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Multicultural Politics:

Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain



University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2005
By Tariq Modood


Reviewed by Emilie Goodhart
Divinity School
University of Chicago

In the wake of the July 2005 London bombings, one fact got prominent coverage in the Anglophone media: four of the bombers were British citizens of Pakistani descent. In a familiar rhetorical turn, public debate quickly focused on the perennial question of immigration and the quarrelsome trinity of integration, assimilation, and multiculturalism. To clarify the debate, many news sources called upon Tariq Modood, a professor of sociology, politics, and public policy at the University of Bristol, and author of Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain. In his compelling work, Modood argues for the need to push beyond the tired mandates of liberalism and secularism to secure a politics of multiculturalism that recognizes and realizes cultural and religious diversity.

In a refreshing turn, Modood is less interested in existing race and ethnicity scholarship, than in grounding his work in how Britons talk about themselves-the events and understandings they normatively employ to fashion everyday discourse. This anti-theoretical approach leaves room for Modood to interject aspects of his own biography as a Muslim Pakistani immigrant, active in voluntary and professional equality work, and public policy studies. Yet regardless of his angle of engagement, Modood's itinerary has been focused on the following question: how can Britain best achieve a society that is "not racially stratified"-one in which "non-white migrants and their progeny can come to have a genuine sense of belonging…without having to disavow their ethnic identities" (6)?

Originally published as a series of separate essays, Multicultural Politics is occasionally disjointed and overly repetitive in answering this question. Yet Modood's argument can be summarized as follows. He asserts that the traditional conception of racism, defined by an American-born black/white dichotomy, can no longer respond to the realities of contemporary racism. The emphasis on color-line, he contends, has marginalized groups who do not fit within this rigid construction. By extension, Modood shows how a group's refusal to categorize themselves within a racialized construction can have dire consequences. For example, South Asian Muslims in Britain have often been excluded from anti-racist equality debates, resulting in widespread public denial of the serious oppression that they face. Moreover, Modood writes, as time goes on this kind of racial discrimination is being layered with religious antipathy-especially Muslimophobia-and culturalism. The "double disadvantage" of this racism is experienced directly through inferior opportunities for employment, housing, and schooling and indirectly through stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims in public discourse (104 & 41).

As evident from the title, Modood's response to this complex problem is a reevaluation of the concept of racism and a rigorous politics of multiculturalism. For him, multicultural equality can no longer mean treating everyone the same, but rather recognizing and respecting the differences that constitute one's society. Additionally, as Modood repeatedly reminds us, any effective multiculturalism must take religion seriously because it "is central to [Muslims'] ethnicity, to their group-beingness, [and] to how they relate to other groups" (123). In this new 'politics of recognition,' Modood calls for a public acknowledgment of previously private communal identities, especially religious identities, through legal and corporate representation in order to ensure participation and inclusiveness in the general polity. He concludes with a political challenge in a post 9/11 world to inaugurate a future of multiculturalism where hybridities, including all religious varieties, are varied and valued.

Despite the book's compelling thesis, Modood's analysis is at times superficial. A critical problem concerns his argument for the institutionalization of religious pluralism, specifically regarding the creation of a public role for Islam within British politics. Modood argues that Muslims, a legitimate group in British society, need to be "explicitly reflected in all walks of life and in all institutions" (165). Therefore, religious representation in the political sphere should expand to reflect, more accurately, contemporary society. Although he perceives the 2000 proposal to diversify religious representation in the House of Lords as a positive step, Modood never explores how such institutionalization would be accomplished (148). This leaves the reader questioning just how far Modood believes religion should be integrated into the public sphere.

Yet the Achilles' heel of Multicultural Politics is Modood's own construction of identity. Although he understands individual and group identities as composite, reactive and pragmatically shaped, he is too focused on determining a hierarchy, problematically elevating religion to the status of primary 'mode of being' for Muslims. Such a move leads to a normalized conception of 'religion' as the essential core of South Asian identity. In doing so, Modood not only ignores state and institutional influences in constructing or reinforcing certain identity markers over others, he also homogenizes contemporary Muslim communities, thereby minimizing the diversity and multiplicity of points of reference in contemporary identity construction.

Regardless of these flaws, Modood's Multicultural Politics remains a provocative work; one which offers an optimistic and challenging conception of multicultural politics in the twenty-first century.