Forced marriage to faith schools: the politics of multiculturalism

Saturday 20 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Frobisher 4-6

When Tory MP Aidan Burley tweeted that Danny Boyle’s Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony was ‘leftie multicultural crap’, he was widely condemned: even his own party leader David Cameron joined in the chorus of those branding him ‘incompatible with modern Britain’. Yet in a speech in Munich in February 2011, Cameron had announced the ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’ had failed in Britain by encouraging ‘different cultures to live separate lives… apart from the mainstream’. He aligned himself with a number of religious and political leaders arguing for ways of bringing us together in what Gordon Brown called a ‘stronger sense of patriotic purpose’. Has multiculturalism-gone-mad had its day? And, if so, is the alternative a more moderate multiculturalism or cultural conformism?

The government has recently proposed to criminalise forced marriages, claiming legislation is the only way to stamp out a foreign custom incompatible with core British values. The controversial attempt to ban the religious circumcision of young boys in Germany also caused heated debate in the UK about what freedoms should be allowed to different cultural religious groups. Even the great faith schools debate has become jumbled up with multiculturalism, as it is argued faith schools are less ethnically mixed. The BBC’s Panorama went so far as to allege Islamic schools were inculcating violent and racist beliefs in British Muslim children. Does all this represent at attack on multiculturalism, even curtailing religious freedom in the name of Britishness? After all, to take a critical perspective, marriage by definition is a voluntary union: ‘forced marriage’ is nothing other than abduction, already illegal. And aren’t religious rituals like circumcision, or a preference for religious schooling, just the sort of benign differences a confident society should be happy to tolerate?

Nevertheless, a return to old-fashioned, jingoistic Britishness, let alone Christian triumphalism, seems unlikely. When the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, suggested that CofE schools should open their doors to non-Anglicans, was he not advocating indifference to religion, a uniform non-judgementalism, rather than genuine diversity? Is this the model of multiculturalism we can expect to see more of? Conformism to a liberal, secular consensus rather than a nationalistic one? Is there no room for allowing freedoms to different culture groups without endorsing their particularist identity? Or is the problem that multiculturalism has blossomed on the grave of the politics of assimilation? An answer by default to the reality of a lack of any consensus as to what it might mean to be British?

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Dr Jonathan Chaplin
director, Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge; author, Multiculturalism: a Christian retrieval

Jens-Martin Eriksen
writer, playwright and novelist; co-author, The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism

Rania Hafez
programme leader, MA Education, Greenwich University; fellow, The Muslim Institute

Max Wind-Cowie
deputy director, ResPublica

Toby Marshall
A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education

Produced by
Rania Hafez programme leader, MA Education, Greenwich University; fellow, The Muslim Institute
Toby Marshall A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education
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