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Rethinking multiculturalism

Press release issued: 30 September 2005

Multiculturalism is still an attractive and worthwhile political project, and we need more of it rather than less, says Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy.

Multiculturalism is still an attractive and worthwhile political project, and we need more of it rather than less, says Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at Bristol University and author of Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (2005).

However, in an essay published this week in Open Democracy, Professor Modood argues that it needs to be extended to a 'politics of equal respect' that includes Britain's Muslims in a new, shared sense of national belonging.

The London bombings of 7 July led many analysts, observers, intellectuals and opinion-formers to conclude that multiculturalism has failed; even worse, that it can be blamed for the bombings. However, Professor Modood believes that we need to go further with multiculturalism, but it must be a multiculturalism that is allied to a renewed and reinvigorated Britishness.

In recent years, the belief has grown that the cultural separatism and self-segregation of Muslim migrants represented a challenge to Britishness, and that a 'politically-correct' multiculturalism has fostered fragmentation rather than integration.

Professor Modood argues that multiculturalism and integration are complementary ideas and that integration should take a multicultural rather than an assimilative form. At the same time, he says, we in Britain need to work harder to develop a national identity, and forms of belonging to each other, that can win the imaginations and hearts of minorities and majorities alike.

"We cannot have strong multicultural or minority identities and weak common or national identities," Professor Modood writes. "Strong multicultural identities are a good thing - they are not intrinsically divisive, reactionary or 'fifth columns' - but they need a framework of vibrant, dynamic, national narratives and the ceremonies and rituals which give expression to our common citizenship.

"We cannot both ask new Britons to integrate and go around saying that being British is, thank goodness, a hollowed-out, meaningless project whose time has come to an end. This will inevitably produce confusion and will detract from the sociological and psychological processes of integration, as well as offering no defence against the calls of other loyalties and missions."

One of the lessons of the current crisis is that multiculturalists, and the left in general, have been too hesitant about embracing our national identity and allying it with progressive politics, Professor Modood continues. The reaffirming of a plural, changing, inclusive British identity, which can be as emotionally and politically meaningful to British Muslims as the appeal of jihadi sentiments, is critical to isolating and defeating extremism. But - like multiculturalism as a whole - this is not a minority problem. If too many white people do not feel the power of Britishness, it will only be a legal concept and other identities will prevail.

"What is urgently needed is not a panicky retreat from multiculturalism, but to extend its application by recognising Muslims as a legitimate social partner and include them in the institutional compromises of church and state, religion and politics, that characterise the evolving, moderate secularism of mainstream western Europe, and resist the calls for a more radical, French-style secularism," Professor Modood concludes.

"Thus, the lesson from the current, post-7 July crisis of how to respond to the appeals and threats from salafi jihadism is that we need to go further with multiculturalism: but it has to be a multiculturalism that is allied to, indeed is the other side of the coin of, a renewed and reinvigorated Britishness."

Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7 by Tariq Modood is published online at

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