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A liberal dilemma

Yvonne Roberts asks whether social and
religious diversity can co-exist with consensus and
solidarity?.

By the time you read this, retaliation for the
catastrophe of 11 September may have commenced but blood has
already been drawn in the UK. A young Afghan man has been paralysed
by a racist assault and mosques are being vandalised.

Two million Muslims make up Britain’s largest
religious minority. Positions range from the extreme, such as those
of Abu Hamza who allegedly trains British Muslims to fight
alongside the Taliban, to that of the majority expressed by Iqbal
Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain.

“As Muslims,” he says, “it is our duty to
condemn the killings.” He goes on to express a hope that out of the
carnage, a new unity will be forged in Britain “based on mutual
understanding and respect for each others’ beliefs, culture and
traditions”.

Honourable words which express the classic
liberal dilemma. What if some beliefs, culture and traditions
undermine the concepts of equality and modern citizenship of the
host country? If we are, “a community of communities” as recently
described in The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain by Bhikhu
Parekh, the report’s co-ordinator, what are the consequences when,
as he insists, “immigrants owe loyalty to the British state but not
to British values, customs and way of life”?

For instance, is it racist to insist that each
adult immigrant undertakes to learn English? Or is it a means of
empowering the most vulnerable? How does a social worker respond to
the knowledge that a young wife is battered and wishes to leave but
relatives insist that she remain because of family honour?

Again, the Koran teaches the subordination of
women, but in this country discrimination on the basis of gender is
against the law, so why turn a blind eye to it in the Muslim
community? Why, for that matter, allow such teachings in schools of
any religion?

In 1931, RH Tawney in Equality wrote:
“What a community requires is a common culture because, without it,
it is not a community at all.” In the 21st century, most of us,
rightly, celebrate cultural variety; we accept that it’s possible
to have multiple identities. But still a problem remains. As a
society based on social justice don’t we require a consensus on
common principles?

Now, as the possibility of war and the media
interest in a fifth column of UK citizens intent on a Holy War,
triggers further dreadful consequences for non-combatant Muslims,
the question can no longer be avoided: in the 21st century, how do
we embrace diversity, maintain solidarity and uphold important
human rights?

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