Paul Vallely: What the French could learn from Moss Side

There has not been too much multiculturalism in Britain, but too little
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The Independent Online

Burning cars on the streets of Paris. Pitched battles between Asian and black people in Birmingham. Islamic terrorists planting bombs in the London rush hour. All at once, more than a decade's mixing of race and religion on the streets of Europe has exploded, and large questions are being asked about the relationship of ethnic minorities to our pluralist democracies.

There are particular qualities about the recent violence in France and England that ought radically to change the direction of the debate. Much of the reaction to the black-on-brown violence in Birmingham confirmed a trend that has been emerging since the July bombings in London. As might have been expected, the anti-immigrant right responded with familiar attacks on Britain's multiculturalism - the idea that the separate identity of ethnic minority communities should be nurtured and affirmed in the interests of social cohesion. What was different was that many on the left, suddenly scared by terrorism, joined in.

Britain is "sleepwalking into segregation" the black head of the Commission for Racial Equality said. White working-class racism was provoked, one formerly left-wing government minister said, by the failure of black and Asian communities to "integrate". Black History Month should be binned, said one normally progressive writer. Britain was becoming a set of separate, mutually incomprehensible and potentially inflammatory ghettos, lamented another.These "muscular liberals" say that we should not be affirming the separate identity of minorities but requiring that they adopt British values. They speak in a new language, but their message smacks of the familiar old superiority complex that we once called cultural imperialism.

The irony is that those attacking multiculturalism praised the very system that has proved so deficient in France. There the old Republican tradition of laïcité, which insists that French citizenship should ignore both cultural origin and religious orientation in favour of assimilation, does not seem to have done much to salve the economic and cultural alienation of the nation's Muslims.

Why have these two divergent approaches produced no discernible difference in terms of outcome? One answer is that there has not been too much multiculturalism in Britain, but too little. Much of what passes for a multicultural approach is in fact tokenism, such as local councils translating documents into endless minority languages.

What is needed is something much more deep-rooted, like the "racial identity nurturing" that is beginning to be practised in some places with substantial black populations, such as Moss Side in Manchester. This involves giving black kids better role models than just rap musicians, athletes and boxers. It places before them black physicists, doctors and businessmen. The black clinical psychologist, Jocelyn Maxime, has shown that if you nurture racial identity then black kids become more motivated to learn and achieve far more at school. And children who succeed, and form good relationships at school, develop skills that will serve them well in the wider community. Affirming identity helps build, rather than undermine, a sense of community.

Something similar is true of faith schools. Often derided as, self-evidently, inducing an unhealthy separateness, the evidence actually points in a different direction. Many bring together dozens of different nationalities, races and economic backgrounds - and bind them with a strong sense of shared values. One school in Moss Side has 37 different nationalities. Black children there do Irish dancing, and white kids play in the local Jamaican steel band.

What most frightens the muscular liberals is the idea of Muslim schools which, they fear, will become hotbeds of fundamentalism. But the evidence from other religious schools points in the opposite direction. Catholic, Anglican and Jewish faith schools are drawn into the values of society through national mechanisms to regulate their curriculum, and through school inspection.

Multiculturalism of this kind - along with encouraging the training of imams from this country, so that British mosques do not need to import religious leaders who don't know the difference between Pakistani values and Islamic ones - can only have a positive impact. Schools that offer a proper understanding of Islam, along with racial/religious identity nurturing, will produce pupils much more likely to withstand the overtures of extremists, either in person or on the internet. And their graduates will be far less likely to rediscover their faith from a negative perspective. Which is what the four young Leeds bombers did.