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Multiculturalism v the “big society”

Or should that be: multiculturalism AND the “big society”?

Multiculturalism has had a bit of a kicking of late. Over the past decade and a half, it has been accused of pretty much everything, from refusing common values, to fostering segregation, to harbouring terrorists.

European heads of state have queued up to proclaim that, "under the doctrine of multiculturalism", different cultures have been encouraged to live separate lives (Prime Minister David Cameron), that it is "too concerned with the identity of person arriving and not enough about the identity of the country" (the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy) and, as a result, "society is too watered down" (the Dutch deputy prime minister, Maxime Verhagen).

In other words, multiculturalism has "utterly failed" (the German chancellor, Angela Merkel).

It is pretty clear at whom these proclamations are directed; such statements are invariably qualified by a need to tackle Islamic extremism and terrorism.

What multiculturalism actually is, however, is not always rendered particularly clear. Indeed, multiculturalism has become so synonymous with Muslims that it is hard to think of in any other way. What is multiculturalism? Is it a policy? Or is it the physical condition of people of many cultures living in the same place? Or is it a more personal, intimate condition? Or perhaps a combination of the three?

In his own denunciation of multiculturalism, Cameron gave a hint of his political understanding, stating that, in Britain:

. . . we have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.

"They", of course, are Muslims, whilst "we" are British. Such sleights of language may seem unimportant, or even a necessary means of distinction, but they have a profound organising and hierarchical effect on how we imagine society.

Academics have long argued that such "us" and "them" dichotomies serve only to reinforce the kind of segregation that Cameron opposes. It is the very opposite of integration (though assimilation is perhaps a more appropriate word). "They" must subscribe to "our" values. Who "they" are is clear, but who "we" are and what "our" values are is much less so.

The answer, says Cameron, is the "big society". To summarise, in his vision for the future of Britain, the big society will foster localism and devolution of power away from central government; volunteerism within local communities; and support for entrepreneurism, charities and co-operatives.

And at the heart of the £200m big society is a return to what Cameron calls "family values":

Family is where people learn to be good citizens, to take responsibility, to live in harmony with others. Families are the building blocks of a strong, cohesive society.

Strong family values, in other words, precede a strong society.

Ironically, perhaps, many of these values are already firmly at the heart of most of Britain's Muslim communities. British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis account for 59.3 per cent of Muslims living in Britain and events such as the Honeyford affair, the Rushdie affair, the Bradford fiots and the 7/7 London bombings have often put them at the centre of debates on multiculturalism. Indeed, it is precisely these events that have usually been cited as evidence of multiculturalism's failure.

Much less often cited are the Muslim communities' values that, in fact, embody much of Cameron's vision for the big society. British Pakistanis have an incredibly strong sense family value and unity; as Muslims, rather than getting into costly debt with banks, they support one another with interest-free loans; they run successful community centres; and, as part of their obligation as Muslims, they donate 2.5 per cent of all their earnings to charity (zakat).

Of course, I may be accused of overgeneralising here. There are, after all, always exceptions. Yet what is interesting is that it takes only a slight shift in emphasis to turn these generalisations into evidence of multiculturalism's failings: strong family units = forced marriages; strong sense of community = self-segregation; internal financial support = not contributing to society.

Unfortunately, it is these latter interpretations – which truly are gross overgeneralisations – that are most commonly emphasised. If a group of white, middle-class families sets up a community reading group in somewhere like Oxford, is this evidence of self-segregation? I imagine this would probably be seen as a triumph of the big society.

It is one thing to say that multiculturalism has failed, but it remains that we live in a country where a great variety of cultures, ethnicities and religions coexist. This is what makes Britain such a wonderfully diverse place and somehow we need a way of talking about that. The choice of language by politicians doesn't merely reflect a view of society, but actively shapes and informs it. At the moment, that language marginalises a great majority of people who contribute positively to Britain.

T S Eliot once wrote that:

Just as a doctrine only needs to be defined after the appearance of some heresy, so a word does not need to receive this attention until it has come to be misused.

Eliot was writing about culture, yet one can't help but notice strong resonances when the prefix "multi" is added on.

So, if multiculturalism is now a dirty word in political circles, how are we supposed to talk about the diversity of people living in Britain? The big society may be one way, but only if it takes into account the positive values and voices of the very people that are excluded through anti-multiculturalism discourses: Muslims.

One general characteristic of British Pakistanis worth finally mentioning is their common propensity to look after their elderly at home, as a family. This reduces the burden on the National Health Service and pre-empts many of the coalition's proposed health-care reforms.

Surely Cameron, of all people, would be pleased with that? And, if he is, he should say so.

Tom Hodgson is a DPhil candidate in music at St John's College, Oxford.

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