Battle in Print: Identity politics: undermining democracy?

Munira Mirza, 23 October 2008

In the opening scenes of The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) British filmmaker Ken Loach powerfully bears witness to the intimate relationship between cultural identity and politics. The context is Ireland, 1920, and a group of young Irish men are playing hurling, a traditional national game, out in the plain, green fields of Cork. Shortly after arriving back at their cottages, British Black and Tan soldiers turn up with bayonets and rifles, line the men up against a wall, and shout that ‘All public meetings are banned’, including their game. Pointing their rifles and ignoring the cries of women nearby, the soldiers demand to know the name of every man there. When one refuses to give his name in English and speaks back defiantly in Gaelic, he is dragged into his mother’s cottage, tied to a post and mercilessly beaten to death.

Language, sport, and tradition are all tied up with the violence of resistance in this moment. Although the scene is fictitious, it illustrates the potency of the Irish culture at that crucial historical juncture. An otherwise harmless utterance in a foreign language is enough to bring the full force of the authorities against one man. Of course, the reaction of the soldiers in this scene arises from more than mere prejudice – to speak Gaelic and organise public meetings was tantamount to Republican sedition in the years following the Easter Uprising of 1916, when Irish people were agitating for freedom from the British state. Even cultural organisations such as the Gaelic League, formed in 1893, ostensibly to preserve the Irish language and native culture, could not help but turn culture into a weapon for the ‘de-Anglicisation’ of the land.

This brief foray into history is intended to illustrate a banal but nevertheless truthful point, that culture can be political. The assertion of cultural identity through language, music, literature or custom has often been an effective combat tactic in post-colonial times: to deny the authority of the oppressor, galvanise the collective strength and morale of the oppressed, and sustain an alternative narrative of the struggle. Remarkably for Ireland, traditional Gaelic folk culture survived into the twentieth century despite brutal suppression by the British. Moreover, it generated further cultural weapons in the form of distinct Irish literature, poetry and music in the early twentieth century. This enormous cultural effort – part propaganda, part awakening consciousness – was an ingredient in the wider attempt to overthrow the means of control and representation by their colonisers – a textbook case of what the novelist, Salman Rushdie, would later describe of post-colonial literature as ‘The Empire Writes Back’.

When people talk of the political importance of cultural identity today, they often invoke post-colonial history and tradition as testament to the radicalism of their cause. Cultural identity is now a major trope in political and academic discourse, gaining ground in Europe and North America during the 1980s and 1990s. It is argued that the state should be not only concerned with material welfare provision, but also the positive affirmation of people’s identity; as American political theorist, Nancy Fraser puts it, ‘upwardly revaluing disrespected identities and the cultural products of maligned groups’ (Fraser, 1995: 73). The phrase ‘cultural identity’ is tied up with words like equality, liberty, rights and tolerance. Bhikhu Parekh, another political theorist and chair of the influential Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain Commission in 2000, has argued ‘Discrimination occurs on grounds of culture and religion as well and we need to outlaw it’ (The Runnymede Trust, 2000).

We often hear how society excludes marginalised groups by presenting negative images of them or not recognising their culture. In response, it is argued that the state should affirm group rights and intervene to ensure a valorisation of diversity. Official support for ‘diversity’ has spawned a massive infrastructure of policies, funding streams, services, voluntary and semi-governmental organisations and professionals. A range of services - housing, healthcare, arts and cultural provision, voluntary support, public broadcasting, and policing - have been restructured to accommodate the supposedly different cultural identities of citizens. Even the countryside is getting a diversity makeover, as the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, complained in 2004 about the ‘passive apartheid’ of rural Britain, where ethnic minorities felt excluded.

Whilst identity politics certainly draws from the radicalism of the post-colonial tradition, however, to what extent is it a continuation of that kind of politics?

The rights that had been struggled for in the post-colonial period were about guaranteeing political and material equality, to ensure greater democratic freedoms. They involved a desire to break free from the oppression of a brutal state and attempt to assert autonomy. As such they were inherently politicised and even revolutionary. Culture was one factor in these post-colonial struggles, but a necessarily subordinate one. This was clearly the case in Ireland, where cultural resilience was brought to the fore because of the urgency of politics, rather than the other way around. As such, the Celtic revival of the early twentieth century was buoyed less by the dead hand of history and tradition than by the promise of self-rule in the present. It took its strength from the democratic mandate given by the overwhelming electoral success of Sinn Fein, which refused to send its MPs to Westminster, but instead set up the first Dail (Irish Parliament) in 1921, which met in Dublin.

Today, the collapse of ideological contestation following the end of the Cold War means the struggles that once shaped post-colonial identities are no longer a feature of the landscape. As such, the turn to culture represents something novel. In fact, we might view the focus on culture as a sign of the end of a political struggle and the reification of identity as something fixed, immutable and to be preserved in itself.

If we return to Ireland, we can see the transformation wrought by this shift in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The leaders of the nationalist and Unionist movements signed up to a contract that preserved the political stalemate that had locked them into violence for decades, by simply accepting that neither side had properly won: republicans gave up their demands for a united Ireland, whilst Unionists accepted the diminishment of their power and conceded to demands such as the release of political prisoners.

Crucially, instead of democracy by majority rule, the agreement posited a form of government which would institutionalise the differences between the two communities and fix them as everlasting features of political life - a sovereign power that would exercise power:

‘…on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and…founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities’ (Good Friday Agreement, 1998: 4). [my emphasis]

This statement initially appears like an assertion of liberal values, but it does much more. The political demands for freedom from the British state – a fundamental challenge to the political framework of UK territory - was thus transformed into the demand for the recognition of the cultural rights of Irish nationalists within the Northern Irish territory, still ruled by the British. Instead of a political struggle between two camps (where one side might eventually expect to win), the agreement ensures ‘parity of esteem’ between them (where both sides co-exist). This is reinforced constitutionally by proportional representation of the two communities – Protestant and Catholic - in the Assembly, and the ‘cross-community’ principle, whereby any major decision taken by the body needs approval from all the main parties. The historic discrimination against one group (Catholics) becomes reformulated as a kind of cultural misrecognition and demand for more ‘respect’ and ‘inclusion’.

What are the consequences of such an agreement? Of course, there is the promise of peace, which is understandable after decades of violence that had blighted almost every family in the land. Yet, in signing up to the agreement (71% in the referendum), the people of Northern Ireland also accepted their political struggle was now one of cultural difference between two separate communities with their own ‘traditions’, which would now have to learn to co-exist. 

Of course, the point is that these ‘traditions’ were never merely cultural, but political, and as such, fundamentally in opposition. The brash Loyalist marches through West Belfast or the colourful wall murals of fallen paramilitaries, may seem like mere expressions of cultural identity to the outsider, but they were more accurately a solid reminder of political and military power dynamics between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Without the association with violence and militarised force, marches and murals would be nothing more than a tourism attraction (proof of this lies in comparison with the rather more sedate annual Guy Fawkes festival in Lewes, Sussex, where every year the locals put on the one of the largest bonfires in the country and hang up signs saying ‘No Popery’. Tourists and locals laugh at what is nothing more than a harmless, age-old tradition). It is not cultural identities that nationalists or Loyalists object to, but the political situation that makes such cultural traditions so potent.

Therefore, one consequence of the reorientation of politics around identity is that it obscures or sidelines the fundamental conflict between different groups. To respect each other’s cultures and identities is to ignore the fact that people’s interests are often opposed. In Northern Ireland, the consequence of the shift is the mystification of the causes that led to division in the first place. After all, what were people fighting for all those years if the end point was merely to respect each others’ ways of life?

Another concern with the orientation towards identity is the way in which it might undermine the very process of democracy itself. By insisting that political positions should be protected as ‘cultural’, this removes them from scrutiny and attack. As such, identity politics requires groups to lower their horizons and co-exist with other views, rather than challenge them openly. Ryan (1994) articulates this clearly:

‘Pluralism strikes at the heart of democracy with the concept of diversity. According to this principle, traditions and cultures have different value systems and different beliefs, so that imposing one on the other through majority rule is a violation of their identity and existence…But more diversity means less freedom because people are restricted in their room for action by the need to convey respect to the ‘rights’ of other traditions. Where pluralism flourishes democracy and freedom die’ (1994: 100).

The Cultural Traditions Group, set up in 1988 to support community relations, states its support for multicultural engagement by asserting that ‘conflict [is] more likely to be contained in a multi-cultural society with pluralist values’. As Hyllands-Eriksen (2001) argues, however, the problem with cultural pluralism – however well-intentioned - cannot overcome division but only reproduces it: ‘Cultures need to talk to each other and tolerate each others as it were, but they remain bounded cultures nonetheless’.

Northern Ireland has seen the growth of numerous charitable and non-profit mediation organisations which seek to reconcile Catholic and Protestant groups to each other and ‘heal’ the trauma of division. Laudable as the aim is to overcome sectarianism, this is not done on the basis of shared aims and political views, but respect for the inherent differences between people. Instead of seeking to engage with differences of opinion and belief through rational debate, cultural politics avoids debate altogether. Differences are left to continue, rather than to be resolved into unity. As Brendan McAllister, the director of Mediation Ireland, has stated, ‘Reconciliation does not always mean the achievement of harmony. Rather, it can work best when it enables people simply to manage their enmity’ (McAllister, undated). (Interestingly, Mediation Ireland has been brought into other ‘conflict’ areas in the UK, like Oldham, and East London, showing how widespread this approach is.)

In fact, amongst young people, sectarianism seems to be in the ascendant, with greater numbers flocking to Sinn Fein and the DUP than to their moderate rivals, the SDLP and UUP. In her recent book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Wendy Brown (2006) argues that tolerance of cultural difference is no way to cohere a society, illustrating this rather cannily in the comparison between Martin Luther King’s substantial and inspirational ‘I have a Dream’ with Rodney King’s downgraded and plaintive ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ (it is perhaps unsurprising that Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain, regularly chooses to repeat the second King’s formulation rather than the first).

Another consequence of identity politics is the way it presumes the inevitability of cultural identities and pigeon-holes people. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are fixed, distinct groups. In the UK, Muslims and non-Muslims, blacks, Asians and whites, are presumed to have separate identities and needs. In the clan system operated at national and local government level, different ethnic communities have their own leaders who are supposed to represent their interests, even though they are unelected and often unrepresentative. In a survey published in 2007, 51% of Muslims felt no Muslim organisation represented their views and only 6% named the Muslim Council of Britain (Mirza et al, 2007). The effect of such multicultural engagement is to freeze identities, with their concomitant ideas, beliefs and values, insulating them from internal as well as external criticism. Appiah denounces the restriction of identity politics wrought by this kind of essentialism as replacing ‘one kind of tyranny with another’ (in Gutmann ed. 1994, 163).

For many, the effect on minority groups is to deny their democratic rights in the name of cultural tolerance and respect. It is well known, for instance, that ethnic minority women’s groups like the Southall Black Sisters, are very hostile to the kind of community leaders engaged with by government. This is because they represent narrow male interests, and ignore vulnerable sub-groups like women and gays who would not receive the same tolerance from their own families and communities regarding issues like domestic violence, marital rape or divorce, as they would in wider liberal society. Likewise, there have been concerns about the possible effects on women with regards to lobbying for Islamic sharia law to be brought into parts of the country with a Muslim majority; a move that is highly unlikely but which former Minister for Communities, Ruth Kelly, stated the government was ‘considering’, probably for tactical reasons (Mirza, et al 2007: 30). When the democratic rule of law and provision of services by the state are broken down for different treatment of minority groups, it institutionalises their difference and creates the grounds for inequality. Defending equality, Brian Barry (2001) asserts that a liberal framework should entail a sufficient level of tolerance as long as it was applied universally and only with necessity. After all, if exceptions are made for one group, it brings the whole purpose and necessity of a law or rule into question.

More broadly, the goal of preserving and respecting identities has come to undermine certain democratic rights and freedoms. Freedom of speech has become seen as a ‘problem’ in relation to minorities who might be victims of offence. But the point is that people are equal but ideas are not. One cannot have a law that both allows freedom and enshrines the right not to be offended. As George Orwell famously argued, ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’. When cultural preservation becomes privileged over political equality, it challenges basic fundamental rights to think for oneself and make choices. Thus, it brings the very basis of the democratic system – the free, rational being – into doubt. In Britain, there are very few censorship laws, but what there is remains a chilling reminder that the state does not trust us to think for ourselves. And unlike the censorship of the post-colonial, revolutionary agitators of the twentieth century, this kind of restraint is justified in the name of respect and minority rights – a new conservative ‘radicalism’.

Finally, a major claim of identity politics advocates is that it will deliver a greater sense of social cohesion. To respect rights and institutionalise diversity is to make people feel included. But if current events are anything to go by, the reality is quite different: the more respect minority groups receive, the more the demand for recognition is fuelled.

In 2006, 17-year old Shabina Begum won her legal case against Denbigh High School in Luton in the Court of Appeal, over its refusal to allow her to wear the jilbab (full length Islamic robe) in school. Her barrister, Cherie Blair, presented it as a fight for human rights, although Begum was probably one of only a handful of girls in the country who wanted to wear such untypical clothing and could easily have gone to a different school that would have allowed her to wear it. Begum’s claim was that her religious identity was an inalienable part of her, and she argued – with some limited success – that she had been treated unfairly because this had not been respected. Begum’s demand was not about a broader political struggle for equality. Indeed, her claim was that equality – to be treated like everyone else - is not enough.

One consequence of cases like these is that instead of the universal claim for negative liberty, all minority groups are now encouraged to fight their corners for a piece of recognition pie. In one fell swoop, such policies not only fix people into categories that are themselves restrictive, but also isolate groups from wider society. If Muslims can get their identity enshrined in law, why not Christians? In 2006, Nadia Eweida, a Christian, took British Airways to court over her right to wear a crucifix with her uniform, especially as Muslim women can wear a hijab. This kind of institutionalised respect does not bring people together, but creates new grounds for contestation. Savaric (2001) asserts that for all the talk of cultural identity and respect, arguments in Northern Ireland about Loyalist marches, Gaelic language and culture have become more intense rather than less. Also, it is no coincidence that just as the law is being asked to arbitrate on issues of culture, the scope for public debate about culture is itself narrowing. Because of the recurrent demand for ‘respect’, anyone who publicly criticises such clothing runs the risk of being labelled an Islamophobe or even a racist. Jack Straw MP nearly ended his career in October 2006 when he criticised the wearing of the niqab in his constituency of Blackburn.

As a free society, we should not ban the wearing of the niqab, or other cultural symbols. People’s cultural identities are important to their sense of self and how they relate to others. However, neither should we feel we have to be neutral about cultural identities and values for the sake of a quiet life. Politics, if it is to be of any use, requires us to make judgements and reflect on the cultural forms we organise society around. It is this very process that brings people together and coheres them around a shared ownership of society. To deny this critical impulse and its universality is to overturn the fundamental purpose of democracy itself.


Munira Mirza is Director of Arts, Culture and Creative Industries Policy at the Greater London Authority. She has a background in journalism, lecturing and policy research, and has worked for a range of cultural and charitable organisations including the Royal Society of Arts and Tate. She is a member of Arts Council London, MLA London, a Council Member on the UK Committee of the European Cultural Foundation and is a founding member of the Manifesto Club. She did her PhD at the University of Kent on the subject of local cultural policies in the UK.


Appiah, K.A. (1994) ‘Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Production’ in A. Gutman (ed.) Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Barry, B. (2001) Culture and Equality, Cambridge/Oxford: Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd
Brown, W. (2006) Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Princeton: Princeton University Press (See also my review of the book on Culture Wars
Fraser, N. (1995) ‘From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a “post-socialist” age’ New Left Review 212: 68-92
Good Friday Agreement (1998) available at:
Hylland Eriksen, T. (2001) ‘Between universalism and relativism: A critique of the UNESCO concepts of culture’ in J. Cowan, M. Benedicte Dembour and R. Wilson (eds.) Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
McAllister, B. (undated) ‘Mediation and Peace Building’ BBC Online: 
Mirza, M., Senthilkumaran, A. Ja’far, Z. (2007) Living Apart Together: British Muslim and the Paradox of Multiculturalism, London: Policy Exchange
The Runnymede Trust (2000) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, The Parekh Report, London: Profile Books Ltd.

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