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Has multiculturalism failed?

By news editor, on 17 December 2012

Written by Daniel Bowman, UCL Union Debating Society committee member.

In an increasingly globalised world, how do we balance national and multiple identities? It is one of the most fundamental questions for the 21st century society.

Bonnie Greer

Bonnie Greer

The national debate on multiculturalism reached unprecedented levels of intensity when, in 2011, David Cameron announced in a speech that the “state multiculturalism” had failed, and that Britain needed a stronger national identity. The UCLU Debating Society was honoured to host an exceptional panel on 10 December to debate whether it has, indeed, failed.

Arguing that multiculturalism has failed were Nazir Azfal OBE, the Chief Prosecutor of the North West for the Crown Prosecution Service; Ayub Hanif, a UCL doctoral student and former president of the Debating Society; and Kenan Malik, the writer, lecturer and broadcaster.

In opposition of the motion were Edie Friedman, director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality; Bonnie Greer OBE, the playwright and novelist and deputy chairwoman of the British Museum; and Ajmal Masroor, the imam, relationship counsellor and broadcaster.

What actually is multiculturalism? The very question is at the heart of the debate.

The proposition was very clear. Kenan Malik defined multiculturalism as a set of state policies that support ethnic and religious communities in the UK.

They argued that it had failed because it has led to the pigeonholing of individuals by their ethnicities and religions, and the empowering of elites at the expense of the individual within those communities.

Nazir Azfal made these points particularly potent by drawing upon a number of cases that he had prosecuted where people, and in particular women, had been murdered in episodes such as honour killings within communities.

He argued that the state should not step back from confronting communities, and that multiculturalism leads to complacency in this regard.  “A rights-based society is the only one that is right for everyone,” he concluded.

Ayub Hanif supported this, arguing that where a community’s values contradict the values of the UK, they have to be confronted. According to Malik: “We should accept diversity as lived experience, but reject multiculturalism as political policy.”

On the opposition side, multiculturalism was defended both on the grounds of being a lived experience in a shared society and as a state policy.

Ajmal Masroor argued that the government has failed to offer a compelling alternative. He argued that radicalisation in Muslim communities can be traced to issues including British military intervention in Muslim countries.

He drew attention to a 2007 England and Wales citizenship survey that suggested that British-Indians and British-Pakistanis felt more strongly that they belonged in Britain than white British people.

All of the opposition side argued that multiculturalism brought communities together by celebrating their difference. Edie Friedman argued that we need to experience other cultures to evolve and develop. “Multiculturalism,” said Bonnie Greer, “is the best thing to come out of British colonialism.”

At times, it was unclear whether the debate was about multiculturalism as a state policy or as a lived experience, but, nevertheless, students and speakers engaged in a charged debate on how identities are best approached and managed.

One student argued that multiculturalism puts us into boxes based on identities, such as ethnicity, without our permission. Another argued, however, that it is in part because of it that today in Britain ethnic minorities are included in society to a much greater extent than in the past.

Due to the far-reaching nature of the debate, and the passion and care towards British society clearly felt on both sides, the final result was perhaps not too surprising, with 51 voting that Multiculturalism has failed, 52 voting against and a huge 65 voting in abstention.

One salient point brought up during the debate by Bonnie Greer was that unlike countries such as the USA and France, the UK doesn’t have a written constitution, meaning that, ultimately, our national policies and identities are in the hands of each generation.

Whether multiculturalism as a state policy has failed or not, I think that this concept of a shifting national identity and discourse is something that the UK can celebrate.

Hopefully, by organising free public events such as this one, UCLU Debating Society plays a small part in the opening up of this discourse.

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