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An ICM poll on Muslim social attitudes has yet again reignited the debate about multiculturalism in the UK, finding that on issues such as homosexuality and gender Muslims hold views significantly outside the mainstream of British society. Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, described the findings as “extremely worrying” and said there is a real danger of Muslims becoming a “nation within a nation”.
The methodology behind the poll has been widely questioned, but this will go unnoticed by most. Instead, debate continues to rage as to what the correct response to these kind of findings should be. Philips himself is a critic of what he calls “milk and water multiculturalism”, and instead advocates a “more muscular” approach to integration which isn’t afraid to challenge controversial attitudes, saying “We have to make things change now”.
This aggressive approach to integration will undoubtedly find many supporters, but it runs the fairly obvious risk of unwittingly entrenching division and hardening attitudes. If Muslims feel they are likely to be shunned or marginalised unless or until they conform to mainstream British social attitudes, then a significant minority will opt for further separation, with conservative community leaders able to play up fears of persecution and marginalisation as a way to cement traditional beliefs.
This problem manifests itself clearly in the ‘progressive test’ – where organisations are judged as worthy or unworthy of engagement based on whether they conform to a set of liberal positions on hot-button issues. When a Mosque or a Muslim organisation is shunned by a local authority or other civil society groups because of its members’ beliefs on homosexuality and gender, the result isn’t reform of those attitudes, but simply entrenched difference.
How might we craft an alternative which stands a realistic chance of generating integration without ignoring the very real and sometimes worrying points of deep difference? My research for Theos Think Tank – Making Multiculturalism Work – suggests that where this has happened in practice it has involved the use of a ‘relational test’ instead of the ‘progressive test.’ In this model, potential engagement is assessed not on the basis of an individual or group’s beliefs, but on their willingness to engage practically with others who are different to them. This doesn’t mean a free-for-all in which anybody is welcomed regardless of what they believe – in practice, many organisations with extreme or unorthodox views will be unwilling to work with others who hold different ideological positions. This kind of practical intolerance should be fiercely challenged as unacceptable in an open, modern society such as Britain’s, and should disqualify groups from receiving public funding or other support.
However, where organisations are willing to relate to and work alongside others of difference, we need to be prepared to engage with them on practical areas of common concern. The ICM poll shows real hope for this, with 91 per cent of Muslims expressing a strong sense of local belonging (the national average was 76 per cent). This suggests major potential for Mosques and other Muslim organisations to be brought into dialogue and partnership on the practical issues that affect local communities – the need for affordable housing, for good jobs, for safe streets and opportunities for young people.
Where organisations are doing this, such as the civil society alliance of Citizens UK, the results in terms of integration are remarkable. What happens is that relationships are established between individuals and organisations which begin on the point of common ground (the local concern), but can then be used as a platform to discuss more contentious issues and to expose people to different beliefs and lifestyles in a way that can be truly transformational.
This is surely the way forward if we want to see attitudes results change over time. After all, when was the last time that you changed your mind on something important because an individual or an organisation simply told you that your view was unacceptable? Mainstream British attitudes to homosexuality and gender equality have changed because people have been exposed to realities beyond their prior understanding, by relationships and stories that have been slowly absorbed into a more nuanced and accepting worldview. If we’d like our Muslim neighbours to go through a similar process, we need to offer them the same chance.
Image by wahyucurug from pixabay.com available in the public domain.