This post was originally published on the New Internationalist website on 14 May 2013…
In February 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference outlining what he saw as the failures of ‘state multiculturalism.’ For him, it seemed to be about young Muslims getting involved in terrorism. ‘We’ve allowed the weakening of our cultural identity,’ he lamented.
Inspired by this speech and the gravitation of British politics towards an anti-immigration blame culture, ‘multicultural newspaper’ The Prisma, set up the debate: ‘Does multiculturalism have a future in Britain?’
Held at the House of Commons on 9 May 2013, the panel for the event was introduced by Colombian journalist and founder of The Prisma, Mónica del Pilar Uribe, and included social scientist Nigel Pocock, writer and lecturer Mike Jempson, activist and artist Zita Holbourne, international speaker on Islam Abdullah al Andalusi, Peruvian philosopher Claudio Chipana Gutiérrez and Labour member of parliament Jeremy Corbyn.
Most of the panellists were keen to point out the often conveniently forgotten fact that multiculturalism has always existed in Britain. The problems begin when it is used as a political weapon. ‘You can’t collect pebbles from the beach and then complain there are too many stones in your room,’ said Mike Jempson.
When talking about multiculturalism it can be hard to separate race, culture, religion, and immigration. Zita Holbourne argued that the recent pandering of the mainstream parties to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) empowers people with racist views to express and act on them.
An audience member made the point that equating multiculturalism to immigration excludes non-white British people like herself, and those children could grow up British but not truly feel it because the establishment rejects them. What was telling in Cameron’s 2011 speech, which focused on young Muslims, was the repeated use of the terms ‘we’ and ‘they.’
Jempson said we all need to do more to challenge everyday racism and likened his experience of growing up in an Irish Catholic family in 1950s Surrey – with ‘no Irish’ signs and being stoned on the street – to the experiences of some young Muslims in Britain today.
But how can human rights be protected in such an environment? How to view these rights was something that provoked the most debate. Are they based on universal humanity or some other code specific to certain groups, such as religion? Jeremy Corbyn and others seemed to think they could be universal and secular but for Abdullah al Andalusi, true multiculturalism, freedom of expression and recognition of rights is impossible within a society with one law for all. He argued that a person’s conscience, including their belief in God, was the most important factor in determining their actions and that they should be able to act on this freely – as long as they don’t commit murder.
So what are the solutions to all these issues? This was an area I think could have been discussed at much greater length but some members of the panel did have their own projects which had begun to explore this. Jempson edits a magazine called the Bristol Globe which ‘celebrates Bristol’s diversity’ while Holbourne talked about her group Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts which is planning a voter registration drive among young people as well as a campaign condemning continued race discrimination in Britain.
Political trends come and go but racism and discrimination in day-to-day life continues – this is why lasting solutions need to come from the grassroots. Cultures mix, branch off and develop all the time and pretending they don’t is only going to lead to less cohesion within, and between, communities. But ultimately how someone identifies with one culture, or many, is not solely down to their immigration status, skin colour, religion or anything else – it is about where they feel they belong.