A Postcolonial Conservative Defence of Multicultural Equality
John Holmwood 14 July 2020

Xenophobic hostility toward ethnic and religious minorities is on the rise. The primary focus of this hostility in Europe and North America is Muslim minority communities, but it can equally be directed at minorities expressing orthodox Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Pentecostal Christian faith commitments (or, indeed, those expressing Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs, even where these are part of the local ‘tradition’). Nor is it a feature only of far-right political discourse. Across Europe, ‘multiculturalism’ has been decried by politicians in the mainstream, both right and left, for encouraging the self-segregation of minority communities and their separation from the mainstream values of local political cultures.[1]

Adam Seligman and David Montgomery pose an acute dilemma, one which defines our age. How do we recognise the importance of community (especially, religious community) without inadvertently sanctioning xenophobic exclusions? In what follows, I shall agree with them that the language of human rights is not the solution to the ‘contemporary challenge of constructing civil society’.[2]  Indeed, in the UK at present, a derivative of the Human Rights Act, the Equalities Act 2010, is being used against religious minorities as part of the definition of ‘fundamental British values’ to which all citizens should adhere. While religion is a protected characteristic (along with eight others, including gender, sexual orientation, and disability, etc) under this act, it is the one that is most easily elided especially where it appears in conflict with other protected characteristics – for example, those associated with gender of sexual orientation. In this way, right wing conservative arguments about the ‘nation’ become associated with an ‘authoritarian’ and secular liberalism expressed as a form of ‘femo-nationalism’ or ‘homo-nationalism’.[3]

This alignment has been made easier by the way in which mainstream Christianity in the US and Europe has moved in the direction of secular individualism, as described so powerfully by Robert Bellah.[4] Seligman and Montgomery’s argument that religion should be understood in terms of ‘membership’ (or being) rather than ‘identity’ is powerful and we can parse Bellah’s argument as saying that Protestantism and American culture have come into alignment just in so far as the former has become a matter of ‘identity’, as other sociologists of religion have also affirmed.[5] But for Seligman and Montgomery, as for Bellah, and, indeed, minority religious communities themselves, this shift is troubling – religion and membership remain integral as communities of belonging, not of choice.

But, if, in many Western countries, religion has re-aligned, this has also helped to undermine a wider sense of ‘belonging’ and the common good, leaving a vacuum at the heart of social and political life. To some degree, this explains the appeal of populism and claims of a legitimate (white) racial self-interest that has been ignored.[6] It is a vacuum that liberalism itself cannot fill. The latter sets out procedures for settling differences – in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 and its protected characteristics comes to mind – but it has no substantive definition of the common good. This absence is, of course, part of what draws it toward enshrining the very procedures themselves as embodying (progressive) values. Now, religious expression is represented not as something that neutral procedures should enable to flourish, but as something that is potentially ‘backward’ in the light of the values integral to those procedures. Here we begin to see arguments that the state should act in loco parentis to protect (some) children from the (religious) values of their parents. This reverses the initial impetus of the post-war human rights regime with its concern to mitigate authoritarian state actions. I will exemplify these claims through recent a example taken from the UK (more specifically, England).

In what follows, I want to tackle the conservative argument head-on by making a conservative argument for ‘multi-culturalism’; that is, an argument based in belonging, rather than the more usual association with identity. Seligman and Montgomery, for example, place multiculturalism on the ‘Confidence/Rights’ side of their dichotomous rendering of the dilemma of identity and belonging, rather than the ‘Trust/Belonging side. I shall suggest that this is misleading. I will make an argument about the ‘nation’, but not as ethnie. Rather I shall argue that Western nations are necessarily multicultural and multi-ethnic, with their separate commitments to equality implying there should be no hierarchy in the different cultures that constitute them. In this way, the two sides of the dichotomy can be united.

In setting this out, I draw on the work of Uday Singh Mehta to argue for a post-colonial conception of the modern ‘European’ nation grounded in the writings of Edmund Burke.[7] The latter’s argument that the nation takes its meaning from sedimented traditions of local communities is familiar, and it is often taken as the basis for contemporary articulations of ‘one nation’ conservatism based in ethnie. However, such easy appropriations of Burke ignore his criticisms of the English (and, by extension, British and European) project of colonial Empire. The question that is posed is what debt is owed by the (post-colonial) nation once we represent its past – its ‘tradition’ – as Empire?

As Mehta argues, while Burke embraces the claims of property and social order, he eschews abstractions such as the ‘market’ (even when it is argued to express private property) and ‘radical democracy’ (as in the Jacobinism of the French revolution). Of course, we could also add an anachronistic note that, by that token, he would have regarded ‘neo-conservatism’ as an equally abhorrent abstraction. But more pertinently, for Mehta, the bulk of Burke’s writing (and a tiny part of the commentary upon it!) is devoted to the coruscation of Empire, or what Burke calls ‘Indiaism’ (in recognition of one of the primary spaces of its depredations; another, of course, was Burke’s native Ireland). Burke is colourful, but heartfelt, in his language setting out his condemnation of colonialism and its consequences for the ‘mother’ country. The colonialists are described as ‘birds of prey’ that feasted on other subjects of Empire and, when they returned to England, they infected the timbers of domestic institutions.

We – I present myself as English – might imagine a ‘Burkean’ England of little platoons and ‘localisms’ united by the order of stable institutions – of law, Parliament, church – founded in values that have stood the test of time. But we would also need to understand how we destroyed that England in the pursuit of ‘Indianism’. Equally, we would also need to understand what we destroyed for other people that were brought under Imperial rule. In this context, it is important that Burke does not believe that other places are ‘backward’ and need to be brought to more advanced standards of morality by a ‘civilising’ process. Their own institutions and practices are as orderly and coherent as our own, even if they are different and their members express different religious commitments. As Mehta (1999: 184) argues, Burke refuses the Western trope of ‘Asiatic despotism’, which he sees as merely a convenient cover for the colonial exercise of arbitrary power on the grounds that it conforms to local norms.

We can assume that Burke is initially sympathetic to the idea that communities of belonging are best left to develop in their own way and his argument, uniquely for its time, is opposed to colonial projects, especially commercial ones conducted by trading companies like the East India Company. However, that is not what happened and the conversion of commercial colonialism into political rule has the corollary that such rule should be just; that is, it should be directed toward the welfare of its subjects and the protection of ways of life in which they find meaning. Empire, then, is necessarily multicultural.[8] But Empire was far from just, not least in the sense that the famines from which Burke begins his critique, writing of the wresting of the ‘scanty portion of rice and salt from the peasants of Bengal’,[9] are continuous through to 1943. Just as continuous is the repatriation of profit and tax in the face of local hardship.[10]

Burke’s conservatism is not hostile to change, only to change that disrupts the ground in which human being is nurtured. He counters abstract principles with empirics, the ‘rights of men’ with attention to ‘their nature and disposition’. But this is not to set out a contradiction, but rather an intention to preserve in the process of change. Fast forward. We can hear echoes of Burke in the lament of those ‘left behind’, but his concern with tradition is not a form of atavism. Empire changed the nation by reorganising its geographies, by extending subject-hood to everyone within the Empire on an equivalent basis. Populations migrated from Britain to its colonies, and others came to Britain as subjects, not aliens. In that sense, Empire made the nation multicultural and the evolution of democracy made its subjects into citizens with claims as equals. Here we might contrast, as does Bhambra,[11] those who move to other lands to impose a new order – colonialists – and those who move within the space of Empire to seek a better life and to live within the order they find. The ‘threat’ the latter pose, it would seem, is only a threat to identity and to privilege, constituted simply by their willingness to live differently (within their separate communities of belonging) as equals.

Our current dilemma, then, is not so much one constituted by multiculturalism as by the requirement on the part of the white majority of giving up what Danielle Allen has called, the ‘habits of domination’ with which they were previously associated, and replacing them with new habits of equality.[12] The past of Empire cannot be expunged from a nation’s history in understanding who it is, and the past, as Burke would argue, requires a reckoning of what Empire did to the nation. Decolonisation is not only an external process of giving up sovereignty, it is an internal process of reconstruction. In these terms, then, I suggest that the issues that Seligman and Montgomery raise are not to be thought of in terms of an opposition between rights-based claims and communities of belonging, but rather of a failure to overcome (racialised) hierarchies of domination in recognition of the equal rights of others.

For example, the rise of ‘populism’ is frequently associated with a refusal to include those who were previously excluded. Thus, the conditions attributed to a ‘white working class’ are shared by others from ethnic minority backgrounds, but they are denied the status of being similarly understood as ‘left behind’ by widening inequalities. Or worse, the situation is described as one where there is a perceived ‘relative deprivation’ brought about by the inclusion of ethnic minorities, where greater, and (rightful) equality is understood as loss of advantages.[13] Perversely, the very claim for solidarity across ethnic difference in the face of social and economic inequalities is presented as the undermining of solidarity. Thus, the German sociologist and advocate of social democratic welfare arrangements, Wolfgang Streeck argues that ‘ethnic difference’ has undermined the solidarity necessary to sustain welfare arrangements. More stridently, he describes migrants as ‘invaders’ with no claim on the ‘national patrimony’ (a concept in need of deconstruction in the light of the fact that the development of ‘national’ welfare states – including that of Germany – is intimately connected with Empire, while the social benefits are restricted to the ‘local’ population).[14]

The issue is less whether diversity may be too great to sustain solidarity, but whether some ‘diverse others’ are people to whom other members of the political community have obligations and, if they do, on what terms. For example, in the liberal political tradition, justice is frequently seen in terms of an originating contract among the members of a political community, which all too easily associates the political community with those with particular historical claims to membership which are set against the claims of ‘newcomers’ whatever their historical connections to the political community, for example, through colonialism and Empire (which were precisely how ‘nation’ was previously expressed).

Danielle Allen’s discussion of the ‘unlearning’ of habits of domination is developed in the context of the civil rights struggle in the USA, specifically school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas (which comes to be enshrined in the ruling know as Brown versus Board of Education). The moment – epitomised in the student Elizabeth Eckford’s calm presence in the face of a baying mob –  is one of a seismic shift in the habits of citizenship, where practices based upon the domination of one group and the acquiescence of another, begin to break down as a formerly excluded group states affirms presence as constituent members of the public. The reaction of the dominant group is a response to the challenge to its privileges.

The current opposition to multiculturalism in England has a similar character, which I will discuss through the experience of a British Muslim community in Alum Rock, Birmingham and allegations of a takeover of schools by supposed Islamists that emerged in early 2014 – the ‘Trojan Horse affair’.[15] An alleged ‘plot’ was promoted by right-wing media and think tanks, such as Policy Exchange leading to peremptory and authoritarian government action against teachers and governors. Although presented in terms of illegitimate behaviour by a ‘self-segregated’ community of belonging acting contrary to ‘British values’, I shall argue that it should be understood as a demand for participation on equal terms. Significantly, however, the Equality Act 2010 came to be used against the community and not in their support.

Park View was a small secondary school in Alum Rock with around 600 pupils mainly of Muslim heritage – 98.9% by the time of the affair. It was also an area of severe economic disadvantage with 74% of pupils in receipt of free school meals (compared with a Birmingham average of 28.9% and a national average of 15.2%).[16]  It had been identified as one of the worst performing schools in the country in the 1990s and was the focus of an ugly and condescending BBC Panorama television programme titled, Underclass in Purdah.[17] In 1996, a new Chair of Governors, Tahir Alam, previously a pupil at the school, was appointed who began a programme of improvement together with a newly appointed headteacher, Lindsey Clarke. By 2006 it was one of the most improved schools in the country and by 2012 it was judged by Ofsted inspectors to be outstanding and in the top 14% of all schools in the country. The inspectors described it as a ‘truly inclusive school in which there is no evidence of discrimination and students, sometimes with major disabilities, are welcomed as members of the school community’.[18] Under the government’s programme for academy schools, successful schools are encouraged to leave local education authority control and become academies and to form a trust to incorporate other, failing, schools and to introduce their successful practices to improve them. Under the auspices of the Department for Education the school incorporated two other schools, with plans for other schools to follow. All were Muslim majority schools.

In March 2014 a leaked letter purporting to outline a plot to ‘Islamicise’ schools with Tahir Alam at its centre filled the media headlines. Emergency inspections of 21 schools were called, along with special investigations for the City Council and the Department for Education, the latter conducted by the former head of counter terrorism at the Metropolitan Police. Allegations of extremism, the undermining of British values and undue religious influence were made. Governors (including Tahir Alam) and teachers were dismissed, and proceedings for professional misconduct begun. The latter cases dragged on until May 2017 and collapsed as a consequence of serious impropriety on the part of government lawyers and their failure to disclose evidence. In the meantime, academic performance at the schools slumped and has not yet recovered. The participation of Muslims as governors, teachers and senior leaders in education in Birmingham was also significantly reduced, notwithstanding that the BAME school population is 66.6% compared with 28.9% nationally.

One of the claims made in official reports against the school was that it had an Islamic religious ethos, despite being a ‘secular’ state school. Although England does have faith-designated schools, reflecting the tradition of Anglican and Roman Catholic provision of public education, and such schools have special dispensation (for example, in staff appointments), it does not follow that other schools are ‘secular’. All schools are required to have religious education and daily acts of religious worship of a Christian character. In other words, schools are required to have a Christian ‘ethos’. Many schools do not comply, and a significant part of the population is opposed to such requirements. It is, nonetheless, the law. Schools can apply for a ‘determination’ to have other than Christian worship, if the nature of their pupil intake would warrant it. Park View had a determination for Islamic worship since 1996 and had submitted its ‘assembly plans’ for scrutiny to the appropriate body. Moreover, the Islamic ‘ethos’ of the school had been noted by Ofsted inspectors and had been positively endorsed.

What I have just set out could as easily be seen as a model of multicultural integration. The Islamic ethos of the school elicited trust on the part of parents – it provided it, as Seligman and Montgomery argue, with ‘moral credit’. The school endorsed the backgrounds and traditions of the pupils as both Muslim and British and, by allowing the ‘whole child’ to be in school, elicited identification with aspirations for academic success. Parents may have been conservative on gender issues, but all girls were given opportunities to succeed; indeed, in an overall academic performance well above the national average, girls outperformed boys. The significant decline in academic performance at the ‘Trojan horse’ schools is necessarily a reduction in the distribution of educational goods to Muslim pupils, including girls.

The question that arises is why the Equalities and Human Rights Commission took no interest in the affair.[19] One reason is the anomalous nature of religion itself in the context of ‘equalities’. Those associated with gender, sexual orientation, disability, and age, etc, are easily justiciable as individual characteristics in terms of which redress can be sought for alleged discrimination in the provision of services. Religion is, in principle, about ‘collective interactions’. It is not that ‘religious discrimination’ cannot be made equivalent to other forms of discrimination, but it is much more likely to be an action brought by someone of no-faith seeking redress against a religious organisation, or by someone dissident in their faith claiming discrimination against other members. In this context, religious communities sometimes require special dispensation in relation to other protected characteristics. Thus, single-sex ordination for religious office is allowed, as is single-sex schooling (something advocated by the British upper middle class and not just be religious communities). As Julian Rivers has pointed out, one problem is that the form of equality that is of interest to religious communities is the equal liberty to live according to the requirements of their faith.[20] This necessarily includes the liberty to hold that God intended marriage as a sacrament between a man and a woman for purposes of procreation, to repudiate divorce and to believe homosexuality is sinful. The requirement under law is not to discriminate, not to affirm. Yet, it is precisely what ‘communities of belonging’ may affirm that is perceived as problematic from the point of view of groups self-constituted as ‘communities of choice’.

For this reason, some secular liberals have begun to question religious liberty as a human right, arguing that a parent’s right to educate their child in line with their own religious and philosophical beliefs has to be set against a child’s right to choose their own idea of the good. Thus, Clayton (et al) argue that, ‘Current legislation is too permissive to parents and insufficiently attentive to children’s interests, in particular their interest in autonomy’. [21] This is necessarily an argument, in principle, against religious liberty as normally understood. However, any incipient conflict with local religious traditions is rendered moot by an implicit recognition of Bellah’s argument of the alignment between secular individualism and Christianity. Of course, in England, there is a practical reason for this concession; it would be far too expensive to take over the assets of church schools to run them on a secular basis.

Indeed, the current Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, has gone out of her way to indicate that any strictures about religion apply only to minority faiths. Thus, similarly to Clayton and his colleagues, she has argued, “most children spend less than a fifth of their childhood hours in schools and most of the rest with their family. And so if children aren’t being taught these values at home, or worse are being encouraged to resist them, then schools are our main opportunity to fill that gap… This, I believe, was where the so-called Trojan Horse schools failed. Not only were there issues with promoting British Values in many of those schools, but in some cases members of the community were attempting to bring extreme views into school life. The very places that should have been broadening horizons and outlooks were instead reinforcing a backward view of society.”[22] The problem, she proposes, does not lie with religion as such and mainstream Christian religion was exempt from her strictures: “one of [the] values as articulated in the definition of British values is ‘mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith’. It is a happy fact that almost every Church of England school we visit takes that value seriously.” There was and is no evidence that this value is not also endorsed by minority religious communities in Britain. Nor was there, ultimately, any evidence that the ‘Trojan horse’ schools were deficient in this respect, despite it being enshrined in media and government discourse.

I have suggested that the perceived problem of Muslim engagement with the schooling of their children should be understood in terms of a legitimate (multicultural) demand for equal participation in civic life. That it has not been seen in this way is a serious limitation of liberalism and the ‘reconciliations’ of potentially conflicting claims of right. Thus, Clayton et al identify two legitimate constraints on parental freedom: ‘Parents’ freedom to educate their children as they prefer should be constrained by (i) children’s interest in receiving their fair share of educational goods, and (ii) the wider society’s interest in the cultivation of educational goods such as democratic competence, tolerance and mutual respect.’[23] Muslim children in Alum Rock have been denied their fair share of educational goods as a consequence of false accusations of hostility to values of ‘democratic competence, tolerance and mutual respect’. The latter arose as a consequence of false accusations about the characteristics of Alum Rock as a ‘community of belonging’, but it did so in the context of the community taking steps to secure for their children their fair share of educational goods.

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Islam and, more generally, of diverse communities of belonging. But, from a Burkean postcolonial perspective, those communities are not alien intrusions. Liberals are comfortable with seeing the mistreatment of religious minorities in terms of the protected characteristic of race and ethnicity, as a form of racism. Otherwise, to treat it in terms of a right to religious expression is to endorse conservativism. On the other hand, conservatives seem unable to embrace minority religious communities precisely because their members are poor and non-white. What Burke could see was the orderly and civil relations in all communities of belonging, alongside the processes of domination by which different communities were made part of a common space. Religious liberty is at the heart what it would mean for Europe now to be just.



[1] In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the death of multiculturalism at a speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2011. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference.

[2] Adam B. Seligman and David W. Montgomery (2020) ‘The tragedy of human rights: liberalism and the loss of belonging’, Society online, page 1.

[3] I use the term ‘authoritarian’ to indicate its state-centred character, where rights are held to be embedded in the state rather than a means of calling the state to account. On these forms of ‘nationalism’, see Sara R. Farris, (2017) In the Name of Women’s Rights. The Rise of Femonationalism. Durham: Duke University

[4] Robert N. Bellah (2002) ‘The Protestant structure of American culture’, Hedgehog Review, Spring. He argues that even Catholicism has come to adopt the register of Protestantism.

[5] See for example, Davie and her idea of ‘believing without belonging’. See, Grace Davie (1994) Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging, Oxford: Blackwell.

[6] Eric Kaufmann (2018) Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. London: Penguin. For a critique, see John Holmwood (2020) ‘Claiming whiteness’, Ethnicities; 20(1).

[7] Uday Singh Meta (1999) Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[8] By the 1920s Britain ruled over around half of the world’s Muslims. See, Judith Brown and William Roger Louis (eds) The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] Edmund Burke (1783) ‘Fox’s India Bill Speech’, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online. 5.403

[10] Utsa Patnaik (2017) ‘Revisiting the “Drain”, or Transfer from India to Britain in the Context of Global Diffusion of Capitalism’ in Shubra Chakrabarti  and Utsa Patnaik (eds) Agrarian and Other Histories: Essays for Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri. Tulika Books: New Delhi.

[11] Gurminder K. Bhambra, ‘On European ‘Civilization’: Colonialism, Land, Lebensraum’ in Nick Aikens, Jyoti Mistry, Corina Oprea (eds) Living with Ghosts: Legacies of Colonialism and Fascism, L’Internationale Online.

Available: https://www.internationaleonline.org/bookshelves/living_with_ghosts_legacies_of_colonialism_and_fascism.

[12] Danielle S. Allen (2004) Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v, Board of Education, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[13] Justin Gest (2016) The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in and Age of Immigration and Inequality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[14] Streeck, Wolfgang 2018. ‘Between Charity and Justice: Remarks on the Social Construction of Immigration Policy in Rich Democracies,’ Culture, Practice and Europeanisation, 3(2): 3-22.

[15] For discussion, see, John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole (2017) Countering Extremism in Birmingham Schools? The truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair, Bristol: Policy Press.

[16] It also had well above the national average of pupils with special educational needs.

[17] See Sean McLoughlin (1998) ‘An Underclass in Purdah? Discrepant representations of Identity and the experiences of young-British-Asian-Muslim-women’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 80(3):89-106.

[18] Cited in Holmwood and O’Toole, op cit, page 5.

[19] Its Chair from 2003 until September 2012 had been Trevor Philips who was outspoken in his opposition to multiculturalism and propounded the view that Muslim communities were self-segregated.

[20] Julian Rivers (2020) ‘Is Religious Freedom under Threat from British Equality Laws?’ Studies in Christian Ethics, 33(2).

[21] Matthew Clayton, Andrew Mason, Adam Swift and Ruth Wareham (2018) How to Regulate Faith Schools. Impact Pamphlet Issue 25.  page 9. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/2048-416X.2018.12005.x

[22] Amanda Spielman (2017) ‘Speech at the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership’, 1 February. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielmans-speech-at-the-birmingham-school-partnership-conference.

[23] Op cit, page 5.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He was expert witness for the defence in professional misconduct cases brough against the teachers at Park View. He has collaborated with LUNG theatre group in the development of a play, Trojan Horse, which has just completed a national tour. The experience of ‘performing injustice’ is discussed in an article available online here.

Photo: Nelson Almeida / AFP

If you liked our analyses, stories, videos and dossiers, follow us on Facebook and Twitter and share our contents.

To get all of the latest, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month)