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Gary Younge
So much for so little

Such is the parlous state of racial conversation in Britain at present that any discussion which does not ignore racism, mythologise Britishness, demonise muslims or elevate difference (racial, ethnic or religious) to a point of principle is sufficiently rare for its very existence to be welcomed. To that extent Race and Faith: a new agenda - the manifesto put forward by a collection of prominent and respected British writers and intellectuals - makes a positive contribution.

It rightly raises the issues of mis/representation of minority groups, communalism and polarisation. It refuses to be straitjacketed by the more simplistic manifestations of identity politics and in so doing challenges the colonial desire for "community leaders" to act as conduits to and griots for troubled natives.

So far so good.

But given its great claims of establishing a new agenda and "dismantlement of the old order" when you get to the end you cannot help feeling you have read so much for so little. Two key contradictions dominate. First it claims to be optimistic. "Contrary to the scare-stories of 'sleepwalking into segregation'...many studies show that segregation is decreasing...a crisis is being generated by commentators and politicians with scare-stories that have little grounding in reality."

Yet later on the authors sound like the very commentators they have just done condemning. They claim that "multiculturalism has come to mean increasing segregation" and call on us to "tackle the increasingly common sight of extremist groups". Which one is it? Is British popular culture continuing to integrate even as its political culture holds an entirely separate conversation? Or are things really falling apart at every level?

Second, the very nature by which the manifesto came about undermines one of its central points. Sensing a space where they felt good ideas were lacking a group of intellectuals got together and crafted these ideas. Their contributions found space in the media; their presence sparked a conversation. They used the first person plural - "We" - and claimed to speak for an entire generation: "each one of us from the modern generation of Britons has multiple identities..." . They set out "a way forward for the country". Central to that path was that "community leaders should be debunked because noone should talk for anyone else. And in so doing they claimed to speak for everyone else.

The issue of "community leaders" is a real one but it emerges at least in part because, like the authors of this manifesto, people seek to fill a perceived gap in the intellectual or political market. This is good for civil society. The question of what or whom they represent is partly to do with their self-appointment, but even more crucial is who anoints them. Anybody can stand up and say they represent the people of Brick Lane, Muslims, British Muslims or Jews. What matters just as much is not who appoints themselves but who in turn anoints them and why. When the government calls on "Muslim community leaders" to Downing Street, is the problem that they have been called, that they go, neither or both?

Either way it is difficult to imagine how the state of British race relations will improve enormously without the main groups singled out in Sunny's piece. They are by no means the largest obstacle to confronting racial prejudice in this country and to claim they are is to miss the point. As such the manifesto is in many ways as interesting for what it doesn't talk about as what it does. It makes a cursory mention of foreign policy and no mention that I can see of terrorism. Neither of the latter defines British race relations - the riots in Bradford took place several months before 9/11 as did the marginalisation of asylum seekers and the resurgence of the BNP. Yet these two factors - the war and terrorism - have been the principle factors shaping, or rather distorting Britain's racial discourse, this last five years.

It makes specific mention of Hizb ut- Tahir but none, that I can see, of the BNP. The former is a tiny organisation from a relatively small community; the latter is a growing organisation, with elected representatives, from a relatively huge community. Both are objectionable. But if you're going to only mention one, which poses the biggest threat to Britain's racial harmony? Every attitudinal survey still suggests that the biggest obstacle to integration remains white racism - I have yet to hear of large numbers of Muslims or black people moving out of an area because white people have moved in. The shape-shifting nature of multi-culturalism - like political correctness it can mean whatever you want it to mean so long as you are against it - is a poor basis on which to ground any argument.

As Sunny has mentioned on this site before: ""Multiculturalism", however you define it, is a small cog in the wider scheme of things where alienation and terrorism is a result of factors that include the influence of Middle Eastern politics, foreign policy, issues of identity and belonging, racism and ignorance on all sides and much more."

Quite why he would chose to cast his net so narrowly on this occasion I am not sure. I certainly feel that I share his values. But as things stand in Britain today, I cannot say that I share his priorities.

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