Roger Hewitt: Our multiculturalism has developed strong roots

This is not to deny that aspects of the culture of other groups may be a problem for 'us'
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The Independent Online

When will politicians such as David Davis and commentators on the right realise that the old carping about ethnic diversity and multiculturalism has long been overtaken by a changed reality? Calling multiculturalism a "failed experiment" in the wake of the London bombings, or wondering if cultural diversity should be continued is well beside the point.

Cultural difference, even of an extreme kind, is no novelty in English life. Indeed, we have been expert in creating and sustaining social class distinctions in speech, dress and eating habits for several hundred years, perfecting it to the extent that we implicitly believe that if we hear a person speak we can describe what they probably had for breakfast. We have thrived on social difference.

Difficult, then, for us to declare at this late stage that our culture needs to be one. How irrelevant is David Davis's latest demand that British Muslims give up their culture and "join the mainstream"? That mainstream is already far wider than he seems to imagine and, for better or worse, we are all part of its flow. The global economy has changed the terms of the argument away from whether or not migrant communities should be welcome, towards which migrant skills we most need.

Culture itself is not the issue. We can be as culturally different as chalk and cheese - and often are - but as long as we live under the same framework of rights and obligations to one another there is nothing stopping us living, as we have been, cheek by jowl or merely side by side.

This is not to deny that some aspects of the culture of other groups may be a problem for "us", whichever "us" we belong to. However, we know now, after 30 or more years of change, that there is no connection between cultural incongruities and criminal acts of violence. A difference of opinion over the legal status of a garment, the veil or a turban, can be real but is not the window on to a murderous act.

Yet there is said to be a "backlash" - to some extent nominated as such by a press eager for such handles. There has been a deep and unified reaction across all British communities and beyond. Just as there was internationally in the days following the events of 11 September 2001.

Predictably there have also been a number of incidents of violence and abuse indiscriminately towards Muslims. It is these that have been said to constitute the "backlash".

This is to blunt an already blunt word. A backlash is usually a forceful, targeted response to a pressure coming from some source. The attacks on mosques and individual Muslims were not that. They were misplaced deeds apparently expressing anger at the bombing or, in some cases themselves fanatically driven, using the bombings as a pretext.

In terms of scale they are more than dwarfed by the widespread lack of blame being attached to the Muslim communities for fundamentalist violence. Some of the measures needed for the eradication of violent fanaticism claiming Islamic authority will have to come from Muslim communities.

Thankfully, because the interests and safety of all are at stake and because those communities are also realistic about the nature of multicultural society, that commitment appears to be already affirmed.

The sense that all "backlashes" in some sense "have a point", however misguided, makes the use of the term particularly inappropriate in the light of this commitment.

What is perhaps more surprising than the actions of the few is the fundamental stability of community relations. It seems, in fact, that far from being about to crumble, our multicultural society has come to develop strong roots.

The need for over-arching "isms" in some kind of charter for living together appears to have withered away. We are left, despite the tragedies and confusion, with the more normal burden of getting by, being accommodating to one other and to new groups, to transformations and all the social and cultural fluidity that London especially, but not uniquely, has come to embody.

There is no room here for hard-edged prescriptions and talk of cultural tolerance "cutting both ways" across fixed entrenchments. That is not what multicultural society is about, even if some still have that lesson to learn.

The writer is Senior Research Associate, Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London. His 'White Backlash and the Politics of Multiculturalism', is published byCambridge University Press, 2005