Moeen Ali wielding the bat for England in Bangladesh earlier this year. Photo: Getty Images
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Could cricketer Moeen Ali be the saviour of multiculturalism in Britain?

Moeen Ali has shown it is possible to be both a devoutly practising Muslim and a ‎loyal participating citizen of Britain. There is no contradiction at all between the two.

To the nation’s cricket fans it was a long-awaited moment of overwhelming relief. England’s victory over India last week was the first time they had won in 11 Test matches.

‎The significance of the result, though, may extend far beyond a mere cricket pitch. The man who bowled the team to victory on the last day of the match, Moeen Ali, is a devout Muslim who sports the type of magnificent and lustrous beard not seen flowing over an England shirt since the days of W G Grace. He could well be the saviour of multiculturalism in Britain.

‎There should not be a problem with multiculturalism, but it has been allowed to suffer a rather bad press in recent years. ‎It is now rarely mentioned in the right-wing media without the qualification that it has become a “failed” and “discredited” doctrine, one that was apparently imposed upon an unwilling British public with the effect of eroding indigenous values and customs in favour of foreign ones.

‎Its intentions, of course, ‎are nothing of the sort. It is simply a recognition that immigrants and their descendants can observe their own traditions – whether religious or cultural – while still being model citizens of the UK. And it holds that the institutions of British public life should protect and promote a plurality of cultures in an environment of liberal tolerance.

‎Somewhere along the line, however, the impression has arisen that this doctrine has overstepped its boundaries. That it is now undermining, and even threatening to destroy, whatever overarching sense of Britishness there remains to bind us. Nowhere is this more resonant than in the debate about the integration of Britain’s Muslim community. Regular headlines about radicalised youths, terrorist plots and “Trojan horse” schemes to Islamify state schools have given succour to those who believe a generation of politicians damaged the very fabric of this country through their desire not to offend or insult even those minority elements who detest Britain.

So step forward Moeen Ali. Wearing a beard that he describes as a “label” of his faith, England’s latest cricketing hero could barely look any more Muslim. He even managed to take to the field against India last week wearing “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands.

More importantly, he has scored important runs and taken crucial wickets while displaying a huge and evident pride in wearing the Three Lions of England. He has shown it is possible to be both a devoutly practising Muslim and a ‎loyal participating citizen of Britain. There is no contradiction at all between the two.

And that is the whole point of multiculturalism. Moeen Ali is not only its living embodiment but also – through his conspicuously Islamic appearance and thoughtful demeanour – its ultimate PR man.

His message is not only one for opponents of multiculturalism in “mainstream” British society but also sceptics in his own community. Those who doubt the importance of the latter need only look at the rhetoric of the figures exposed by the apparent “problems” in Muslim Britain – the views of the radicals waging jihad or the extremists trying to take over state schools in Birmingham or women proudly declaring they are “liberated” by wearing the face veil.

Their overriding message is that Britain is debased and impure, and no fit home for a Muslim. They believe that Britain itself must be changed – along sharia lines – before they can live decent Islamic lives in this country.

Of course these people only represent a fringe ‎element in what is a very broad and diverse religious community. But their message is constantly aired and heard, and it is one that can influence impressionable young Muslims while antagonising those of other cultures.

Moeen Ali shows a different path. His rise to prominence could not be more timely, and his example is one that needs to be publicised and promoted as widely as possible.

There is often a significant obstacle in such cases in the personality of the sportsman or woman concerned, as many are reluctant to espouse any cause other than their own athletic prowess. A glance at Moeen Ali’s recent interviews, however, reveal that he is cut from a rather different cloth. In fact, he positively embraces this calling.

“Islam does not have the best reputation at times but if I can help change maybe 1 per cent of negative perception, that would make me very happy,” he declared earlier this year.

He added: “It gives me inspiration to feel that I am representing a large community and I do see myself as a role model. People ask me if I see it as a mission and I do.” While more sensitive souls may have felt offended, he did not raise any objection when his county, Worcestershire, branded him ‘the beard that’s feared’ as a marketing slogan.

Those who work in Westminster would do well to emulate his purpose and resolve. Dispiriting though it may have been, it was perhaps no surprise when David Cameron claimed in 2011 that the “doctrine of state multiculturalism” has “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”. Even more worrying has been the apparent willingness of Labour frontbenchers to disown aspects of their party’s proud record in promoting racial tolerance and harmony.

In reality, all serious politicians of whatever persuasion know that multiculturalism is the only game in town for a country of Britain’s history and ethnic composition. There is no credibility in alternative ideologies that would seek to suppress viable and inoffensive traditions that originate from other shores. No one wants to go back to the dark days of previous decades when far too many people were made to feel embarrassed and also terrified to belong to an ethnic minority group.

But even the most blinkered supporters of multiculturalism would admit that mistakes have been made in the past – that intolerant practices and ideas have been accepted in the name of tolerance. It may also have been forgotten that in certain cases – such as forced marriage or female genital mutilation – it is the duty of the state to protect the rights and conscience of the individual over the traditions of a foreign community.

The focus should be on how to make multiculturalism work better, not on how quickly to abandon it. It is a message that can be spread with a little help from a quiet but driven chap from Birmingham.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.