Multiculturalism, Muslims and the British State
The large presence of Muslims in Britain today (between 1.5 and 2 million, more than half of South Asian, primarily Pakistani, origins) is a result of Commonwealth immigration from the 1950s onwards. This was initially male labour from rural small farm owning and artisan backgrounds, seeking to meet the demand for unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers in the British economy, with wives and children arriving from around the 1970s. The proportion of urban professionals among South Asian Muslim immigrants was small, though it increased with the arrival of political refugees from East Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s (although the majority of this group were Hindus and Sikhs). Britain, especially London as a cosmopolitan centre, has been very attractive to some of the rich and professional classes from the Middle East, especially from the 1970s onwards, with many investing in property in the city. There have, during recent times, also been waves of political refugees from other parts of the Muslim world, Somalia and Bosnia being two notable cases. The relation between Muslims and the wider British society and British state
has to be seen in terms of a development, and rising agendas, of racial equality and multiculturalism. Muslims, indeed, have become central to these agendas even while they have contested important aspects – especially the primacy of racial identities, narrow deﬁnitions of racism and equality and the secular bias of the discourse and policies of multiculturalism. While there are now emergent Muslim discourses of equality, of difference and of (to use the title of the newsletter of the Muslim Council of Britain) ‘the common good’, they have to be understood as appropriations and modulations of contemporary discourses and initiatives whose provenance lies in anti-racism and feminism. While one result of this has been at times to throw advocates of multiculturalism into theoretical and practical disarray, another has been to stimulate accusations of cultural separatism and revive a discourse of ‘integration’. While we should not ignore the critics of Muslim activism, we need to recognise that at least some of the latter is a politics of ‘catching-up’ with racial equality and feminism. In this
way religion in Britain is assuming a renewed political importance. After a long period of hegemony, political secularism can no longer be taken for granted. Rather, it is having to answer its critics as there is a growing understanding that the incorporation of Muslims has become the most important challenge of egalitarian multiculturalism.