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What the French could learn from Moss Side

2005 November 8
by Paul Vallely

Burning cars on the streets of Paris. Pitched battles between Asian and blacks in Birmingham. Islamic terrorists planting bombs in the London rush hour. All at once the explosive cocktail of race and religion which has been mixing on the streets of Europe for over a decade seems to have reached an unstable trigger point. Big questions are being asked about the relationship of ethnic minorities to our pluralist democracies.

There are particular qualities about both the recent French and English violence that  ought radically to change the direction of the debate. Much of the reaction to the black-on-brown violence in Birmingham confirmed a trend which has been emerging since the July London bombs. The anti-immigrant Right responded with familiar attacks on Britain’s multiculturalism – the idea that the separate identity of ethnic minority communities should be nurtured and affirmed in the interests of social cohesion. What was different was that many on the Left, suddenly scared by terrorism, joined in.

Britain is ‘sleepwalking into segregation’ the black head of the Commission for Racial Equality said. White working-class racism was provoked, one formerly left-wing government minister said, by the failure of black and Asian communities to ‘integrate’. Black history month should be binned, said one normally progressive writer. Britain was becoming a set of separate mutually incomprehensible and potentially inflammatory ghettoes, lamented another. So, these ‘muscular liberals’ say, we shouldn’t be affirming the separate identity of minorities but requiring that they adopt British values. They speak in new language, but the message smacks of the familiar old superiority complex which we once called cultural imperialism.

The irony is that those now attacking multiculturalism praise the very system which has proved so deficient in France. There the old Republican tradition of laïcité insists that French citizenship ignores both cultural origin and religious orientation and that assimilation is the answer. It does not seem to have done much to salve the economic and cultural alienation of the nation’s Muslims.

Why have these two divergent approaches produced no discernible difference in terms of outcome?  It is not a question of too much multiculturalism but too little. A lot of what passes for a multicultural approach is in fact tokenism with local councils translating documents into endless minority languages, and so forth. What is needed is something much more deep-rooted, like the “racial identity nurturing” which is beginning to be practiced in some places with substantial black populations, such as Moss Side in Manchester. This involves giving black kids better role models than just rap musicians, athletes and boxers. It places before them black physicists, doctors and businessmen. The black clinical psychologist Jocelyn Maxime, has shown that if you nurture racial identity then black kids become more motivated to learn and achieve far more at school. And children who succeed, and form good relationships at school, develop skills that will serve them well in the wider community. Affirming identity helps build, rather than undermine, a sense of community. Similar pilots are underway among the Asian community in Oldham and Leicester.

Something similar is true of faith schools. Often derided as, self-evidently, inducing an unhealthy separateness, the evidence actually points in a different direction. They can be part of the problem. Some church schools are a refuge for “white flight”. But many others bring together literally dozens of different nationalities, races and economic backgrounds – and binds them with a strong sense of shared values – in a way which nothing else does in many inner city areas. One school in Moss Side has 37 different nationalities. Black children there do Irish dancing, and white kids play in the local Jamaican steel band.

What most scares the muscular liberals, of course, is the idea of Muslim schools. If  we have Catholic, Anglican and Jewish schools – and its politically unrealistic to expect that these will go – it’s hard for even muscular liberals to argue against state-funded Muslim schools. Yet they fear that Muslim schools will become hotbeds of fundamentalism. Again the evidence from other religious schools points in the opposite direction. Faith schools are drawn into the values of society through national mechanisms to regulate their curriculum, and through school inspection.

This kind of thing – along with encouraging the training of imams here so British mosques do not need to import religious leaders who don’t know the difference between Pakistani values and Islamic ones – can only have a positive impact. Schools which offer a proper understanding of Islam, along with racial/religious identity nurturing, will produce pupils much more likely to withstand the overtures of extremists, either in person or on the internet. And they will be far less likely to rediscover their faith from a perspective of negativity. Which is what the four young  Leeds bombers did.


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