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Modood’s Multiculturalism: a Civic Idea

Opposite the critiques of group-rights, stands Tariq Modood who is one of the most vocal proponents of multiculturalism in the UK. His book Multiculturalism: a Civic Idea (2007) is a reply to the conservative claims that multiculturalism is dead, like those advanced by the British Prime Minister David Cameron when discussing terrorism and radicalisation (05 February 2011).

Modood agrees with Kymlicka that ‘the strict separation of state and ethnicity is incoherent’ (Kymlicka 2001) but condemns his preferential treatment of national minorities at the expense of religious groups and voluntary immigrants. In doing so, Modood argues, Kymlicka considers that ‘liberal neutrality in relation to religion is correct and unproblematic’ (p. 36). Therefore, Kymlicka’s theory suffers both from secularist bias and from multinational bias (p. 34).

Modood proposes a conception of culture that is based on difference, both internal and external. Cultures need not be considered a coherent whole he argues, since a collective entity can exist, without essentialised notions of membership and definition (p. 97). Cultures based on religions, should be seen as any other identity group, and indeed use similar rhetoric as gay, feminist or racial groups (p. 70). Therefore, multicultural equality ‘when applied to religious groups means that secularism simpliciter appears to be an obstacle to integration and equality’ (p. 78) and religions need to be recognised in the public sphere.

Modood is based on Wittegenstein’s concept of multi family resemblance to define what a culture is through five levels of analysis: firstly, there are differences within and amongst groups; secondly, these differences are based on social identities like race and religion; thirdly, each group considers itself to be a group in different ways; fourthly, each group has different priorities; and fifthly, all previous aspects will vary among the members of each group (p. 119).

Therefore, it does not make sense to reduce a religious group to a simplistic and overgeneralised set of attributes, like it happened with Muslims after the terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2005 in New York and London respectively, whose religious identity became equated with religious fundamentalism. As Modood argues, ‘the government having created the political extremism through its foreign policies, by blaming multiculturalism and the Muslim communities for the crisis, is losing the one sure resource that is necessary for a long-term victory over domestic terrorism: namely, the full and active on-side cooperation of the Muslim communities’ (p. 139).

What makes Modood’s contribution useful is firstly his definition of the culture that I have outlined above and secondly, his account of recognition through participation. Civil society, he argues, should bear some of the costs of recognition, where ‘religious discourses’ can be ‘legitimate civic discourses’ since ‘religious leaders are legitimate civic leaders’ (p. 136). Religious leaders according to Modood are indeed legitimate only if they are chosen and recognised as such by their respective communities. By allowing room for religion in the public sphere, Modood calls for a more inclusive national identity, which will be based on discussion and deliberation rather than on a fixed set of values who can either be ‘too bland or too divisive’ (p. 152).

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