Adrian Hamilton: Don't write off multiculturalism yet

The central message is that Muslims in Britain present a special problem
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The Independent Online

If, as many of the most concerned observers believe, the so-called war on terror is going to be won or lost within the Muslim communities of the West, rather than abroad, it has to be said that we're making a pretty bad job of it.

The threat of terror plots such as the kidnap plan allegedly being hatched in the West Midlands is the most pressing danger. But much more worrying is the extent to which the Muslim youth right across Europe is becoming both radicalised and separated from the rest of the community.

Report after report (the well-researched Policy Exchange document and the rather more facile interim report from the Conservative Group on National and International Security, published this week, are only the latest) suggests the younger generation of Muslims here, as on the Continent, are turning in on themselves, finding an identity in religion that is not just distinct from the rest of society but is, in many cases, actively antagonistic to it.

Is this the problem of "multiculturalism", as Trevor Phillips, of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and a growing host of politicians from Jack Straw to, this week, David Cameron would claim? Their argument is that, by treating minorities as permissively as we are and encouraging their cultural individuality, we are encouraging a separation with divisive results.

Well, fashions change, and multiculturalism does seem to have become everybody's whipping boy at the moment. But the danger of using the term as derogatively as the political establishment is doing, is that it is producing precisely the opposite results to what is intended.

Just as Tony Blair and George Bush's vision of the war on terror as a struggle between good and evil has had the effect of driving Muslims together in feeling under attack from the West, so the assault on multiculturalism here is having the effect of increasing the sense of isolation and defensiveness in the Muslim population.

Of course, speeches like David Cameron's are laced with protestations that he is by no means equating all Muslims with extremism when he compares fundamentalists to the BNP, that he believes that most Muslims want to be part of Britain, and that rejecting multiculturalism does not mean intolerance of difference.

But these are just words. The central message - and it is a message given added edge by the language of judgement and dismissal with which it is used - is that Muslims in Britain present a special problem, that the problem arises from their religion, and that they must integrate with the rest of society if they are to expect any tolerance here.

Take the report of the Conservative group on security, which lay behind Cameron's speech. In it the Muslim community is categorised (and implicitly blamed) for poor educational standards, suppressing women, promoting arranged marriages and failure to adopt the culture of the majority, while advocacy groups such as the Muslim Council are berated for failure of leadership and acting primarily as lobbyists.

The solution, it says, is to stop foreign imams from entering the country, censor "subversive" material, put pressure on foreign governments held to promote fundamentalism, and clamp down on organisations held to be promoting separatism.

But hold on a minute. What are we talking about here? Lack of education and feelings of alienation are not unique to Muslims. We've been here before, and well before Muslims were seen as the problem. The reports on the riots in Brixton and St Paul's in Bristol were about exactly these conditions and they concerned youngsters of West Indian parentage.

Muslims are by no means unique in the custom of arranged marriages. They are just as prevalent among the Hindus of the subcontinent and in other parts of Asia (and Africa). It's not only among Muslims that women are held back. It's common in many groups from the the Third World. There's nothing peculiar about bringing in immigrant preachers to local churches. Go to half the Catholic churches in Britain to see that.

Nor is it surprising that advocacy groups, such as the Muslim Council, press for special treatment. Indeed, it is hard to think of any group of the disadvantaged which don't, including the disabled. That is the nature of their job. There is a terrible danger in singling out one group in this way. The Muslim communities, or rather the young in certain ones, do present particular problems of deprivation. They also pose a special challenge of globalisation in that they feel part of a global community under threat, a threat made more urgent by Iraq and more visible by the internet and satellite TV.

But it is pointless discussing these problems without some understanding of why purist Islam is so appealing to the young. (Personally, I think it is a great deal about the sense of self worth.) And it is pointless to propose solutions without accepting that many of the problems are as much ours as theirs - the problems of identity, alienation, poor performance among the disadvantaged, prejudice and, yes, foreign policy.

Multiculturalism may have overreached itself, in the sense of putting too much emphasis on diversity at the cost of cohesion. But in the sense that it implies accepting diversity and attempting to understand people in their own, rather than our, terms, it is far from finished. Indeed, it's needed more than ever before.