Multiculturalism and Muslims in Britain and France

Tariq Modood

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on From multiculturalism to muscular liberalism? Faith and the future of integration

tariq-00-photo-regularIn the twenty-first century it is the presence and accommodation of Muslims that is Western Europe’s main multicultural challenge. As the cases of Britain and France illustrate, governments can engage with Muslims seeking accommodation and recognition for their religious beliefs and practices in a range of different ways. Yet even in anti-multiculturalist states such as France corporate engagement with Muslims has been necessary.

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Multiculturalism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in Canada. It was primarily focused on language-based ethnicity (and in the case of the Quebecois, language-based nationhood). That was less the case in Western Europe. In Britain, where a postcolonial and American-inspired anti-racism focused on ‘colour’ and the long term legacy of the enslavement and transportation of Africans was one of the first expressions of immigrant politics, multiculturalism both competed with and synthesised a racial equality orientation. In thinking of Western Europe as a whole, however, it is impossible to think about multiculturalism without thinking about the place of Muslim identities, or identities that are perceived to be ethno-religious (such as British Asian Muslim or Arab Muslim in France).

MML TM1With estimates of about 17 million Muslims in Western Europe today, they constitute about 5 per cent of the population and are relatively evenly distributed across the larger states.[1] In the larger cities the proportion which is Muslim, however, is several times larger and, being young and fertile, is growing at a faster rate than most of the population. The proportion may double within a generation. In the twenty-first century it is the presence and accommodation of Muslims that is the main multicultural challenge. It is a broad one: from socio-economic disadvantage and discrimination in the labour markets at one end, to a constitutional status or corporate relationship with the state at the other.

The awareness of this challenge began to manifest itself and was perceived before events such as 9/11. Nor is it due to the fact that some Muslims, unlike other post-immigration groups, may have been involved in rowdy demonstrations and riots, because others (such as African-Caribbeans in Britain) are associated with these without raising such profound normative questions. Nor is it due to (Muslim) conservative values, especially in relation to gender and sexuality, though it is related to it.

The core element of the challenge is the primacy given to religion as the basis of identity, organization, political representation, normative justification and so on. These matters were thought to be more or less settled (except in a few exceptional cases like Northern Ireland) until some Muslims began asserting themselves as Muslims in the public sphere of various Western European countries. Some have thought that primacy could be given to, say, gender, ethnicity or class; others that primacy should not be given to any one or even a few of these social categories as identity self-concepts, but very few thought that religion should be in the select set.

This multicultural challenge to institutionalised secularism is amongst the most profound political and long-term issues arising from the post-war western European hunger for labour migrants and the reversal of the population flows of European colonialism.

The rising multicultural challenge and the gradual weakening of the political status of Christian churches – in particular, the national churches –  has been taking place at the same time. The intersection of these two trajectories is nicely captured in two policy initiatives in the Netherlands in 1983. In that year, the national system of ‘pillarization’, which had made the country a bi-religious communal state, was formally wound up, with a new Minorities Policy being announced which created post-immigration ethnic minorities (allochtones) as a mini-pillar, giving them state funding for faith schools, ethno-religious radio and TV broadcasting and other forms of cultural maintenance.[2] Some of that policy began to be reversed in the 1990s, but, looking beyond the Netherlands, the pivotal moment was 1988–9 and was, quite accidentally, marked by two events. These created national and international storms, setting in motion political developments that have not been reversed, and reveal contrasting responses by the two western European secularisms to the Muslim presence. The events were the protests in Britain against Sir Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses; and, in France, the decision by a school head teacher to prohibit entry to three girls unless they removed their headscarves in school premises.

398px-Salman_Rushdie_2011_ShankboneModerate and radical secularist responses to Muslim assertiveness

The Satanic Verses was not banned in the UK as the protestors demanded, and the conduct of some Muslims, especially those threatening the life of the author, certainly shocked and alienated many from the campaign. In that sense, the Muslim campaign clearly failed. In other respects, however, it galvanized many into seeking a democratic multiculturalism that was inclusive of Muslims. A national body was created to represent mainstream Muslim opinion, initially in relation to the novel (UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs), but later, with some encouragement from both the main national political parties, especially New Labour, it led to the formation of a body to lobby on behalf of Muslims in the corridors of power. This new body, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), was accepted as a major consultee by the New Labour government of 1997, until about the middle of the next decade when it sought to diversify its Muslim interlocutors.

The MCB was very successful in relation to its founding agenda.[3] By 2001, it had achieved its aim of having Muslim issues and Muslims as a group recognized separately from issues of race and ethnicity; and of being itself accepted by government, media and civil society as the spokesperson for Muslims. Another two achieved aims were the introduction of state funding of Muslim schools on the same basis as Christian and Jewish schools; and in getting certain educational and employment policies targeted on the severe disadvantage of the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (who are nearly all Muslims) as opposed to on minority ethnicity generally. Additionally, it played a decisive role in Tony Blair’s inclusion of a religious question in the 2001 census despite ministerial and civil service advice to the contrary.[4] This laid the foundation for a possible later introduction of policies targeting Muslims to match those targeting groups defined by race or ethnicity – or gender. Although the MCB had to wait a bit longer for the legislative protection it sought, laws against religious discrimination were introduced in 2003, strengthened in 2007 and again in 2010, making them much stronger than anything available in the rest of the European Union. Incitement to religious hatred, the legislation most closely connected to the protests over The Satanic Verses, was introduced in 2006, though there is no suggestion that it would have caught that novel. Indeed, the protestors’ original demand that the blasphemy law be extended to cover Islam has been made inapplicable as the blasphemy law was abolished in 2008 – with very little protest from anybody.

Moreover, even as the MCB, because of its views on the government’s foreign and security policies, intermittently fell out of favour, local and national consultations with Muslim groups has continued to grow and probably now exceeds consultations with any Christian body and certainly any minority group. Inevitably, this has caused occasional friction between Christians and Muslims. But on the whole these developments have taken place not only with the support of the leadership of the Church of England, but in a spirit of interfaith respect. (Given how adversarial English intellectual, journalistic, legal and political culture is, religion in England is oddly fraternal and little effort is expended in proving that the other side is in a state of error and should convert.)

That, then, is one path of development from 1988–9. It was a mobilization of a minority, with the extension of minority policies from race to religion in order to accommodate the religious minority. The other development, namely, the one arising from l’affaire foulard was one of top-down state action to prohibit certain minority practices. From the start, the majority of the country – whether it be the media, the public intellectuals, the politicians or public opinion – supported the head teacher who refused to have religious headscarves in school.[5] Muslims either did not wish to or lacked the capacity to challenge this dominant view with anything like the publicity, organization, clamour or international assistance that Muslims in Britain brought to bear on Rushdie’s novel.

MML TM2The Conseil d’État, France’s highest administrative court, emphasized freedom of religion as long as the religious symbols were not ‘ostentatious’, and so ruled that the issue should be treated on a case-by-case basis. This quietened things down till they blew up again in 1994 in relation to another state school. On that occasion, the Minister of Education forbade the wearing of any ostentatious symbols, which explicitly included the headscarf. The issue would not go away, however, and in 2003 President Chirac appointed a national Commission, chaired by Bernard Stasi, to consider the issue. The Stasi Commission recommended the banning of the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state schools, and a law to this effect was passed with an overwhelming majority by Parliament in February 2004. A few years later, the target of French secularist and majoritarian disapproval was the full face-veil that revealed only the eyes (niqab), as favoured by a few hundred Muslim women. This was banned in public places in April 2011. Belgium followed suit in July 2011, and Italy was in the process of implementing a ban when the Euro-crisis derailed normal politics. Similar proposals are being discussed by governments and political parties across Western Europe (e.g., the ruling Labour Party in Norway). Even in Britain there is popular support for a ban, and though the major parties have no truck with it, UKIP have stated it as a policy aim. Moreover, the present French government has said it is considering extending the ban on the wearing of the headscarf to some professions, including carers in private nurseries and recently there were two nights of riots in a banlieu of Paris when the police tried to arrest a woman wearing a face-veil in the street.[6]

Nicolas Sarkozy: the politician responsible for the establishment of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, the national representative body of Muslims in France

While the banning of some headdresses favoured by some Muslim women was taking place, another change was simultaneously taking place in France, one that is important to note as it does not so easily conform to the common understanding of French laïcité. Since 1990 each French government, whether of the left or the right, has set about trying to create a national Muslim council that would be a corporate representative of Muslims in France and the official government consultee. It would be the state’s recognition of Islam, comparable in some respects to its recognition of the Catholic Church, Protestant churches and the Jewish Consistory. After at least three abortive attempts by previous Interior Ministers, Nicolas Sarkozy, when in that post, inaugurated the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman in 2003.[7] Even now, this council is not yet accepted by the majority of Muslims in France and has little influence with the French media, civil society or government. Its importance for my argument does not depend on its effectiveness or on whether it has support amongst Muslims in France. Rather, it exhibits how even a laicist, anti-multiculturalist state, which is supported by most citizens in attacking fundamental religious freedom, is creating institutional linkages to Muslims in a way which is prima facie contrary to laicite. It is not, however, contrary to the western European tradition of moderate secularism, and France is not alone in following a path of anti-multiculturalist rhetoric and refusal to offer accommodation on specifics with a willingness to deal with Muslims not just as individual citizens, but also as a religious group. Chancellor Merkel’s government in Germany assembled a group of Muslims in 2006 for an Islamkonfrenz at the highest level of government, and this has been repeated every year.

Interestingly, the secularist strand of opinion in Britain which looks to France as a model is opposed to special consultative status for Muslim organizations, and sees this as consistent with the older demand for the disestablishment of the Church of England, the removal of bishops from a democratized House of Lords and a reduction in the number of state-funded faith schools. Yet, this French and German ‘corporatist’ accommodation is a form of multiculturalism, for it clearly is not assimilation and nor an insistence on only granting rights to individual.[8] Less preferable than the bottom-up and civil-society-led approach that is more common in Britain, it does seem to be more in tune with certain European state models. British radical secularists fail to note that such corporatist accommodation is part of the statist traditions of France and Germany and is an aspect of continental multiculturalism that is growing. It of course falls short of the ideal of multicultural citizenship, which draws on a concept of citizenship which extends into voluntary associations and community activism – such that neighbourhood voluntary work can be said to exemplify ‘active citizenship’.

The accommodation of Muslims then is one of the big if not the biggest multiculturalist challenges in Western Europe today. Amongst other things, this means that the status quo in relation to the politics-religion nexus in different countries is unsustainable. While each country has inherited a unique set of institutional arrangements and so will respond in its own way, they broadly are taking one of two ways. Reflecting the two historic modes of European secularism – moderate state-religion connexions or exclusion of religion from public life – European states are either multiculturalising the presence of public religion or combining the hardening of radical, exclusionary secularism with some corporatist representation.

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, founding Director of the university’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship and founding editor of the journal Ethnicities. This article is a shortened version of his Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Second Edition, 2013) and ‘Is there a crisis of secularism in Western Europe?’, Sociology of Religion, 73(2), June, 2012.

[1] Peter Mandaville, Muslim Networks and Movements in Western Europe (Washington DC: Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2010).

[2]Veit Bader, ‘Associational Governance of Ethno-Religious Diversity in Europe: The Dutch Case’ in Citizenship, Borders, and Human Needs, ed. by R. Smith (Philadelphia, Penn State University, 2011): 273-297.

[3] Tariq Modood, ‘Moderate Secularism, Religion as Identity and Respect for Religion’, The Political Quarterly 81, no.1 (2010): 4-14.

[4] Jamil Sherif, ‘A Census Chronicle: Reflections on the Campaign for a Religion Question in the 2001 Census for England and Wales, Journal of Beliefs & Values 32, no. 1 (2011): 1-18.

[5] J. R. Bowen, ‘Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space’, European Review 15, no. 3 (2007): 397-400; J. W. Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[6] Angelique Chrisafis, ‘France’s Headscarf War: “It’s an Attack on Freedom’’, The Guardian, 22 July 2013,

[7] Tariq Modood and Riva Kastoryano, ‘Secularism and the Accommodation of Muslims in Europe’ in Multiculturalism, Muslims and Citizenship: A European Approach, ed. by Tariq Modood, Anna Triandafyllidou and Ricard Zapato-Barrero (Abingdon, Routledge, 2006), 174-175.

[8] Tariq Modood, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, Second Edition (Cambridge: Polity, 2013).

The image of Nicolas Sarkozy is included courtesy of Richard Pichet. The image of Salman Rushdie is included courtesy of David Shankbone. Both images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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