Modern Britain: Cultural Cohesion or Living Apart Together? Interview with Munira Mirza


Munira Mirza Photo: BBC)

Dr. Munira Mirza, PhD. has written and broadcasted about race, culture and identity for over fifteen years.  In 2005 she presented the BBC radio 4 series, The Business of Race, and she edited a collection of essays for Policy Exchange entitled Culture Vultures: Is UK arts policy damaging the arts?  She was a founding member of the Manifesto Club. Between 2008-2016 she was Deputy Mayor for Culture and Education in London.

TM: Hi Munira, it is so great to have this opportunity to talk with you.  It has been ten years since the publication of ‘Living Apart Together, the report you co-authored about the impact of multiculturalism on British Muslims. I’ve read this report and it is packed with quantitative and qualitative research, as well as thorough analysis of the attitudes of Muslims in Britain and the reasons why there had been a significant rise in Islamic fundamentalism amongst the younger generation. What explained this increased religiosity? Was it mostly just a post 9/11 phenomenon?

MM: We argued in the report that the phenomenon of increasing religiosity is not caused by a single historical event like 9/11 but a complex mix of factors which have been developing for a long time: the slow decline of traditional cultural and political identities in the west, the inter-generational differences and conflicts within Muslim migrant populations, the negative experiences of racism amongst migrant communities in Britain, the geo-political influence of more extreme versions of Islam and ultimately, a narrative about the victimisation of Muslims in the west within an anti-western ideology. In this sense, radical political Islam or Islamism resembles the anti-western ideas of previous terrorist groups in the west itself, like Baader Meinhof and the Red Brigades. Today we have a more potent version of Islam with a political, activist dimension, as well as a greater interest in the spiritual rather than more communal (and traditional) dimensions of religion. You also have the additional problem of converts who become radicalised – which indicates that the problem has wider social roots than the Muslim immigrant experience alone.

It’s important to point out that the increase in religiosity for many young Muslims is not necessarily political or indeed violent – many individuals are searching for new forms of meaning in spirituality. Whilst Islamism is one expression of this, it is not the only one.

TM: Ten years on from the publication of that report, many of those young people have become adults now.  Should this be a cause for concern?

MM: At the time of writing the report, we pointed out a truism – young people’s views do change as they grow up and experience life. The more extreme views tend to soften over time. However, a minority of people do not change and go on to become radicalised. The Muslim community is very diverse and there is a wide spectrum of opinion, but you only need a small number of extremists to cause serious problems. 

TM: The report also showed a clear conflict within British Islam between a moderate majority that accepts the norms of Western democracy and a growing minority that does not. Would you say that one side is winning this battle to define British Islam and, if so, which one?

MM: In one sense, the moderate majority is winning by virtue of being the majority. Most Muslims are appalled by what is being committed in their name. They identify as much with non-religious groups as with their co-religionists and are happy to live in a western democracy. However, it is also clear that the minority of extremists continue to recruit – and the majority, mainstream leaders cannot stop them. It is unfair to blame the Muslim majority for preventing people from becoming terrorists – but it begs the question why this religious group finds it especially difficult to integrate its younger generation. 

Apart from terrorism, the broader problem of integration is proving still to be difficult in some areas. More Muslim writers (and ex Muslim writers) are speaking out about the lack of tolerance in their own communities. Unfortunately, mainstream British institutions, such as universities, also undermine them by making it difficult to speak out. We have seen how speakers like Maryam Namazie have been effectively banned from UK campuses.

TM: So often I hear it said that terrorism is just a straightforward response to grievances over Western foreign policy.  In your view, is this a reasonable explanation of jihadists’ motivations?

MM: No. Islamism as a political philosophy predates many of the foreign conflicts being cited now – and furthermore, the patterns of terrorism do not correlate with the foreign policy actions of government (France was opposed to the war in Iraq but still suffered attacks by Jihadists).

Foreign policy is not irrelevant, but it has become an excuse for broader dissatisfaction and malaise. In our research ten years ago we found many young Muslims would cite foreign policy as concerns but were largely ignorant of the basic facts and were persuaded by a vague narrative of victim-hood more than anything specific.

TM:  What role have local authorities played in endowing religious institutions with extra prestige? Has this led to fairer inclusion or representation of the Muslim community?

MM: We have to be careful not to ascribe deliberate motive to local authorities – in many cases, local officials supported minority group identities because they wanted to be welcoming, supportive and inclusive. In a few cases did some politicians actively cultivate religious leaders quite cynically for electoral gain, but it is hard to know exactly how and to what extent. The upshot is that by accident or design, Muslim groups have remained quite segregated in a number of towns and their leadership is focused on protecting their different identity over any impulse to integrate or assimilate.

TM:  It seems that many Britons look at the headlines of mainstream newspapers or broadcasters and conclude that British far-right nationalists are the main threat to ‘Muslims’ in the UK?  How realistic is that picture in light of sectarian violence within Islam?

MM: I am not convinced that far right extremists pose a serious threat to Muslims as a group. There is racism in Britain (and there are certainly violent racists) but this is not the same as an organised political force. On the whole, I truly believe that Britain is a tolerant place. In the towns where racism is strongest (and undoubtedly, it can be very ugly), part of the problem is the failure of integration. As offensive as it may sound to some, Muslims are as responsible as whites for this problem and lack of cultural mixing. Racism between minority groups can also be rife. Inter Muslim violence, as you say, is often forgotten. Think about the attacks on Ahmadiyya Muslims, or attacks on Muslims who say “non-Islamic” things, such as the shopkeeper in Glasgow killed in 2016 for wishing his non Muslim friends a happy Easter.

TM: The 2007 Policy Exchange Report discussed the role of organisations like the Muslim Political Affairs Committee (MPAC) in promoting the idea that younger Muslims have an Islamic duty to use their votes to harness the political system to Islamist ends.  MPAC seem to have played a significant role in lobbying for the equal protection of racial communities and religious ones. Their campaigning efforts succeeded in securing legislation that treats “incitement to religious hatred” as equivalent to racial hatred. Race hate seems to be lumped together with ‘faith hate crime’.  Is this progress?

MM: I am strongly opposed to all legislation for “hate speech”. Free speech is a binary thing – you either have the freedom to say offensive things or you don’t. One should be free to express hateful views (and be challenged for them). The new legislation around religious hatred ended up doing exactly what was predicted – it has led to the criminalisation all offensive speech on the grounds that it hurts certain minority groups. The result has been the most outrageous attacks on our freedom with individuals being brought to court and investigated by the police for expressing an opinion. In the space of ten years the mainstream discussion about this issue seems to have shifted and become totally illiberal.

Trevor Phillips OBE

TM:  Back in 2005, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, warned that Britain was in danger of “sleepwalking into segregation”. There was a very strong backlash against him at the time for saying that. To what extent has his prophecy come to pass?

MM: At the time he was criticised for expressing this concern, but since then there has been a large amount of research on the varying patterns of integration and segregation (see Demos’s work) which has largely vindicated him. The statistics suggest we are both a highly integrated society whilst also highly segregated at other levels (for instance in schools). Culturally, I think most immigrant groups do feel a sense of belonging in Britain, but on a day-to-day basis many groups simply don’t interact.

TM:  Looking at outward symbols of Muslim identity, such as the hijab, commentators say that it has become more a way of teenagers asserting their non-conformity or wanting to shock than representing any explicitly religious meaning.  I wonder whether it can really be divorced from its theological significance, or from Islamic ideas about female ‘modesty’…

MM: I’m sure many Muslim women do have different reasons for wearing the hijab and some won’t recognise at all the idea that they are oppressed by wearing it. For some women it is not a choice, whereas for others it is. For some women it is deeply political, for others, deeply personal (and maybe even for some teenage girls, a defensive act of averting male attention).  But regardless of their individual motives, I don’t think it’s something we as a society should be afraid to criticise or debate – there is nothing sacred about it. If girls want to cover themselves then fine, but they must be prepared to accept that some people will feel differently about them and they have to live with that. Naturally we judge people for the choices they make. I find it bizarre that any woman who lives in the west would choose to hide herself like that without coercion and even more bizarre to claim it’s an act of feminism. 

The Islamic Sharia Council premises in Leyton, east London

TM:  The British government has tended to engage with Muslims primarily as a religious group, for example by accepting sharia courts in areas with a high Muslim population or by integrating sharia into UK law. Is this helpful to Muslims?

MM: No. Sharia courts are far from egalitarian or fair. I suppose people can choose to subject themselves to religious rules, but a court implies a degree of enforcement which is illiberal and contradicts individual freedom. 

TM:  According to your research, do most Muslims in Britain feel like victims, or is the idea of Muslim victim-hood a tactical tool used by Islamists to garner Western support?

MM: I think it is very hard to answer. I don’t know if we have (or can ever have enough) survey data to really know. I suspect the narrative of victim-hood resonates with a lot of Muslims but at the same time I suspect a lot of Muslims have now become totally fed up with lone radicals making dramatic complaints on their behalf. Surely they want to live their lives without this issue always overshadowing them?

TM: Muslim lobby groups have closely monitored Islamophobia. Various accusations of Islamophobia from different quarters have been levelled at journalists like Polly Toynbee and other public figures. What does this tell us about the level of hostility faced by Muslims today?

MM: These complaints about Islamophobia are often hyped up by self-interested groups (some of whom receive public funding) and are really a way of shutting down debate. No group should be free from criticism – and if they don’t like someone’s argument; they should argue back rather than simply accuse that person of being offensive and try to silence them through the law. I’d rather live in a world where people expressed angry, even hateful opinions about religion than one where all criticism of religion was banned. The latter is far more dangerous, as we can see from dictatorial Islamic regimes abroad. 

TM:   In your estimation, have the government’s multiculturalist policies led to Muslims’ attitudes towards women, homosexuality and apostasy becoming more moderate and liberal or more religiously conservative?

MM: Muslim attitudes to these issues, like many others, are complex and mixed. What we tried to demonstrate in Living Apart Together is that younger people are likely to express more conservative views than the older generation. I imagine that there is a contradictory pull between the language of multiculturalism (which dominates public life) and the conservative values of religion. The usual story of increasing liberalisation amongst immigrant groups hasn’t transpired for all British Muslims… yet. However, I would argue that the ‘official multicultural policies’, such as legislation regarding hate speech, have chilled important debates within communities. Many Muslims do not speak their mind freely, fearing the reaction of both other Muslims as well as the so-called ‘Liberal Left’.

TM:  Many Britons see religion as a personal, private matter (like any other lifestyle choice that is relegated mainly to the private sphere).  Is this a naive view? Does religion have a more political dimension in the current UK context?

MM: For many Muslims, religion is a strong part of their identity in the public and not just private space. This reflects a wider shift in society where the ethnic or religious identities of many groups have overtaken those political ideas and movements that aim to transcend. I believe it is a tragedy that so many people think only ethnic minorities can speak to their own problems and that ‘whites’ should butt out. 

This isn’t confined to Muslims – there is the recent case of a British artist, Hannah Black, calling for a painting by a

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016). Oil on canvas. Collection of the artist; courtesy Petzel, New York. Berlin-based artist Hannah Black has launched a campaign demanding the Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket from the show.

white female artist, Dana Schutz, to be destroyed. Schutz painted a picture of a black victim of racism which is showing at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Black’s objection was that a white artist should not use ‘black’ subject matter:  “ is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun…the subject matter is not Schutz’s….”. 

TM: We have seen a chilling of debate about religion (and particularly Islam) in this country, because people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Does this impact diversity within Muslim communities about their cultural values and practices?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

MM: Aayan Hirsi Ali recently had to cancel her speaking tour in Australia about her experiences as a Muslim woman because she feared for her security. This sends out an appalling message for anyone else wishing to speak out or debate. The tragedy is that she wasn’t silenced by Isis style hardliners, but ‘feminists’, ‘liberals’ and ‘Muslim women’. In other words, the identity-politics-obsessed-left has killed the freedom of speech of a Muslim born woman who has had the enormous courage to speak out. Perverse doesn’t even describe it. 

TM:  If there are serious problems with government-sponsored multiculturalist policies, what is the alternative?

MM:  Liberal democracies need to rediscover their commitment to some key principles:

– Secularism. Not the absence of religion from public life but the tolerance of all religions and a healthy distinction between the private and public spheres.

– Tolerance of viewpoints, even those we find distasteful. 

– Freedom to speak out on controversial issues.

Multiculturalism’s emphasis on ‘protecting identities’ and ‘respecting difference’ makes it almost impossible to have a debate. The so-called ‘snowflake generation’ is unable to hear difficult ideas. For all our talk of diversity and challenging feminism, Islamophobia, etc, there is not enough diversity of opinion in our cultural or educational institutions. 

About Terri Murray 57 Articles
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years

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