DID DAVID CAMERON REALLY MEAN WHAT HE SAID ABOUT MULTICULTURALISM?
It is not often that I am inspired by our senior political figures. But I felt inspired after David Cameron’s 2007 visit to Birmingham’s Sparkbrook ward, which I represent as one of three elected Respect councillors.
He stayed in the area for two days and spent a night with a local Muslim family and was so clearly impressed by the experience he wrote in glowing terms in the Observer about what he had learned. He didn’t just churn out lazy cliches a la “I stayed with a Muslim family and they were nice to me shock”, but describes his experiences in terms of the inspiration he drew from Sparkbrook for what a multicultural Britain could be like.
He praised the ward, a deprived, multicultural inner-city area, for its community cohesion and vibrant grassroots community infrastructure. He called for “a concerted attack on racism and soft bigotry”. He described how “we cannot bully people into feeling British”.
He also rejected talk of integration only being about immigrant communities and “their” responsibilities and duties. Instead, he saw it as a two-way street, which was as much about “the quality of life that we offer, our society and our values” as it was about the need for Muslims to assimilate.
In particular, he urged caution about the “lazy” use of language that is fuelling demonisation of the Muslim community, via catch-all sinister-sounding phrases such as “Islamist” and “extremist”. (I was reminded of his words this week when a leading member of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition who govern our city denounced me in the media as an “extremist” and “Islamist”).
He concluded that “if we want to remind ourselves of British values – hospitality, tolerance and generosity to name just three – there are plenty of British Muslims ready to show us what those things really mean”.
After Cameron’s recent pronouncements on multiculturalism, I now ask myself: did he mean a single word if it? Instead of supporting anti-racism, he gave a speech that was wholeheartedly endorsed by the leader of the BNP and those who took part in the EDL marches on the same day. Instead of rejecting bullying, he now espouses “muscular liberalism”.
I like to think Cameron was genuine in his words when he visited my ward. And that somehow his mind was hijacked by the right wing of his party. I hope for all our sakes he wins it back. Because while areas like Sparkbrook are not perfect, they are succeeding.
Despite the fact we have major challenges of poverty, in all the indices of community engagement we are thriving. A Be Birmingham survey commissioned by the council 18 months ago questioned residents across the city on their attitudes to living in their neighbourhoods. On each of the following questions, Balsall Heath in my area came top: do you feel safe in your area? Do you feel proud of it? Do you trust people in your street? Do you trust the police? Do you trust the council? Do you feel able to influence events in your area?
Quite remarkable, considering that it ranks among the five poorest wards in the country. But not so surprising when you glimpse the variety of activities that residents come together to do as neighbours, accepting one another whatever their backgrounds. Activities that voluntary groups such as Balsall Heath Forum and the local councillors actively facilitate include (Muslim-led) carol singing in old people’s homes, litter picks with school children, a walking bus to school, hampers to the elderly at Christmas and Eid, a twice-yearly communal meal for all residents in the church, the first “green” mosque in England and a summer carnival and autumn firework display. All this has not come about in response to government finger-wagging but through patient work over many years on the ground by residents themselves.
We have challenges to face, of course. The 70% cut to our youth service budget that the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration has introduced will do more to unpick community cohesion than any threat of hate-spewing Muslim bigots. And of course we have a few of them too.
But instead of being passive about it, Birmingham’s Muslims formed a coalition to marginalise extremists and drive them from our mosques. Recently our community did so again, successfully disrupting attempts by the Islam4UK extremist Anjem Choudary to put down roots here.
Cameron once had a vision. It was a positive and genuinely uniting and inclusive one that gained him admirers across the political spectrum. He should return to it.