A new discourse on race and faith politics

Abstract

An initial statement from New Generation Network, a non-partisan group of progressive voices, predominantly from Asian backgrounds. It calls for fresh approaches to tackling racism, discrimination and prejudice, and building a plural and multi-ethnic Britain. Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow is among several Christians who have endorsed it. The manifesto first appeared on The Guardian's Comment-is-Free.

Thirty years since the passing of the Race Relations Act (1976), Britain faces a crisis of conversation around race and faith. These have always been sensitive topics, but the debate has hit new lows of simplicity and hysteria in the past few years. People want to talk. They need to talk. But how do they engage in a discussion which has been manipulated by recent governments to demonise minority groups, while being increasingly hijacked by self-appointed ‘community leaders’?

We, the signatories to this manifesto, today call for a new approach to tackle discrimination and prejudice and to forge a fresh approach to building a modern Britain. We are optimistic that people of different backgrounds and faith can live together in our society. Thus we want to ensure that the national conversation is not dominated by our fears or polarised voices.

We need an approach that discards the older politics of representation through government sanctioned gate-keepers. One that rejects prejudice from both majority and minority communities, especially unreasoned intolerance based on religion or ideology, and finds a common cause in equality and social justice with all Britons.

The prevailing evidence seems to be on our side. Contrary to scare-stories of “sleepwalking into segregation” or riots on the streets, many studies show that segregation is decreasing. We do not accept such broad generalisations. Mixed-race children represent the fastest growing group and polls demonstrate that most Britons are positive about race relations. And yet a crisis is being generated by commentators and politicians with scare-stories that have little grounding in reality.

Challenges

But we recognise that modern Britain faces challenges. Growing religious extremism is no doubt uppermost in many people’s minds. Racism and discrimination against minority groups remain a major problem as hatred against Muslims and immigrants in general has become a proxy for old-fashioned racism. Racial prejudice is no longer the preserve of white people and has become much more complicated.

There is little doubt that recent events, culminating in the so-called ‘war on terror’, have increased fear on all sides, made worse by debates that miss the nuanced arguments. Problems of housing shortages, bad public services and some gang-violence have been politicised into problems of race or religion even if the facts disagree.

Not helping

We need to wrest the debate away from the extreme ends of the spectrum and provide a voice to the often silent majority. The true purpose of “Multiculturalism” should be to help people from differing cultural backgrounds to understand each other better and overlap productively. Instead it has come to mean increasing separation. Sometimes this is a case of deliberate misrepresentation by the media and it has not been helped by the government entrusting power to so-called ‘community leaders’ and other umbrella groups who claim to be the voice of minority groups. Such organisations should be working to put themselves out of business not to expand their remits.

In a throwback to the colonial era, our politicians have chosen to appoint and work with a select band of representatives and by doing so to treat minority groups as monolithic blocks, only interested in race or faith based issues rather than issues that concern us all such as housing, transport, foreign policy and crime.

Unfortunately, many self-appointed community representatives have an incentive to play up their victimisation. This arrangement allows politicians to pass on the burden of responsibility to them and treat minorities as outsiders. MPs have increasingly sought to politicise problems of segregation, political apathy, criminality and poverty into problems of race and religion, and shift responsibility onto appointed gate-keepers rather than find ways of engaging with all Britons.

This brand of politics works against the very people it is meant to help. The gate-keepers have helped to polarise the debate on community cohesion by taking extreme positions and failing to reflect more progressive opinion from those they claim to represent. Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews all have long traditions and histories of progressive thought, self-criticism and change. Unsurprisingly a political paralysis has followed when addressing cultural ills such as honour killings, homophobia and forced marriages.

The way forward

In calling for a dismantling of the old order, we must build a new movement on the values of tolerance, freedom of expression and a clear commitment to anti-racism. Prejudice in the form of anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism must be rejected, as should any demonisation of Muslims. And it should be rejected from all corners.

The struggle for equality and better access to public services is a struggle for all Britons not just ethnic minorities. White working-class families also face problems with deprivation, injustice and demonisation. Their concerns should not be ignored or blamed on other groups.

We are not arguing that faith or race based groups should be restricted, but rather that their arguments be treated as one argument amongst many others and on their own merit. They have a right to argue for the enforcement of civil liberties and minority rights but they should be seen as lobby groups, not representatives of millions of people.

We need to foster a climate in which people can have private differences which include religion, language and culture, but also have a public space where such differences are bridged. The right to freedom of speech and expression of culture, faith and public debates must remain paramount.

Each one of us from this modern generation of Britons has multiple identities and we do not ask that anyone surrenders their heritage. Indeed, cultural and religious heritages are in the main a source of empowerment.

The aim of this manifesto is to declare that too many discussions are framed as “them and us” by politicians, or dominated by reactionaries on all sides. To build a modern Britain at peace with itself we must also hear the voices in the middle that are interested in building bridges rather than stressing our differences.

OUR PRINCIPLES

1) An end to communal politics

As Britons we want to be treated not as homogenous blocks but as free thinking citizens with diverse views.

So-called ‘community leaders’ and race-relations experts should be seen as lobbyists not representatives. They do not have a democratic mandate to represent anyone.

This is not to say anyone working with ethnic or faith minorities is on a gravy train; there are many examples of necessary work being done on issues of social exclusion and marginalisation at the grassroots.

We do not support any group that claims to champion equality but refuses to respect the human rights of other disadvantaged groups.

Eligibility for funding should depend on being able to demonstrate a clear commitment against all forms of discrimination on grounds of race, caste, religion, sexuality, gender or disability.

2) Against prejudice

We completely condemn racism against any peoples, including against whites, Jews and Muslim, or between different non-white groups.

We reject the increasingly common sight of extremist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir being feted by anti-racism organisations and politicians on common causes.

We would like a debate on what initiatives can be taken to enable faith schools to foster community cohesion.

3) For equality

We are for a commitment to ending child poverty across our society and to building an effective coalition across class, ethnic and faith groups in order to achieve this.

An effective British democracy needs to engage and involve all of the talent in our population. While some progress has been made on both gender and race, the public and private sector draw talent from far too narrow a range of experiences – in terms of class, gender, faith and ethnicity.

We reject the idea that representation should mean ‘ethnic faces for ethnic areas’, which would ghettoise minority representation.

4) We believe in freedom of speech

Enshrined in free speech and free expression are the same civil liberties which have allowed minorities to sustain and develop their cultures, wear what they want, go on public demonstrations and challenge laws.

We call on the government to support freedom of speech in situations where extremists threaten artists and writers with violence. Its failure to do so is state multiculturalism at its most unpleasant and should be viewed as collusion with extremists. To tackle extremism we must allow diverse voices to speak out.

5) We are for respecting people’s multiple identities

The right to combine mixed identities, which include culture, faith, ethnicity, region and more is the essence of an open society. These rights must be underpinned by a common citizenship which protects our rights.

We call on government to fund programs giving new immigrants the language skills they need to participate in civic society and be more self-empowered. This is the primary way to ensure gaps can be bridged between different communities.

Proud of our strong identities, we aim to be free in voicing concerns about repressive cultural practices, corruption within religious institutions and forced marriages.

6) A new national conversation about race

Media organisations need to do considerably more to inform themselves about and to tune into the debates going on within multi-ethnic Britain today. Too often, extreme and highly unrepresentative voices are presented as authoritative or representative in part due to the shock value they provide.
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All broadcasters have a particular responsibility to create the space for the much richer national conversation that we need.

Signed by:

Sunny Hundal (Asians in Media and Pickled Politics)
Ziauddin Sardar (writer, broadcaster and critic)
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (writer and commentator)
Sunder Katwala (General Secretary of the Fabian Society)
Sukhdev Sandhu (writes for the Daily Telegraph and the London Review of Books)
Robert Beckford (theologian, University of Birmingham; broadcaster)
Gurpreet Bhatti (playwright)
Hari Kunzru (novelist)
Reem Maghribi (editor, Sharq magazine)
Priyamvada Gopal (English scholar, University of Cambridge)
Dave Hill (novelist and journalist)
Maya Sikand (barrister)
Rehna Azim (barrister)
Simon Barrow (Co-Director, Ekklesia)
And more.

Republished with acknowledgments and gratitude to the New Generation Network.

Supplementary: A full list of signatories can be found here, and also a list of related 'comment' columns on the Guardian, including Simon Barrow's Difference based on friendship. See also the weblog Pickled Politics (progressive Asian voices) and Asians in Media. The Ekklesia news story on the NGN manifesto is here.