Prof. Tariq Modood on Multiculturalism and Secularism

The second shift for me is that prior to the importance of religion was the importance of identity. This goes back to the new social movements of the 1960s and 70s which include feminism, gay pride, and – especially coming from the US – the struggle for Black dignity. I was very influenced by that and by political theorists like Bhikhu Parekh, Charles Taylor, and Iris Marion Young in thinking about these issues of identity as issues that were not reducible to the more classical arguments about equality which tended to have an economic character. Identity seemed to be something that people valued for itself, not because of its relation to economic equality, for instance. When I read the book Justice and the Politics of Difference by American political theorist Iris Marion Young in particular, I realized that these identities were identities that people should be able to assert into the general politics of their country. They weren’t simply for what one might call one’s own community, they were identities that were part of arguments about equality. It’s because if people didn’t respect that identity of yours that was important to you and that identity historically had been the basis for racism or inferiorization, they weren’t really respecting you as an equal citizen. Those are the two important changes and shifts in the world for me: the emphasis both from politics and from theorists on minorities being able to assert their identity in the public space and secondly, what I saw as a Muslim assertiveness which indicated to me that religion and religious identity had to be central to multiculturalism.

The third area of exciting research is a little bit difficult for me, which is the fact that multiculturalism has standardly been focused on the rights of minorities or the recognition of minority identities. But what exactly should multiculturalism take the position of the majority to be? It is difficult to disentangle what we might call majority culture or cultures from the national identity. Nevertheless, I think we have to have some kind of view about the place of the majority in multiculturalism. It’s not something I’ve made a lot of progress on because it’s quite a difficult question. I don’t see other people having made a lot of progress on it either except for those people who are very anti-multiculturalist because for them, the idea of protecting the majority culture is actually something that forms the basis of rejecting multiculturalism. I think they’re entirely wrong to do that and I want to find a multiculturalist view about the majority.

As I began to consider that religious identity really had to be included together with ethno-racial and ethno-cultural identities in multiculturalism, I saw that this posed a challenge for those people who believe that religion should be a private matter—that it shouldn’t be to do with politics or public life, and that the state shouldn’t support one religion or interfere in another. This is, broadly speaking, what we call secularism. I realized there was a challenge and I began with Britain, as I do in all my work. I thought that we already have religion in the public sphere to a much larger extent than many secularists, intellectuals, and theorists, seem to think we do or maybe they would like to have. That was a positive piece of understanding for me because if that’s the case, then those people who say that multiculturalism isn’t possible because it conflicts with secularism— that religion has to be kept out of politics—are quite wrong; they may not want religion to be in politics, but they can’t say that the problem with Muslims is that they want to bring religion into politics when a country like Britain, regardless of Muslims, already has religion connected to politics in all kinds of ways. We have an established church, bishops of the Church of England sitting in the House of Lords, and massive state funding of religious schools. All these things are actually not peculiar to Britain, they’re to be found in one form or another in most countries of the European Union. I thought that this was a positive finding; it means that I can now try to create a space for multiculturalism in the actually existing secularist arrangements as opposed to some abstract ideal of secularism. I call these existing arrangements, at least in Western Europe, moderate secularism.

Certainly, my own experience of a boy growing up in Britain of Pakistani-Muslim background and family has influenced my work a lot; it’s pretty apparent to most people who know it that that experience informs my work. I’d offer that advice to others as well but with one important qualification: don’t reduce yourself or your work to a single identity (like woman, black, Muslim). Think about yourself in a more rounded way. Some people would talk about intersectionality as the connection of different kinds of identities and positionalities and that would be relevant here. Don’t simply push one identity such that the others—which may actually be important to you—are kind of theorized away in the way that you do your work. Be aware of that risk and try to avoid it.

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