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Local ‘political friendships’: the key to making multiculturalism work


Towards the start of my research for Contending Modernities on multiculturalism I found myself watching a TV debate on the topic. The panel touched all the bases you would expect to be covered in such a debate – national identity, immigration, religious and political extremism – and yet it was difficult not to feel that the discussion was floating above some of the real life challenges of multiculturalism, captured perfectly by one politician’s insistence that we should ‘forget about blending people and just build the most beautiful mosaic society we can’.

Six months later, having just finished writing the report, I heard the very sad news that the wife of a man I had met through my research had suffered a stroke. This man was part of a multicultural father and son’s group in East London that used a small grant to organise monthly trips with activities like camping and archery. The amazing thing about this situation was that this very diverse group rallied around the family in the most incredible and practical way – from cooking meals to offering lifts to and from the hospital. In fact, the wives of the dads were even getting together – Hindus, Catholics and Muslims – to pray for this woman and her family.

The lesson of these two stories is the message of Making Multiculturalism Work – that overcoming the challenges presented by diversity requires fewer expert opinions and clever one-liners, and more local relationships between people of different faiths and ethnicities.

Political friendships

My research set out to investigate how projects in the UK are already bringing diverse groups together and forming what Harvard scholar Danielle Allen has called  ‘political friendships’ across difference. In particular I looked at the UK government-funded Near Neighbours programme, which enables different faith groups to undertake social action projects together, and the civil society campaigning of community organisers as practiced by Citizens UK.

The first thing that became clear was the importance of working together. Dialogue is all very well, but if there is no tangible common action then it will be hard to create any sense of shared destiny. The Near Neighbours programme is a good example of how governments can contribute through giving small grants with the sole criteria that projects bring people together from different faiths or ethnicities. Such initiatives allow people to engage each other in ways that make sense to them, with nobody telling them what they should be doing or how.

Second, if people are going to move beyond surface level co-operation, they need to be free to share their deepest motivations. Citizens UK has been quick to recognise this, giving its participants chances to share ‘testimony’ in public meetings. This often involves the sharing of personal stories where themes that aren’t always permitted in the public sphere, such as  family and faith, are particularly in evidence. The result is that campaigners can trust each other to stick together when challenges arise because they know exactly what their collective efforts represent to each person involved.

Fostering unlikely alliances

Encouraging political friendships by building skills in working together and sharing core motivations involves making difficult choices. One challenge is in deciding who is considered acceptable to work with. There is something of an irony in ‘progressive’ circles that whilst outwardly championing diversity and difference, many people are often quite restrictive in who they will co-operate with in public. The example of the debate regarding whether political parties in the UK should be working with faith groups, which they might agree with on social justice but disagree profoundly with on issues of equality and personal morality, highlights this dilemma.

The experience of Citizens UK and Near Neighbours suggests a need to change the way that individuals and groups judge potential partners, moving from using a ‘progressive test’ of their beliefs to a ‘relational test’ of whether they can co-operate with people from different backgrounds. They have found that this more open form of cooperation can create unlikely alliances which are transformational for all involved, and that such experiences are actually more likely to soften fringe views than simply giving people the political cold shoulder.

The second challenge of the report is to those who might feel nervous about the idea of exploring core motivations because it could lead to the divisive subject of faith and religion coming up in public. Again, the experience of Near Neighbours and Citizens UK suggests that this fear is somewhat ungrounded. Instead, they found that people are usually quite good at negotiating fundamental differences themselves without relying on boundaries for what is and is not a publicly acceptable topic for discussion.

Practical multiculturalism

The business of creating a more practical multiculturalism by promoting political friendships across difference might be a little more complex than it first seems. But at its heart this report has a very simple message: that the future success of multiculturalism will not be won by lofty new theories or more debates on national identity, but by encouraging real relationships at a grass roots level between people of every background and belief. Nobody is exempt from contributing to this task, and it is up to all of us to consider how the institutions in which we are involved might strengthen their members’ skills in working together and sharing core motivations. Then like the dads of East London we might just find ourselves surprised by the possibilities of political friendships to create diverse yet united communities of which we can all truly be proud.

David Barclay is the Faith in Public Life Officer at the Contextual Theology Centre, based in East London, which helps churches to engage with their communities. He is a former President of the Oxford University Student Union, and has spent two years living and working in Western China.

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