Sunder Katwala on diversity: “having your own rights is about respecting the rights of others…”

A British Future conversation about identity from Pakistan Calling on Vimeo.

As part of the Pakistan Calling project, second generation Corkman, Sunder Sunder Katwala Director of British Future… talking about the discomfort that people feel about living together:

‘Can we agree the rules of how we are getting along? Freedom of religion is the absolute fundamental right of British society, as is the freedom not to believe.

And so having your own rights is about respecting the rights of others. What we fall out about are the boundaries. In many way it is the ability to stay in the room, negotiate and find a compromise. There are always more moderate people on two sides of a fence who0 can fine an agreement than there are hotheads on either side who say “well, we don’t want to live together”.

It’s another one of these borrowings from a Britain that does not resemble the Britishness (or indeed the Irishness) of Northern Ireland. Katawala is right to point out that in almost any society, those who carry their politics lightly are far more numerous than those who take it far more seriously (like thee and me, dear reader)…

The question of whether there is a will to stay in the room comes back to the deeply political question of how committed to diversity in society are our political leaders, or indeed are we as a wider community. As Brian notes here, “absolutely everybody is now spouting the language of a shared future without feeling under pressure to say what it might mean”.

But at the heel of the hunt, is also useful to note that we are not the only ones experiencing some of these tensions. The interview is well worth watching all the way through…

It’s well worth tracking (you can register for updates here), not simply out of direct interest, but it strikes me this may be a project well worth replicating elsewhere too. For more information contact the director of Calling PK Anwar Ahktar:

, , ,

  • abucs

    With a diversity of identity comes a diversity or rooms.

    It might not be a matter of leaving a specified room, but simply not feeling the compunction to have to attend somebody else’s.

  • “The question of whether there is a will to stay in the room”

    Eric Kaufmann has posed the question about a ‘white flight’ from London based on an analysis of the 2011 census results:

    Between 2001 and 2011, the proportion of white British in London’s population fell from 58 to 45 percent

    Problems of sharing the same space may have echoes in places like Belfast’s Malone district as well as in other UK cities though here the difference is more likely to be linked to perceived constitutional aspiration.

  • Ruarai

    Take your freedom of religion – just don’t expect my to compromise on my freedom of speech so you can ‘enjoy’ it. Freedom of speech must come first.

  • abucs

    I think the Muslims of Birmingham are quite happy to share their city with English people, as long as the English behave themselves and don’t interrupt the Islamic way of life.

  • Ruarai

    Well, abucs, I worked in Birmingham for a couple of weeks about 8 years ago and, like Nottingham and London before it, it resembled less an Islamic state than Ibiza with rain.

    England, in my experience, is one of the most hedonistic, anything-goes, party places on the planet. If that’s the new Jerusalem, sign me up!

    And as for the “Islamic way of life” you reference, there were plenty of colleagues and partiers from Muslim backgrounds so you may want to revise your assumption that there is a single Islamic way of life.

    To the extent that anecdotes are worth anything, here’s another: there really was a “happy holidays” rather than “happy Christmas” vibe but, upon talking to people, this seemed more the birthchild of a few well-meaning “progressives” and loud and unrepresentative clerics.

    Cameron may have been a little indelicate when he said that multiculturalism has failed – what’s failed is the attempt to build cohesion by banning or at least frowning upon expressions of identity from the public square. True fremdom or speech and a true secural society should accomodate and celebrate different identities, not seek a French-style (or Alliance Party style) white-washing.

    Just so long as different beliefs aren’t given the space to violate human rights.

  • Greenflag

    ‘Just so long as different beliefs aren’t given the space to violate human rights.’

    They are not given the space to violate human rights in the UK or Ireland or elsewhere in Europe or in the USA as yet . There are other belief systems not religious per se which are to the forefront of denying rights to education , health care and human dignity based on the financial and profit making potential of markets and consumerism which are placed above all other considerations .

    And how do countries like Pakistan , Saudi Arabia etc treat or permit freedom of religion to any of their Christian or Jewish or other minorities ?

    From my understanding -being found in possession of a Christian Bible in Saudi Arabia is a criminal offence .

  • abucs

    I’ve visited and lived in many Muslim dominated areas Ruarai – Palestine, Mindanao, Indonesia, Malaysia and northern India to name a few. I’ve also taught classes that were overwhelmingly Muslim as well as lived in areas of the West with large Muslim communities. I am quite aware there are different Islamic cultures.

    But also i am aware that you cannot directly challenge Islam which means that while you may be in the room, Islamic thought dominates by default. Hence my reference earlier to the fact that there are different rooms of different identity rather than one room that everyone participates in.

    I would also caution people who think that their secular room is a neutral room where people would wish to participate according to secular values and dictates.

    I agree with your comment that what has failed is the idea of suppressing identity in the public square to build cohesion. It has been counter-productive in that it leads to fragmentation, division and rejection of such values and dictates.

  • Ruarai


    so we agree there’s cultural diversity and degrees of adherence and orthodoxy within the Islamic tradition. And we agree, I think, on the failure of multiculti politics and the damage they’ve done to understanding and defending a pluralist and secular society.

    But I’m not following this line:

    …you cannot directly challenge Islam which means that while you may be in the room, Islamic thought dominates by default.

    Whether you mean (i) that Islam cannot be challenged theologically or (ii) that various political manifestations of Islamism cannot be challenged politically, neither proposition is true – so long as the conversation or challenge is happening in the West, at least. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that line?

    I accept that some folks, by no means all Muslim or even religious, are working towards banning challenges to their creeds through attempts to create taboos (“I’m offended…”) or even blasphemy laws (here’s looking at you Derm), but as of this moment, how to you back up that claim? What is preventing you or me from challenging the various and competing theological tenants of Islam or the political agendas of Islamists?

  • abucs

    My comment is less a criticism of Islam as it is about the idea that there is one neutral room in which people discuss things.

    In the cases I site of say Malaysia or Indonesia, the room is an Islamic one with Islamic pre-conditions. You are not in the room if you are going to oppose those pre-conditions.

    Likewise, many in the west have been led to believe (through media and education) the room (of discussion) should be a secular one. I think the idea of secularism as a default is also a failed concept. In making government, schools, media etc a secular space, the west (generally) have simply suppressed (and demonised) identity and created another minority.

    I agree with you on your last point about people using the ‘I’m offended’ tag to ward off criticism. I think this has been one of the bad outcomes of a media who for decades continually saw it’s job to side with any self described downtrodden minority against what was the strong middle of Western society that they opposed.

    With everyone now claiming a righteous offence to further their politics, there is no strong middle of Western society but competing offended minorities. Hence the need to design ‘rooms’ of pluralism so that we can function instead of a failed Borg-like secular assimilation model.

    I agree with the word you used – ‘pluralism’. That is the only way forward in the West now that it has failed socially and needs a never ending supply of non Westerners to keep it going. We have to sit down and think how different people (who are going to remain different) can live with each other in a cordial manner.

    While i agree with you that blasphemy laws are not the way forward, different groups have to at least be civil and respectful of groups they do not agree with. This includes stopping the use of the state to underwrite their own philosophy at the expense of others. Otherwise those ‘rooms of discussion’ are going to become increasingly separated and the concept of government less respected. (A dangerous situation to be sure).

  • Coll Ciotach

    All this talk about diversity and religious freedom is all very well but it is divisive. We need peope all to respect each other and the only way to do that is eliminate perceived difference as that always starts trouble. The best way to do this is to educate the children. Which is why integrated education is so important and needs to be introduced to stop division.

  • abucs

    I disagree strongly Coll Ciotach. That is going back to the failed concept that secular is neutral and the default.

    One group using the state to arm wrestle people into their philosophy and removing all others is what is divisive. (and completely authoritarian).

    It smacks of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany who both removed religious education in the name of a progressive unitary people directed by the secular state.

    You’d go a long way to find a mistake bigger than that.

  • abucs

    I would add that the one thing that always starts trouble is the eliminating of perceived difference.

    Whether that be in historical Ulster, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia or modern day Tibet.

  • Seamuscamp

    Coll Ciotach

    If you believe that so-called integrated education stops division, you should take a look around the real world. Perhaps you think that integrated education in the US has eliminated racism? Perhaps you think integrated education in Russia has produced mutual respect ? Anyway who said that respect was more important than tolerance? Perhaps you believe that children educate parents? Perhaps you have given up on adults? Do you really think that the problems of NI spring from the children?

  • Ruarai

    Coll Ciotach,

    All this talk about diversity and religious freedom is all very well but it is divisive.

    So what if something is divisive? That’s not a basis for complaint in the least, let alone some sort of remedying action.

    Would you like to see the establishment of a Stazi?

    We need peope all to respect each other and the only way to do that is eliminate perceived difference as that always starts trouble.

    Scrap that, not even the Stazi would have gone that far. I’m assuming you’re on a wind-up here? Or perhaps this is a sophisticated attempt to undermine calls for integrated education but pretending to be for it and then representing such an illiberal vision for it?

    The best way to do this is to educate the children.

    Don’t underestimate children. They’d see through such bumpkin just as fast.