Prof. Tariq Modood

Prof Tariq Modood

Tariq Modood is the founding Director of the University of Bristol's Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship. I have held over 40 grants and consultancies (UK, European and US), have over 30 (co-)authored and (co-)edited books and reports and over 150 articles or chapters in political philosophy, sociology and public policy.


How do you characterise the present debate or dialogue concerning religion and the public sphere?

I think there are three strands or what one might call trajectories to give them a little bit of historical context. I'd say the first one comes from Faith in the City from 1985 and we see it working it's way through to today. I mean something like say Make Poverty History, which obviously had a lot religious and in particular Christian involvement, of course it wasn't exclusively religious groups. And we see it in things like Citizens UK, especially I would say it seems in London. For example in the living wage campaign.

The second strand comes from the Salman Rushdie affair. It actually started in 1988 but it entered public consciousness in 1989 and I think that's very much fed into our understanding and contestation about multiculturalism. It had two aspects. One is that it's tended to discredit multiculturalism because one of the things that the Rushdie affair did was to make religious identity and religious community organised minorities much more central than they had been before. As you know we started off the post-immigration, the post-Windrush experience in Britain with the public and policy makers formulating things in terms of race relations. And then about a generation later, certainly say around 1970s, people started talking about ethnic minorities. And people acknowledge that ethnic minorities involved religious groups like Sikhs and Muslims and Hindus, but the way that the public discourse about minorities was formulated, their religious identity was very much backgrounded. In some cases totally ignored. But that began to shift with the Rushdie affair, and above all the very fact that Muslims themselves pushed their religious identity to the fore. Saying you know we're not Asians or Pakistanis, we're not really bothered about some of those things. We are Muslims and so on. What started off as what one might call an ethnocultural multiculturalism quickly became in the 1990s an ethnoreligious multiculturalism with in particular Muslims pressing for a place and going well beyond issues around blasphemy and the Rushdie affair. In some ways that agenda actually did develop quite far and was relatively successful.  So if one thinks about for instance the Muslim Council of Britain, the origin of which very much lies in the Rushdie affair, if one looks at their mission statement, their early documents and so on, nearly everything they said they were trying to achieve at the start of their founding, they actually did manage to achieve. So one of the things they wanted was some kind of parity on religious discrimination compared to racial discrimination and that was achieved. Not all in one go, it took a couple of pieces of legislation. But by the Equality Act of 2010 there was parity with racial discrimination. They said they wanted something like incitement to religious hatred in parallel to incitement to racial hatred, and something similar to what already was in existence in Northern Ireland. Well they didn't get the legislation as in Northern Ireland, but they did get something. It was a compromise that they did get something. They said that they wanted to have schools funded by the state comparable to Christian and Jewish schools, and that has happened, not in a very big way but it has happened and it's still happening, though with various controversies like the current Trojan affair. They got religion into the census first time religion had ever been asked as a question in the UK census since 1851, or initially it may have been in England and Wales census, but anyway, 150 years of census without the religion question and then in 2001 we had one. The MCB were very significant players in that campaign. So in many ways we saw a multicultural or what one might call a multiethnoreligious agenda promoted by groups like the MCB and accepted, perhaps not enthusiastically, but accepted by the New Labour government of 1997 to 2010.

But at the same time as that success, there were also some other events that were taking place in the same neck of the woods, that was discrediting multiculturalism with people saying if this is what multiculturalism, we don't want it, or multiculturalism has failed. This was very much to do with insecurity and fear of international terrorism. Obviously we had 9/11 in New York and Washington, the London bombings in 7/7 and all the international geopolitical warfare and terrorism that's been taking place. And that then has tended to make people say well, if this is multiculturalism, good riddance. The climate of opinion both amongst politicians and amongst the public at large about multiculturalism has definitely taken a nosedive. But – and it’s a paradox - actually, in terms of policies, in terms of law, and in terms of the participation of Muslim organisations in local or national governance and consultative bodies, that's actually increased, and sometimes as participation on a bilateral basis, mainly Muslims and the government. But on the whole, government has tended to pluralise it, to make it more multi-faith and that's not only because Muslims have asked for it. I think you can connect it to the first strand, the strand where some Christians also began to press for the maintenance of the welfare state and for the need for support of those in need, to not be neglected by central government. I think the two things came together. First under John Major and later under Tony Blair, this was formalised into some kind of national body that would meet with the minister chairing the meeting, initially the Inner Cities Religious Council and later the Faith Communities Consultative Council, and it became a ministerial responsibility. Faith communities became part of the remit of a Whitehall department. So we have the Department of Communities and Local Government, which has a special directorate specifically on faith communities.

I think in many ways that is a consequence of the dynamics that public Muslim campaigns set in motion. But it's not the only thing. I would say there is this other, what one might call, the Anglican or more generally the Christian social conscience as well at work. And the two often come together because of course Anglicans in particular, given their responsibilities as a national church, do feel some sense of duty to hearing and then sometimes representing minorities. And I know several Anglican bishops who have done that. At the time of the Rushdie affair itself the Bishop of Bradford was exactly in this kind of position.

So those are two strands and I'd say the third one which doesn't really have a policy dimension but nevertheless is present and influences public discourse, especially towards the intellectual end, and that is the kind of discourse that has been characterised as the new atheism, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on. It also manifests itself in the National Secular Society and various campaigning adverts such as those on the side of a bus saying 'There is no God, now go and enjoy yourself'. I think that too is part of the mood and it particularly connects with the unease that some people feel about what one might call dangerous and divisive religion in the public space. We actually have had over the last twenty years a significant increase of religion in the public space. But if we look at the opinion poll findings of the last few years, we find that quite a lot of people saying they don't approve of it, or they're uncomfortable, or they think it's going too far.


Great, thank you. That's really helpful. What I thought you do is to kind of take a historical overview which is really helpful, because a lot of people go straight for a sematic[TM1] response. And I think we need both perspectives. We need the historical, institutional policy stories, then there is the sort of more creative, abstract kind of ideas. I suppose I could ask you is do you think there is another narrative going on almost under the surface. These figures and events that you've talked about are very high profile very public and of course dominate the media.


And I suppose there is a media kind of storm going around religion. Do you sense there is also a subterranean narrative going on about how religion fits into modern multicultural Britain? Or do you think what we're seeing is what we're getting?

Perhaps I could step back from the question to begin with. If I wanted to have one or two kind of concepts or theoretical terms to capture the various trajectories that I was trying to identify, I think that they're captured for some people by the concept of the postsecular or postsecularism. I personally don't find that a satisfactory term and this is partly because there are so many sociological, social theory concepts that begin with ‘post’ that I think are unsatisfactory. Because you never know what ‘post’ means, because it's not really a chronological post. If we said post-Second World War we all know what we mean, but if we say postmodern or postcolonial or postsecular, we don't know whether we are saying we've moved away from it, or it's still an ongoing legacy. Because when people say postcolonial, they don't mean to say it's all over and done with, they mean to say we're still living in the shadow of colonialism. So I think actually that is the best way to interpret postsecularism as well. That we haven't gone away from secularism.

But something is happening to secularism and so rather than the term postsecular, my own preferred way of capturing it is to say that we're living through a period of rethinking secularism as a result of those kinds of political conflicts and what one might call the social conscience coming to the fore. Partly because of course a certain vacuum being created by the retreat of certain kinds of secular conscience, like socialism and so on. So I would say that we are going through a period of rethinking secularism, and one of the first things that we have to do, and indeed many have done already, but probably not to a level where it's become kind of publicly accepted as a fact, is to recognise that our simplistic notions of secular and secularism, the ones that we usually begin with are just that, they're too simple.

I don't understand secularism in terms of separation of church and state. If we really thought that was the only meaning of secularism, then probably the only democratic secular state in the world, past or present, would be the United States - and that's only at a constitutional political level. In terms of the actual politics of the US, the way that campaigns are fought and so on, that wouldn't be true. Nor is the definition of secularism as separation true of France, where the state plays an active role in regulating religion, not by giving it a kind of laissez faire do your own thing. If we then look and consider the political secularism in practice, if we think a little more historically and concretely about what secularism is, then given that secularism as a political doctrine arose in North-Western Europe, above all in Protestant states, secularism is more about creating a political authority which is not subordinated to religious authority, and which to some extent insures that religion doesn't threaten social peace. And that does not involve separation. That can involve cooperation sometimes; it can involve separation at other times. It can involve the state funding religious people in certain kinds of ways; it can involve the state not funding and so on. So whichever country we look at, not just our own, any country in North-Western Europe, we actually see quite a varied but nevertheless a persistent organic relationship between state structures and religious activity and the religious hierarchy. My own term for characterising that particular form of secularism, i.e. one where there are selective forms of cooperation and mutual support rather than separation, I call that moderate secularism. And I think that what we are experiencing is that.

Two things. One is that there is a new phase, new in the sense of newly settled faiths in Europe, i.e. Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, but also certain forms of Christianity brought by migrants such as from West Africa and so on, what we're seeing is those people who are now have got some historical depth in Europe, 50 years, 70 years, saying we too want to be recognised within the institutional architecture and within the norms of church-state relations, the norms of non-separation.  And secondly what we're seeing at the same time is that some, in fact most of these non-European religions that are now becoming part of Europe, but non-European origin, are actually saying our religion requires certain kinds of public presence, forms of public manifestation. This can involve for instance that we dress in a way that we think our religion requires, whereas Christians don't need to dress in any kind of way to be Christian. They don't even have to wear a cross. They can be a perfectly good Christian without wearing a cross. Whereas Muslims and Sikhs don't see things that way. And interestingly quite a lot of black Christians have certain views on how they should behave including wearing the cross for instance, which as you'll be aware, in the case of British Airways this controversy went right up to the European Court. So we're getting what one might call, a practice-based religion, re-entering the public space after a period in which, after quite a long period in which Christianity has slowly but kind of consistently said it's really about beliefs and good work, and you don't need to dress in a particular kind of way, or eat in a particular kind of way, or say you don't want to eat certain kinds of food, in order to be religious. So I don’t think those two things – public recognition and practice-based faiths - are the same but they're coming together because they're coming from the same sources, i.e. new minority faiths. But one is simply arrival and settlement and growth in numbers and asking to be included, and the other is well yes, we want to be included, but we don't want to necessarily as it were protestantised, or privatised.


That's really helpful Tariq, thank you. I'm hearing you say and this kind of chimes with some of the things I'm thinking about. We also seem to have come to a kind of consensus over neoliberal market forces determining the way society is structured, and we need to find a new form of language, which recognises the importance of institutions but without obviously returning to a kind of overemphasised institutionalism. So what I hear you saying is a kind of like a neoinstitutionalism I suppose. The importance of being recognised by institutions and having a role within them, which of course secularism traditionally has been very closely associated with the strength of the national state. I think that's really helpful and interesting and new dynamics that we also need to think about. What role do institutions now play, and I think we're all recognising the limits of a de-institutionalised public space?

Well I entirely agree with that. Of course there are two different kinds of institutions, or more than two, but at least two. One is the institutions of the state in one form or another with statutory equality or are publicly funded. On the other hand are institutions, meaning civil society organisation. I think actually both are in play, that is to say, some religious groups are pressing for inclusion in both or sometimes of course civil society can involve creating new things, but I think they're both at work because even though I agree with you a lot of people feel neoliberalism has gone as far as it can go, and of course it has led to a near disaster in 2008 with the financial crash, but nevertheless, I think people don't have an obvious answer to what is the alternative. In any case, everybody across the political spectrum says we want to have either less state than we used to, meaning that the pre-1979 model of the British state and the activities it took responsibility for. Or we want the state devolved so that power isn't all held at the centre. People of course can want both. They can want the state to become more tiered. And I think both of these things are happening. And so while neoliberalism has lost some of its internal self-belief, certainly some of the people who were willing to go along with it are now saying no, it's more destructive than creative. Nevertheless, one of the legacies of neoliberalism is that no one, the intellectuals and the political actors and so on, no one is saying we need to return to the big state. And that means that actually, religious organisations and communities who are often more organised than many other parts of society other than the economic parts are finding that they're being asked to play a role. It's not just that they're asking to play a role, others are saying why don't you take charge of a school, or why don't you come up with an idea of how we can improve care for the elderly, and maybe we'll find some funding and put you in charge of it. So I think that the neoliberal withdrawal can leave some social spaces end up getting filled by religious organisations often working cooperatively with other religious organisations, and or with non-religious organisations.


Where do you think this debate is going to go in the next five to ten years?

Well I think I have answered that to some extent already. I made a list of four points and I'll go through them. The first thing is that I think one rallying cry that seems to be finding quite a lot of resonance is when people say we need more religious literacy. I think that everybody now sees that religion is affecting lots of peoples lives, conflicts and geopolitics and so on, and we're struggling in a country like Britain to understand how and why this is happening. Everybody agrees we need to make a bigger effort to understand what religion means to its adherents and all the different levels of activities and so on it governs.

The second thing I would say is I think we're likely to get a sense amongst religious communities, and I include Anglicans and Catholics in this, that there is no longer a dominant religion. That all religions are to some extent minorities because if we were looking for some kind of hegemonic ideology or hegemonic consciousness, it's not religious in our country or in the European Union. So in that sense, all religions are minorities and they need to cooperate together because divided we fall and so on.

The third point I'd like to make is that I think we are in the midst of having a debate which very much goes back to trajectory that I just described as originating from the Rushdie affair and into multiculturalism, and that is in thinking about whether what we want with religions is a form of multiculturalism, or just toleration. The difference being that we tolerate things we don't necessarily approve of, and then we expect them to keep out of our way. So we keep out of their way, they keep out of our way. Certainly toleration doesn't translate into political claims. So if we say we tolerate a particular group of people, then the question is, is that really good enough. In the past, the history of Western European secularim is that the dominant religion came to tolerate dissent, the minority churches. But now, with the new social movements of the 1960s we have a new idea which isn't toleration but respect. Now minorities say we don't want to be tolerated, that is patronising and treating us as second class citizens. Who are you to tolerate us? We want to be respected because we all are equals. And I think that religious people are using this kind of discourse and to begin with, it was accepted, but now, perhaps there's an opinion that says actually religious people are demanding too much, and they are creating conflict in the public space rather than becoming responsible actors, and I think this will definitely continue. I don't think we've come to the end of that debate yet.

And the fourth thing I've got on my list is that I think there are a couple of institutional questions, constitutional questions and they may rather be triggered off by the death of the Queen, which of course can't be too far off. Some people will want to say do we really want another monarch or have we come to the end of that way of thinking. But I think the majority of people will say no, monarchy is what we want. But then there’s the question about the coronation ceremony. I think Prince Charles has already indicated that he'd prefer something a little more multifaith and I think the Church of England will want to make it so, but they won't want to entirely lose their premier position. But as they have done with the Commonwealth services and so on, they will want to make it in some ways a multifaith ceremony. But that then begins to raise the question about what exactly establishment should mean. What exactly should be the relationship between a church and a state. Is it that we should say well actually, no religion should enjoy this privileged position, this primus inter pares, or as some minorities might say, it's not that we want to dispossess Anglicans or Christians, we'd like to share, why can't we have some of this power sharing or what you might call privilege sharing. I think that too is a debate that we haven't yet had much of and we're likely to see in the next decade or so, with people arguing as to the best way to respond to religious diversity as a form of disestablishment or a form of pluralising establishment.