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Riots on the streets. Cars in flames. How should Europe’s pluralist democracies relate to our ethnic minorities?

2005 November 12
by Paul Vallely

As France experienced its worst riots for nearly 40 years and ethnic tensions all over Europe, senior EU officials met in Britain this week to discuss the relationship of member states with their ethnic minorities. The following is an edited version of a keynote address delivered by Paul Vallely to the EU cultural directors.

There have been two basic models of how Europe’s pluralist democracies should relate to our ethnic minorities. Today, with cars burning on the streets of France and fear of terrorism in the UK, both are coming in for serious criticism.   In France the longstanding Republican tradition of laïcité insisted that citizenship ignores both culture and religion and that homogeneous assimilation is the answer. In Britain multiculturalism insisted that the separate identity of ethnic minority communities should be nurtured and affirmed, as the basis for successful integration.

What has changed since those paradigms were set is the resurgence of religion. In many places – Africa, Asia, even the United States – it never, of course, went away. But we in Europe assumed that the rest of the world would catch up with us, and that religion would just wither away – along, as Hegel put it, with all opposition to modernity.

A good thing, too, many felt. The Enlightenment had freed individuals from the circumstances of their birth and let loose the energies which produced the industrial revolution and the modern democratic state and developed a high culture of science, art and learning.

But there were two sides to this liberal revolution: it created wealth but atomised society. Secular liberalism brought us new ideas of human fulfilment, individual choice and political freedom. And economic liberalism brought us the iron rule of the market. Between them they increased prosperity but also individual self-interest. They liberated science to unleash great technological progress but also environmental pollution on an unimagined scale. They freed individuals from oppressive bonds of community and church but impoverished their personal and social relationships. They fostered a secularism which made religion a private matter – furthering freedom and choice – but reducing morality into a mere expression of personal preference. They produced a materialism which left citizens more concerned about the well-being of their bodies than of the body politic.

Into this vacuum religion is rushing. At one end of the spectrum we have the vague spirituality of the New Age. At the other we have fundamentalism – Christian, Hindu Zionist and many others. But Islamic fundamentalism is, across the globe, the new religion of the dispossessed, which explains why 70 per cent of black Americans who go to jail come out having embraced what they think of as Islam. More conventional religious groups are also reasserting themselves, with Sikhs picketing theatres and Christians bombarding the BBC over issues like Jerry Springer: The Opera.

All this has alarmed liberals who fear that the resurgence of religion will endanger cherished Enlightenment freedoms. This, together with the terrorist attacks of September 11, has unsettled many of those who had assumed the religion/secularism debate was over. This is why many among the virulently anti-religious Left are now making unholy alliance with the Right to attack multiculturalism. When those of immigrant stock were seen through a racial lens it was fine to advocate they maintain their own culture to affirm their identities. But now, since 9/11, Asians (good) have become Muslims (bad) and these “muscular liberals” want to impose on ethnic minorities a sense of shared Britishness which smacks of what these old lefties would once have called cultural imperialism. Unfortunately the model they are advocating is precisely the one which is now failing in France.

What is needed is a new kind of settlement between secularism and religion – based not on the negativity which is containment or mere tolerance but on something altogether more positive and creative.

Though most of Europe’s populations are no longer conventionally religious as a society we are still drawing on the moral capital of centuries of a Judeo-Christian tradition in which many of our secular truths find their origin. That is not to say that only religion can make people moral. The behaviour of many secular humanists is far better than that of many religious believers. But it is to ask about the mechanisms through which morality has historically been created, nurtured and transmitted.

Secular liberalism is having great difficulty in replenishing this moral capital. The offspring of the Enlightenment – science, capitalism, individualism and democracy – are all enabling mechanisms but none of them contain values. Liberalism is what Alistair McIntyre has called a second order morality: it creates a framework within which other virtues can flourish, but it does not provide them. Instead it leaves us with a relativist amorality which provides no checks on the excesses of capitalism or science. Liberalism, as John Gray has put it, is hollowed out and has nothing left to teach. Its multi-culturalism is in truth a mono-culturism in disguise. It has turned the wine of communion into Coca-Cola.

Religion has something to offer to help make good this deficit.  Take religious schools. The received wisdom among secular fundamentalists is that these are part of the problem because they foster separateness. Certainly some do nurture elitism or encourage “white flight” in racially-mixed areas. But others do the opposite. They bring together people of different nationalities, races and economic backgrounds – I know one school with children from 37 different countries – and bind them with a strong sense of shared values in a way which nothing else does in most inner city areas. Indeed Ofsted school inspections suggest that pupils in faith schools are more likely to respect the feelings, values and beliefs of others than do their peers in other maintained schools.

What most alarms the “muscular liberals”, of course, is not Catholic schools but Muslim ones which they fear will be hotbeds of fundamentalism. All the evidence points in the opposite direction. State-funded Muslim schools will drawn into the values of society because state cash brings with it the discipline of a national curriculum and standard school inspection. If children there are nurtured in the positive aspects of their own faith they are far less likely to later embrace it from a perspective of negativity – when they fall into radicalist company or stumble across extreme versions of it on the internet – as the young Leeds bombers did. We can surmise this from the work on “racial identity nurturing” (giving black kids better role models than just rap musicians, athletes and boxers) now being done in Moss Side, Oldham and Leicester. Where this is practised black kids achieve far more at school – and then can apply the skills they learn in wider society.

None of this is to throw away the achievements of the Enlightenment. Indeed the Church, over the last 100 years, has learned the value of free speech, human rights, gender equality and toleration from its secular contemporaries. All of those values must be protected against religious revisionists. But religion can speak of the whole of human experience in a world which secularism has narrowed, reduced and impoverished to the empirical and the material. It has counterweights to offer to the atomisation of the market. It can bring a renewed sense of community, a reinvigoration of moral values, a resurgence of civic virtues and an overriding sense of common purpose.

To do that requires a dialogue between the faiths and society which goes beyond lowest common denominators about tolerance. It needs to be based on a highest common factor which gives every minority a feeling of participation – and makes the absolute dignity of others a spiritual proposition.

The task is not to separate state and religion. It is to balance the relationship between them so it is mutually enriching rather than confrontational or merely negotiatory.

It is about enriching human relationships, alleviating poverty, protecting the environment, setting the advances of science in an ethical framework and finding a better way to balance the conflicting claims of the individual, the group and society as a whole. It is about a more – rather than a less – sophisticated understanding of the world. And about, in what may transpire to be a post-secular age, finding a way to humanise the steely face of globalisation.


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