In Britain, growing objections to multicultural society

When terrorists bombed London twice last month, the response from authorities was unequivocal: they would not change our way of life.

Yet one aspect of British society is being pressed to change: multiculturalism. The social model that shuns assimilation and encourages ethnic groups to retain their cultural practices is under fire.

Some critics are now asking: Is Britain too laissez faire?

Those who want a more robust response to terrorism argue that multiculturalism fosters an aloofness dangerous to social cohesion that has ultimately led young men from ethnic minorities to turn on their own society.

"Britain has a proud history of tolerance towards people of different views, faiths and backgrounds," opined David Davis, the senior opposition Conservative member of Parliament (MP), Wednesday. "But we should not flinch from demanding the same tolerance and respect for the British way of life." Another MP, Gerald Howarth, said if some Muslims "don't like our way of life, there is a simple remedy: go to another country, get out."

But even as government officials Tuesday began their campaign to reach out to Britain's sizeable Muslim community, those who believe in the multicultural dream say it is already being eroded by the response to the attacks.

Race crime has soared 600 percent in London since 7/7, with more than 250 incidents. Individuals report discrimination on the basis of their appearance. The police hunt for would-be bombers has homed in on ethnic minorities.

The problems facing multiculturalism have been underscored by the arrests that followed the failed July 21 attacks in London. The suspected bombers are east Africans who settled here in the early 1990s. Some took British citizenship. But the suspicion is that none really took to the British way of life. East African communities here are known for being particularly close-knit, in part because of the huge cultural barrier they face in settling here.

"[Somalis] face a language barrier, barriers to employment, difficulties accessing mainstream services like health and education," says Adam Hassan, a former refugee from Somalia who gained British citizenship in 1994 and now helps his countrymen settle here. "As a result there is a great deal of underachievement which could have implications for the incidents we have seen recently. Children leave school without qualifications. Some loiter on the streets and become petty criminals. Others go to the mosque and become indoctrinated by radical mullahs."

All immigrants who want British citizenship must remain in the country five years and then pass a language test and a short quiz on British culture that could include questions on everything from the Magna Carta to what to do if you spill someone's drink in a pub.

About 90,000 are successful each year, and pass through a citizenship ceremony where they swear allegiance to the queen and pledge to uphold British values.

But that is the easy part. It is what happens next that is stoking debate.

Other European countries such as France expect greater assimilation from their newcomers. Britain has taken a more hands-off approach, and its ethnic communities tend to be highly segregated, as a demographic map of London shows: Indians in northwest London; Caribbeans in Brixton; Koreans in New Malden; and whites in the suburbs.

Some community leaders insist that multiculturalism still works, that it has nothing to do with terrorism.

At its best, they say, it enables immigrants to settle more comfortably, retaining customs and culture while obeying British law. And it celebrates the diversity of Britain's population.

"It enables society to celebrate the best of the religion and culture that they have," says Khalid Mahmood, one of four British Muslim MPs. He says it doesn't necessarily mean isolation, pointing to a recent surge of involvement by the Asian community in political and professional life.

But terrorism experts say it's becoming counterproductive. Ethnic ghettos and a laissez faire attitude toward the "hate preachers" who operate in them has made Britain vulnerable, explains Bob Ayers, of London's Chatham House think tank.

"This promulgation of separateness tends to make people form themselves into 21st-century ghettos with their own cultures and socio-economic practices," he says, warning that this risks promoting "an environment that is capable of producing people who turn on their own country."

The problem then emerges of how much integration one expects. Most people on both sides of the argument say that learning English is an important requirement for immigrants. A modicum of cultural knowledge is also a reasonable expectation, they say.

But then opinion diverges. Recent arguments have raged here about whether girls should be permitted to wear hijab in schools; about whether a play deemed offensive to Sikhs should be allowed to be staged; about whether radical interpretations of certain faiths should be permitted to be preached openly.

There are, moreover, certain aspects of British culture that some minorities actively strive to avoid.

"There is a tradition here of going clubbing on a Friday night and getting punch drunk," notes Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. "That's something many Muslim parents would not want for their children. Also, there were 185,000 abortions here last year - again not something that Muslims are happy with.

"Some traditions and values in Islam can be enormously beneficial to Britain, just as there are British values that Muslims would do well to learn from," he says, adding that this is one of the beauties of multiculturalism.

Another problem, community leaders say, is that minorities are expected to embrace a local culture that still discriminates against them and does not always represent their worldview.

A BBC survey last year found that minorities were far less likely to be invited to job interviews than white indigenous people. Unemployment is particularly rife among some parts of the Muslim community. An undercover documentary recently highlighted a strong racist current within the police.

"A fundamental point is about making minorities feel part of this society," says Bunglawala. He welcomed the government's initiative, launched Tuesday, to travel the country and meet with communities to hear their concerns.

"They will hear that many Muslim youths are not identifying with our government and our country because of some of our policies in the Muslim world," he says.

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