivals do go to places that we may think of as ghettos. And they go there for a very specific purpose – because they find security, they find help, they find support, including financial support. But their first thought, once they have settled in this community, is to get out of it. Everybody wants to leave the ghetto.

What we need to do is to actually provide them with enough support and incentives to leave the ghetto. And that is what we have failed to do. In Britain, we have seen immigration as a one-way process; it is the Muslims who must integrate. But integration by definition is a two-way process. It involves at least two communities – two communities come together to integrate. And what the host community needs to do is to realize that they too need to integrate so the movement is towards each other. Once the host communities start moving towards Muslims, they will discover the Muslims will move towards them even faster and there will be even quicker integration. The tipping point will be reached when the host community actually says, “Right, integration involves us too. We have to go out and integrate as well.”

What can the Muslim experience of identity and belonging in a multicultural society teach us about creating more inclusive communities?

Multiculturalism has been very good for Britain as a whole, but particularly for Muslims. For example, I am a product of multiculturalism. There was a specific multiculturalism policy that established Channel 4 in Britain with a mandate to promote and support ethnic minorities in television and media. I got my first break in television because of Channel 4. Now when you switch on the television, there are many Muslim faces – reporters, presenters, and of course, behind the camera, so many Muslims who are producers, associate producers, directors, cameramen and so on. Muslims can be found in all walks of society. We have several Muslims as Members of Parliament, in the House of Lords, in judiciary, in media, as bankers. One of the key indicators of successful multiculturalism is that we now have Muslims appearing on television not as Muslims but as experts in their own field. That is a true indicator.

The first lesson is that multiculturalism in Britain has succeeded and not failed. The perception of failure comes from the point of view of terrorism. People think that because some British Muslims become terrorists, the whole multicultural project is doomed and has been a failure. I just do not think so. If that was the case, then what about France, where there is no multiculturalism, but they still produce people who are born in France who go on to become terrorists? Or in Holland, or in the United States? You cannot link terrorism to multiculturalism. Multiculturalism has been a very successful project. Multiculturalism has increased the sense of belonging amongst Muslims. Every research and every opinion poll has shown that Muslims regard themselves as more British than the actual white community. Something like 70 to 80% of Muslims actually said that we are totally loyal to Britain and identify with Britain more than the host community does.

Lesson one: multiculturalism has definitely been very successful. The examples given of its failure or not examples off multiculturalism, but, in fact, we need to look elsewhere, maybe foreign policy. And lesson two: I would argue that multiculturalism has increased the sense of belonging amongst Muslims. It is clearly indicated in almost all the opinion polls and research that have come out over the past five to ten years.

In Germany they have done similar polls and they have discovered in migrant communities that there is an overwhelming strong attachment to and trust in German institutions – even higher than in the German population – but they don’t experience the same sense of belonging. What it is about the UK. How do explain the sense of belonging, expressed by British Muslims?

I think first of all in Britain, we have a longer history of attachment. And I think the sense of equality in Britain is much, much greater. If you want to become a British citizen, the hurdles are not that many. But if you want to become a German citizen, well, that is not easy to do.

You have said that multiculturalism is concerned with transforming power to non-western cultures and allowing those cultures to speak for themselves. Please elaborate.

It is important to realize that multiculturalism is not about dominance of one culture over another. It is not about the dominance of a single culture over a multiple of cultures. It is about equality of cultures. And that means two things. One is that you have to allow equal opportunity and access to power to other cultures. Second, you have to allow other cultures to speak for themselves. You cannot assume that you will speak for other cultures; the other cultures must be allowed to speak for themselves. They must have their own voice. I think the success of multiculturalism in Britain is because these two factors have been there.

We are hearing a lot about interculturalism as a different paradigm in opposition to multiculturalism. Do you have any thoughts on this?

“Interculturalism” and other ideas, frankly, are essentially rewriting the same thing in different terms. I think multiculturalism is a great idea and it is an idea that is going to be here for a very long time. It is an idea you cannot oppose very easily. First of all, you can see it in action. There is hardly a city in the world that is not multicultural. You can walk around in Toronto and you can see any ethnicity. There is a realistic multiculturalism out there that is very grounded within our cities. To come to terms with that, we need concepts which are also grounded like in the theory of multiculturalism. At the end of the day, those people who oppose multiculturalism, what is really being said is that we still fear the other. In essence, the fear of the other has not gone. And in some circles, the success of multiculturalism translates into even greater fear of the other.

In the current climate of political tension and global recession, how can we continue to ensure equal rights and sustain social cohesion, the kind of gains I believe have been made in the last little while?

We know from research that particularly in times of global recession, racism and fear of the other increases. People who get unemployed because of the financial situation often blame immigrants and refugees. So we need to be even more vigilant during these times of political tension and economic recession that we pay attention to the rights of minorities.

But multiculturalism is not simply about minorities; multiculturalism is also about the host community and their rights. It’s about equality. Multiculturalism does not say you should treat minorities as more equal than others. That is the part of the equation that is often missing. This is one of the reasons I object to a strong connection between multiculturalism and ethnicity – ethnicity becomes a fetish. And ethnicity emphasizes difference. There are times when you may need to emphasize common interests and you may have people who are unemployed in the white community, people who are unemployed in the Muslim community or in the black community or in the Turkish community. The problem here is unemployment, not the individual communities. You need to treat unemployment across the board. If you pay attention to rights across the board, we can do something about the xenophobia that often emerges during times of economic recession.

In the US and Canada, there is an emerging interest in the idea of “welcoming communities.” Many cities and community organizations are starting to work with receiving communities to help create the conditions for success in both newcomer and host communities. How do you think those receiving communities need to change?

One of the most important ways that receiving communities need to do is not to see new immigrants in ethnic terms. They need to see them in human terms. A human community has the full spectrum from extreme left to extreme right and all the moderates and liberals in between. A human community will have criminals as well as righteous people. If you see them in human terms, you will not demonize the entire community because of one thief because all human communities have thieves. We need to see it in human terms, and not simply say this is a cultural stereotype or a cultural trait that this or that community has. The basic thing is to not fall in a trap of seeing new people in ethnic boxes, but as human beings who have the same desires and expectations and aspirations as you. They want to have a better life just as you. They want their children to be educated just as you. They are desperate for jobs just as you. They want to have good community relations just as you. They wanted to be respected and recognized for their talents and abilities just as you.

You have travelled and written widely. Is there a city that comes to mind for you that is a model of positive interactions with their neighbours, with local government?

It is difficult to say. Most cities have good points and bad points. I know, for example, in London, there are certain neighbourhoods which fulfill the model that you describe. If you look at Tower Hamlets, the Bangladeshi community is one of the most thriving communities in Britain. The Bangladeshi community over the past twenty years has transformed East London. Think of Brick Lane and its Balti restaurants are on the itineraries of all the visiting people to London. The area has become very affluent. However, the same Bangladeshi community three-four miles down the road in Kings Cross is a totally different phenomenon. It is very isolated and it is not very inclusive.

The reason is very simple. Regeneration funding was put into Tower Hamlets, while Kings Cross, which had the same problem, did not get that funding. Another interesting point is that the Bangladeshi women have created a very important role in promoting inclusiveness in Tower Hamlets. When Mrs. Thatcher introduced the idea that you can buy your council houses, the women persuaded their husbands and brothers to actually buy the council house. They themselves were highly educated so they worked in the City, which is nearby, did up the council flats, gentrified them, rented them out at very high rents, and then moved to the outer parts [of the city] and generated income. They were financially savvy. A lot of wealth was created by the Bangladeshi women themselves in Tower Hamlets. So a certain kind of state intervention is necessary to act as a catalyst. But the same community in Kings Cross and is not as thriving and not as inclusive. It hasn’t had that catalyst and is state intervention or state funding does serve as a catalyst and in some cases it is essential.

Finally, what is your favourite city and why?

I have lived in Kuala Lumpur which is a great multicultural city and is incredibly diverse. I’ve lived in places like Cairo, and I have also lived in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah, which is a very monolithic city. But I really feel at home in London. London is absolutely thriving. Perhaps it is the most successful multicultural city in the world. There was a time, for example, when in London you would assume that all people of Pakistani and Indian backgrounds would vote Labour and they had conventionally did. But the success of multiculturalism has generated lots of interest in Pakistanis who vote Conservative and some who vote Liberals. You cannot, for example, take an average Indian or Pakistani for granted. They have become multicultural in their own perception – why should we all vote Labour, they ask. So you find that across the board. The stereotypes are being broken. We often assume that Muslim women tend to be more repressed, but London is one place where you find very dynamic Muslim women who are changing society. If I look at the generation of my daughter and her friends, they are highly educated, highly motivated, all in professions, and frighteningly clever. They will change the landscape of London in the next ten, fifteen, twenty years. I have to say this is a very biased and prejudiced opinion but I really find London to be perhaps the ideal multicultural city.

Professor Ziauddin Sardar,a leading British intellectual, who specializes in Muslim thought, science policy, cultural criticism and the future of Islam, is Professor of Law and Society at Middlesex University. He is Co-editor of the quarterly Critical Muslim and Consulting Editor the journal Futures, and has made numerous programs for British television, including the BBC and Channel 4. He was a commissioner of the U.K.’s Equality & Human Rights Commission and a member of the National Security Forum. A former columnist for the New Statesman, Professor Sardar has published over 45 books, including the international bestseller Why Do People Hate America. His latest books are Balti Britain: A Provocative Journey through Asian Britain and Reading the Qur’an.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

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