Muslims and the Politics of Difference

Muslims and the Politics of Difference

Tariq Modood

Muslim political claims-making has to be seen in terms of the developing agendas of racial equality and multiculturalism. Muslims have become central to these agendas even while they have contested important aspects, especially the primacy of racial identities, narrow definitions of racism and equality, and the secular bias of the discourse and policies of multiculturalism.

The initial development of anti-racism in Britain followed the American pattern. Just as in the US the colour-blind humanism of the civil rights movement came to be mixed with an emphasis on black pride, black autonomy and black nationalism so too the same process occurred in the UK.

The post-1960s concept of equality is built on colour-explicitness rather than colour-blindness. It breaks the link between assimilation and equality: indeed, it argues that making equality hang on assimilation is a form of oppression as it makes expectations on minorities that are not made on others. It also argues for some space for group recognition and autonomy – not separatism but say, having a black section in the Labour party or women-only meetings in a trades union.

This takes the concept of equality beyond and into conflict with liberal citizenship. The latter is based on a public-private identity distinction which prohibits the recognition of group identities so that no citizens are treated in a privileged way or divided from each other.

Secondly, it takes race, sex and sexuality beyond being merely ascriptive categories. Race is of interest to liberal citizenship only because no one can choose their race and so should not be discriminated against on something over which they have no control. But if equality is about celebrating previously demeaned identities (eg., in taking pride in one’s blackness rather than in accepting it merely as a ‘private matter), then what is being addressed includes a chosen response to one’s ascription. Exactly, the same applies to sex and sexuality. We may not choose our sex or sexual orientation but we choose how to politically live with it. Do we keep it private or do we make it the basis of a social movement and seek public resources and representation for it?

The position of Muslims in Britain today is exactly the same as Muslims catch up with and engage with the contemporarary concept of equality. No one chooses to be born into a Muslim family. Similarly, no one chooses to be born into a society where to look like a Muslim or to be a Muslim creates suspicion, hostility, or failure to get the job you applied for. Though how Muslims respond to these circumstances will vary. Some will organise resistance, while others will try to stop looking like Muslims (the equivalent of ‘passing’); some will build an ideology out of their subordination, others will not, just as a woman can choose to be a feminist or not.

So, why is it a surprise that some Muslims don’t want invisibility, resist the equality-but-assimilation deal, and demand some forms of group recognition and autonomy in shared public institutions, backed by the law and appropriate resources? The response that woman, black and gay are ascribed, unchosen identities while being a Muslim is about chosen beliefs, and that Muslims therefore need or ought to have less legal protection than the other kinds of identities is sociologically naïve and a political con.

Those who see the current Muslim assertiveness as an unwanted and illegitimate child of multiculturalism have only two consistent choices. They can repudiate the idea of equality as identity recognition and return to the 1960s liberal idea of equality as colour/sex/religion etc blindness.

Or they can argue that equality as recognition does not apply to oppressed religious communities, perhaps uniquely not to religious communities. To deny Muslims positive equality without one of these two arguments is to be open to the charge of double standards.

Hence a programme of racial and multicultural equality is not possible today without a discussion of the merits and limits of secularism. Secularism can no longer be treated as ‘off-limits’. Not that its really a matter of being for or against secularism, but rather a careful, institution by institution analysis of how to draw the public-private boundary and further the cause of multicultural equality and inclusivity.

Tariq Modood is at Bristol University. His book, Miulticultural Politics, is published by Minnesota University Press,  March 2005.

A shorter version of this article was published in The Guardian Friday, January 21, 2005.  The full article is published in TAM with permission of the author.